The Syrian Civil War

The current conflict in Syria is in news a lot, but often without much context. What's the situation, and how did it come about?

In the last months of 2010 and at the beginning of 2011, antigovernment demonstrations shook some Middle Eastern regimes, with protestors demanding jobs, freedom, and national dignity. In Tunisia and Egypt, these so-called "Arab Spring" protests succeeded in bringing down the Ben Ali and Mubarak governments. Major protests also rocked Algeria, Libya, and Iraq.

Syria, however, is a different story.

In this column, I'll briefly outline the Syrian situation, how things devolved in 2011, and what the future might hold.

* *

To understand what sort of country Syria was in the months approaching 2011, we have to go back to its foundation. Syria's story as a country as we know it begins in the mandate period I talked about two weeks ago. The country achieved independence from France in 1945, ostensibly becoming a parliamentary republic.

It was never going to be easy to govern Syria. The republic is home to communities of Alawites, Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Christians. Its early years were marked by a series of coups (including four in 1949 alone), an unsuccessful invasion of Israel, and a short-lived political union with Egypt.

Despite making up only some 12 percent of the population, the Alewites were a powerful minority. In 1963, the Alawite-led, explicitly socialist Ba'ath Party took power and established a police state. A member of the party, Hafez Al-Assad (father of the current president, Bashar Al-Assad), seized power in 1970 and became president the following year. He ruled for some 40 years before his death in 2000.

Syrian GDP growth, 1960-2007. Notice the spike beginning around 1971.

Under Hafez Al-Assad's rule, Syria saw impressive growth, although the regime was quite repressive. GDP rose, and the country was stable for the first time in its young history.

After the death of his father, Bashar Al-Assad promised reforms but it quickly became apparent he had no commitment to or interest in meaningful change.

These tensions reached boiling point in early 2011 following demonstrations in other Arab countries. The arrest and subsequent torture of a group of teenagers who were protesting —using graffiti and other measures of civil disobedience— led to more protests, during which security forces opened fire on large-scale protests, which resulted in the deaths of police officers and protestors alike.

Syria is now on the map of countries in the region with an uprising. —Louai al-Hussein, Syrian writer, March 2011. (Quoted by BBC News.)

The country was in civil war.

Summer 2011 gave way to armed opposition groups clashing with pro-Assad forces, with some of the opposition being made up of Syrian military officers who had defected. The refugee crisis began in earnest as people fled the violence. Refugees spilling over the border into Jordan and Turkey prompted an international response. The UN imposed sanctions but has stopped short of passing a Security Council resolution concerning potential intervention, in no small part because Syria's ally, Russia, has blocked attempts four times. (Russia has long been close with the Assad regimes, having provided military and economic support for decades.) Various militia groups, funded by a variety of countries and groups, continue fighting.

The US has long looked impotent with regard to Syria. Part of this has to do with some curious comments made by Obama in 2013.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” (As quoted in the Washington Post.)

Obama's "unscripted" remarks were described by The New York Times as being made "to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from."

But he said it, and evidence that Assad had indeed "utilized" chemical weapons was strong. At the beginning of September 2013, Obama sought Congressional approval for a military strike which he looked very unlikely to get.

How he got out of the situation with his credibility intact is one of the biggest curveballs I've ever seen in politics.

It starts with John Kerry being asked on September 9, 2013, what Assad could do to avoid a US military strike.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. [...] But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.” (Quoted in the New York Times.)

But Kerry shouldn't have counted his chickens. Because it could be done. The State Department stressed that Kerry's comments had been rhetorical in nature, but evidently that wasn't a view shared around the world. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he supported the demand. ABC News then reported that Syria "welcomed" the proposal.

Fast forward to late September, and the unanimous passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118. Then, the world woke up on June 23, 2014, to the BBC News headline "Last of Syria's chemical weapons shipped out."

But that's just the beginnings of the civil war. Next week, we'll get into the various warring factions, US involvement, and the million-dollar question: what happens next.