The civil war in Syria is an ongoing tragedy. Over twelve million people have had to flee their homes. Despite extensive media coverage, it is difficult to understand why the complex conflict is so difficult to resolve. But here you get the answer.
- How did the uprising start?
- How did the Assad family consolidate power?
- Which actors are involved in the civil war?
- What happens if Assad wins the war?
On December 17, 2010, street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bou Said. The suicide, a protest against the widespread corruption in the city, was the spark that set the Middle East on fire. The desperate but symbolic act was the start of the Arab Spring. Within months, the spirit of insurgency reached most countries in the region, including Syria.
According to 3rjewelry, the single incident, which is considered the starting point for the uprising in Syria, took place in the city of Deraa in February, 2011. A group of young boys tagged some fateful words on a concrete wall: “It’s your turn, Doctor” . The threat was directed at President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ophthalmologist. The regime’s security forces quickly got hold of the boys. Several of them were subjected to torture, which was commonplace for those who expressed dissatisfaction with the regime. What was unusual, however, was the response to this. People suddenly ventured out into the streets to protest the arrests.
In the face of growing popular protests, Assad and his regime now faced a difficult choice: Should the protests against those in power be allowed, or should the uprising be stifled by raw power? The regime chose to respond with weapons. The protesters were shot at, and the situation quickly got out of control.
2: The Assad family
To understand why Assad chose the latter, it is necessary to look at the experiences of Syria’s modern history and the political and economic conditions in the country when the uprising began.
Syria’s modern history is marked by the country’s many different ethnic and religious groups. The dividing lines between these have left their mark on politics in the country, and not least how the government has chosen to govern. About three quarters of the population are Sunni Muslims, but there are also several minority groups of Christians, Muslims and other faiths. At the same time as there are religious differences, the country has experienced tensions between different social classes and between urban and more rural areas.
The Assad family are Alawites, and have ruled the country since Bashar’s father, Hafez, came to power in a coup in 1971. The Alawites confide in a peculiar form of Shia Islam , and before the war made up about a tenth of the population. When Hafez took power, he chose to strengthen the position of this minority at the expense of the country’s Sunni majority. He made sure that important positions in the security apparatus (military, police and other authorities) were filled by Alawites. In this way he would secure his own position. Syria was already at this time an authoritarian police state. The political opposition was largely controlled by the regime. By criticizing or opposing those in power, there was a risk of imprisonment and torture.
In the late 1970s and until 1982, this regime was challenged by Islamist insurgents from the Muslim Brotherhood launched an armed campaign to overthrow the regime. The uprising was based on popular dissatisfaction, but was limited in scope. Hafez al-Assad chose to quell the uprising with the help of armies led by his brother Rifaat. It has been estimated that at least 10,000 people were killed when the authorities took a final stand against the armed opposition in 1982. The so-called Hama massacre proved how far the authorities were willing to go to stay in power.
3: Modern Syria
When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was named as his successor. Many were optimistic about Bashar’s leadership. The hope was that the young Assad would open up Syrian society, modernize the economy and ensure a gradual democratization of Syrian politics. But little was seen of the reforms it was hoped would ensure economic progress for anyone other than the political and economic elite in the country. Essentially, the Alawite-dominated regime maintained strict control over all sections of Syrian society, often in that the security apparatus quickly took care of anyone who dared to stand up to Assad.
This formed the backdrop for the civil war that broke out in 2011. When the regime’s power was challenged through extensive but peaceful demonstrations, the Syrian authorities chose to react in the same way as in Hama in 1982. The regime feared that the country, with all its religious and ethnic divides, would be broken if the power of the authorities were challenged. At the same time, many would argue that the regime, which was largely dominated by Alawites, feared that a democratic upheaval would make their group particularly vulnerable, and that the groups in economic power would lose their privileges.
However, some united opposition to the Assad regime never became prominent, largely because of the deep divisions and mistrust that exist between the various groups in Syria’s population. As the war became more and more bloody, the Syrians became more divided between Sunni and Shia Islam , young and old, revolutionary and conservative, Islamist and secular, as well as nationalists and separatists. Many of these quickly began to receive outside support, and the civil war thus developed a regional and international dimension.