Middle Eastern Conflicts: A Fragmented Syria – Harry Baker
Syria. The middle eastern battle ground. A build up of civil tensions has long been brewing, and international interference has only exacerbated the problem. So, what is really going on?
How and why have we reached such levels of hostility? Let us first take a step back. Syria has been far from a stable economy since gaining independence. But how did the Ba’ath party, and subsequently Bashar al-Assad, end up in power?
To provide a bit of background, Syria has always been an incredibly diverse place. Since gaining independence from their French-run mandate in 1946, Syria’s endeavours to form a unitary state have been somewhat thwarted by how ethically; religiously and socially disparate the country is. To give you a better perspective, below is a recent diagram illustrating the religious composition in Syria:
Although a Sunni majority country, Syria is scattered with individuals across the religious spectrum. With regards to social differences, three main classes of individuals roamed Syria in the late 1940’s. These were townspeople, peasants and nomads. Notably, they all had very little in common. To further the divisions within the country, economic imbalances also halted their early development. Those within cities had an abundance of wealth, whilst poverty accumulated in the masses elsewhere. Inequality has always persisted in Syria, and still remains a problem today.
These early differences made it difficult for a civilian order in Syria to prove successful, hence the succeeding leadership fluctuations…
In the years following Syrian independence, control over the country was much like a game of pass the parcel, with leadership coups became something of the norm. This instability within Syria subsequently enabled the currently ruling Ba’ath party to rise to power in 1963. But what led up to this?
Who are the Ba’ath Party?
In the 1940’s, the Ba’athist movement began to gain prominence in Syria, championed by founders Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar. It’s brand of radical nationalism allowed it to gain traction from across the region. The Syrian people wanted freedom. They wanted democracy. They wanted independence. This is what the Ba’ath party originally set out to achieve. A key ideology behind the party was the notion of Pan-Arabism. To elaborate, they aimed to achieve cultural and political unity amongst all Arab countries. For this reason, the party also had branches in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
Notably, many of the high ranking officers in the Syrian military were also part of the Ba’athist regime. This ultimately assisted them in their push for power. As well as this, it worth pointing out that the group is predominantly Alawite by religion — a minority Muslim group in Syria.
Despite the Ba’athist regimes early popularity, it was some time before they gained political authority in Syria. As I mentioned, throughout this early era, control of Syria continually exchanged hands. These were volatile times. Some of the key events included the following:
- In 1958, Syria merged politically with Egypt. They formed what was known as the United Arab Republic (UAR), led by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was a keen enthusiast of a Pan-Arab culture. However, this relationship was short-lived. Syrian civilians strongly opposed to the economic and political domination Egypt held over Syria. They were treated more like subordinates, rather than partners.
- Consequently, come 1961, Nazim al-Kudsi led a military coup to once again establish Syria as an independent country. This was known as the “secessionist” regime. However, this also proved unpopular. There was a distinct lack of concessions made towards the socialist nature of the Pan-Arabists within Syria.
Following the years of instability, the Ba’athists eventually surged to power for the first time in 1963. Their military support was key to the success of this coup, and included the likes of Hafez al-Assad — father of the current Syrian president. However, Syrian Ba’athists were soon facing serious problems. Although still led by Syrian’s, the promotion of Pan-Arabism subordinated the control of the party to non-Syrian Ba’athists in neighbouring countries.
The party quickly fractured into both a civilian wing and a military wing. The former, led by Aflaq, included pro-Nasser Arab unionists, still promoting the original Pan-Arabism ideology. The latter, led by military officers, disapproved of non-Syrians influencing Syrian affairs. The military wing proceeded to informally lead affairs; by appealing to the lower- & middle-class residents in Syria whilst further imposing the controversial “Emergency Law”. The imposition of this legislation stewed tensions for over 4 decades.
This law essentially gave the government practically unlimited authority to restrict individual freedoms. It allowed them to detain and investigate anyone, without question, should they have suspected such individual to be a threat to national security or public safety. The government defended these measures by expressing their apparent importance in allowing Syria to defend itself from Israeli threats and Islamic militancy. In the years following, a substantial amount of jails were filled with political prisoners. Any critics of the regime would be silenced.
Come 1966, intra-party rivalries led to an intra-party coup. Salah al-Jadid took control of the Syrian Ba’athist regime, but conflicts continued to arise between the two wings of the party. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad managed to over-throw Jadid; jailing him and obtaining full control in what was dubbed the “Corrective Movement”. As such, the Assad family began their reign over Syria.
Despite his authoritarian nature, Hafez al-Assad continued to enjoy popularity due to his economically favourable policies. He was a keen advocate of land reforms; promotion of education, military strengthening and a strong opposition to Israel.
So, this was how Assad family and the Ba’ath party came to power. But when did Bashar al-Assad step in? And why did tensions erupt after he did?
Flirtation with Reform
In 2000, ten days after the death of his father, Bashar al-Assad assumed his position as president of Syria. Being seen as a younger-generation Arab leader, it was hoped that he would bring change to Syria, away from his father’s authoritarian times. Mr Assad promised wide-ranging reforms, aiming to modernise the economy; fight corruption and launch “our own democratic experience”. The situation was looking positive. In November 2000, he shut down the Mazzeh prison, releasing hundreds of political prisoners. He also allowed the first independent newspapers to begin publishing after three decades of restrictions, further deliberating the lifting of the restrictive ‘Emergency Law’ (as described above).
However, its safe to say this so-called “Damascus Spring” didn’t withstand the test of time. By early 2001, most of the proposed reforms had been shelved; the ‘Emergency Law’ remained in place, and the freedom of the press was once again revoked. Over the next decade, any economic liberalisation that did occur appeared to only have benefited the elite and its allies. With an Alawite minority also in power, many allegations of Alawite favouritism for the best government jobs and positions also floated around. Tensions continued to brew…
This brings us to 2011. The year of the Arab Spring. The year the conflicts commence.
2011 — The Arab Spring Uprising
For those unfamiliar, a large proportion of Middle Eastern countries are run as dictatorships. The means that a singular individual or party has absolute, unchallenged control of their country. As you can imagine, this is often a bitter pill to swallow for citizens, who are prohibited in their democratic rights. They have a general inability to influence how their country is run.
2011. The year of the Arab Spring. During this year, successful uprisings occurred in both Tunisia and Egypt, seeing two infamous dictators being removed from power. In what was known as the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee his country and his position of authority. Similar events unfolded in Egypt shortly after, seeing the successful overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak. But why was this important?
These events provided many Syrian pro-democracy activists with hope. However, it wasn’t the Arab Spring alone that catalysed the Syrian civil war.
February 11th. In the southern city of Daraa, a group of teenagers spray-painted anti-regime slogans on their school following the events unfolding in Egypt. One piece of graffiti wrote “It’s your turn now, Doctor”, referring to Assad, the president of Syria and trained ophthalmologist. Due to their apolitical actions, the boys were arrested and confined by Assad’s security forces. News of their imprisonment and alleged mistreatment quickly rippled across the country, sparking unarmed demonstrations throughout Syria.
This event is often seen as the match that lit the fire.
The people of Daraa marched the perimeters of the prison walls, demanding the release of the young men. Officers proceeded to arrest protesters, which only aggravated the situation. The boys were eventually released, but the protests raged on in cities all across Syria. From southern Duma to northern Idlib, the movement spread fast. Syrian’s were fighting for a) an end to the ‘Emergency Law’; b) the release of political prisoners and c) an end to economic inequality.
On Saturday, 16th of April, president Assad addressed the former of these concerns, lifting the ‘Emergency Law’ in an attempt to regain some stability. However, this failed to have its desired effect.
Pro-Assad militias, known as the Shabiha, began to appear at areas of mass demonstration, using fire-arms to shoot down protesters. It’s still not known today whether these militias formed spontaneously or were recruited by intelligence services and pro-Assad businesses-men across Syria. The violence began to escalate over the coming months. On April 22nd, 72 protesters were reportedly killed in villages near Daraa & Damascus.
Peaceful protesters began to take up defence throughout the year. Groups of Syrian self-defence rebels, who opposed the Assad-regime, began to cooperate, forming what’s known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They consisted of a whole range of religious backgrounds, all with a common aim of removing Assad and the Ba’ath party from power. Notably, this was essentially all they had in common. Some of Assad’s troops, who refused to shoot down protesters, began to defect from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to join the FSA forces.
As the violence heightened, the Arab League devised a plan to diffuse the situation late on in 2011. They hosted an initiative, concerning Syria, in Cairo on October 16th, calling upon president Assad to put a stop to the conflicts. They demanded a prompt initiation of talks between the SAA and FSA, whilst further setting up a monitoring committee to guide the coordination process. President Assad accepted the terms of the ‘Arab League Action Plan’ later that month, but was then unsuccessful in implementing the outlined demands.
The United Nations estimated death tolls of around 3,500 by early November. With no sign of advancements in resolving the conflicts, Syria historically had their Arab League membership suspended. The Arab League also imposed economic sanctions on Syria on November 27th. This was seen as one of the leagues strongest statements since establishment in 1945.
2012 — The War Restructures
In early 2012, the civil war began to get more complicated.
Recognising fractures occurring throughout Syria, several other foreign militias began to get involved. One of the most notable groups was the Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). Founded in 2012, they arose with the direct support of the Iraqi cell of al-Qaeda, the “Islamic State in Iraq”, which was at the time led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The groups aim was to strengthen the Jihadist presence in Syria, uniting them into one militant organisation.
The Jabhat al-Nusra acted as rebels, fighting president Assad’s SAA and often partnering with the Syrian rebels — the FSA. This group became very strong. They managed to seize many military facilities, arms and equipment across Syria, with notable victories around Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib. The latter became their main headquarters in early 2013. Assad’s forces clung on to the main cities and coastal regions, but the FSA predominantly occupied rural areas throughout Syria at the time.
Also around this time, we saw another party enter the conflicts in the North of Syria. The Kurdish. The Kurdish people have long been looking to establish autonomy and their own place of settlement. They began to crowd into areas of Northern Syria and Iraq alike, attempting to establish their own ground. The Syrian branch of the Kurdish militants is known as the YPG, which in turn are part of a designated terrorist group (by the U.S., E.U., & Turkey), the PKK. This group took up arms, and informally seceded from Assad’s rule in the North. The Kurds were fighting for their own freedom, as opposed to trying to remove Assad from power.
So, in early 2012, we have now seen the emergence of both the Jabhat al-Nusra & the Kurds.
As more rebel groups began joining the fight, Assad’s forces began to lose ground. Many high-ranking officers also began to defect from the regime to join the FSA. There were several estimates floating around regarding the amount of defectors, which ranged between 60,000 to 100,000 by mid-2012. Assad’s forces retreated from several areas, with the FSA capitalising in creating so called “liberated territories”. Within these areas, they began to coordinate committees, which evolved into local councils. They elected their own leaders, and eventually established the National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (ETILAF) in November 2012.
The ETILAF started gaining support from both western economies and varying Gulf states. This was when the Friends of Syria stepped in. The ‘Friends of Syria (FOS)’ group hosted their fourth conference of the year in December 2012, giving full political recognition to the Syrian National Coalition (ETILAF). Although they provided these opposition forces with light-weaponry and aid, the lack of heavy artillery still put the rebels at a disadvantage. The FOS group demanded Assad to “stand aside” in order to allow a “sustainable political transition”. However, the president wasn’t ready to let that happen.
As the SAA began to lose ground, they too began to restructure, seeking support from close allies, Iran. The once civil war was beginning to morph into an ugly proxy war, with countless parties roaming around Syria.
So, we now have the Kurdish forces in the North, acting as a solitary group trying to claim land. Notably, they weren’t in confrontation with the regime. We also see the FSA growing in size, with the support of the JAN and Friends of Syria. Further, Assad’s forces are depleting, hence the call for Iranian support.
2013— Iranian’s, The Hezbollah, and Chemicals
With Syria long being Iran’s chief ally in the Middle East, they didn’t want to see the Assad regime fall. By staying on good terms with Syria, the Iranian president — Hassan Rouhani — can ensure he retains a key partner against his regional rivals in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Tehran also needs Syria to transport weapons across to the Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia, who I will soon adhere to. So, Iran (a Alawite majority country) had many incentives to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime.
In late 2012 and early 2013, Iran began providing the regime with extensive military aid in the form of training, weapons and intelligence sharing. They deployed their elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other alawite militias from across the region into Syria. This provided president Assad with some much needed support in retaining Syrian ground.
To add further woes to the FSA and rebel groups, Iran also assisted fighters from the Lebanese group, Hezbollah. This group entered Syria at Assad’s invitation, turning the tables in the conflicts and giving the SAA the upper hand. Not only did the Iranian’s and the Hezbollah come to assist Assad, so did several foreign Alawite militias from Jordan & Saudi Arabia. Assad incorporated this foreign support into a paramilitary force, called the National Defence Force (NDF). This was run by Iran’s top general, and was crucial in helping the president retain power.
Moving forwards, the informal alliance between the Jabhat al-Nusra and the the FSA didn’t last. These two groups also began to conflict, hence adding to the complexity of the Syrian warfare. The al-Qaeda backed group disproved of the chaotic nature of the FSA, highlighting how at times they would fight over spoils mid-battle.
So both sides have now restructured, and are gaining international support.
August 21st brought another turning point. Distressingly, Assad launched a chemical attack on a civilian area in Damascus. The deadly nerve toxin, sarin, killed over 1,400 people in 12 different neighbourhoods across eastern Ghouta. This created vast international tensions, with President Obama of the U.S. stating that Assad had now crossed a “red line”. U.S. military action was on the table. There was potential for the first direct U.S. intervention against Assad.
However, before the U.S. proceeded to act, we saw yet another party step in to this ever complexifying situation. Russia. The U.S. struck a deal with Russia, stating that all of Syria’s chemical weapons must be destroyed or removed by mid-2014. Failure to comply would see Syria being met with UN-backed sanctions or possibly military action. The FSA regarded the lack of response from the U.S. as a large betrayal.
With Iran’s increased intervention in Syria, the Gulf states continued to fund the rebels to fight against Assad’s forces. However, this wasn’t enough to stop fractures forming amongst the FSA group, who began to lose ground to the SAA. Further, by 2013, the Jabhat al Nusra were mainly occupied in Idlib, in North-West Syria. Their partnership with the FSA had come to a halt.
We have now seen the intervention of Iran; the Hezbollah and new foreign militias, grouping to form the NDF. Assad gained ground; the FSA became fractured, and the Jabhat al-Nusra took control in the North West. Russia and the U.S. are becoming increasingly more involved.
2014 — ISIS Intervention
2014 was a major turning point for the Syrian conflicts. It brought with it the rise of the Islamic State Group — the Daesh (or ISIS). Previously led by the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS is a militant organisation that emerged as an offshoot of al-Qaeda. They are largely made up of Sunni Muslims across Iraq and Syria, but have drawn fighters from all across the Muslim world. A portion of the previously established al-Qaeda group in Syria, the Jabhat al-Nusra, defected to join the Islamic State Group, whilst others stood their ground to fight against them.
What do they fight for? A Muslim caliphate, who rules over both Syria and Iraq. They stated they will fight against anyone that opposes them, be it Assad’s forces; rebel Syrian groups (FSA), the YPG militia or the Jabhat al Nusra.
The Daesh emerged throughout the year and were very well-equipped. The group quickly spread throughout Syria; carving out their own areas and predominantly fighting the fractured rebel groups, as well as the Kurdish militants up in the North. They took over areas ranging from Aleppo to Raqqa, whilst also pushing into Kurdish territory, seizing the Kurdish towns Sinjar and Zumar around August time. ISIS were spreading far and wide across Syria and Iraq. A seemingly formidable force would be hard to stop.
Following the rapid advancements of ISIS throughout Syrian ground, the U.S. began to intervene late on in the year. As well as launching air strikes of their own, they were also supporting the Kurdish YPG forces in Northern Syria. They supplied them with weapons and additional support to help suppress the ISIS movement. However, their support of the Kurds greatly angered their allies in Turkey. The Turks still viewed the YPG as a break away faction of the PKK, who are deemed terrorists — as mentioned earlier. Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister denounced their decision to assist as:
“”unacceptable”, claiming it “amounts to support to a terror organisation”.
2015 / 2016— Russia Strikes
The dynamics of the war continued to evolve over the next few years.
In Northern areas of both Syria and Iraq, Kurdish YPG militias have long held their ground. Consequently, families have been forced to flee their homes in search of refuge. But where do they go? Mostly — Turkey. For Turkey, harbouring such a substantial amount of refugees from across the Middle East comes at a cost. The Turkish forces want to help these refugees reclaim their land, hence their continued support for the FSA in their fight against Assad, and their long-standing conflicts with the Kurdish.
Come August 2015, Turkish forces began to bomb the YPG militias in Northern Iraq. This ordeal is complicated for several reasons. Primarily, it created further tensions between Turkey and it’s NATO ally, the U.S. Recall I mentioned that last year, the U.S. stepped in to support the YPG forces in their fight against the rapidly expanding ISIS opposition. Notably, even after announcing their intentions to support the push back against ISIS, Turkey’s YPG targeted strikes subsequently weakened a pivotal group in pushing to halt the progress of the Islamic State.
In an attempt to prevent further fall outs between the two NATO allies, the U.S. formed the Syrian Democratic Forces late on in 2015. This group predominately consisted of the Kurdish YPG, along with smaller Arab groups from across the Middle East. However, this mere re-branding hasn’t changed the situation from a Turkish perspective.
International involvements continued to foster into the end of this year.
In September, we also saw Russia up their ante within the Syrian conflicts. Previous political involvement morphed into military action, as they began to launch air strikes throughout Syria. Putin rather cynically claimed the purpose of their mission was to combat the advancements of ISIS, yet this didn’t appear to be the case. A large proportion of Russian strikes were targeted at rebel groups within Syria, further deteriorating the FSA forces.
But why were Russia bolstering Assad’s ground? Syria has long been a key Russian ally and client within the Middle East. This relationships extends back to the reign of Hafez al-Assad, who allowed the Soviet Union to open up a naval depot in the coastal city of Tartus. Putin had many reasons to keep Assad afloat, and he appears to have succeeded in doing so. Assad’s forces gradually began to regain ground, turning the tables in the civil war once again.
We the help of Russia; the NDF and a increasingly fragmented FSA, Assad’s Syrian Arab Army began to regain a lot of ground. Eventually, towards the end of 2016, the SAA re-took the city of Aleppo. This was the last remaining urban stronghold held by the FSA, and dealt a large blow to their positioning within the civil war. Assad’s regime; ISIS and the YPG (now, SDF) all continued to strengthen throughout 2016. The same cannot be said for the rebel FSA forces roaming Syria. By this time, the Jabhat al Nusra had relocated their forces to within Idlib, handing over their area of control to the Kurdish YPG militia.
2017 / 2018 — U.S. Air Strikes
As ISIS continued to grow, they began to pose a threat near the Turkish border. Turkish forces began to intervene in Northern Syria towards the concluding stages of 2016, in what was known as operation Euphrates Shield. In early 2017, the Turkish armed forces assisted the FSA in pushing the Daesh out of cities in Dabiq, Jarablus and al-Bab. They began to liberate these northern territories and reclaim land from the terrorist faction of al-Qaeda. They were also simultaneously conflicting with the YPG during this period. The movement came to an end in late March 2017, and was a successful manoeuvre on behalf of the Turkish and FSA.
Shortly after, president Assad resorted back to his malicious chemical attacks. On April 4th, the rebel held town of Khan Sheikhoun was attacked with chemical weaponry. It then became clear that Bashar al-Assad had failed to hand over all of his chemical warfare instruments back in 2013. With around 80 individuals reported killed, president Trump intervened. In what was the United States first direct assault against president Assad, an airstrike was launched on an airbase in Shayrat. 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were reportedly fired, aiming to destroy the base from which the chemical attacks were launched.
Around the same time, the FSA; Assad’s forces, the YPG and Iraqi forces all finally began to push ISIS out of their strongholds across the Middle East. In October, the U.S.-backed SDF forces managed to remove the Daesh from their proposed ‘capital’ in Raqqa. Ultimately, within a month, the Daesh were a spent force in urban areas in Syria. Their army became weak, being forced into a small areas dotted around the borders of Iraq.
Turkey re-established their offensive come the early stages of 2018, in what became known as “Operation Olive Branch”. In collaboration with their rebels allies, the FSA, they pushed back into Syria in an attempt to seize control of Afrin, which was being held by the Kurdish YPG militia at the time. This move was another great success. After 58 days in operation, President Erdogan of Turkey has successfully reclaimed this northern territory, allowing for some Syrian refugees to be returned home.
What’s happening now?
This subsequently brings us to today.
Trump removes forces from Syria. In what was seen as quite a controversial decision, president Trump had ordered the removal of U.S. forces from Northern Syria, leaving the Kurdish SDF forces without support. Justification for the U.S. retreat laid with ISIS no longer posing a threat in Syria. Turkey saw this as an opportunity to act, sending troops into north-eastern Syria. President Erdogan wanted to essentially create a 20-mile deep buffer zone across the border, to allow Syrian refugees to return home.
3.6 million of the total 16 million refugees from the war relocated to Turkey. This was more than any other country.
These conflicts resulted in the threat of U.S. sanctions being imposed upon their fellow NATO ally, Turkey. Should the buffer zone be created, the Kurdish would also lose a drastic portion of the land they’ve managed to acquire, including cities such as Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad. Not only this, but Erdogan’s advance into Syria left several ISIS prisons un-guarded, with Kurdish forces claiming hundreds had already escaped. This new power vacuum has raised concerns over the re-uprising of ISIS militias across Syria.
Upon the removal of U.S. troops, the SDF forces have had to retreat from areas around Raqqa to support the war up north. This only added further concerns that an ISIS resurgence may be on the cards. Notably, a recent U.S. military raid in Syria saw the disposal of the previous Islamic State caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In these war-stricken times, this does provide some form of silver lining amongst the situation. However, we cannot be sure that ISIS still no longer pose a threat.
This situation in Syria is extremely complex. Hopefully this has provided some light into what’s happened; who the participants are and what different groups are fighting for. The final diagram gives a generic view on the distribution of land, as well as Erdogan’s proposed Buffer zone.
Written by Harry Baker: 19/11/2019