1) BEFORE THE SYRIAN CONFLICT
The Syrian conflict kind of goes back to the First World War. But, really, you could actually say that it goes back to 632 AD, when Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, died.
After the passing of the prophet, uncertainties surrounding his succession resulted in a Muslim civil war, spreading throughout much of the Muslim world. The resulting fallout was basically the schism which exists to this day between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. That, in essence, is the Cliff’s Notes version.
Also, it might be useful to know that Sunni is estimated to make up 85 to 90 percent of Islam today, and Shia from 10 to 15 percent.
But just remember “Sunni versus Shia,” because the tension between those two parties comes into play pretty soon.
Like, right now.
After the First World War, France took over Syria as a spoil following the end of the Ottoman Empire, and chose to rule it through a minority group. France did this specifically so that whomever they chose to govern wouldn’t be large enough to hold onto power without their help. Ultimately, France selected the Shiite Muslims (practitioners of Shia Islam), or, to be specific, the Alawites, a follower of a branch of Shia Islam.
But then, in 1946, France was like, “We out!”
Syria then went through varied power struggles until 1970 when Hafez al-Assad — father of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — successfully rose to the presidency through a coup, partially on account of his being a respected Alawite, who, thanks to early French intervention, benefitted from privileged educational opportunities and political connections. At first, Assad’s approach to ruling was considered “paternalistic,” easing repressive policies from the previous government and keeping costs of living low, though he was still, at heart, a violent dictator who ran a police state and killed thousands of his own people, the 1982 Hama Massacre serving as one example (where a Shiite government slaughtered Sunnis).
However, Assad was also a big supporter of subsidizing farmers and Syrians living in rural areas (especially in the northeast), who eventually became a large part of his political base despite most of them being Sunnis and his being a Shiite.
But then Climate Change was like, “Yo, we in here!”
Or, at least, climate change was considered partially responsible for an unprecedented drought which exacerbated the agriculture shortfalls of Syria in the late 90s (and more droughts in the 2000s) which, along with corruption and failed government policies, led to extreme poverty, disgruntled citizens, and a massive migration from the devastated rural areas to the slum sections just outside of Syria’s major cities. And by slums, I mean thousands of Syrians living in tents with limited access to food and water, but plenty of access to disease and abuse as they were some of the country’s most vulnerable people.
And most of these people were Sunni, suffering under the rule of a Shiite.
It has been suggested that part of Assad’s oppressive responses to his people comes from his fear of Sunni retribution — with the same being said about his son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, an eye surgeon who took over the Syrian presidency after his father died in 2000.
2) FIRST PROTESTS, THEN WAR
The younger Assad’s approach to governing meant a further disenfranchisement of the poor, including the elimination of welfare protections, which eventually resulted in roughly 20 percent of his country living in slums.
In February 2011, the powder keg that the country had become was finally lit, courtesy of some rebellious teenagers.
Peaceful protests flooded Syrian streets after fifteen teenage schoolboys were arrested and detained for spray painting a common phrase on the wall of their school: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
The protests then widened into calls for the release of political prisoners, as well as the end of corruption, poverty, police brutality, and arbitrary detentions.
On March 15, 2011, Assad’s security forces responded to the ongoing protests with live munitions, killing peaceful protestors and, ultimately, inspiring even more protests. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets, demanding Assad’s ouster. The heightened sense of physical danger resulted in protestors taking up arms of their own, at first to defend themselves, and then later to expel the government security forces from local areas.
While the protests continued, the demands grew: Dismantle the security apparatus. Political reform. A democratic constitution.
Assad claimed that foreign powers and Islamic fundamentalists were fomenting the dissent, of which there was no proof at the time. The president then responded with cosmetic reforms while beatings, kidnappings, torture, and murder, all at the hands of his security forces, ratcheted up.
In the subsequent months, violence from the regime became more commonplace. According to one Syrian, an armed response to the government became “a matter of self-defense. Everyone defended his own home, his own alley. Brigades were formed by the residents of one neighborhood, or by a group of men who worked together. It was a spontaneous process.”
Additionally, the sexual violence from Assad’s soldiers also carried a powerful effect:
“Syria is very much a conservative, traditional society,” noted one citizen. “Rape is something that will outrage the people. It is very emotional for them… By December 2011 rape had become a standard practice not only in prisons but by the army as well. When it went into towns, the first thing [soldiers] did was go into homes and start raping women in front of their fathers, brothers and husbands.”
But the struggle eventually came to take on the tenor of a war around June 2011 in Jisr al-Shughour. After 120 soldiers were killed by armed rebels, the result of Syrian soldiers opening fire on a funeral, Assad responded with his first aerial bombings. Supporters of Assad’s regime believed the deaths of the soldiers proved that the protestors were nothing more than armed insurrectionists, while the opposition to the regime expressed outrage at how far the violence had gone.
Both sides hardened their positions.
But one of the most significant responses to the violence in Jisr al-Shughour came from Syrian Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush who — though he wasn’t the first to do so — defected from the Syrian Army, stating publicly that he intended to join the “ranks of Syrian youth, alongside a number of the Free Syrian Arab Army” whose purpose, as he saw it, was “the protection of the unarmed protestors demanding freedom and democracy.”
3) SO, WHO’S KILLING WHOM?
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) became the name of the brigades forming locally throughout Syria, while the violence between Assad’s forces and the armed civilians deepened and grew bloodier. And once a certain level of violence became acceptable, numerous groups began to join the fray, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Al-Nursa, the Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda — who joined the rebels in their fight against Assad and the Syrian government.
But, remember what I said earlier about “Sunni versus Shia?”
Although more militarized groups were joining the rebel forces, some of them shared differing religious identities which resulted in these groups fighting each other as well as Assad. Also, with the ultimate aim of the violence — on both sides — being the consolidation and control of local areas, unarmed civilians are caught in the crossfire which now comes from many corners of the world for many reasons:
Russia’s support of Assad and the Syrian regime comes despite ideological differences, but also in the face of a shrinking list of allies. Syria is the only country outside of the former Soviet Union where Russia holds a military installation. So, Russia has supported Syria in the UN, blocking motions which would have hurt Assad’s regime, and in the war, chiefly with airstrikes.
Russia has domestic, economic, and geopolitical reasons for wanting to keep Assad in power:
Domestic — Syria has oil
Economic — Overthrowing governments is bad for business. When Muammar Gaddafi was unseated in Libya in 2011, Russia lost billions in contracts which were rendered invalid by the regime which replaced Gaddafi’s. Presently, Russia has business with Syria and they would like to keep it afloat.
Geopolitical — ISIS inhabits Syria, and their ambitions threaten growth toward Russian borders, which, understandably, is not cool. So Russia has elected to bolster Assad’s military with airstrikes intent on crushing ISIS along with those who oppose Assad’s government as, in the eyes of the Russians, they too are “terrorists.”
While Iraq was mired in war with the United States in the early 21st century and then endured the fallout of Al Qaeda and ISIS in the aftermath, Iran rose on the swelling tide of blood, growing more powerful and rich in the region while their neighbor grew weak and poor. And this new prominence has afforded Iran the resources to funnel billions of dollars to Assad and his regime, bolstering his offensive against the rebels. Along with subsidizing weapons, Iran has also sent military advisors and extended a line of credit and oil transfers to the Syrian government.
One of Iran’s leading motivations is that Assad has been using Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah to fight the rebels, and Iran wants to keep its connection with Hezbollah strong as the country depends heavily on the group for defense against Israel, and its daunting nuclear arsenal.
THE KURDS …
Pastoral Islamic people from Kurdistan, and an ethnic minority in Syria, the Kurds have carved out a bit of a mini-state for themselves in the country, and are well armed and willing to defend it. For the Kurds, this also means fighting extremist groups like ISIS, which they’ve been quite successful at, thanks to some weapons assistance from the United States and despite being attacked by Syria’s neighbor Turkey who views the Kurds as a threat, and an extension of the Kurds living within their own borders who’ve been giving the Turkish government headaches for decades now.
The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said it was impossible for Syrians to “accept a dictator who has led to the deaths of up to 350,000 people.” So, along with supplying weapons to the rebels, Turkey has even helped train the soldiers who have dissented from Assad’s army. Furthermore, Turkey is hosting more than two million Syrian refugees.
Conversely, while Turkey supports the rebels against Assad, and fights ISIS within Syrian borders, it has also been fighting the Kurds within Syrian borders — who are also fighting ISIS within Syrian borders.
SAUDI ARABIA …
One of the reasons that Saudi Arabia is interested in Syria is because Iran is interested in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been effectively fighting a cold war for decades now, and the country has grown concerned that the United States has softened its stance against their Iranian rivals.
So, they support the rebels because fuck Iran.
THE UNITED STATES …
The United States has been largely criticized for its lack of activity in the Syrian conflict, although they have been funneling weapons and supplies to both the rebels in their fight against Assad, and the Kurds in their fight against extremists, especially ISIS. President Obama recently commented on some of the obstacles which have prevented a deeper involvement by America in the Syrian conflict:
– Little congressional support
– No right under international law to intervene
– US already has expensive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan underway
– The opposition to Assad’s regime can fight, but they haven’t proven that they’re ready to govern
– ISIS is the priority
– Even Americans grow war weary
The president has said that America would essentially have to go all in on Syria, even to the point of running the country, if they were to become more involved. There is also the presence of Russia, and with just the right kind of military mishap — like a Russian warplane crashing midair into an American warplane — the Syrian conflict suddenly means two nuclear superpowers staring each other down even harder than they already have been (after one was recently proven to have interfered with the other’s elections), and a greater likelihood of, yet again, a “great” war.
However, America hasn’t been completely absent during the conflict. After hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 by rockets filled with Sarin nerve gas, Assad agreed to the complete removal and/or destruction of his chemical weapons arsenal under the threat of American intervention.
ISIS only exists to fuck with everybody. But, here’s a rough timeline of their origin:
• 1979: Arab Sunnis join Afghan Rebels in repelling a Russian invasion, they then form Al Qaeda
• 2003: Al Qaeda and other Sunni groups flock to Iraq to kill Americans and Shiite Muslims (remember: “Sunni versus Shia”)
• Rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in congress with the fall of Iraq, a Sunni extremist who heads Al Qaeda in Iraq until his 2006 death, his brutal practices serve as a precursor to the theatrics of ISIS (i.e. recorded beheadings)
• Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi takes over Al Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi’s death, and agrees with many of Zarqawi’s brutal practices
• Baghdadi sets up Al Qaeda Syria, declares himself leader of both Al Qaeda Syria and Al Qaeda Iraq
• In response to hostilities and philosophical differences with Al Qaeda, Baghdadi breaks off from the terrorist group, sends lieutenants into Syria to set up ISIS in the midst of the Syrian chaos between Assad and the rebels
• ISIS then attacks and conquers parts of Iraq from its base in Syria, creating its caliphate while fighting Kurds in Syria, Turkey forces, Russia bombs, American bombs, and anybody else with a heartbeat and trace of human decency.
SO, TO RECAP WHO’S KILLING WHOM …
Both America and Russia are bombing ISIS in Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia is supporting Assad in his fight against the rebels, and America is supporting the rebels in their fight against Assad.
Additionally, Iran is supporting Assad in his fight against the rebels for the sake of their relationship with Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia is supporting the rebels in their fight against Assad because fuck Iran.
Also, Turkey doesn’t seem to be too fond of Kurds in general, so while they fight ISIS, they also fight Kurds who are also fighting ISIS.
And while Turkey and America support the rebels, America is helping the Kurds while Turkey is fighting the Kurds.
It’s important to also remember that there are other countries involved like France (them again), Qatar, Jordan, and the UK.
But also there’s ISIS, an outgrowth of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that just wants to shoot everybody in the face. (Although, actually, everybody but Assad, proven in part by a US Special Forces raid which revealed that he’s paid millions to ISIS for oil.)
Oh, and one more thing, the rebels (which partially includes extremist groups like Al Qaeda, as well as soldiers who defected from Assad’s army, and citizens who are just trying to defend their neighborhoods) are also fighting Assad and each other because “Sunni versus Shia,” and some of them have also taken to acting like warlords in Syrian communities, heaping further abuses on people who just want to live their lives. According to the UN Commission of inquiry, evidence suggests that all parties involved are guilty of war crimes.
Oops, and Hezbollah. I forgot to mention that Hezbollah is also in Syria, killing people.
The UN may have summated this situation perfectly when they referred to the Syrian conflict as a “complete meltdown of humanity.”
(Somebody send this section to Gary Johnson.)
This is why Aleppo matters: It is the most strategic region of Syria, resting along Turkish supply routes crucial to any armed group’s survival and success. At least five different rebel groups have successfully entrenched themselves in Aleppo, fighting other rebel groups in the process to maintain their prominence. The infighting has played a somewhat significant role in Assad’s ability to remain in power.
Aleppo is also, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “now a synonym for hell.”
Meanwhile, as Assad’s recapture of Aleppo seems inevitable (while simultaneously losing the city of Palmyra to ISIS), the city appears to also be, for him at least, a symbol of survival. This time last year, Assad was on the verge of losing everything. And though his taking back Aleppo is significant to his cause, it doesn’t signify any quick ending to the bloodshed which, by the way, has already been immense …
Thanks to Russian bombing, at least 344 airstrikes have destroyed medical facilities, too many to reasonably assume that medical facilities are being hit accidentally.
By June 2013, 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict.
By August 2015, 250,000 people had been killed.
As of present, more than 400,000 dead, along with 4.5 million Syrian refugees, and 6.5 million people internally displaced.
More than 70 percent of Syria is without consistent access to drinking water.
Additionally, while Aleppo has come to represent humanity’s absolute worst qualities, there is room for the war to grow bloodier. If Assad’s regime focuses its attention on Syria’s Idlib region next, for example, along with Russian and American bombs from the skies and open shootouts between Hezbollah and rebels in the streets, there may also be an uptick of suicide bombers, targeted assassinations, and car bombs because Idlib is heavily inhabited by extremist groups who are more inclined to fight a guerrilla type of war.
The significance of Aleppo is that all of its tragedy may actually represent only the things yet to come.
The ecosystem of this conflict is atypical because usually fatigue is a factor in war. But with so many countries willing to invest resources in deaths and destruction that they never have to experience firsthand, fatigue is a long way off. Alone, neither the rebels nor the regime have the resources to sustain a conflict of this magnitude.
5) WHY SO BLOODY?
What’s happening in Syria is not a civil war.
It’s an orgy.
And bloodletting is the climax.
“Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”
And President Bashar al-Assad is too weak politically to fight a war.
All he can do is spill blood and hope that his enemies will one day come to hate the sight of it so much that they surrender.
The saddest part of this is that I want to call Assad a monster, or a vampire. But he’s actually very human. These vile offenses are the kinds of crimes that humans commit, which is why looking at tragedies like these with both eyes open matters. Attempting to understand a mess like this — especially as a community — at least gives hope for a future where it never has to happen again.
But I have to admit that it is really hard to look at this with both eyes open.