The Conflict in Syria Part 1
The civil war in Syria has soon raged for nine years. At the beginning of 2020, it was estimated that at least 380,000 people lost their lives, and the death toll continues to rise. Millions of people are on the run and so far all peace efforts have failed.
The first demonstrations against the regime took place in mid-March 2011. Syria had been ruled with an iron fist by one and the same family, al-Assad, since 1970 (see SYRIA: Modern History ). The Assad family had been able to stay in power even though it came from one of the country’s minorities, the Alawites, who make up one tenth of the population. When the regime crushed the demonstrations by force, Assad lost support within the Sunni Muslim majority. At the same time, Syria’s religious minorities mainly joined the government, leading to growing sectarian strife.
Almost from the first moment, the opposition split. There was a democracy movement that distanced itself from violence, opposed foreign interference, rejected divisions due to religion and was willing to negotiate with the regime on certain conditions. But many groups thought the opposite, on all four points.
The democracy movement was soon overshadowed by louder and harsher actors in and outside Syria. The more confrontational, led mainly by the banned Muslim Brotherhood and other exile organizations, formed the Syrian National Council (later the Syrian National Coalition, SNC), which received strong diplomatic backing from Western and Arab governments – despite SNC leadership abroad. minimal influence over what happened on the ground inside Syria.
In the summer of 2011, armed resistance to the Assad regime began. SNC had the Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed by Sunni Muslim deserters from the government army. At the same time, there were voices warning that armed struggle would fall into the hands of the Assad regime: “If they (the revolutionaries) take up arms, it will open the door to elements unrelated to the revolution and allow them to introduce their own goals. These are goals that have nothing to do with freedom and democracy, nor are they related to the principles that ignited our uprising. The country will be thrown into civil war, which is what the regime wants, “said opposition politician Basma Qodmani.
At that time, no one dared or wanted to say outright what “elements” Basma Qodmani was referring to, but they were militant Islamists, jihadists , “god warriors” of both domestic and foreign kind. Jihadists who in Syria wanted to create an Islamist “caliphate” ruled by Islamic law began to appear as early as the summer of 2011 and appeared on a large scale during the winter with suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other major cities.
In the summer of 2012, various Islamist rebel groups had practically “hijacked” the popular revolt against the regime. It prompted Alawite actress Fadwa Suleiman, who has become a leading figure in the Syrian opposition throughout the Arab world, to flee the country and curse how the insurgency has gone in the wrong direction: “Those who arm the Syrian street are willing to do anything to seize power , just as Bashar al-Assad is willing to do anything to stay in power. They have started playing the regime’s game and the country is heading for a religious war. ”
This continued until even the most benevolent supporters of the opposition could turn a blind eye to the cruel truth: the revolt had turned into a jihadist war, not only – or even primarily – against the Assad regime but at least as much against secular or moderate Muslim rebel groups.
In the summer of 2012, the fighting reached the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and in the spring of 2013, the conflict began to seriously spill over to neighboring countries.
War through agents
Syria has become an arena where regional, and even global, great powers are fighting a mutual struggle. The Islamic Republic of Iran, together with its allies in the Iraqi government and the Shia Muslim movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, has provided generous assistance to the Assad regime in the form of money, weapons and direct military assistance. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and several other rich oil states in the Persian Gulf have provided extensive financial assistance to, in particular, Sunni Islamist rebel groups, which have also been allowed to use Turkey’s border areas to transport fighters and weapons into and out of Syria.
At the same time, there has been a major political tug-of-war between East and West. Putin’s Russia has maintained arms supplies to the regime, contributed military efforts and, with its great power veto, stopped all attempts by the UN Security Council to impose military or other international sanctions on the al-Assad regime. The United States and some NATO countries, mainly Britain and France, have tried to mobilize political and material support for secular rebel groups and have also provided military assistance.
Islamic State makes entrance
In 2014, the war scene changed radically. During the winter of 2013–2014, the extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) won significant victories over a number of other Syrian rebel groups and established itself in the spring of 2014 as the strongest rebel movement in both Syria and Iraq. Then, for several months, there was a kind of unspoken ceasefire between Isis and the regime – both apparently considered themselves to benefit from fighting other rebel groups in Syria from different sides. But after Isis captured Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in June and seized huge quantities of weapons from the Iraqi army, Isis once again shifted its focus to Syria and captured a number of Syrian cities and army bases. Shortly afterwards, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the “caliphate” Islamic State(IS) with the aim of subjugating the entire Muslim Middle East. The Islamic State instilled fear both locally and abroad with its extreme violence against minorities and other groups that are unpleasant to the movement.
About that time, in the late summer of 2014, US President Barack Obama changed his strategy and launched limited airstrikes against IS, first in Iraq and then in some parts of Syria. The fight against IS came to the forefront of Western countries’ involvement. The goal of overthrowing the Assad regime was toned down and the United States concentrated its efforts on weakening and defeating IS in the long run, with the help of an alliance of Western countries (Britain, France, Canada, Australia, etc.) and conservative Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan).
In the autumn of 2015, Russia also became militarily involved. President Putin called on the outside world to form a broad alliance against IS, but in practice, Russian warplanes bombed primarily Western-backed rebel groups and secondarily IS.