The Conflict in Syria Part 2
The split among Assad’s opponents has often been called “the regime’s strongest card”. The armed uprising against the regime crystallized in three main fronts that fought as much or more against each other than against government forces: remaining secular rebels (formally under the roof of the Free Syrian Army and SNC), domestic Islamist groups such as the Nusra Front (affiliated with the terrorist network al- Qaida ) and the Islamic State (IS).
In addition, Kurdish forces. During the war years, they have managed to establish a degree of autonomy in northern Syria. The Kurds who were oppressed under Assad were initially on the rebels’ side in the fight against the regime but were gradually dissatisfied with what they believed was the rebel movement’s inability to take minorities into account. When government forces in 2012 began withdrawing from Kurdish areas to release troops for service in other parts of Syria, control was taken over by the Kurdish party PYD, which is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK guerrillas in Turkey. The situation gave the Kurds another reason not to ally with other rebels. Instead, fighting between the PYD militia YPG and Islamist groups in northern Syria, especially IS, intensified. It is above all Kurdish-led forces that have succeeded in pushing back IS and knocking out the “caliphate”.
But the Kurds have another dangerous enemy: Turkey, which regards the Kurdish militia as terrorists. Between 2016 and 2019, the Turkish Armed Forces, with the support of Syrian rebels, carried out three offensives into northern Syria, not to assist the Syrian regime, outside of fighting Kurdish guerrillas. The offensives have been marred by reports of severe civilian hardship. In 2019, the Kurds were forced to ask the Syrian army to return to the border areas to get protection against Turkey.
Support for Assad
Crucial to the Assad regime’s viability is that, despite its violent regiment, it has always enjoyed significant legitimacy in Syrian society. Legitimacy here is not about popularity, or even legality as it is perceived in a democracy. In Syria, legitimacy is about who is most suitable, or at least least inappropriate, to govern the country. Since 1970, when the father of the current President Bashar al-Assad (Hafiz al-Assad) seized power in a bloodless coup, no one has really been able to point to any alternative political force that has been more capable, or less inappropriate, of running Syria’s business.
The key word is political stability – peace and quiet, law and order. Between independence in 1946 and 1970, Syria underwent an average coup every two years, usually bloody. This quarter-century is remembered by senior citizens as “the great Syrian disorder”. From 1970 until the Arab Spring, no one could or dared seriously challenge the power of the House of Assad. It was appreciated by a growing Sunni Muslim merchant class, as well as by the large group of farmers who experienced major welfare improvements. Many intellectual and government officials, as well as religious and certain ethnic minorities (Christians, Druze and especially Alawites), have feared that the possible fall of the Assad regime would plunge Syria into the same protracted chaos that has prevailed in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003 or in Lebanon. civil war 1975–1990.secular and has sought an atmosphere where religion is a private matter, separate from the political sphere.
Now, several years of civil war have had catastrophic consequences. Information on the number of deaths varies, but the opposition organization SOHR counted at the beginning of 2020 to at least 380,000. Millions of people are fleeing abroad and within the country. In January 2018, according to the UNHCR, almost 5.5 million Syrians were registered as refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, and almost one million had sought asylum in Europe. Turkey’s invasion of the north in 2019 has accelerated a new wave of refugees. In addition, half of the largest city in Aleppo and large parts of the capital Damascus have been demolished, as well as many smaller towns and villages. Nevertheless, the Assad regime has managed to maintain a significant measure of social administration in those parts of Syria where control has been maintained, areas that include major cities and densely populated areas. Government salaries and pensions are paid out, electricity and water work in principle, food supply is scarce but sufficient, law and order prevails in everyday life.
Reign of terror instead of bandit rule
On the other hand, the looting of civilians and other bandit empires has taken place in several of the villages and city districts that rebel groups have conquered and fought among themselves. The anarchy in some rebel-held areas was probably one of the reasons why IS was able to establish itself and establish a kind of government over northeastern Syria with the provincial metropolis al-Raqqa as the “capital”.
At the same time as IS brutality mainly affected certain minorities, the movement initially created order and put an end to violent settlements between rival groups. Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and certain Sunni groups with deviant beliefs were faced with an ultimatum – repent, pay taxes, leave the area or die – but for the Sunni Muslim in general, IS rule in some places meant an improvement. In addition to ending lawlessness, IS built schools and care facilities and repaired damaged roads and bridges.
However, the IS regime quickly came to be associated with reign of terror, such as mass executions, and IS was also perceived as a threat to countries outside the region. International mobilization against IS, militarily and politically, led to the jihadist movement losing all its strongholds in 2016 and 2017, both in Syria and in Iraq.
If IS is now almost wiped off the Syrian map, the second biggest change on the ground is that support from Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah – not least Russian airstrikes – has enabled the Assad regime to regain control in many disputed areas.