In the spring of 2013, it is two years since a comprehensive uprising broke out in the Arab world with demands for freedom and democracy. The presidents of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen eventually had to step down. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi has since been killed by angry insurgents after NATO planes secured a no -fly zone over the country. The Arab Spring, as it is called, also came to Syria, but here the uprising developed into a bloody civil war with tens of thousands killed, even more imprisoned and interned as well as hundreds of thousands on the run.
- How did the escalation from mass demonstrations to civil war in Syria take place?
- Why is the uprising in Syria so different from other countries in the region?
- Why does not the outside world intervene to stop the brutal war?
- What interests do countries in the region have in what is happening in Syria?
The political system in Syria was in many ways similar to the system in the other republics of the Arab world – an authoritarian government based on the country’s armed forces. Nevertheless, there are some important differences that can make it easier to understand how peaceful demonstrations and demands for democracy developed into a full-blown civil war right here.
2: Syria – a complex country
According to weddinginfashion, Syria is a more complex country than most other countries in the Middle East. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population. But up to thirty percent belong to different religious minorities – both Christian and Muslim. When it comes to ethnic identity , the vast majority (more than 90 percent) are Arabs. In addition, there are ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Armenians and other smaller groups.
The regime has much of its power base among the Alawites , a Shia Muslim (see facts) minority, which is strongly overrepresented in the country’s armed forces. One reason for this over-representation is that in the 1940s ’50s a career in the military was one of the few opportunities young men from the countryside had to get an education and to climb the social ladder.
3: Military, the Ba’ath party and the Assad family
At the same time, the military began to interfere in politics , and throughout the 1950s, one military coup replaced another. After Syria had been in union with Egypt from 1958 to 1961, the Ba’ath party seized power in a military coup in 1963. Prior to the union, all political parties had been banned, and they were not allowed afterwards. The Ba’ath party had therefore operated in secret and gained a strong position among the military.
The party defines itself as socialist , and is based on the idea of uniting the entire Arab world in a union (pan-Arabism). One of the reasons why this party, and other radical groups, gained great support among the minorities was that they wanted a secular state. In such a case, the citizens’ religious affiliation was not given much weight. These parties represented totalitarian ideologies, with little or no room for criticism and opposition.
After Hafiz al-Assad seized power in a coup in 1970, he amassed power in a relatively limited circle of confidants. Most had a military background like himself. They built a state where the military and the various intelligence services gained a key position and where the state dominated the economy.
4: Resistance, change of power and concentration of power
Opposition to the Assad regime came primarily from Sunni Muslim groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood . They were banned and operated in secret, but had significant support in parts of the population. In 1982, part of the Brotherhood took up arms in its fight against the regime. They were then crushed during a riot in the city of Hama , where 10,000-30,000 people lost their lives. With this, the regime also succeeds in terrorizing its opponents from challenging their position of power, and what was left of the fraternity’s organization went into exile.
Hafiz al-Assad died in 2000, and his son Bashar took over. Many expected that the Western-educated son would open up the country and introduce democratic reforms. But the cautious opening, where reform-minded people could meet in open forums and discuss, was quickly closed. The regime felt threatened by the popularity of these forums. At the same time, the power in the country was concentrated in fewer people than before, many of them in close proximity to Bashar.
Under the guise of liberalizing the country’s economy, this group used its power to secure state-owned companies, which were then privatized. Members of this group also received lucrative contracts with the state. An example is Rami Makhluf, the president’s cousin and one of the people in his immediate circle. Among other things, he controls both mobile phone companies in the country.
5: Fear escapes – rebellion
Despite the regime’s attempts to restrict access to the internet, strict media censorship and outright persecution of opposition figures, it failed to prevent residents from watching TV channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya . The huge crowds that took to the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen also affected ordinary Syrians . But attempts on Facebook to organize similar demonstrations in Syria do not succeed.
The fear of reprisals (retaliation) from the regime was one of the reasons, but there are other reasons behind it: Syria is home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, and the idea that Syria should develop in such a direction helped hold people back. The civil war and the unrest in neighboring Lebanon – to which Syria itself had largely contributed – were also a contributing factor.
A small incident and the authorities’ reaction to this led to an uprising in Syria as well. It started in the southern city of Deraa . There, some children – 9−11 years old – scribbled slogans on a wall, apparently inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. When the police in the city arrested and brutally beat these kids, this led to demonstrations demanding that the governor had to resign. But rather than take the protesters’ demands seriously, the regime reacted as it had always reacted when it felt challenged or threatened – with excessive use of brutal violence.
6: A rebellion propagates – pressure from outside
However, the regime did not understand that this time the situation had changed. The Syrians had seen others succeed in removing their old regimes by taking to the streets and demonstrating peacefully. The uprising in Syria was also not an armed uprising initiated by an organized group as in 1982. Rather, it was ordinary citizens who reacted to the regime’s use of force. They continued to demonstrate, despite the authorities firing sharply at them.
Instead of succeeding in terrorizing people off the streets, demonstrations broke out in other parts of the country in solidarity with Deraa. The regime then stepped up the use of violence, but the fears that had previously plagued people were about to subside. Demonstrations broke out in more and more cities, but now with more regime-critical demands – that the regime had to leave . Common to the demonstrations was that they were organized locally by spontaneously composed neighborhood committees. This made it almost impossible for the regime to stop them.
The uprising now spread to different parts of the country, and it became clear that the regime would not be able to defeat it. Then, neighboring Turkey tried to get the regime to implement reforms with a view to a transition to a democratic government. Turkey was a key ally of the Assad regime, not least after the United States and other Western countries imposed sanctions on Syria in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. That assassination was blamed on the Syrian regime. stand behind.
And Turkey is largely succeeding in getting Syria out of international isolation, at the same time as economic cooperation between the two countries increased significantly. Turkey therefore looked with great concern at the development in the neighboring country through 2011: Among other things, Turkey had invested large sums in the country, but Turkey was also afraid that the situation would get out of control . It could lead to an influx of refugees. In addition, Turkey feared that Syrian Kurds (map p. 3) allied with the Turkish PKK guerrillas would gain a foothold and use Syria to attack the country.
Despite pressure from Turkey, the regime did not allow itself to be persuaded to embark on democratic reforms, knowing that it would lead to the relinquishment of power, not only political but also economic. Syria’s main ally Iran felt threatened by the idea of a new regime in Syria. It would certainly break the supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In addition, a new Syrian regime would most likely ensure increased influence for Iran’s main regional opponent, Saudi Arabia. Russia also chose to continue supporting the regime. The country had experienced how the West had pushed their interests aside in Libya, and they did not want to lose their last base on the Mediterranean, which is located near the city of Tartus. In addition, the Russian arms exports to the regime are significant.
7: Tensions and divisions
Turkey therefore broke with the regime and demanded that Assad resign . The flow of refugees to Turkey continued, just as they had previously warned. Among the refugees, there were also many who had dropped out of the military. With Turkish support, these formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). By then, the situation in Syria had already developed in an increasingly violent direction.
Soldiers and officers who escaped formed local groups inside Syria that fought against the regime. It was in many ways a strength for those who took up arms. The fact that it was not a centrally led organization made it impossible for the regime to stop them. On the other hand, this led to tensions between the FSA leadership staying in Turkey and local groups fighting inside Syria.
This development reflected tensions that lay latent (smoldering just below the surface) in the rest of the opposition. The local groups had organized themselves into different networks with very different strategies to get rid of the old regime.
Some were willing to negotiate with the Assad regime. Others called for a foreign military intervention to end the conflict , which had increasingly developed into an armed confrontation. The Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed in August 2011 as a political umbrella organization for the various opposition groups. But the National Council was early criticized for being dominated by the exile opposition (those who lived abroad), primarily the Muslim Brotherhood.
8: Also international division
The split in the opposition was the West’s main argument for not taking a more active side in the conflict, although other considerations also weigh heavily. The EU and the US have imposed economic sanctions on Syria, which have had some effect even though they came into force relatively late. Russia has so far opposed a UN resolution that could have more effectively pushed the regime to negotiate a transitional government. The country totally rejects any resolution that could pave the way for the creation of so-called safe zones, which Turkey advocated early on.
There are several reasons why Russia has adopted this attitude. When the West took action against Libya, the Russian authorities gradually felt neglected, and now they want to avoid something similar happening in Syria. Another reason is that Syria and Russia have been allies since the days of the Soviet Union (1991), and Russia’s arms exports to the Syrian regime are significant.
For Russia, it is also important to keep the only military base they have left on the Mediterranean; it is located right by the town of Tartus. This must also be understood in a slightly broader context: Russia feels pressured by the West and the United States in many places in the world, including the Middle East, where Russian influence is in decline. Syria is the last bastion Russia has left in this part of the world, and the Russians are reluctant to let go of it.
Another point is that Russia has had its own internal uprisings to contend with, not least in the Caucasus. The country has therefore shown great understanding for the arguments of the Syrian regime that this is not a revolt for democracy. Rather, it is said, it is about terrorists who want to destabilize Syria. China has largely supported Russia’s view and has traditionally strongly opposed “interference in other nations’ internal affairs, ” as is often the case. This must also be seen in the context of the international criticism China often receives for its policy towards Tibet and the Muslim minority group the Uighurs in the far west of China.
The West is also skeptical of a military intervention in Syria. Many fear that an invasion could make matters worse and destabilize the entire region. Furthermore, it is feared that Hezbollah will throw itself fully into the conflict, and that the war will seriously spread to Lebanon. Another fear is that the regime will use its chemical weapons, with the atrocities it will entail.
9: Dilemmas for the outside world
At the same time , the flow of refugees out of Syria is increasing , in Lebanon alone there are now over two hundred thousand registered refugees. The number of IDPs is difficult to estimate, but the UN estimates that two to three million people need help inside Syria. The opposition has succeeded in uniting in a broader alliance that is now recognized as the only legitimate representative of Syria by a majority of the Arab countries, Turkey and France.
But the lack of foreign will and ability to push the regime harder has also led to increased support for groups that do not necessarily want a free and democratic Syria. In a situation characterized by lawlessness and chaos , these groups find room to establish themselves. In many places, fighting has thus broken out between local resistance groups and radical Islamists.
For the time being, it appears that Russia will continue to export weapons and provide the regime with political backing, while Iran contributes financially and with the expertise it possesses in surveillance and intelligence. On the other hand, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply the rebels with weapons. The regime is losing control of ever-larger parts of the country, but is gaining ground in central parts of Aleppo and the capital, Damascus.
This also applies to parts of the coastal areas where the Alawites make up a majority of the population. A political solution to the conflict will mean that the regime must relinquish power. Until now, it has been categorically rejected. The parts of the opposition that have shown willingness to negotiate with the regime demand that there must be negotiations on a transitional government.
This makes it difficult to envisage a quick solution to the conflict. However, an increase in the number of refugees and the fear that radical Islamists will gain a firm foothold in the country may force the West and the United States to intervene. One thing is for sure, Syria will never be as it was in the forty years the Assad family ruled the country. And the longer it takes before a transitional government is in place, the more difficult it will be to get started with the process of reconciliation and reconstruction that awaits.