The Arab Spring also came to Syria. After largely peaceful demonstrations, authoritarian leaders and regimes fell in Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya and Syria, the situation developed quite differently. In Libya, the protests against the regime quickly developed into an armed uprising in which the rebels eventually received outside help. Based on a decision by the UN Security Council , NATO established a no-fly zone over the country.
The mandate of the Security Council was eventually interpreted to mean that NATO actually helped the rebels through their attacks on the regime’s military infrastructure. This greatly contributed to the rebels winning the battle and killing Muammar Gaddafi . In Syria, the situation has become completely different.
- How has the civil war in Syria developed since its inception in 2011?
- Who has what interests in the Civil War?
- How have the great powers in the region responded to the conflict?
- How does the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims play a role?
In Syria , the uprising developed over time into an armed uprising. The regime deployed its security forces early, already against the first protesters in the spring of 2011, and used, among other things, snipers against peaceful protesters to terrorize them from demonstrating. The regime also used brutal militia groups to attack protesters. Eventually, these militia groups – called shabia – carried out regular massacres .
During the autumn of 2011, the armed resistance grew. In many villages and districts, armed self-defense groups and militias were organized. More and more soldiers deserted from the Syrian army. These deserters called themselves the Free Syrian Army , which often fought alongside the civilian militia groups.
2: Back and forth for both parties
The regime of President Basha al-Assad feared a foreign intervention as it happened in Libya. As in Libya, the Syrian rebels demanded that a no- fly zone be established over Syria so that the regime could not use its air force – neither fighter jets nor helicopters. Fearing that the international community would give in to the rebels’ demands for a no-fly zone (so that the regime could no longer attack from the air), the regime failed to use the air force. This gave the rebels an advantage. In addition, the regime could not fully rely on all its armed forces. Therefore, it was the most loyal departments that were sent around to different parts of the country to try to quell the uprising. These difficulties led to military progress for the rebels in the first part of 2012.
When it became clear that the international community could not or would not intervene, the regime still used the air force. The rebels also failed to coordinate their forces. The various parts of the Free Syrian Army failed to rally under effective leadership. Nor did the many local militias manage to gather into any truly powerful force. These conditions contributed to military progress for the regime since the autumn of 2012. There are also indications that Iranian advisers and the influx of Lebanese Hezbollah militias on the regime’s side have improved the regime’s military situation.
3: Warriors from outside = oil on the fire
The turbulent military situation in Syria has been exacerbated by the emergence of a number of Islamist militia groups. Several of these groups are Syrian and local. It is about people who claim to be fighting in the name of God against the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. In addition, a number of Islamists have come from outside who want to fight against what they believe is a regime of infidels. Their goal is a holy war (jihad) to defend Muslims and establish an Islamic government – an emirate – in Syria (and Iraq). Such jihadists have come to Syria in large numbers. Many come from other Arab and Muslim countries, but many jihadists have also come from Europe, including some from Norway . The police security service (PST) estimates that it may be between 20 and 40 people. Some have already been killed.
The foreign jihadists are particularly organized into two major groups, Jabhat al-Nusra (Aid / Nusra Front) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ( ISIS). Both have links to Al Qaeda. These jihadists in particular are attacking their opponents hard . They are trying to introduce Islamic rule and Islamic criminal law ( sharia ) in the areas they control. This has led to brutal abuses and public executions, not least in the areas controlled by ISIS. Many local Syrians have protested and been attacked by jihadists for this. The brutality of ISIS recently (February 2014) led to al-Qaeda’s leader breaking with this group.
It is estimated that there are now about 1,200 local and regional militias in Syria. It almost goes without saying that it is difficult to coordinate these in any effective way. In several places, there have also been armed clashes between various militia groups.
It is especially the jihadists who try to gain control at the expense of other groups. This weakens the armed struggle against a regime that is far more united. But even though the regime has the advantage of having forces under a unified command, the regime does not seem strong enough to regain full military control throughout Syria in the short term.
4: Sharpened rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites
The civil war in Syria has already had major consequences in the region Syria is part of. An important aspect of the conflict is that it has intensified rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Sunnis make up the vast majority – approx. 85 percent – of the world’s Muslims, while the Shiites make up approx. 15 percent.
The difference between them was basically about different views on who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad when he died in 632. One group believed that this must be Ali – an early convert, very God-fearing and brave Muslim who was very close to the Prophet. He was both the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali had two sons with the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, and in retrospect the Shiites have believed that the rightful leader of the Muslim community must be a descendant of Ali through these sons of the Prophet. This group was named Shiat Ali which means Ali’s party.
The Shiites believe that the followers of the Prophet Muhammad should be both a spiritual guide and a practical leader in society . They believe that Ali, and his family and descendants have been specially selected to perform this dual function.
According to citypopulationreview, Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, believe that Muhammad proclaimed his close companion Abu Bakr as his successor. They do not emphasize the spiritual leadership, which ceased with Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur’an, and believe that Abu Bakr and the other caliphs after him were the true leaders of the Muslim community. Therefore, Sunnis feel freer to choose between different qualified community leaders. The Sunnis also call themselves just that to show that they are following the Prophet’s right path – the Sunnah .
Among the Shiites, as among the Sunnis, there are many directions and theological variants. The Alawites have Shia Muslim origins , but have theologically moved away from both Shia and Sunni Islam. In Syria, they make up approx. 12 percent of the population, and the president and several leading figures in the regime belong to this direction. One of the unlawful theological views of the Alawites is that Ali had a divine nature and a belief in reincarnation. This means that the Alawites have also been viewed with suspicion by many Shia Muslims.
In the middle of the 18th century, an extremely Puritan variant of Sunni Islam emerged – Wahhabism (see facts) on the Arabian Peninsula. This theological-ideological direction became the basis for what was to become the state of Saudi Arabia and was in conflict with Shia Muslims from the very beginning. The Wahhabis believe the Shiites are heretics. The Saudi regime has therefore always been skeptical of the regime in Syria, both because it is dominated by what the Saudis believe is a particularly heretical sect and because the Syrian Ba’ath party is nationalist and secularly oriented. The party has always been in opposition to the Arab kingdoms.