Asia-Pacific, Syria, Human Rights

Syria’s Civil War

Arab Spring is in full bloom, with Syrian Civil War at the forefront. What started as peaceful protests on the part of the citizens turned into belligerence and all-out war. Syria has had a history of civil and political unrest since 1918 when the Arabs captured Damascus and ended 400 years of Ottoman rule.

Since 2011, the country has been in a state of chaos, with citizens in uproar and government using whatever means they have to stamp them out.

Quiet Beginnings

In 1963, by means of coup d’état, Syria was taken by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, the party currently in place. The current president, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded his father, who declared himself president in 1971. He assumed office in July of 2000. Democratic rule of Syria had ended in 1941 in a CIA-supported coup.

On March 15th, 2011, citizens of the rural southern city of Deraa (or Daraa) and the city’s capital, Damascus, gathered together peacefully to demand the release of political prisoners.

The Syrian government had taken hundreds of people prisoner in 2009. President Bashar al-Assad had freed up to 700 political prisoners since taking office, but 4,000 had remained. Syria has a long history of unfair trials and unnecessary arrests. Prison reform has been needed in the country for decades. The prisoners taken in 2009 were prisoners of conscience, meaning they were taken simply because of their views or use of a non-violent expression. Even today, the government continues to target human rights activists and imprisons them without trial or with the unfair trial.

Bashar al-Assad’s government responded to the protesters in Damascus and Deraa with mass arrests, police brutality, and violent beatings. Nonviolent protesters were detained, live ammunition was used against the protesters, and activists and journalists and even relatives of the protesters were all targeted. Within a week after the protests, a Syrian human rights group released a list of nearly 40 people that had died since the unrest began. The headquarters of the Ba’ath Party had been destroyed, and two telecommunications buildings had been set on fire. But this was only the beginning.

Today, activists groups estimate that over 150,000 have been killed in the Syrian Civil War.

In a futile attempt to quell the raging masses, Bashar al-Assad released a few dozen political prisoners in May of 2011. Between March and July of 2011, the Syrian Army had deployed to crush the protesters and launch full-scale attacks on cities that were more resistant to the pressure than the rest. Many of the soldiers defected from the army to protect the citizens. Following the defections, soldiers that refused to kill citizens on orders of the army were executed by intelligence agents and secret police.

After months of being beaten down by the government and military, the peaceful protests evolved into an armed rebellion.

Armed Rebellion

Security officers and freed political prisoners along with willing citizens banded together to create the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This umbrella group represents the main opposition group today. They announced their formation on July 29th, 2011.

The army sought to dethrone Bashar al-Assad and remove his government from power. It grew to 20,000 members by December 2011 and is at well over 50,000 members strong today. However, these numbers dwindled in between during the many national crackdowns in the summer of 2011. On the 31st of July, a crackdown called the “Ramadan Massacre” led to the death of at least 142 people. Major cities were struck with famine and people were forced to uproot and leave their homes. Some fled to neighboring countries and most were displaced from their homes and roam Syria, doing their best to avoid the chaos.

According to UN estimates, over 2 million Syrian refugees have registered and have escaped to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, which has the highest refugee volume. Over ¾ of the refugees are women and children. Another 4 million have been displaced within Syria.

Syrian armies continued to storm cities throughout the summer, with the Syrian navy also getting involved to shoot up water-front districts. Religious celebrations during and at the end of the holy month of Ramadan were stifled as a result of the nationwide pandemonium. The FSA fought back but was weak due to disorganization. An attempt to organize it was made by the Syrian National Council, a coalition of antigovernment groups based in Turkey. However, they were unable to band together due to ethnic, religious, and language barriers.

The clashes between the FSA and Syrian security forces escalated between November of 2011 and March of 2012 when the city of Homs was specifically targeted. The city of Homs has been called the “Capital of the Revolution,” because it is the only city where the FSA has yet to be defeated. Syrian security forces have as of yet been unable to take this city, the center of operations for rebel forces. By this time, protests had become a thing of the past. It was time for cold hard violence from both sides.

Though there was an attempt at ceasefire between April and May of 2012, this was short-lived. The plan for peace was for both sides to enter a UN mediated ceasefire period, but it was a failure because each side toed the line from time to time leading to dozens of casualties. The fighting continued throughout the summer. On June 12th, 2012, the UN officially declared Syria to be in a state of civil war.

The rest of the year was dedicated toward attempts at control over Damascus, the capital of Syria. Though rebel forces pushed hard, they had only secured small provinces in Damascus as of late 2012.

Climax

Several car-bombs, suicide attacks, air strikes, sieges, and arsons later, we arrive at August 21st, 2013. Ghouta, an agricultural belt near eastern Damascus, was struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Sarin is an extremely potent nerve agent and is used in chemical warfare due to its extreme lethal-ness even in low concentrations. The FSA reports that 1,729 were killed, including civilians as well as rebel fighters. The primary suspects of the attack are the Syrian Army, for most fail to see how, even if they did seize the government’s stockpile, the rebels could have possibly weaponized the toxins themselves. Government forces swarmed into the area after the attack. Ghouta is a known hotbed of opposition and has been since the start of the uprising.

The Bloodshed Continues

The uprising continues in Syria. The government is now aided by Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon. Despite several attempts at peace-talks brokered by the UN, the Syrian government remains adamant because all peace-talks involve some sort of transitional government taking control. They are unwilling to relinquish power and continue the bloodshed. President Assad has conceded and allowed international inspectors to begin to destroy the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. The US and Britain have suspended non-lethal support for rebels and are open to provided rebels with weapons. The FSA is currently working toward capturing Aleppo, the nation’s largest city. Most recently, in March of 2014, the Syrian Army aided by Hezbollah captured the last rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border, Yabroud. This will make refugee transport to Lebanon very difficult.

Bottom line is, Arab Spring is in full spring. Bashar al-Assad has tried his hand at reform and has thus far been unsuccessful. The country needs not reform, but revolution.