Anthropology: Syrian Civil War and the Impact of United States Involvement

A deafening explosion tears open the sky and four American fighter planes soar above Raqqa, a city devastated by the Syrian Civil War. The children of the city have learned that seconds after this sound, bombs desolate entire buildings and leave craters in the streets. The American troops in the next city over say that the airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State, but the bombs drop on civilian houses, businesses, and parks. Hundreds of civilians have been confirmed dead, and thousands more are missing. The residents of Raqqa flock to neighboring cities to avoid the carnage. Among them are members of the Free Syrian Army militia, carrying American-made rifles and bullets. These bullets kill Americans and Arabs alike. Confusion and razor thin allegiances define the Syrian Civil War.

The Beginning

Mouawiya Syasneh, age 20, stares at anti-government graffiti that sparked a violent government crack down.
Mouawiya Syasneh, age 20, stares at anti-government graffiti that sparked a violent government crack down. Credit: Anadolu Agency

The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 after the Syrian government arrested, detained, and tortured fifteen young boys for spray painting anti-government slogans onto a building. In October 2011, after months of protesting and escalation, the first armed conflict took place in Naima after protesters united under the name Free Syrian Army. Years of fighting finally drew international attention, and in 2014, the United States entered the war. Critics of U.S. action in the war compared it to the Afghanistan conflict, raising concerns of uncontrollable weapons distribution, imprecise airstrikes and an irresponsible post-war strategy.

Jumping In

Members of the Free Syrian Army march in rank, holding banners and flags with the emblem of the FSA.
Members of the Free Syrian Army march in rank, holding banners and flags with the emblem of the FSA. Credit: Anadolu Agency

At the beginning of the US involvement in September 2014, then President Obama said his goal in Syria was to “​train and equip factions of the Free Syrian Army to strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to the extremists and to prevent US troops from being dragged into another ground war” (AlJazeera). The bill requesting the authority to do this came with extreme opposition from both sides of the aisle. Many senators voiced their concerns that the situation too closely modeled the Libyan Civil War, saying that the ​lack of accountability for American weapons mirrored the U.S. support of the Afghan Mujahideen and the Libyan rebel groups, two situations that ended in the death of hundreds of civilians and many American soldiers.

Speaking of the Libyan efforts, former State Department Advisor Vali Nasr said, “​to do this right, you have to have on-the-ground intelligence and you have to have experience […] If you rely on a country that doesn’t have those things, you are really flying blind. When you have an intermediary, you are going to lose control” (nytimes). This loss of control is not a new pattern; U.S. arms have been traced to militants in Afghanistan, Libya, Qatar, the UAE, Iraq, and Syria, having been traded, sold, and stolen from group to group. No viable way exists to impose accountability on weapons and supplies given out by the U.S.

What Needed to be Done

President Obama began the U.S.’ air raids in 2014 in reaction to a chemical weapons strike from Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on his own people, reversing his earlier position of non-engagement in the region. In the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama announced that two days earlier, the US had carried out a series of airstrikes in Syria and was prepared to lead an offensive coalition to destroy the Islamic State. He added that while military force was not the full solution, there was no room for backing away from what needed to be done.

A Complicated Coalition

Territory map showing several groups' control in Syria.
Territory map showing several groups’ control in Syria. Credit: BBC

Furthermore, when private arms dealers, such as Marc Turi, an American merchant who sought to profit from the Libyan war, make sales to foreign countries under the permission of the State Department, there is even less accountability, with governments “handing [the weapons] out like candy” (nytimes). Despite the ethical controversy, Congress passed the bill, and the U.S. started supplying rebel factions with training and weapons. This kept American ground troops away from the conflict for several months. However, ​because of the chaotic nature of the rebel factions, freedom fighters often fight alongside members of other groups, trading equipment and intelligence.

One of these groups was Al-Nusra, a caliphate oriented group, similar to ISIS, but less violent, although still an official enemy of the US. The operation, code named Timber Sycamore, came under heavy Russian critique, and the increased strength of the Nusra front gave the Russian President Vladimir Putin the justification he needed to enter the war in 2015 on the side of the Syrian government, reversing the momentum of the Syrian rebels and undoing what progress U.S. aid had made in the conflict: “​The Russian campaign, [against] C.I.A.-backed fighters and Nusra militants, battered the rebels and sent them into retreat” (nytimes).​ ​

Shrinking Allies

A plume of smoke rises hundreds of feet above a Syrian city after U.S. airstrike.
A plume of smoke rises hundreds of feet above a Syrian city after U.S. airstrike. Credit: Wall Street Journal

Tension spread to the Jordanian state, a U.S. ally. Conflict surfaced when members of the Jordanian intelligence stole U.S. weapons and later sold them on a black market. Eventually, Jordanian Special Forces members killed three U.S. soldiers at a airbase outside Al Jefr, Jordan. Jordanian and U.S. troops had been cooperating to train and equip Syrian rebels. This confirmed that even among the U.S.’ allies, the sale and handling of weapons and training could not be controlled in a safe or effective manner. Many senators called for U.S. accountability for the deaths that came as a result of its weapons trade. They included deaths from the indirect effects of the arms deals, and from the direct effects of U.S. air raids.

Raising Questions

President Obama gives an address explaining his actions in the Syrian Civil War.
President Obama gives an address explaining his actions in the Syrian Civil War. Credit: PBS

Although the UN eventually gave full approval for a U.S.-led coalition force to target extremist forces in Syria, the response within the U.S. was more controversial. Senators on both sides of the aisle doubted the legality and the morality of the attacks, refuting President Obama’s citation of Public Law 107-243, 107-40, and 93-108, which gave the President authority to confront Al-Qaeda in Iraq and any parties associated with the 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: “The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary […] against the continuing threat posed by Iraq […]” (gpo.gov).

The President can take military action without the approval of Congress but must prove the necessity of the action with 48 hours. However, critics said he stretched the intentions of two orders, specifically written to target Al-Qaeda, and used them not only to justify strikes against the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda’s rival, but also to justify attacks on the Syrian government. He acted without the consent of the U.N. General Assembly, and his actions stepped outside the written intentions of the laws; a section of the law states that the President must make any action “through the United Nations Security Council” (gpo.gov). President Obama received the support of Congress and the U.N. after the attacks, but his actions were illegal.

A Price to Pay

A Syrian man cradles his head in his hands amidst rubble and other survivors after an airstrike.
A Syrian man cradles his head in his hands amidst rubble and other survivors after an airstrike. Credit: REUTERS

Beyond the legality of the actions, the number of civilian casualties from U.S. attacks is hard to justify. The US recognizes the deaths of 939 civilians from August 2014 to the end of 2018 as a direct result of coalition strikes. They deny the thousands of claims from groups like Amnesty International (AI) about civilian losses. Amnesty International criticized the Coalition on weapon choice and the amount of time between warning civilians of the attacks and the attacks themselves. AI argued that the U.S. did not give civilians enough time or resources to safely evacuate the targeted areas.

After almost a year of charges and reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the Coalition issued apologies for the civilian losses; however they still dismiss over 300 separate reports as non credible. The YPG militia, a Kurdish force working closely with the Coalition, accused them of “unsuccessful air strikes resulting in huge human and material losses” (amnesty.org).

Reports from the Coalition downplay the scale and devastation of the attacks. According to Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response advisor working in Raqqa, the U.S. launched more artillery shells into Raqqa “than anywhere since the Vietnam war. Given that artillery shells have margin of error of over 100 metres, it is no surprise that the result was mass civilian casualties” (AlJazeera).

Sticking Around

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promises a continued presence in Syria after the Civil War.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promises a continued presence in Syria after the Civil War. Credit: The Hill

With the ​war winding down, the U.S. stated that it will maintain an open-ended military presence. The U.S. presence will focus on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge. Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “ungoverned spaces […] are breeding grounds for ISIS and other terrorist organizations” (stanford.edu). His address echos post-war policies in Afghanistan and Libya. Opponents of U.S.’ involvement worry that an open-ended nation building policy paves the way for another endless war in Syria. The situation is similar to other controversial presences in Iraq, Columbia, Iran, Vietnam, and India.

Supporters of this approach state that Syria’s ​“best hope of freedom lies in a temporary experience of imperial rule” (beyondintracability.org). Tillerson’s goals included Syria and its neighbors being “secure” and “functioning” (bbc.com).

Winding Down

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad gives speech condemning Western involvement in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad gives speech condemning Western involvement in Syria. Credit: TheNational

Assad Holds on to Power

One of Tillerson’s conditions is that “the conflict is resolved through a UN-led process” and ends in “post-Assad leadership.” However, far from being ready to submit after maintaining military power in the civil war, Assad and his allies denounced any act of “external interventions [as] a Western-Zionist attempt to undermine Syria’s unity and independence.” An attempt they say is doomed to fail due to the “steadfastness” of the Syrian government (sana.sy). Iranian and Russian forces continue to back the Assad regime.

U.S. Withdrawal

Fighting has largely slowed, but there is no clear end to the war. U.S. forces withdrew in October 2019 under President Trump. Trump’s Defense Secretary said that U.S. troops could no longer hold back Turkish forces in Northern Syria. U.S. forces had been working closely with a Kurdish resistance group, which put tensions on U.S.-Turkish relations. Despite the withdrawal, the U.S. continued to demand that Assad step down. The Syrian rebels who worked with the U.S. Coalition flee persecution for treason to the Assad regime. Thousands of Syrian people continue to live out of broken buildings, living beside artillery shells that did not explode on impact, but could go off at any moment.

Socio-economic and political anthropology of Syria present and future

A U.N. worker wearing a bullet-proof vest carries a box of supplies through a collapsing Syrian street.
A U.N. worker wearing a bullet-proof vest carries a box of supplies through a collapsing Syrian street. Credit: Wall Street Journal

This year Bashar Al-Assad announced his candidacy in the Presidential Election, set to take place on May 26th 2021. Election rules state that candidates must reside in Syria for 10 consecutive years to be eligible for the Presidency. The rule bars many resistance leaders from running because of their exile during the war. Bashar’s re-election would start his fourth term as President. This bends the 2012 constitutional rule that a President may only serve two, seven-year terms.

The election comes amidst spurts of fighting in the Northwest region of Syria. Economic collapse, food and housing shortages, and the COVID-19 pandemic add to the peril. Several E.U. and U.N. countries have pledged to support humanitarian efforts in Syria. Syrians have received over $6billion to help find food and shelter. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that about half of the Syria’s children have never gone a day without war.

At this time, Assad has given no comprehensive plan to rebuild his country or petitioned for aid. Germany and other Western powers see “no sign” of a fair election. They expect Assad to continue a regime that has lasted over fifty years between him and his father.

To learn about the regional context of the Syrian Civil War, check out this article on the Arab Spring: https://www.yoair.com/blog/the-arab-spring-a-win-or-loss-for-democracy/

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