The Syrian War: From Revolution to Regional Conflict

Bashar al-Assad's regime has brutalised large segments of the Syrian population to survive the Syrian revolution and the government's strategy to survive has created dire consequences for its neighbours. The regime is the antithesis of the Arab Spring, yet its capacity to survive and navigate multiple threats since protests spread across Syria has defied expectations.

Syria's neighbour Iraq has demonstrated the dire consequences of creating conditions for ethno-nationalist and sectarian conflict by empowering extremist groups on the fringes of politics. The Assad government has used sectarian fault-lines to entrench its violent institutions which were despised by the Syrian people before and after the 2011 revolution. Nevertheless the Syrian government gained support by placing itself as the check against extreme fundamentalists and terrorist organisations (despite the fact it has historically supported many extremist cells). 

There should remains no illusions as to the consequences of the Syrian government's current actions which have facilitated sectarian and jihadist narratives and circumvented blood-feuds to maintain a firm grip on power. Assad's strategy has strong parallels to the conduct of Saddam Hussein in response to the Sha'aban Intifada (March - April 1991) in the immediate aftermath of the First Gulf War. The nationalist uprising, arguably a prototype of the current Arab revolutions, was much shorter and swiftly crushed by military loyalists(Shiite and Sunni) leaving an estimated 100,000 dead. 

The 1991 uprising against Saddam combined with the devastation brought about by the First Gulf War, the legacy of the Iran-Iraq war, and the imposition of sanctions which starved hundred of thousands of Iraqis to death changed Iraq. Saddam's political power was deteriorating as illustrated by the rise of terrorist organisations in northern Iraq, the national revolt and the emergence of new socio-political forces (secular and religious). These new political voices were increasingly unable to identify with the ideology of Saddam's Ba'athist Party. However Saddam manipulated religious fundamentalism, tribalist politics and sectarian narratives to maintain power and began to use Ba'athist ideology to create an illusion of collective action and stability. As Charles Tripp argues 'Saddam and his dictatorship were the manifestation of a potent in which exclusivity, communal mistrust, patronage and the...use of violence were the main elements woven into a system of dependence and conformity' (Tripp, A History of Iraq, 186-187). This blueprint for maintaining power throughout Saddam's tenure was pushed to its extreme in the twilight years of his reign as the Ba'athist's decentralised the Iraqi state, but maintained a strong grip on the monopoly of violence and the country's wealth.  

The Syrian government has replicated this blueprint as it struggles for survival. The use of violence to suppress revolt in response to demands for reform and liberalisation which threatened the wealthy elite and military loyalists as well as their entrenched interests in Assad's regime ensured the revolution would be a painful procedure, if not a failure. Assad's original mistake as Hugh Roberts writes lay in his reaction to the protests: 

“The brutal repression with which the regime responded to demonstrations in Deraa in the far south of the country backfired; it ensured that the revolt would spread across Syria, initially in the form of increasingly angry demonstrations but soon as an armed insurrection. This was to prove disastrous.”

The Syrian revolution began as spontaneous protest catalysed by class divisions, years of failed reforms, the hatred of the Mukhābarāt (secret police), dire unemployment, a burgeoning under-25 population with limited prospects, food insecurity and years of sanctions. However pro-government protests demonstrated that the Assad regime maintained considerable support from many people and communities as Syria became divided over how to proceed in shaping Syria's future.

Despite this division, Syria was conditioned for revolutionary upheaval for many years and the tipping point proved to be the Arab Spring. Revolutions, however, rarely end with those who initiated them ending up in power particularly if the regime reacts violently to crush activism and moderate dissent. Without a clear strategy and unity, the Syrian revolution was doomed to fail and as with many revolutions across history monsters have emerged from the ashes with different agendas and many of these agendas have been a far-cry to what the majority of the Syrian people envisaged for their nation.

The Arab revolutions, with the exception of Tunisia, have largely followed this trend. Far from bringing stability and democracy to Libya, Muammar Gaddafi’s vicious lynching has brought renewed civil war between loyalists, Islamists and the new government (de-facto controlled by militia groups) and created a grave refugee crisis as thousands flee and drown in the Mediterranean. Saddam Hussein’s deposition, capture, trial and execution brought nationalist and ethno-nationalist politics, insurgency and civil war to the streets of Baghdad. In Egypt under Sisi, the country has descended into authoritarian military rule, where human rights organisations, activists and journalists alike are imprisoned, repressed and tortured while armed groups, human traffickers and terrorists run amok in the Sinai. 

The Assad family's addiction to power has all but destroyed Syria.  Government authority over its territories has diminished and the regime resembles a shadow state. Contextually, however, there remain some important differences between Saddam and Assad. Saddam's wars of aggression in Kuwait (1990) and Iran (1980-1988) made him numerous enemies at a regional and international level while decades of U.S policy, the most recent being the occupation and the Surge, are factors which are impossible to ignore in catalysing Iraq's slide into turmoil.

Damascus's response to the revolution is forcing Syria along a similar path as it combines radical policies with systematic repression to drive a wedge between the opposition and the public seeking political change. Assad and Saddam are no different in demonstrating a capacity to survive at any price, even when the ultimate price is paid by destroying their own state, dividing its communities and creating the conditions for extremism to emerge. The Syrian people have become caught between the various warring factions and are growing weary and angry with rebel and government forces while feeling betrayed by outside powers. 

The release of jihadists in 2012 by Assad provided the catalyst for the expansion of jihadist groups' power in Syria and encouraged foreign groups such as AQI (now Islamic State) in Iraq to hone its combat ability on the battlefields of Syria and realise unnerving strategic ambitions. Explicitly fundamentalist and jihadist militant groups and movements began to dominate the opposition and extremists such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Islamic State) and Abu Mohammed al-Julani (JAN) poisoned international perceptions of the opposition while Assad's brutality radicalised segments of the opposition. The surge in foreign fighters from across North Africa and Europe and the influx of weapons increased the potency of this mixture already unleashed by Assad. As with the relationship between Jordanian Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi and Iraqis, normal Syrians were largely repulsed by the horrific violence, naivety, and cultural and national insensitivity displayed by foreign fighters. However the brutality of Assad has pushed many of them into the arms of ISIS and extremist groups as either fighters, indifferent onlookers or a reluctant 'protectorates'. The reality is that while the rebels groups are supported by powers such as the Gulf States, the people in under rebel control largely suffer, starve and struggle. 

The splintering of the Syrian insurgency between Kurdish nationalists, moderate Islamists, al-Qaeda affiliates, Islamic State militants and an array of extremist foreign fighters was a coup for Assad. As with the Iraqi insurgency (2003 - 2011) against the U.S occupation, the opposition were unified in its hatred of the regime, however the ideas to replace the government ranged from the genocidal caliphate of Islamic State to a call to separatism from Kurdish radicals in the YPG and PUK or the call for an inclusive democratic government amongst moderates. Over 1,500 different rebel factions are operating in Syria and competing for financial and military support. Such a broad range of actors has driven the conflict's complexity while greatly limiting the likelihood of a unified rebel front. 

Assad retains support among significant sections of the Syrian population including Alawites, non-Islamist Sunnis, Christians and Druze, who oppose the ascension of an Islamist regime. These fears were exacerbated as early as 2012 when fundamentalists, neo-Salafists and neo-Wahabbists began to slowly dominate the opposition politically and militarily. The resurgence of Al-Qa'ida and ISIS have worsened these fears as the threat of ethnic cleansing and genocide looms over these communities. However the regime's calculations to weaken, split and militarise the nationalist movement has not been without considerable risk. 

While the regime has used the threat of sectarian cleansing as political and military leverage amongst minorities to help enable its survival, it remains a short-term check against internal threats and the necessity for political change and compromise. As one diplomat stated in March,  "We understand that Putin is not tied inextricably to Assad," while another argued "The Russians know he's a destabalising force. If there's going to be a peaceful transition, he ain't staying." It is unlikely that the Russian military will allow a similar fiasco to that of the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) to repeat itself in Syria as exemplified by its scale-down of personnel in March 2015. Equally not all Alawites, Christians and Druze support the regime as demonstrated by the release of a document by the Alawite sect. 

The document "implies a dissociation from Iran and the regime there, but disconnenct the Alawite community from the Assad family" and that there is only so much time that the Alawites and other minorities will be held hostage to the narrative which perpetuates the slaughter of minorities by Syrian Sunnis and extremists such as Islamic State. While the authenticity of the document has come into question, it remains important. The statement was issued in April 2016,  a time when the regime was operating from a position of strength following Russian and Iranian coordinated intervention in autumn 2015 following the fall of Idlib in March 2015. The statement came from a position of relative strength and this should exclude the conduct of the regime before the release of this document; the regime has frequently used coercion, threat of execution, torture, intimidation, and short-term threats to recruit unwilling members of the populace to strength its drive to crush the revolt including members of the Alawite community.

Many within Syria have been desperate to remain neutral throughout the violence despite the ruthlessness of the regime. However vicious control of the cities, it ruthless transition from counterinsurgency to scorched earth has alienated and turned communities against Assad. These strategies, it must be noted, are not new. Like his son, Hafez al-Assad understood the importance of using minorities in real-politik while relying on a small group of trusted military units to carry out his will. However adopting his father's strategies has not been without cost as it has caused mass defections, desertion and exacerbated the regime's ability to support its combat power. 

Pro-Assad militias (shabiha) have become the most significant source of armed reinforcement for the Syrian Army. The shabiha have largely been responsible for the worst excesses against the moderate protesters, activists and forces within the Syrian opposition as well as Sunni communities (for example Houla and Al-Qubeir). Their absorption of the militia/mafia gangs into Assad's forces has only led to an escalation in violence. The majority of ordinary Syrians caught between divided rebels and the regime support the notion of a unified nation and are swift to denounce sectarian narratives of the regime, extremist rebel groups and the international media outlets. However outside intervention in Syria by NATO, Russia and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, much like Western policy in Iraq, has accelerated Syria's death toll and exacerbated the sectarian and fundamentalist narratives. The Kremlin is unwilling to relinquish its long-standing strategic alliance with the regime nor will Iran and Hizbullah tolerate an unstable fundamentalist Sunni government to rule a future Syrian state. The Russian-Iranian coalition's support for Assad, while repugnant from a humanitarian and moral perspective, is grounded in geo-political interests and designed to counteract Western attempts to force regime change in Syria. 

While Western governments have rightfully trumpeted Assad's cruelty and his military's grotesque violation of human rights, their connivance in the destruction of Syria cannot be ignored. Beneath the rhetoric, Western policymakers have played with fire and engaged in a dirty war to remove Assad. Western officials, like Middle Eastern actors, have shown little concern in using extremists to achieve short-term military success. The moment they decided to support a fractured opposition of which many moderates collaborated or fought alongside extremists with explicitly sectarian or separatist agendas, the West gambled that jihadists and Kurdish groups would support the military drive to oust Assad and be removed from the political picture once the regime had fallen. This support was maintained despite reports emerging from Syria that opposition forces were committing war crimes and horrific acts of violence against regime soldiers and civilians as early as 2012. For regional allies such as Turkey and the Gulf States, they viewed these violent jihadist groups as useful (but containable) proxies in the war against Assad, Iranian influence and (in the case of Turkey) Kurdish aspirations for independence. 

The consequences of shaping Syria's war into a sectarian war have been staggering. Jahbat al-Nusra and Al-Qa'ida hijacked and began to slowly dominate the military campaign. ISIS attempted to subvert Jahbat al-Nusra to its hyper-aggressive strategy sparking an intra-jihadist civil war and a deadly intra-rebel conflict in northern Syria and Iraq. The terrorist narrative concocted by the Assad regime in the opening stages of the Syrian revolution was now a reality as black bannered ISIS, a hybrid of Al-Qaeda's violent ideology, surged across the Syrian landscape. For the West, ISIS's establishment of a caliphate was a humiliating blow. The United States' stuttering and contradictory Syrian policy and the wave of attacks across Europe since 2014 have convinced European leaders such as Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel to seek closer cooperation and more assertive action with the Kremlin in tackling ISIS and solving the Syrian Civil War, rather than removing Assad. This closer alignment with European security interests is allowing Assad, supported by Putin, to 'execute his war on revolutions both on a practical level and as a battle of ideas.'

The support for the Syrian opposition by outside powers 'in such circumstances, is the belief that liberal values are on "the right side of history". This has proven to be an expression of blind faith.' In the context of the Syrian War, this blind faith has been on display and policy has been contradictory, at worst hypocritical. The failure of regime change through organic protest and bottom-up activism in 2011 has been replaced by the determination of Washington to cripple Assad's Syria as it did to Saddam's Iraq following the First Gulf War. Such actions against the Syrian regime were calculated to weaken the influence of Iran, Hizbullah and Syria and alleviate allies' fears of an emerging 'Shiite Crescent' ranging from Israel and Jordan to the Gulf States and Turkey. In practice this strategy has been catastrophic and ignited a series of wars which resemble the Thirty Year's War (1618 - 1648) where 'a set of interlocking political-religious struggles at local and regional levels...provoked and enabled external interference, which in turn exacerbated and prolonged conflict.' 

While the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is far more complex than the sectarian schism between Shiite and Sunni and has long prevailed since the Iranian Revolution (1979), it has not prevented both countries utilising these narratives for political ends, international adventurism and undermining each other in proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. This regional conflict is inextricably connected to wider international community.  

The internal-external security dilemma created by the vacuum in Syria has become increasingly dangerous to international security as multiple actors have driven the Syrian War to deeper levels of savagery and destruction. The Assad regime, indisputably, is one of those actors. However the splintered Syrian insurgents backed by the Western powers, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Jordan and Turkey have contributed to the bloodbath. The results of the Syrian War have been catastrophic for the region, created an increasingly volatile geo-political situation and created an array of security nightmares at a regional and international level including an arms race, proxy warfare, a new haven for transnational and regional terrorism, and the potential for direct confrontation between NATO and the Russian coalition. Commentators such as Patrick Cockburn and John Bew have argued that the Syrian War is the precursor to a serious international conflict as the Middle Eastern wars have ushered in the return of great power politics. 

The escalation of the Syrian War into a regional war is impacting Europe. The Syrian refugee crisis, alongside Libya and Iraq, is slowly eating away the continent's security and stability and allowed demagogues, populism, fascism, nationalism and xenophobic rhetoric to enter mainstream political discourse across Europe. The series of terrorists attacks by ISIS against European and U.S civilians have had enormous political repercussions across Europe and the stability of the EU (as exemplified by the recent departure of the United Kingdom in recent days). 

The belief that the deposition of Assad by force will bring stability to Syria is deeply flawed as is the belief that Assad remaining in power will benefit the Syrian people. Neither the rebels or Assad represent the majority, their people have prided themselves on being a secular, diverse nation. The militias, the jihadists, the soldiers kill for the sake of killing because the violence has become senseless, a way of life for some. Syria has become everyone's battlefield. Syria is not the scene of one war, but many complex wars. Caught in the cross-fire are the innocent who are indiscriminately slaughtered by barrel bombs, mown down by attack helicopters and fighter jets, cut down by militia and jihadist fighters, starved by siege and displacement and live each day in fear, tragedy and uncertainty. These conflicts largely remain unresolved, are worsening, and more people will die amidst the carnage. 

Rebels and loyalists fight a violent war of attrition and entire districts of some of Syria's greatest cities have been levelled while the death toll closes on half a million. The Syrian War is one of the most terrible conflicts of our generation, one which many have become desensitised to in the face of massacre, mass-killings, displacement and starvation. This desensitisation to the immense suffering of the average civilian walks hand in hand with the war's mutation which, with each passing year, carries greater significance for a region which is rapidly Balkanising.

Thousands of videos and images across the Internet have systematically convey the numbing horrors of Syria’s conflict and carry considerable emotional power absent censorship. ‘They are shocking and distressing. Even if we don’t watch them, their very existence is upsetting. This is crucial. We watch human beings begging for their lives and we feel complicit.’ Cheap and easy-to-use video cameras, digitalisation and social media bring Syria’s theatre of war to our computers and phones. However as Francesca Borri damningly conveys in Syrian Dust "Five years on, our readers barely remember where Damascus is, and the world instinctively describes what’s happening in Syria as “that mayhem,” because nobody understands anything about Syria—only blood, blood, blood. And that’s why the Syrians cannot stand us now."  

We see the suffering of Syrian men, women and children, we are fed information about the suffering of Syrian men, women and children, yet we do not contextualise, humanise or delve deeply enough into this suffering which has produced such remarkable emotions exacerbated by the war such as despair, love, anger, bitterness, terror, determination, and hope. What the international community see is crimson, a Syria awash with blood and tears, information absent context, families, friends, lovers and individuals labeled as 'foreign fighter', 'refugee' or 'migrant' absent deep, personal, and frequently interconnected stories of struggle and survival. We do not see the authenticity of war, the humanity and inhumanity created by war and all the emotions it produces, emotions that all of us can relate to as well as their consequences and potential. 

Without exploring important questions, without systematically understanding the complex layers of this war, without important scrutiny over policy, and without hearing the voices of ordinary Syrians, without understanding grass-roots and top-level political and geo-political factors driving this war, the civil war's cycle of violence will continue as the outside world squabbles and feuds over the Syrian people's future. Whether or not the Syrian War ends tomorrow or drags on for years, a fate suffered by its neighbour Lebanon, we have failed the Syrian people and their nation's tragedy is our shame. 

Matthew Williams