Phillip Mansell gives us the facts of the Syrian Civil war and attempts to answer the big questions about what the devolpments in the country can mean for us.
Who is fighting, and why?
The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011, when pro-democracy protestors, inspired by the Arab Spring were fired on by the Syrian army. This aggressive stance was taken on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for decades. In the face of military attacks, protestors took up arms to defend their movement. Since March 2011, the conflict has escalated several times, and is now regarded as a civil war. The conflict cannot simply be divided into two opposing sides, as both have heavily divided groups within them. For example, the influence of Al-Qaeda inspired elements of the Syrian rebels has caused alarm, particularly as they are hard to identify. On the government side, Assad has enforced his own militias to fight alongside the army. These militias include members of Hezbollah, a Lebanese based movement that is backed by the Iranian government. In short, the conflict is very complicated.
What exactly are they fighting for?
This question is equally as complex. The most basic explanation would be that the Assad regime is trying to maintain its grip on power in Syria, whereas the majority of the rebels wish to see an end to his leadership and a move towards democracy. There are of course elements of the Syrian rebels (such as the Al Qaeda fighters) who wish to remove Assad and fill the inevitable power vacuum themselves. However, the conflict also breaks down along religious lines. The Assad family are Alawites, a part of the Shiite branch of Islam. The majority (around 74%) of Syrians belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The fact that Alawites, who represent around 12% of the people, hold control in Syria over the majority Sunni population has caused great animosity. One particularly nasty example of the problems this has created was the 1982 massacre in Hama, ordered by Hafeez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) leader at the time, against the predominantly Sunni group the Muslim Brotherhood. Amnesty International estimates have placed the death toll at between 10,000 and 25,000 people.
How is the world involved in this conflict?
Apart from the aforementioned Lebanese and Iranian involvement in the conflict, many other nations have influence as well. France, Britain and the US (generally regarded as the ‘West’) support the rebels, but are very wary of the presence of Al-Qaeda and other extremists amongst the opposition. This has ensured that whilst Western nations wish to provide arms to the rebels, they have not arrived for fear of ending up in the wrong hands. The West has attempted to work through the UN Security Council to act on the conflict, but have been repeatedly blocked by China and Russia. The latter has close relations and huge influence over the Syrian government, and therefore desire to keep Assad in power. A change in government could significantly reduce Russia’s influence in the region, and jeopardise the presence of a large Russian military base in the country. The US is also very fearful that the war could spill over into neighbouring Israel, as it has already threatened to several times already. The recent use of chemical weapons has heightened the fear that if the war were to spread wider, Syria might attack Israel, as tensions remain from previous conflicts.
Why are Western leaders suddenly more determined to act?
The recent use of chemical weapons has led to increased calls for action from countries such as the US, Britain and France. Chemical weapons were used on the 21st August in a Damascus suburb, and horrifying footage circulated around the world within hours. The attack reportedly killed over 1,000 people. US Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly asserted that the attack came at the hands of the Syrian government, and the general consensus supports this view. However, the Syrian regime has itself denied culpability for the attack, initially claiming that the footage seen by millions had been faked, before blaming the rebels for the attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that he wants to see evidence that places blame at Assad’s hands before acting. Quite simply, Putin is extremely unlikely to be convinced that the government carried out the attack, and so no punishment will be supported by him.
Exactly one year before the chemical attack, US President Barack Obama stated in a speech regarding Syria that the use of chemical weapons in the conflict would be ‘a red line’, which if crossed would force American involvement. Obama was attacked for committing the US to intervention, and this criticism has been amplified since he has seemingly not stood by his word.
This leads to another question – why are chemical weapons ‘a red line’? Over 100,000 people have been killed in this conflict since March 2011 with conventional weapons – guns, grenades, bombs and so on. Most answer that chemical weapons have the ability to kill thousands of people in one event, and do so in the most terrible, inhuman ways possible. The recent attack and the subsequent footage we have seen support this. However, the aftermath of conventional warfare, whilst sometimes without the grand scale of chemical warfare, is always horrendous. This ‘red line’ is certainly one which can be hard to understand.
Since the use of chemical weapons in August, the US, Britain and France have come very close to militarily intervening. Prime Minister David Cameron put the issue of British intervention to the House of Commons, who narrowly decided to keep Britain out of the conflict. Focus turned to the US, with Obama following suit and declaring a vote would be taken by US Congress. However, before this could occur, a plan to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles was proposed by Russia. This was accepted by the Syrian government and reluctantly endorsed by Obama and remains in the pipeline. This plan, which is widely regarded by all parties with caution, could take months to devise and enact. In the meantime, UN inspectors have filed a report which states that chemical weapons were undeniably used. By whom, it is not yet known.
Whilst the world decides what to do, the fighting continues in Syria. In the last two weeks, the Christian town of Maaloula has been captured by rebels, and then re-captured by military forces. Government forces have lost huge numbers during the last 36 months but seem unshakeable in certain regions, whilst rebel forces themselves remain determined despite their internal divisions. An imminent end result seems very unlikely, with or without Western involvement.