The civil war in Syria highlights the more vicious and destabilizing aspects of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen the people managed to oust their former strongmen; In Syria however, President Bashar al-Assad did not step down, responding with extremely repressive measures. Consequently, protests turned to clashes and the conflict turned increasingly violent. As Syrians began to take up arms, the death toll skyrocketed. Syria is, in many ways, the most tragic case study of the Arab Spring.
In March 2011, the spark of the Arab Spring reached Syria. A group of children were detained in the southern city of Daraa after writing the revolutionary slogan ‘al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizam” (the people want the downfall of the regime) on the wall of their school. When their parents protested the detainment and accuse the police of torture, the security forces responded with violence. What started as a series of localized protests against the regime’s security apparatus soon spread to other cities in Syria. In the beginning, the uprisings were civil and largely non-sectarian; indeed, those who organized the rallies were very conscious about representing all Syrians. Moreover, artists and political commentators began tackling the crisis with humour and thoughtful contributions; individuals such as cartoonist Ali Farzat, who criticized Assad more sharply than ever (and got his hands broken in return), or with productions such as Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator that reached wide audiences. Political opposition groups bloomed in exile, formed either by Syrians fleeing the country or those already living in exile. However, the opposition groups expressed diverse opinions and consisted of diverse individuals, leading to a highly fragmented opposition. This yielded a lack of collective action, which hindered many in the international community from confidently picking sides.
Fragmentation persisted for several months before some oppositional groups formed mergers, and later attended the first ‘Friends of Syria’ conference where they met with representatives from key actors (including the United States and most European Union countries). Despite this development, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was still divided and failed to address the issue in a comprehensive manner, leaving it unable to adopt any resolution on Syria.
The civil phase of the uprising, however, would soon fall prey to increasing radicalization among some opposition groups. Regime troops started to move into cities throughout the country, resulting in the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a merger of defected officers and soldiers of the Syrian army, in mid-2011. The FSA, together with a number of local militias, began to ‘liberate’ villages, mainly along the borders of Turkey and Lebanon. In this early phase, however, they failed to overpower the regime in major urban centers. This changed soon, as the FSA began to attack the regime’s troops in larger cities, which led the Syrian army to change course as well. Instead of taking liberated towns back, they started to besiege them and ensure maximum destruction by launching artillery, rocket, and air strikes. At this point, it seemed as if both sides saw the conflict as a fight for survival, in which they were on the winning side. Thus, their willingness to compromise was practically non-existent. This arguably reached its apex with the siege of Homs in early 2012, where the district Baba Amr was almost entirely flattened, and with the massacre of Houla in late May, 2012, where 108 people, of which 49 were children, lost their lives in a mass execution.
The Syrian crisis soon began to reach regional importance; that is, some states in the region became increasingly involved in lending support to either the regime or the opposition. Iran and Hezbollah enhanced their assistance to Assad since they saw a close and essential regional ally at risk. Similarly, Russia provided the Syrian regime with weaponry and equipment while simultaneously using its veto in the UNSC to prevent any international action sanctioning Assad. On the opposition side, several countries were and are still engaged in the support of various factions. Saudi Arabia and Qatar were among those supplying rebels with weaponry, equipment, and aid ( largely via Jordan) and had already pushed for Syria to be suspended from the Arab League in November 2011. Turkey, after standing by Assad for the first several months, soon began to support political and military opposition wings alike, sparked by several clashes along the Turkish-Syrian border. Moreover, Ankara was provided as a place of refuge for the FSA and other groups.
With external actors choosing sides, the death toll rose, the radicalization and militarization of the conflict continued, and the number of refugees increased drastically; there are now more than 2.1 million Syrian refugees, causing severe problems for neighboring states. This number, however, is likely to be even larger if one takes into account those not officially registered as refugees, but who found accommodation with family or friends in other countries, as well as those who are internally displaced.
The increased radicalization of rebel factions did not only intensify the conflict but also added a new layer to it: sectarianism. Syria became the battlefield of the Sunni-Shia divide in the region in which the GCC monarchies (Saudi Arabia in particular) and Turkey are facing Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq. Soon the once-civil uprising could be viewed through a sectarian lens: a revolt of a Sunni majority against a predominantly Alawite regime. Bashar al-Assad, on the other hand, was keen to keep the Alawite and Christian minorities (both are at around 10% of the population) in fear of a Sunni majority state where their rights would be curtailed. This new dynamic transformed religious motivations, which were barely a factor early in the uprising, to become a dominant stream of rhetoric. The foundation of the Al-Nusra Front on January 23, 2012 served to enhance the conflict’s radicalization, as they emerged as the first al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria. The goal of the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist groups is to create an Islamic state in Syrian, and thereby is not only fighting the regime’s troops, but attacking other opposition forces as well. The new jihadist bloc, however, is not homogenous either. This became obvious when the Iraqi group ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’ declared the Al-Nusra Front its Syrian branch, apparently without the latter even knowing about it. However, while the total number of jihadist fighters and their influence may be exaggerated in Western media, their rise still poses a challenge to militias with secular or non-Islamist ideologies.
After August 21, 2013, Syria was once again in the international spotlight, when sarin nerve gas was used near Damascus, leaving hundreds dead (some estimates claim 1500 deaths). A UN mission soon sent inspectors to Syria, and their investigations confirmed the use of chemical weapons. The report did not explicitly address who perpetrated the chemical strikes, but there was little doubt that the Syrian regime had done so despite Assad’s accusations that the rebels were at fault. The use of chemical weapons led many countries to advocate military action against Assad, calling on the United States to intervene. A decision on airstrikes had little chance of success via the UNSC due to Russia’s veto power. Moreover, the U.S. Congress did not seem willing to support President Obama’s call for intervention, and thus a diplomatic proposal spearheaded by Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile fell on sympathetic ears. Both countries agreed to pursue this course on September 14, 2013. Syria approved and officially joined the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention on October 14, 2013. Most analysts, however, argue that this deal only buys time for Assad, criticizing the fact that only chemical weapons use has caught the attention of the international community while more than 115,000 people have died in the conflict regardless.
So, quo vadis Syria? This question is hard to answer, with the options seeming more and more depressing. In all likelihood the civil war will continue and. given the current situation, the cards appear to be stacked against the more moderate, secular rebels. The chemical weapons deal has bought the regime time with little loss and international action is not foreseeable unless a new dramatic incident takes place. As for the Geneva II conference, scheduled in November, it remains to be seen what the outcomes will be – with most observers holding pessimistic expectations. The increasing sectarian element of the uprising has further contributed to this grim outlook, not only regarding the conflict itself, but also in any possible post-Assad Syria, in which new sectarian differences will have to be overcome.