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The Syrian Civil War: Origins and Motives

The Proxy Multi-Country War

The Syrian Civil War- before it made the news, Syria was a rather unremarkable Middle Eastern nation, and most Americans probably wouldn’t even know what Syria is. Now, Syria is all over the news, and a major topic of political debate.
            But why is the fate of this third-world dictator suddenly of interest to America? Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, rose to power after a coup in the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad passed the first constitution that did not require the president to be Muslim. Both Hafez and Bashar were Alawites, a minority Islamic sect which is secretive and viewed with suspicion in many Islamic countries (think like Jews in medieval Europe, or Islamic countries), and these two facts provoked suspicion and outcry from a largely conservative Sunni Muslim population (about 70% of the population).

            Bashar al-Assad took power after his father’s death in 2000, and was expected to deliver democratic reform. However, this reform never materialized, as within a few months, he had already arrested most of the leaders of the democratic movement. Bashar also expanded on the free market policies of his father, especially bolstering the service sector. This, while encouraging economic growth, lead to an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, especially amongst poor conservative Muslims who opposed this Westernizing dictator and his upper class friends, and various other ethnic and religious minorities such as the Kurds, whose languages, cultures, and rights were suppressed by the government. However, Bashar al-Assad was not a religious dictator, and while there were no special protections for religious minorities, they were not actively persecuted by the government. The public sector, however, was hostile to ethnic and religious minorities.
            Assad’s Syria would also soon be hit by a terrible drought from 2007 to 2010, resulting in widespread crop failure, impoverishing many rural families and driving them to the cities. Large influxes of refugees also poured out of Iraq into neighboring countries during this time, similar to what is happening with the current Syrian refugee crisis, but much worse.
When Bashar al-Assad opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he also drew the ire of the Bush administration, who stoked sectarian and ethic tensions, exploiting the existing suspicion and resentment described above. This put Assad on the bad side of American foreign policy, but still hardly put Syria on the map of public perception.
By 2011, protests similar to the Arab Spring protests going on around the Middle East had broken out in Damascus, Syria, sparked by the arrest of a boy and his friends who had written anti-government graffiti in the city of Darsa. Security forces opened fire (or, according to government reports, the protesters opened fire), resulting in conflict and spreading mass protests across Syria. In June of 2011, seven army officers defected and created the Free Syrian Army.
Eventually, the war grew more violent, and increased in scope. Turkey was one of the first to be publicly involved, and eventually Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, the Israelis, Jordan, Europe, Iran, and a whole host of other nations became involved on one side or another, usually grouping around the common banners of the pro-rebel US and pro-government Russia. Many other armed rebel groups and militia arose and got involved, such as the Kurds, ISIS, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and a ton of smaller militias with varying allegiances and goals, from Assyrian Christian to Sunni Muslim. The Free Syrian Army more or less dissolved due to infighting, and now there are several groups calling themselves the “Free Syrian Army”. There are about three major factions: the Syrian government along the coast, the Islamic State in the east, the Kurds (or Rojava) in the north, and various rebels and opposition groups scattered throughout the country. The Syrian government is backed by Russia and Iran, the Free Syrian Army (or what’s left of it) is backed by the US and its allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Europe, and Israel), the Kurds by the US, its allies (besides Turkey, who has had a bad history with the Kurds), and unusually, Russia as well, and ISIS has no state allies. The assorted rebel groups fight mostly the government and each other, but ISIS when they come along, the government fights the rebels and ISIS, the Kurds fight ISIS but usually stay out of the government’s way, and ISIS shoots anything that moves.
But why is the US (and the world at large) so interested in Syria? First of all, Syria is in a place where war could result in spreading violence to places which are much more important for the US, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, all important allies or resource suppliers for the US. Fighting did spill over from Iraq, with ISIS now holding large amounts of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The US also has a bad history with Syria, the latter having opposed some of the USA’s recent activities in the area. Most important though, the Russians are looking to get a new ally in the Middle Eastern theater besides the rogue and highly unreliable Iran, and with Assad being the last major anti-American government in the region (and the largest), he was a viable target. The US, on the other hand, does not want Russia to get a new ally, and thus opposes Assad.
It is important to remember that though Assad is no angel, there are worse dictators in the world, as he did not outright persecute religious minorities, being one himself. The rebels are no knights in shining armor either, many of which have jihadist tendencies or are outright affiliated with ISIS or al-Qaeda. However, both the assorted rebels and the government care little about collateral damage, and have committed gross abuses of human rights on all sides, and to view this as a moral battle is a bit flawed.

Writer: Mikael S.


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