5 questions about Syria you should know and still haven’t yet properly figured out
I have always been flabbergasted by how ignorant Americans are about Syria and how US policy makers in the Obama Administration have dealt with the Syria file so far.
So as a political activist in the region, I thought of sharing with you some basic answers to the most asked questions about Syria in the hope of one day maybe helping you all see the light at the end of the tunnel regarding the quagmire we are all facing in the region.
1. Why on earth are people in Syria still killing each other?
The killing started in April 2011, when peaceful protests inspired by earlier revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia rose up to challenge the dictatorship running the country. The government responded — there is no getting around this — like monsters. First, security forces quietly killed activists. Then they started kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing activists and their family members, including a lot of children, dumping their mutilated bodies by the sides of roads. Then troops began simply opening fire on protests. Eventually, civilians started shooting back.
Fighting escalated from there until it was a civil war. Armed civilians organized into rebel groups. The army deployed across the country, shelling and bombing whole neighborhoods and towns, trying to terrorize people into submission. They’ve also allegedly used chemical weapons, which is a big deal. Volunteers from other countries joined the rebels, either because they wanted freedom and democracy for Syria or, more likely, because they are jihadists who hate Syria’s secular government. The rebels were gaining ground for a while and now it looks like Assad is coming back. There is no end in sight.
2. How did it all go so wrong in there?
You have to understand that the Syrian government really overreacted when peaceful protests started in mid-2011, slaughtering civilians unapologetically, which was a big part of how things escalated as quickly as they did.
The first theory is what you might call “sectarian re-balancing”. Syria has artificial borders that were created by European colonial powers, forcing together an amalgam of diverse religious and ethnic groups. Those powers also tended to promote a minority and rule through it, worsening preexisting sectarian tensions. Most Syrians are Sunni Arabs, but the country is run by members of a minority sect known as Alawites (they’re ethnic Arab but follow a smaller branch of Islam). The Alawite government rules through a repressive dictatorship and gives Alawites special privileges, which makes some Sunnis and other groups hate Alawites in general, which in turn makes Alawites fear that they’ll be slaughtered en masse if Assad loses the war.
The second big theory is a bit simpler: that the Assad regime was not a sustainable enterprise and it’s clawing desperately on its way down. The Cold War is long over, and most of the region long ago made peace with Israel and the United States; the Assad regime’s once-solid ideological and geopolitical identity is hopelessly outdated. But Bashar al-Assad, who took power in 2000 when his father died, never bothered to update it. So when things started going belly-up two years ago, he didn’t have much to fall back on except for his ability to kill people.
3. What is this love relationship between Russia, Iran and Syria?
Russia is indeed still Syria’s most important ally. Moscow blocks the United Nations Security Council from passing anything that might hurt the Assad regime, which is why the United States has to go around the United Nations if it wants to do anything. Russia sends lots of weapons to Syria that make it easier for Assad to keep killing civilians and will make it much harder if the outside world ever wants to intervene.
The four big reasons that Russia wants to protect Assad, the importance of which vary depending on whom you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s last foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union; (2) Russia still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last military alliances; (3) Russia also hates the idea of “international intervention” against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia; (4) Syria buys a lot of Russian military exports, and Russia needs the money.
Iran’s thinking in supporting Assad is more straightforward. It perceives Israel and the United States as existential threats and uses Syria to protect itself, shipping arms through Syria to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah and the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. Iran is already feeling isolated and insecure; it worries that if Assad falls it will lose a major ally and be cut off from its militant proxies, leaving it very vulnerable.
4. Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options and the military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably and according to the Obama Administration’s officials do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other. Nope.
The one political option, which the Obama administration has been pushing for, would be for the Assad regime and the rebels to strike a peace deal. But there’s no indication that either side is interested in that, or that there’s even a viable unified rebel movement with which to negotiate.
5. What’s going to most likely happen?
• The killing will continue, probably for years. There’s no one to sign a peace treaty on the rebel side, even if the regime side were interested, and there’s no foreseeable victory for either. Refugees will continue fleeing into neighboring countries, causing instability and an entire other humanitarian crisis as conditions in the camps worsen. Lebanon already has over 1 million Syrian refugees and going… I personally believe the worst is yet to come.
• Syria as we know it, an ancient place with a rich and celebrated culture and history, will be a broken, failed society, probably for a generation or more. It’s very hard to see how you rebuild a functioning state after this. Maybe worse, it’s hard to see how you get back to a working social contract where everyone agrees to get along.
• Russia will continue to block international action, the window for which has maybe closed anyway. The United States might try to pressure, cajole or even horse-trade Moscow into changing its mind, but there’s not much we can offer them that they care about as much as Syria…. and now we are up to our heads with a much bigger priority which is Ukraine. So I am afraid the Syrian file is pretty much closed and I don’t see anything of significance happening other than the Syrian people dismantling the Assad regime; a highly unlikely scenario in the short run.
• At some point the conflict will cool, either from a partial victory or from exhaustion. The world could maybe send in some peacekeepers or even broker a fragile peace between the various ethnic, religious and political factions. Probably the best model is Lebanon, which fought a brutal civil war that lasted 15 years from 1975 to 1990 and has been slowly, slowly recovering ever since though it has occasional bombings all year long.
Share your thoughts….