1. ‚Arab Spring” and Syria When in January 2011 the first protest in Tunisia emerged, a large wave of demonstration captured the North African/ Middle East World. The first reactions were consistently positive in the Western World, a new movement of Civil Rights and democratization was expected to clear away authoritarian Governments. While Ben Ali fled from Tunis after a short period of protest, in morocco the king complied with the central calls for reducing his power, other regions are still in troubles of hostile groups. In Libya, the only country so far, international military intervention helped to change political powers, the situation is completely unclear, elected parliament had to flee from militant groups, repeatedly. It seems, that the so called ‚Arab Spring‘ turned into an ‚Arab Fall‘ as often claimed. Even in Egypt, the largest and most influential player of the region, could not overcome armed political struggles.
The longest conflict so far is taking place in Syria. Shortly after uprising in Tunisia the flood reached Syria and spread all over the country. Compared to other states, the population has wider confidence in the Assad regime, as he also has influential backers, like the Russian and the Chinese regime in the UN security council (ECP, 2014). From that point when the demonstrations turned violent, armed forces were recruited on both sides. After three years of fighting the main conflict between the Assed regime on the one hand and National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NC) and their military wing Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the other is dwarfed by succeed of the Islamic State (IS). Insofar, mapping of the conflict in Syria is marked by the challenge to examine a several numbers of conflicts. The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research counts seven Syria is involved in, four of them are current, three of them are immediate consequences of the ‚Arab Spring‘ (HIIK, 2013: 129). The UCDP conflict Encyclopedia numbers nine conflicts (UCDP, 2014a).
2. Current Conflict
The situation in Syria before the uprisings, compared to other countries in that region, was quite similar. Until 1946 under french administration and since 1971 ruled by the Assad-Clan, corruption was a widespread problem, the population was oppressed in many ways, power was shared by only a few families, in this case belonging to the Alawites minority. The most of the population in contrast is Sunni Muslim, but there are also some other important religions minorities like Christians or the Kurdish. Whereas Christians can live a relative respectable life, the regime was fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Kurdish several times. Between 1979 and 1982 nearly 40´000 people died, when the Brotherhood was violently suppressed. When 2000 Bashar al-Assad, son of the former president Hafez al-Assad, came to power, “some expectations of political change and modernization raised.” (ECP, 2014) Some political changes took place, but for the civilian population nothing changed. The uprising itself in this context were not surprising, the question was, how al-Assad would react. First demonstrations were peaceful, uncoordinated and took place only in a few cities. The protesters called for more greater freedoms and democratic reforms. “This changed on 18 March in the city of Daraa when after the Friday prayers thousands of people took to the streets. The protests were triggered by the arrest and torture of a group of boys aged between 10 and 15 for spraying anti-government slogans. […]. At first, the security forces attempted to end the protests with teargas and water cannons, but ultimately began using live ammunition, killing four.” (UCDP, 2014a) From now on, across the country, the protest rose and got more violent. Protesters itself organised by Internet, cell phones and “protests spread to various parts of the country, including Baniyas, Homs, Hama, Latakia and suburbs in Damascus.” (ECP, 2014) During the year, the regime reacted with string forces, mass arrests and snipers the shoot protesters, while at the same time armed resistance was formed. On the other hand political changes were attempted to perform. The state of emergency in effect since 1963 was lifted, the government reshuffled and a series of reforms promised. “Yet, they remained purely cosmetic and were generally followed by even more brutal violence.” (UCDP, 2014a) As reaction of this supporters of the opposition began to take up arms to defend themselves and later to attack security forces concerted. More and more people got killed and international players tried to influence both sides. Syria’s former ally, Turkey, turned away and called upon Assad to step down. The topic was discussed several time at the UN Security Council, but corporate action was blocked by Russia and China. “It should be noted that but in the case of Syria, unlike Libya, the Western powers have been less willing to launch a direct military intervention.” (ECP, 2014) From the very first military help for opposition groups was discussed controversial, although al-Assad was accused of committing crimes against humanity. “In October, the Arab League committed itself to Damascus with a peace plan, but the violence continued.” (ibid.) According to the “School of the Culture of Peace”, “Syria becomes an ´armed conflict´ at the end of 2011. From the first to the third quarter of 2011 the situation in the country is considered ‚tension‘.” (ibid.) Throughout 2012 the conflict escalated, as the number of deaths rose to more than 40’000 (BBC, 2014). On both sides radicalisation grow enormously, resulted in summary executions and massacres. “The country descended into civil war as rebel brigades battled government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside.” (ibid.) Since some of the biggest cities are heavily destroyed, when the army attacked cities like Homs and Aleppo with tanks and airstrikes. While in 2013 the war remains on a high level of violence and brutality, at the beginning of 2014 a new, even more brutal power, came to the fore: Formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), now called Islamic State (IS).
ISIS is only one aspect, of the fact the conflict parties were more and more dominated by Jihadist groups. “Several analysts noted that in this context al-Assad could be perceived as a „lesser evil“ and highlighted indications of a possible re-legitimisation of his regime.” (ECP, 2014) At the moment the IS controls a wide parts of the North-East of Syria. However, thousands of people fled from the fightings. 2.5 million people had left the country, while more than 6.5 million are believed to be internally displaced within Syria (BBC, 2014). Since the outbreak the estimated number of deaths is around 120’000 (EPC, 2014).
2.2.1. Government and Opposition
The new Syrian constitution, put to a referendum after the uprisings and came into force on 27 February 2012, determine that “the political system is based on the principle of political pluralism, and rule is only obtained and exercised democratically through voting” (Constitution, 2012) but the system is dominated by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party and the Assad clan. Syrian opposition is traditionally marginalised and suppressed. It includes a wide range from secular marxist to islamic parties. During the protest four alliances were formed to overturn Assad. An exceptional position has the Kurdish Supreme Committee, due to the extraordinary situation of the Kurdish in the region.
2.2.2. FSA and Rebel Groups The “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) was proclaimed at the 29th July 2011 by Colonel Riyad al-Asaad (UCDP, 2014a). Most of its members were deserted soldiers of the Syrian Army. During the first protest, the soldiers were allocated to shoot into the mass. “While most army officers were Alawite career soldiers, the lower ranks in the Syrian Army were generally composed of Sunni conscripts. Since a majority of the protestors were Sunni, this resulted in the lower rank soldiers having to shoot fellow Sunnis, leading to even more frustration.” (ibid.) Creating an armed counterbalance gave the protesting mass, more power and made it possible to fight against al-Assad more effective, but also raised the violence of the conflict. Despite of the fact, the Syrian opposition were not unified under the FSA, even if there were doubts about its size, same spoke around 15´000 armed troops, the organisation with bases Turkey and Lebanon, was acclaimed as a legitimate representation of the Syrian people by many international players (EPC, 2014). The FSA represented a wide range of groups and ideologies, from secular to jihadists. Due to its fragmentation the FSA was reorganised in December 2012, the SMC (Supreme Military Command) was created. Though, Syrian is a battleground for more than 1’000 different groups with over 100’000 fighters (BBC, 2013). The most fighters are belonging to Islamic or even jihadist groups, its estimated.
2.2.3. Externals Syria is an important power in the middle east world. In contrast to Libya and its former leader Muammar Gaddafi, al-Assad created an extensive network of supporters. Syria is not only supported by China and Russia, it is also propped up by Iran and the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah. Latter supported the regime even with fighters and weapons. But al-Assad not only has friends in the region, the opposition also got support by a several number of states, mostly connected to the USA, like Turkey or Saudi Arabia. From the beginning the conflict could not seen separately, it is also called as a “poxy war” (BBC, 2014). The fear of a larger military conflagration, particularly an inversion of Israel, baulked Western states to intervene. “Despite its criticisms the USA remained reluctant to intervene directly[…]. Both the EU and USA did approve sanctions against Syria. The country’s possession of non-conventional weapons was of particular concern. In this context efforts were made to initiate international mediation to negotiate a ceasefire and bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis.” (EPC, 2014) At the beginning of 2012 Kofi Annan was appointed by the Arab League and the United Nations as a special envoy to Syria. He proposed a six-point plan, which was accepted even by the Assad regime, “but there continued to be doubts about its implementation.” (ibid.) “To monitor a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties and to monitor and support the full implementation of the Joint Special Envoy’s six-point plan to end the conflict in Syria” (UNSMIS, 2014) the UN Supervision Mission in Syria was established. But only after a short time the mission ended abortive at midnight on 19 August 2012. Annan resigned and was replaced by Lakhdar Brahimi. One other UN Mission, to eliminate all chemical weapons of Syria, was more successful (OPCW, 2014). In addition to this, peace talks were held. Was the first, the “Action Group for Syria” confident “to facilitate a Syrian-led political process” (UN, 2012), the second failed. “At the Geneva talks, the two sides have been so deadlocked that they are not even sitting in the same room any more.” (Kendall, 2014) After that, the conflict was overshadowed by IS and its achievements. The only attempt to intervene in the war, was the military alliance lead by USA. “The air strikes in Syria have mainly been against IS command infrastructure and economic targets like oil installations.” (Marcus, 2014)
Were the demands at the beginning of the protest like demands in other regions, stopping corruption, an open and democratic regime (EPC, 2014), the demands now are more scattered due to the fragmentation of the opposition parties. All parties would claim that the want to “overthrowing the Assad regime, ending the suffering of the Syrian people, and to make the transition towards a free and democratic country” (NC, 2014), but the route vary. Whereas more secular forces are fighting for Western-styled democratic, islamic forces are fighting for Tunesia-styled democratic and jihadist, like the IS, are fighting for Quran based social order. Kurdish groups on the other hand are fighting for an independent Kurdistan. This again, is against demands of alliances like the SNC (Syrian Council Committee) which affirms “national unity among all components of Syrian society and rejects all calls for ethnic strife.” (BBC, 2013)
4. Resolution potential
Due to current development, it seems nearly impossible to bring all conflict parties to the negotiating table. Several forces feel verified, that the Assad regime is better for Syria than the chaos of political change as they can see it in even more peaceful changes like Egypt. The peace talks has shown, as well, that even international intervention hardly lead to changes on both sides. Above all, it is completely impossible, that it will come to an approach to the jihadist groups. All depends on the reaction of al-Assad. In many aspects, he his a provocation.
References BBC, 2014: Syria: The story of the conflict. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868. BBC, 2013: Syria crisis: Guide to armed and political opposition. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24403003. Constitution, 2012: Qordoba – Translation of the Syrian Constitution Modifications. https://www.scribd.com/doc/81771718/Qordoba-Translation-of-the-Syrian-Constitution-Modifications-15-2-2012. ECP (School of the Culture of Peace, Barcelona), 2014: Syria. http://escolapau.uab.es/conflictosypaz/actualizaciones.php?idfichasubzona=129¶midioma=1#2011. HIIK (Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research), 2013: Conflict Barometer. 2013. http://hiik.de/de/downloads/data/downloads_2013/ConflictBarometer2013.pdf. Kendall, Bridget, 14.02.2014: Syrian peace talks pedal backwards. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26197693. Marcus, Jonathan, 07.10.2014: Saving Kobane from IS needs more than air strikes. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29524140. NC, 2014: Mission Statement and Goals. http://en.etilaf.org/about-us/goals.html. OPCW, 2014: UN Chief commends Special Coordinator and her team on successful completion of OPCW-UN Joint Mission. http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/unsmis/. UCDP (Uppsala Conflict Date Program), 2014a: Syria. http://www.ucdp.uu.se/gpdatabase/gpcountry.php?id=150&value=4. UCDP, 2014b: Arabian Spring 2010-2011 http://www.ucdp.uu.se/gpdatabase/info/Background%20narrative%20arabian%20spring.pdf. UN, 2012: Action Group for Syria Final Communiqué. http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Syria/FinalCommuniqueActionGroupforSyria.pdf. UNSMIS, 2014: United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria. http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/unsmis/.
(picture: spain 2012 // all rights reserved)