Last month marked the two year anniversary of a devastating war in Syria that the UN estimates has claimed the lives of 70,000 people and has driven 1.2 million refugees to neighboring countries.
Not only has the conflict been incredibly drawn out and violent, it’s also very confusing.
With global powers wringing their hands on intervention, the Syrian regime attempting to blackout foreign media and a fractured opposition movement that seems to lose and gain ground by the week, it’s very difficult get a clear picture of where the war is going and when it will ever end.
So we scoured the news reports and interviewed local experts to give you a simple summary of what the heck is happening in Syria.
It all started two years ago, in March 2011, when Syrians in the southern border city of Deraa took to the streets in protests against the arrest and mistreatment of youth caught posting anti-government graffiti at their school.
The government responded to the protests with what has been described as a brutal crackdown. When video of the crackdown spread, so did the protests.
“You have something that started as a rebellion against an oppressive regime, but turned into something that looks and is presented more as a civil war,” said Denis Bašić a historian and International Studies professor at UW.
Although inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in 2011, the situation in Syria has taken a different trajectory.
Despite President Obama’s assertion last month that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will go, “it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when,” the second-generation dictator of a 42 year regime still stands.
Rita Zawaideh, a well-known philanthropist connected with Salaam Cultural Museum in Seattle, has been working on aid to Syrian refugees from the beginning. I caught up with her over Skype the day after she landed in Jordan with twenty doctors, with over forty boxes of medicines they were planning to distribute to clinics in Amman for Syrian refugees.
“You have no electricity, no water, you’re afraid to go out in the daytime, [you] don’t know if you’ll be coming back. You can’t leave, roads are bad, and checkpoints are everywhere,” Zawaideh said. “The road from Aleppo to Turkey is like Seattle to Vancouver and it takes 8-10 hours or days to cross. People in Jordan that left from Hama spent 23 days walking. Snipers are shooting at children.”
Zawaideh, like others, has wondered why the US hasn’t done more to help, and thinks that part of the problem is the international uncertainty about what new leadership in Syria looks like post-Assad.
On the other hand, Bašić believes that we already have intervened, in what he described as a “proxy war,” with rich US allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia heavily financing the Anti-Assad opposition, and Russia and Iran supporting the Assad regime.
What’s happening now?
Robert Fisk, award-winning British journalist who has spent three decades in Syria, put the complex issue succinctly in a recent interview with Steve Paikin on TV Ontario:
“Rich Arab states which are Sunni [are] supporting a Sunni rebellion against an effectively Shi’a minority government,” Fisk explained. “This is a sectarian war and the sectarian wars are very ferocious, everyone gets involved including the mafia and the rich arab monarchs and of course the West.”
For his part, Fisk doesn’t think that the US is going to use our military power in Syria.
When asked about the US plan for “putting an end to bloodshed” in Syria at the press conference in Jordan, President Obama pointed to the US’s effort to spearhead a “credible” and “coherent” political opposition.
He was talking about the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), a Western-backed interim government created last November as a possible alternative to the Assad regime.
But the SOC is having a difficult time establishing its chain of command with disagreements over leadership. On March 18th Ghassan Hitto, a Kurd who has lived in Texas for the last 30 years, was elected Prime Minister of the SOC. But the General of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the opposition’s military, has refused to recognize the new PM.
Although, SOC President Moaz Al-Khatib took Syria’s seat at the March 26 annual Arab League Summit meeting, it remains to be seen if the interim government has real support from other rebels and civilians.
Last month, both the Syrian government and rebels started accusing one another of launching chemical attacks in northern Aleppo. According to The Associated Press, a senior U.S. official said “additional intelligence gathering” hasn’t provided strong evidence to support the allegation.
Zawaideh, who also has family in Aleppo, disagrees: “There is evidence from doctors from a month ago of chemical warfare, you see it in some of the wounds people have.”
Will it ever end?
Obama has called the use of chemical weapons a “game-changer,” presumably meaning if the Assad regime was found to be using them, it would prompt more aggressive US intervention.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA has begun feeding intelligence to certain rebel units in an effort to bolster the Western-backed FSA.
Assad has called the FSA an umbrella for hundreds of different “gangs” working for different things. Indeed, the regime’s long standing argument that they are fighting an islamic terrorist insurgency rings at least partially true: There are increasing concerns over the traction that the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group operating in Syria, has gained among the opposition, and last week Al-Nusra leadership openly declared their allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, there is a global and regional impasse as the conflict continues. Obama plans to host talks with leaders from allied countries in the coming weeks. Assad’s request for dialogues with the opposition are generally disregarded. The EU is still deciding how it wants to get involved, starting with lifting its arms embargo on Syria, to allow them to start arming the rebels directly.
But overall, the outlook is bleak.
Bašić expressed grave concerns over life post-Assad: “I would never say that Assad is fighting for the cause of his minority. Assad is fighting for his own political position and survival.”
“Regardless of what happens in Syria, I am worried about what will happen in the country after the revolution,” he added. “I think we may have a horrible sectarian struggle that may lead to the genocide of a Shi’a minority; something similar to what happened in Iraq after the war.”
To contribute to aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan via Salaam Cultural Muesum donate here.