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Syrian Civil War: 2011 and After

March 15, 2016

When they said “Revolutions go not backward”, they certainly did not imagine Syria. In the four and a half years of conflict, around 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives while another 11 million are displaced as refugees across the world.

The Pro-democracy Protests

The pro-democracy protests, which began in March 2011 in Deraa as an attempt to end the authoritarian regime, lift the emergency laws in place for 48 years and usher in greater political and social reforms, turned violent when the Bashar al-Assad’s regime used disproportional force including army tanks and snipers to crush the rebellion. The aftermath left more than 20 people dead. The anti-government protests were then countered with large pro-government rallies in Damascus. The civil unrest pushed the Assad regime to acknowledge the need for reforms and on March 29, the government announced resignation of the cabinet, a move that sought to pacify the protesters.

It also set up a high-level commission to study the repeal of emergency laws and offered symbolic concessions to Syria’s conservative Muslims and Kurdish minority by closing down Syria’s only casino, reversing a law passed in 2010 that prohibited the female teachers from wearing a niqaab, and declaring Noruz – a festival of the Kurds – as a state holiday. These decisions, however, did little to pacify large sections of Syrian population which intensified its protests across the country. The state passed a law which required Syrians to obtain permission from the government before protesting.

The state’s use of force in the early days of the conflict can be gauged by the fact that within a few months of the civil unrest, Assad’s forces had killed more than 200 people including the 75 people who were left dead when the security forces opened fire on protestors who had assembled following the Friday prayers. State repression and dissatisfaction with the Assad regime fueled massive discontent among the civilians and by July 2011, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Syria.

The War Crimes

The civil unrest saw members of the opposition picking up arms to fight the security forces of the Assad regime. Rebel groups were formed to wrestle the control of cities and towns from the Assad government. The continued bloodshed in cities of Hamah, Latakia and Jisr al-Shughur forced hundreds of civilians to flee across the Turkish border. By 2012, fighting reached the capital city of Damascus and the second city of Aleppo.

The period also saw a rise in sectarianism where the Sunni protestors began to vent against Assad’s Shia Alawite sect. Equally significant was the rise of the jihadist Islamic state (IS) in the region. The fighting continued unabated until the late 2012 during which the rebels established a stronghold over Northern Syria and continued their battle with the government forces. This stalemate saw a rise in civilian death toll.

Emergence of Proxy War

By the end of 2012, the neighboring countries were drawn into the conflict with the international allies of Assad government and those of the rebels providing external support. This created the situation of a regional proxy war whereby countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar publicly funded rebel groups while the Assad government relied heavily on Iran and Lebanese military group Hezbollah for its military support.

As the fight for power and control continued, so did the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians. In May 2012, Loyalist gunmen stormed the city of Houla and massacred 108 people of which 49 were children. In another horrific incident reported from the region in March 2013, a line of bodies were laid down neatly along the banks of a river in the heart of Aleppo. All 110 victims were shot in the head with their hands tied behind their back. All the men belonged to the rebel-controlled part of Aleppo and most had disappeared at the regime check points.

State’s Use of Chemical Weapons

The bloodshed took a more grisly turn when reports of a suspected chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus came up. Rockets filled with the nerve agent Sarin were fired in the suburbs. The attack, which took place on August 21, 2013, left hundreds dead and the responsibility was squarely placed on the government. This led to an international outcry and countries such US, Britain and France, made it known that they were considering retaliatory airstrikes against the Syrian regime.

After much diplomatic maneuvering, Russia, Syria and the United states on September 14 signed an agreement to place all of Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. However, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) continued to document the use of toxic material in the conflict. It found that chlorine was used “systematically and repeatedly” in deadly attacks against rebels between April and July 2014. IS has also been accused of using homemade chemical weapons, including sulphur mustard.

The Rise of the ISIS

The second civil war for the country began in 2013 when the civil unrest descended into bloody sectarian conflict. Against this background, the ISIS rose to power dramatically and quickly expanded its control to the extent that the group had made inroads into the Iraqi city of Mosul by June 2014. Capitalizing on the chaos and the power vacuum, the ISIS took over large parts on Iraq and Syria by 2014 by proclaiming the creation of a caliphate. The ISIS is said to be fighting a “war within a war” in Syria where it is battling rebels and jihadists from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front along with the Assad government and the Kurdish forces.

In September 2014, air strikes by a US-led coalition sought to destroy the ISIS strongholds in the region. The airstrikes only upped the civilian causalities in cities of Raqqa and Kobani. In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s newly crowned King Salman sent modern weaponry, including anti-tank missiles, to the rebel groups in Northern Syria which led to the capture of regional capital Idlib within days and the nearby town of Jisr al-Shughour also fell to the Jihadis.

International Call for Peace

The attempts to broker peace in the region began with the UNSC’s call for the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communique which envisages a transitional governing body with full executive powers “formed on the basis of mutual consent.” In early 2014, the talk on what was known as Geneva II, however, broke down only after two rounds given the refusal of Assad government to discuss opposition’s demands. The rise of the IS lent a fresh lease of life to peace talks with the US and Russia-led efforts to get representatives of the government and the opposition to attend “proximity talks” in Geneva in January 2016 to discuss a road map for peace, including a ceasefire and a transitional period ending with elections.

The Refugee Crisis

The unending crisis has led to a massive refugee crisis. According to a UN estimate, more than 4.5 million people have left Syria since the beginning of the conflict. This has created a huge pressure on resources of neighboring countries – Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Almost 10% of the Syrian refugees have applied for an asylum in Europe giving way to intense political and social backlashes in the European countries. A further 6.5 million people are internally displaced in Syria. About 70% of the population is without access to adequate drinking water; one in three people are unable to meet their basic food needs; more than 2 million children are out of school, and four out of five people live in poverty. The warring parties have refused humanitarian agencies the access to civilians in need.

As the UN-mediated peace talks resume and Russian president already signaling a pullout of Russian forces from Syria, it is hoped that a political settlement to the impasse would be achieved. But the political settlement will bring with it many other socio-political questions which the world will have to answer.

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