A guard looks over the ruins in Syria

The Syrian Civil War: A History

The decade- long civil war in Syria between its government and citizens has more or less affected the rest of world. Statistics and photographs depicting injured civilians, death and homelessness leading to a refugee crisis has found their way into the news, alerting the world to the ghastly scenario in Syria. Here, a history of the war, beginning from the Assad government to the present day scenario, is narrated here.

The Assad family and their government

Hafez al- Assad and son Bashar al- Assad
credit@ Enab Baladi

Syria has been ruled by the al- Assad family ever since Hafez al- Assad became the President of the country in 1971. Hafez himself had been part of several coups in the past, which first led to the secular Ba’ath Syrian Regional Branch government be the dominant authority of Syria in (1963). Under the new government, he was made the commander of the Syrian Air Force. Three years later, a second coup was staged, in which Hafez played a prominent role and brought the leaders of the Ba’ath government crumbling down. The new government was headed by Salah Jadid with his radical military party. Under the new leadership, Hafez was appointed the Prime Minister. Differences between Hafez and Jadid regarding military rule and power led to Hafez organizing a coup against the government in 1970. There was no violence involved in the coup, but newspapers, television and radio stations were cut to prevent the media reporting the events. Jadid was imprisoned till his death. In 1971, Hafez al- Assad declared himself the President of Syria.

Hafez’s government was a totalitarian and authoritarian one faced with constant criticism and opposition. But unlike Jadid’s government, Hafez made his rule more accessible to the common man. He visited villages and took into account the citizen’s issues. But two years into his regime, Hafez brought out a new constitution which caused a national crisis. While the previous constitutions stated that the President of Syria had to be a Muslim, Hafez’s constitution did not. The Muslim Brotherhood staged several demonstrations in parts of the country until 1982, only to be squashed with violence by the government. Then in 1983 to 1984, Hafez’s own brother, Rifaat tried to overthrow and seize the government when Hafez’s health suffered. Upon recovering, Rifaat was exiled. Many consider the Islamists’ and Rifaat’s opposition to the government as the beginning of unrest in Syria.

In 2000, Hafez’s son, Bashar al- Assad was made President. Hafez’s choice of appointing a family member as the President was met with severe criticism by many of the elite, ruling class of Syria. However, the opposition did not deter Hafez and the officials who voiced their opinions were demoted. When Bashar and his wife Asma came into power, the couple had no prior political experience. He was a doctor who had first worked in the Syrian Army and then in London. When he was recalled to Syria, he attended the military academy for two years, from 1998 to 2000. His wife, Asma, was a Muslim who was born and educated in Britain. Upon the new President and First Lady’s arrival, the public hoped for a more democratic government with the implementation of reforms.

Even before Bashar came into power, Syria was a troubled country due to his father’s many authoritative acts. Plagued by regular droughts, countless farmers had migrated from the rural to the urban areas to make a living, only to be faced with mass unemployment. The government was often accused of corruption. Political freedom was curbed, with civilians who opposed the regime being interrogated and tortured and the media being cut off to prevent reports of these practices.

It was into this government that the present President, Bashar came into power. Despite the public’s expectancy regarding modernization and reforms, it soon became clear that it wasn’t just the office that Bashar inherited from his father. He continued with his father’s totalitarian acts, including strict surveillance and censorship of the media. The participation that Hafez had initially granted to the public was immediately dissolved by Bashar. Anybody who opposed the government policies were captured and tortured or silenced with violence. Many of Bashar’s laws favoured the wealthy and privileged elite class. Soon, there were noticeable inequalities amongst the rich and poor. Adding to all these issues, Syria faced one of the worst droughts in its history between 2006 and 2010. Thousands of farmers and their families struggled with poverty and migrated to the urban towns, causing the already high unemployment rate to sky rocket.

Conflict to civil war

Armed troops in Syria
credit@ The Guardian

The public’s dissatisfaction with the government finally led to a series of events that culminated into a full blown civil war. In March 2011, the drought stricken Deraa saw the seeds of the beginning of the conflict. A group of teenagers were caught writing anti- government graffiti on a school wall. When the teenagers were captured and tortured, the locals were enraged and took to the streets, protesting against the government and demanding economic and political reforms. The government reacted using brutal violence and deadly force- mass arrests and opening fire on the protestors. The attempt to squash the rebellion was only met with further demonstrations nationwide, this time demanding Bashar to step down from office. The report of one of the teenagers being tortured to death did not help matters either. Not one to back down, Bashar ordered all protests to be squashed. The more the government attempted to step on the public, the more the unrest spread.

Protests in Syria
credit@ World Politics Review

Since the government placed strict surveillance on the media, witnesses captured many videos of security forces’ treatment of civilians- beating and shooting- and circulated these around the country. Foreign media outlets also got hold of these footages. The government soon began surrounding the neighbourhoods and cities that had turned into hubs of protests with military equipment- attack helicopters, artillery and tanks. Communication, resources and utilities were cut off.

In response, the public soon resorted to taking up arms, first as a defence mechanism and then to battle the security forces in their areas. With the unrest and violence at its peak all over the country, it did not take long for many groups to be formed, either backing the government or tearing down the government. Foreign powers began to lend their services to the conflict by sending weapons, money and soldiers. As the country descended further into chaos, extremists groups like the al- Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) involved themselves in the conflict. The involvement of these groups have drawn concerns from the foreign countries, who consider them a threat. The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic community, had always lobbied for the right to a self- government but had never openly fought against the Assad government. Once the conflict spread nationwide, the Kurds joined the conflict to back the opposition. By the end of 2012, the country was in a full-fledged civil war. Bashar himself called the conflict a ‘foreign- backed terrorism.’

Foreign involvement

Those supporting the Assad Government: Russia been Syria’s ally in regards of political and military issues since 1956. When the civil war broke out, Russia continued its support by sending in arms, financial aid and technical and military advisors. Syrian soldiers were given training on Russian- manufactured weapons and how to maintain and repair their domestic weapons. Later investigations by reporters stated that Russia was transporting banknotes to Syria by flights. By the end of 2013, Russia sent in new surveillance equipment, electronic warfare systems, bombs, radars and armoured vehicles. In 2015, Russia started directly attacking the enemies of the Syrian government through airstrikes. Leaders of the Western countries have continually criticised Russia’s support for the Syrian government.

Iran’s support for Syria includes more than 9 billion dollars, technical support and combat troops. For Iran, winning the civil war means gaining geopolitical security. Hezbollah has been significantly involved in the civil war ever since 2012. This includes regularly deploying troops into villages and cities where protests erupt and seizing them. Numerous areas set up as the hub of protests by the public have been destroyed, with utilities cut off by Hezbollah. Syria has been receiving financial aid from Iraq since the outbreak of the war. Airspace and other territory has been provided to Syria by Iran for the safe passage of military trucks to transport Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Those supporting the opposition: When Obama was the President of the US, he has condemned the Assad government for its brutality and totalitarian acts towards its citizens. In August 11th 2011, the US government issued a written statement supported by UK, France, and Germany for Bashar al- Assad to step down from office. On the same day, the US froze Syrian government assets under the US jurisdiction. Obama also banned the import of Syrian petroleum and oil products and prohibited citizens from engaging in business with the Syrian government. By 2012, the US started providing financial and military aid to the opposition party. In 2017, Trump called off all the CIA backed programmed which trained troops to battle the Syrian government.

Since the beginning of the civil war, the United Kingdom and France has backed America in its decision to help the opposition. By the end of 2015, UK initiated air strikes against Syria and was followed suit by France. Until the start of the civil war, Turkey had been on friendly terms with Syria and even then, it did not support US’s call for Bashar to resign. As the government slaughtered more of its citizens, Turkey condemned the brutality and started training military troops to support the opposition party. The foreign powers aren’t without opposition for their involvement in the war. Protests in UK have been held condemning the government for bombing Syria.

Qatar has provided close to 3 billion dollars to the opposition party during the initial years of the civil war. Now, Qatar provides a training base where the CIA train around 1,200 soldiers each year to aid the opposition in Syria. Other supporters of the opposition army include Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Sunni Arabs. Croatia has also provided military aid.

Effect on the civilians and political anthropology

Rescue operations in Syria
credit@ Deccan Herald

As always, it is the civilians that are most affected by any conflict that arises in the country. As mentioned before, when Hafez was the president, the droughts brought on crisis after crisis and the employment rates ran sky high. When the growing resentment against the government into the civil war, the civilians began to be plagued with homelessness, lack of humanitarian aid and a growing refugee crisis.

A mother and son walk amongst the ruins in Syria
credit@ Bloomberg.com

The Syrian government’s act of confiscating property has rendered millions of Syrians homeless. As of April 12th 2021, 6. 2 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, while another 5. 6 million Syrians are registered as refugees. Countless refugees have took refuge in Jordan and Lebanon, leading the already strained economy and infrastructure spiralling. Another 3.4 million fled to Turkey, while many others have sought out the help of Europe. Those who initially sought refuge in Turkey tried entering Greece for refuge, only to be detained, questioned, tortured and then pushed back to Turkey. Those who have ventured into Lebanon face discrimination, apart from financial crisis.

A mounting refugee crisis
credit@ Wall Street Journal

Hospitals, schools, markets and shelters have been either abandoned or seized by the military to run their operations. The war has also made it increasingly difficult for providing aid, including food and medicine. The bombings have killed an increasing number of civilians. The already destroyed economy and healthcare system has been drastically affected by the raging pandemic. The Syrian government continues to restrict the passage of aid to the remaining residential areas and unlawfully demolish such areas without providing compensation. The war has also led to extremists group like the ISIS to resurface and take a stronghold in the country, leading to thousands being kidnapped by the group.

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