Published: November 2015
Syria is crumbling – having been destroyed over a combination of years of resistance by the Assad regime, massive amounts of fighting, not just between the Assad regime and the rebels, but also between the regime and outside factions, economic disability and drought.
Sadly, though, this is not the first time something like this has happened in Syria, and in order to understand what is happening in Syria today, one must look back at what was happening in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is important to recognize that most of the fighting that has been happening in Syria revolves around not just land, but also around which faction is in power. For the last 50 years, the Assad regime, composed of mainly Shiite Muslims, has been in charge, much to the dismay of the Sunni Muslims that both lived in Syria and operated in its politics. With this being said, it is important to not reduce the war to a purely religious issue.
The last round of the Syrian civil war, according to Professor Robinson of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, began after the regime of Hafez Al-Assad, president of Syria intervened in Lebanon’s Civil War in 1976. For Christians in Lebanon – who were on the brink of being defeated by Muslim forces –being aided by Syrian forces was seen, by pious Sunni Muslims in Syria, as proof of the heresy present in the Assad regime. This resulted in a civil war that lasted for six years. Assad only was able to end the war by cutting a deal with his rivals in Syrian politics.
“(Cutting this deal) gave Assad the political cover he needed to launch an assault on Hama, the stronghold of (rebel) power in Syria,” said Robinson.
This assault leveled much of the city that the Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. rebels) occupied, and in so doing, effectively ended the first round of the civil war. While the war was over in Assad’s eyes, it was not completely over for those fighting the regime. For them, it was merely a temporary hiatus until the fighting began again. In fact, many of those that are fighting today are fighting alongside their fathers, who fought in the first round of the civil war all those years ago. Many of the activists in Syria today are activists because their parents were activists.
The second round of the civil war in Syria, the one happening today, can trace its roots to two different sources. The first has to do with the number of people in Syria. This number has been booming in recent years due to a large influx of refugees.
While the population was booming, the economy was shrinking. Much of the economy in Syria revolves around agriculture and with the severity of the droughts, agriculture suffered. This tension was the kindling to the start of the second civil war.
According to William Polk, a contributor to “The Atlantic” and a professor at Harvard, “…as the number of people in the country has increased, they have been unable to agree on how to divide what they have. So it is important to understand how their ‘social contract’ – their view of their relationship with one another and with the government – evolved and then shattered.”
This strained relationship with the government finally broke in 2011, when the Syrian government arrested at least 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school during protests in Daraa.
“The community’s blunt outrage of the children’s arrests and mistreatment, the government’s humiliating and violent reactions to their worries, and the people’s refusal to be cowed by security forces emboldened and helped spread the Syrain opposition” said Joe Sterling of CNN.
Daraa was effectively the spark needed to light the kindling provided by the countries suffering economy.
In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army was formed and began fighting back against Assad, with members of the Syrian army even joining their ranks after defecting from Assad.
Extremists from around the region began flocking to join the rebels, which Assad encouraged. He even released Jihadist prisoners in hopes that they would join the rebellion, tainting it and making it harder for foreign powers like the United States to back them.
Around this time, al-Qaeda fully entered the fight by forming its own Syrian branch, Jabjat al-Nusra. Also around this time, Syrian Kurds seceded from Assad and began fighting against him.
Major powers from around the region then start stepping up: Iran intervened on Assad’s behalf, and Saudi Arabia began to send massive amounts of help to the rebels through Turkey and Jordan.
Seeing Saudi Arabia join the fight caused Iran to once again increase its part, this time by sending in the Hezbollah – a Lebanese Shiite group backed by Iran – to fight alongside Assad.
At this point in mid-2012, the US was unsure as to how involved to get in the war. As Michael Allsion, Ph.D., chair of the political science department here at The University, says, “There was not just one (group opposing Assad), there were hundreds or thousands of them. They were all trying to outcompete the other groups.” Allison went on to point out that, “The crisis in Syria is very complicated, and the participants in the conflict, and their behavior, change quite frequently.”
In August 2012, things became a bit clearer when Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in the city of Gouda.
President Obama decided that this was the point at which intervention needed to happen, and he called for airstrikes against Assad. Shortly thereafter, however, Russia – one of Syria’s biggest allies – called for Syria to give over its chemical weapons – hoping to prevent any airstrikes by the US.
Fast forward a year and a half, and ISIS is born. In February 2014, an al-Qaeda group from Iraq broke apart from the larger group over disagreements surrounding Syria; they call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and oppose al-Qaeda.
They do not fight Assad, though. They fight other rebels, and they fight the Kurds. They began marching through Iraq that summer, claiming ground and spreading turmoil. Wanting to intervene, the Pentagon began training rebels who would be fighting ISIS – not fighting Assad. The decision was made at this point that the primary enemy of the U.S. was no longer Assad, but ISIS.
So where are we now? With all the fighting that has been going on, ISIS has lost ground. The most recent attacks – those in Paris, Beirut, and (if they truly are from ISIS) against the Russian plane – show not a sign of ISIS’ strength growing, but exactly the opposite. Their strategy in the recent attacks is “if you oppose us, we are going to hurt you,” This is not the rally cry of a group standing tall – in fact, it may be the exact opposite. These attacks may not be the beginning of a new ISIS strategy, but the beginning of the end for ISIS.
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