After nine years of war, we had hoped that the worst was behind us. However, the most severe humanitarian crisis since the beginning of the war is currently unfolding in Idlib, a province in Northwestern Syria, following efforts by the Syrian government to recapture one of the last rebel and jihadi-held strongholds.
As we follow the despairing humanitarian news, we ask ourselves, how could something that started as anti-government protests result in such a global conflict that has displaced more than half of the Syrian population and destroyed the country's economy? We tried to assemble a brief and, as much as possible, a neutral overview of the Syrian crisis, which we hope will provide some basic insights into the conflict. We are aware that writing about the Syrian crisis is a difficult and tricky endeavor in such a short space as many events are not 100% clear and are subject to interpretation. Our goal from this historical summary is to understand without taking sides and to remind ourselves why we are here today.
The Reasons Behind the Conflict
In early 2011, Syria, like many other neighboring Arab countries, was gripped by the Arab Spring fever. In March 2011, the arrest and torture of 15 local youth in the southern city of Deraa by the Syrian intelligence for the crime of having inscribed an anti-Assad inscription on a wall set fire to the gunpowder. The ensuing protests quickly spread to major Syrian cities while the government responded with a force that lead to the death and wounding of hundreds. By the end of 2011, the UN had already counted 5,000 dead.
However, the protests had deep social and economic roots. The mounting frustration resulted from the rapid economic liberalization of the Syrian economy in the years prior to the war, primarily benefitting a city-based middle and upper class at the expense of the agricultural sector, which had long been a pillar of the Baath regime’s economic system. Furthermore, droughts in 2006 and 2011 led to a massive rural exodus that swelled the ranks of Syrians living in poor conditions on the outskirts of big cities.
A Sectarian Conflict?
The dynamics on the ground are much more complex than a confrontation between Alawites/Shia and other minorities supported by Iran versus Sunnis and other jihadi groups supported by Gulf monarchies.Indeed, the Syrian government has a non-negligible Sunni support base derived mainly from the security apparatus and the urban middle-class. Furthermore, the sectarian discourse was exacerbated by the progressive rise of virulent radical jihadist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and the fact that the Syrian regime portrayed itself as the only protector of religious minorities in Syria.
How Local Protests Became a Full-blown Regional War
As time passed, the Syrian uprising evolved from a local conflict to a global confrontation, directly or by proxy, between regional and international powers. Several belligerents have been involved in shifting alliances as the dynamics on the ground have evolved. In other terms, there are many wars being fought in Syria.
When officers from the Syrian Army defected to form the Free Syrian Army in July 2011, the specter of an armed conflict became more and more certain. Russia, a long-standing ally of Syria, and Iran started arming government forces while the Lebanese Hezbollah and Shia Iraqi fighters arrived to shore up the Syrian Army. On the other side, Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as the US funded and directly armed rebel groups.
In the spring of 2013, the conflict became bogged down as the front lines came to a standstill. This favored the rise of jihadist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front—an al Qaida offshoot—and the Islamic State. The latter gradually established itself as the most violent jihadist group on Syrian territory and the public enemy number one especially after a series of terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS shook European capitals. The rise of ISIS greatly aggravated the refugee crisis and gave the conflict a more sectarian undertone. In 2015, the US called for an international coalition against ISIS that included Arab countries and expanded its air campaign in Iraq to include Syria. On the ground, the US sent special forces and supported the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which proved effective in fighting ISIS. Since the start of the conflict, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), had formed a semi-autonomous area in Kurdish-majority regions in Northeastern Syria.
In 2015, and despite Iran’s ground support, the Syrian government was in bad shape as it was fighting on numerous fronts and losing territory. This is when Russia directly intervened with airstrikes aimed at rebel groups. This enabled the government to steadily regain control of Syrian territory including the opposition’s stronghold in Aleppo in 2016.
Turkey has been involved in ground operations against ISIS since 2016 while fighting Kurdish groups at the same time. Turkey considers the PYD, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to be a terrorist group. Finally, throughout the war, Israel has discretely but very tactically targeted Hezbollah and Iranian-backed forces and arms shipments through hundreds of airstrikes.
The Ugliness of War
Throughout the war, efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution have unfortunately failed as the fragmented opposition groups and the Syrian government could not find mutually acceptable terms.
On the battlefield, many red lines were transgressed including the indiscriminate bombing and targeting of civilians and the repeated use of chemical weapons. The Syrian government has been accused in 2013, 2017, and 2018 of using chemical weapons while jihadist groups have terrorized civilians and carried out executions that were advertised on social media, which became a new battleground for the attention of spectators worldwide.
After nine years of a bloody war, it seems that the Syrian government has emerged on top but at a very high cost. A lot of blood has been spilled, and it will take years for wounds to heal while the amount of material destruction to cities and livelihoods is colossal.
The Effects of the War
To date, the conflict has displaced almost half of the Syrian population (23 million at the start of the war) and claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people (potentially as high as 1 million). According to UN figures, there are more than 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees (unofficial figures reach around 7.1m) and 6.2 million internally displaced Syrians (the numbers will increase with the crisis in Idlib). Syrian refugees comprise a quarter of all refugees in the world with the vast majority being hosted by neighboring countries – Turkey (3.5 million), Lebanon (1.5 million), Jordan (650k), Iraq (245k) and Egypt (130k).
Host communities across the world have been contending with their own pre-existing economic and social challenges that have been further aggravated by the crisis. That leaves the question: In the absence of an international resolution and given that it is still not safe in Syria, where should these refugees go? As we gaze helplessly around us at the sea of human suffering we think, “God, where are you in all of this? Help! Only You are big enough to solve a catastrophe of such monumental proportions and long-lasting effects!”
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