“It’s when the ‘international community’ expresses ‘concern’ about your ‘situation’ that your situation is well and truly fucked.”
― Michael D. Weiss
Last week, a total of fifty-nine tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from the decks of two US Navy Destroyers. The missiles, launched in retaliation for a chemical attack seemingly ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, represented the first direct attack against the Assad Government by the U.S. since the Syrian Civil War started six years ago. But how exactly did we get here? To answer this question, the staff of the Finest Bagels Blog has put together a comprehensive guide, that will hopefully provide our readers with a better understanding of the conflict.
How did this all start?
On December 17th 2011, a young Tunisian named Mohamed Bouazizi walked into the middle of a busy market and set himself on fire. The act, done out of a sense of hopelessness and a desire to protest his treatment at the hands of the Tunisian Government, grabbed the attention of the world. In the days that followed, demonstrations in Bouazizi’s hometown would spread throughout the country. When the government responded by arresting demonstrators, activists, and restricting what few liberties were available under the repressive regime, the details were shared on social media and the movement grew.
Less than a month later, President Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali would flee the country, becoming the first dictator driven out by the movement that became known as the Arab Spring. Just one week later, on January 25th, Egyptians would gathered to protest government corruption, injustice, and poor economic conditions. Protesters in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities were met with repression and violence at the hands of police and supporters of President Hosni Mubarak. Despite this, the protests continued and soon a national revolutionary force was established. By mid-February, Mubarak relented and was finally forced to resign. He would later be arrested and charged as a war criminal.
The people of Libya would soon follow suit. The same day that Mubarak was forced out of power, Protests began in front the Benghazi police headquarters. When President Moammar Gadhafi ordered the Military to put down the peaceful protests, armed conflict ensued. The “National Conference for the Libyan Opposition” were able to establish a provisional government in Benghazi and eventually spread across the country, overthrowing the Gaddafi government in Tripoli.
These events taking place along the Mediterranean coast of Africa was unprecedented. In the course of just a few months, three long-standing dictators were deposed and populism seemed to be taking their place. Talk soon began among world leaders of a new wave of Democratization and a stable, free, Middle East. Soon even more nations would begin to follow the example of these early freedom fighters, including the people of Syria.
The Arab Spring movement found it harder to gain a foothold in Assad’s Syria. The Al-Assad family has ruled over Syria since 1971, when Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party overthrew the Syrian government and established an authoritarian regime. Bashar, the son of Hafez, inherited the Presidency in 2000. Initially seen as a possible reformer, Bashar Al-Assad quickly demonstrated that he was anything but. His heavy handed governance and oppressive regime would cause him to become deeply unpopular. Events came to a head in March 2011, when residents of the town of Dara’a took to the streets to protest the torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. The protests quickly spread to other parts of the country, and protesters began to demand political reforms. At first, it appeared that the government would give into the protesters’ demands. Assad formally declared the repeal of an emergency law in place since 1963 that allowed the government sweeping authority to suspend constitutional rights and offered several options for smaller reforms. However, just days later, the Syrian government launched the first of what became a series of crackdowns. The national police began to use tanks and snipers to force people off the streets. Water and electricity were shut off and security forces began confiscating flour and food in particularly resistant areas. Syrian dissidents formally established the Syrian National Council, inciting a Civil War.
Who are the Rebels?
After the Civil War broke out, over a thousand different rebel groups were established. The views and agendas of these rebels vary dramatically, ranging from a desire for a free and democratic Syria to groups allied with ISIS. For the sake of this guide we will focus on the largest and most influential ones:
- The Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army: Considered a “moderate” rebel group, the SMC was founded by Syrian Army deserters based in Turkey. In August 2011, the group’s flag was adopted by armed groups and began to appear in battles across the country. Despite the adoption of their name, Colonel Riad al-Asaad and the leaders of the SMC have little operational control over the Rebels forces at large. International supporters of the anti-Assad movement have tried to encourage centralised leadership and see the SMC’s chief-of-staff General Idris as a potential future President of Syria.
- Islamic Front: With an estimated 45,000 fighters, the Islamic Front is considered to be the largest rebel group in Syria. Founded as an “independent political, military and social formation” the Islamic Front has declared that their aim is to “topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state.” In 2013, the Front announced that they would be withdrawing from the SMC’s command and days later drove SMC forces out of their headquarters and warehouses at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. This resulted the suspension of “non-lethal” assistance for rebel groups in northern Syria by the United States. The Islamic Front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, but its charter welcomes foreign fighters, as “brothers who supported us in jihad”, suggesting it is willing to cooperate with them.
- Al-Nusra Front: Formed with the help of the then-Islamic State of Iraq, the Nusra Front is an umbrella group that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq and other militant jihadist groups. Emerging in January 2012, Nusra has been considered one of the more effective rebel forces. Today, the Front controls territory in northern Syria. In April 2013, the head of the ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the merger of his group and al-Nusra, creating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Ultimately the merger failed and al-Nusra and ISIS have operated as separate entities. al-Nusra has sought to build popular support by providing social services and carrying out public works, and is (unsurprisingly) designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
- Popular Protection Units (YPG): The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party. The YPG emerged in the summer of 2012 when the Syrian army withdrew from Kurdish areas, and now runs the de facto autonomous Kurdish zone in northeast Syria. While the YPG has tried to keep the Kurds out of the conflict, there has been occasional fighting with government troops and other rebel fighters. The various rebel groups and the Turkish government have accused the Kurdish group of acting as an Assad proxy.
Who are the International Players?
Like most post-World War II conflicts in the Middle East, the conflict is not isolated to just the locals. While many NATO and United Nations countries are involved with this conflict on a number of levels, we will stick to the major players:
- The United States and Co.: (Team Moderate Rebels) The United States and its traditional allies want a Syria without Assad or ISIS. No easy task. At first, Former President Obama was hesitant to intervene in the conflict, fearing another Iraq-style quagmire. However, in 2014, President Obama reversed course and announced that the United State would provide military support and begin a bombing campaign. The United State’s initial hesitance to provide support has been cited as creating a “power vacuum” that allowed for groups like ISIS to thrive and led to the crowding out of more moderate rebel groups. While President Donald Trump has shown a willingness to take military action, his administration has not articulated a comprehensive strategy.
- Russia: (Team Assad) In their on-going parade of foreign adventurism, Russia has declared its support for the Assad Government and has effectively blocked most international efforts to hold Assad responsible for his atrocities. While their actions are inexcusable, their motivations are entirely predictable, even rational. For one, Russia has a strategically important naval base in Syria. That base is the last remaining Russian military installation outside of the former Soviet Union, and the loss of it would put a major dent in Russia’s security strategy. Additionally, Russia has long been weary of regime change, especially when the United States is involved. Putin and his government see this kind of intervention as Cold War style “imperialism” and as a threat to their influence on the world stage. Lastly, Assad buys a lot of weapons from the Russians, Putin doesn’t want to lose out on that payday.
- Turkey: (Team Moderate Rebels) Of the international players, Turkey has been most affected by the conflict in Syria. Since the Syrian Civil War has begun more than one million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey trying to escape the fighting at home. With government-run refugee camps operating at full capacity, Turkey is desperate to find a solution
- Iran: (Team Assad) Iran is the most powerful Shiite country in the Middle East, as such, they have an interest in protecting the fellow Shiite government of Assad. Since the Civil War has begun, Iran has provided elite teams to gather intelligence and train troops. Between the munitions from Russia and local support from Iran Assad has felt no need to make concessions at currently deadlocked peace talks in Geneva. While Iran and the United States are divided in their support for Assad, both countries are united in a desire to defeat the ISIS fighters located within Syria.
What’s this about Chemical Weapons?
While there have been rumours since the beginning of the conflict about the possible use of chemical weapons by both sides, graphic evidence finally emerged in 2013. The United States and Co. announced that they had evidence proving that Assad’s government was behind the attack, however Assad and his allies denied the allegations and blamed the Rebels. Since the action crossed President Obama’s now infamous “red line” it appeared that the US would take military action. Instead, the United States brokered a deal in the United Nations which would instead aim to remove and destroy all chemical weapons in Syria. Assad’s government complied with the United Nation’s agreement, and talk of intervention dissipated.
This month, evidence again emerged that the Assad Government had used chemical weapons against civilians. Within hours of the attack videos and photos emerged of adults and children, including many small children and babies, suffering from the tell tale signs of a chemical attack. In response, President Trump broke with his previous isolationist policies and ordered a retaliatory strike against the Assad government. On the night of April 6, fifty-nine tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from the decks of the USS Ross and USS Porter. Their target was the Shayrat Airfield, which American officials believe was used to carry out the strike. It is unclear if the Assad Government is still in possession of chemical weapons or if the strike represents a larger shift in the President’s foreign policy vision.
How Does this End?
The honest answer is we don’t know. As long as Russian and Iran are supporting the Syrian Government, Assad has very little reason to make concessions. As long as the United States and its allies continue to wring their hands and express their concern, it is unlikely that the various rebel groups will be able to make the strategic gains necessary to force a peace.In six years a country the size of Washington state has seen the loss of over 500,000 lives and until a solution is found this is likely to continue. I wish that I could say that there was a simple solution, but the truth is that the reluctance to act has allowed Syria to devolve into a state where there is no “good” solution.