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The Syrian Civil War
Actors in The Syrian Civil War
Syria, located in the Middle East, has been under the clutches of civil war for the last decade. In this paper an attempt to offer a detailed analysis of the Syrian civil war, begins by a brief review of the history of the Middle East and how the Syrian nation came into existence. The Middle East as we know it today, was under the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the twentieth century1. The whole Mediterranean region covering what is now Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, North Yemen, Jordan, and Palestine was under Ottoman rule2. However, after about 500 years, the Ottoman empire began to crumble under the weight of internal insurrections, Arab revolts, and incoming British and French conquests of the region.3
With the conclusion of World War I, the British and French governments came up with the Sykes-Picot Agreement that redrew boundaries in the Middle East, dividing into several nation-states.4 This agreement mainly catered for British and French colonial, strategic, national and geopolitical interests and not those of the region’s inhabitants.5 However, in the 1920s, Syrians began agitating for independence with nationalists against the division of Greater Syria covering Palestine, Lebanon and Transjordan as British and French Mandates.6
The French would later invade Damascus in 1920, overturning Emir rule in Syria. This would later be followed by a rebellion by Druze rebels in 1925 and subsequent revolts until 1936 when an agreement was reached between the French and the Syrians on the terms of independence.7 Unfortunately the agreement was not ratified by the French whose government fell in 1941 under German invasion in World War II.8 Before the Germans could get to Syria, the British invaded her.9 The French left Syria in 1946 with April 17 becoming the official Syrian independence day.10
The newly independent Syria was composed of Alawites, Druze, Christians, Sunnis, Kurds, Circassians, Turkomans, Jews and Ishmaelites all competing with one another socially, politically, and even economically.11 These competitions established the roots of the present-day civil war.
The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian civil war was preceded by among other issues, a dysfunctional parliamentary system in the 1950s, pitting majority Sunni Muslims and minority groups composed of Christians, Druze, Shias, Jews, Alawites, and others. A number of coup d’état, four constitutions drafted and adopted in the 1950s and 1960s culminating in the United Arab Republic between 1958-1961 under the leadership of Gammal Abdel Al-Nasser.12 Syria seceded from this republic in 1961 with President Hafez al-Assad coming into power. What followed next was a strengthening of the Syrian Ba’ath Party composed by most of the Alawite people who would be empowered legally, socially, and politically setting the tone for future civil war.13
The Ba’athist party under President Hafez favored Syrian minorities who rose through the ranks of the Army as well as in the countryside, reducing the power and influence of the elites found in Syria’s major cities14. Unfortunately, official corruption, land dispossessions, poor agrarian policies destabilized economic conditions in Syria, lowering living standards for a majority of Syrians.15 When Bashar Assad inherited power from his father, economic conditions remained poor, inflation rose, GDP decreased to the point salaries of private and public sector workers could not sustain decent living.16 17 The economic decline peaked in 2011 when the civil war started.18
Actors in The Syrian Civil War
On January 26, 2011, Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire protesting against the Syrian government.19 This action spawned social media outrage on Facebook, Twitter and other sites as well as protests by some citizens who were quickly arrested by Syrian forces.20 At first the protests had no unified leadership however in time, a number of oppositional groups were formed in and outside Syria21.
The Syrian government however relied on the security apparatus (the Army, the secret police), the Minorities (especially the Sunnis and Salafists) and the business class who benefited from Assad’s rule.22 In addition to these three, the Assad government created propaganda to the effect that Syria was under attack by terrorists therefore brutal force was needed to stop them. Assad’s government claimed to be fighting Al-Qaeda and radical Sunnis. Key opposition politicians were also coopted into government as part of reforms to assuage the protesters.23 24 These are some of the internal actors in the Syrian civil war, majority benefiting economically from Assad’s government.
At the same time, Assad’s government was facing international pressure albeit at the same time receiving support from Russia, China, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.25 Russia, for example, supplied Assad’s regime with ammunitions, anti-aircraft systems and tanks. Iran on the other hand reportedly supplied Assad with a few thousand Revolutionary Guards.26 As for opposition forces, The Free Syrian Army (FSA), received financial and logistical support as well as arms from among others Qatar and Saudi Arabia27 Some states like the U.K provided the rebels with food rations, medicines, body armor and armored vehicles.28 France and the U.K began a petition to lift an E.U arms embargo on Syria aiming at supporting the FSA29. These are examples of external actors in the Syrian civil war. Other nations such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt bore the weight of taking in Syrian refugees escaping the raging civil war in their homeland thus becoming actors as well providing fighters and support to factions involved in the war.30
Mekki Uludag in his article Syrian Civil War: Important Players and Key Implications – A Factsheet (2015) identifies the Lebanese Hezbollah as actors in the Syrian civil war. The Hezbollah have provided fighters to the Assad regime. This support is accorded due to the shared sectorial identity between Assad and Hezbollah who are all Alawites, a sub-section of Shiite Muslims.31 Assad had also supported the Hezbollah in the past during the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006.32
Another key player in the Syrian civil war is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria commonly referred to as ISIS- a group keen to establish Sharia law in Syria. Currently ISIS is in decline however, they controlled sections of Syria most importantly oil reserves in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zur, Al Raqqah and Palmyra.33 Clearly, resources such as oil, the group was influential until U.S led coalition forces halted its expansion.
Another major player is the Islamic Front. A group made up of Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, Liwa al Tawheed, Ahrar al Sham, Jaysh al Islam, Jund al Aqsa, Ansar al Sham- all jointly the Army of Conquest whose main aim was to topple Assad and install Islamic rule. This group is itself supported by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and captured the strategic province of Idlib from Assad’s regime.34 The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) is another player in the civil war and the groups aim is to establish self-rule in Kurdish dominated areas. This group has been supported by the U.S.-led coalition, some sections of Sunni Arabs in northern Syria and captured the cities of Tal Abyad, Sere Kaniye, Al Hasakah from ISIS. These groups are aided by over 20000 foreign fighters flowing through Turkey albeit with minimal effect owing to Assad’s arsenal of heavy weapons, fighter planes supplied by Iran.35
1 William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, Westview Press; Fifth Edition, Fifth Edition (December 4, 2012)
3 David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922, Henry Holt & Co (July 1989)
4 Majid Rafizadeh , 2014, The Syrian Civil War: Four Concentric Forces of Tensions, p. 24
6 Ibid, p. 26
7 John, Grainger, The Battle for Syria, 1918-1920, BOYE6; 1 edition (January 17, 2013), P.35
8 Op Cit, p. 26
9 Op Cit, p. 35
10 ArabicNews.com, “Syria Celebrates Evacuation Day,” 17 April 1999, http://www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/990417/1999041744.html
11 Majid Rafizadeh , 2014, The Syrian Civil War: Four Concentric Forces of Tensions, p. 27
12 Ibid p. 29
14 R. Lefevre, State and Islam in Baathist Syria: Confrontation or Co-optation (Fife, Scotland: The St. Andrews University Centre for Syrian Studies, 2012), 6.
15 S. al-Na¯bulusı¯, al-Sira : ¯b al-: tabaqı¯, 268-269.
16 S. Seifan, Syria on the Path to Economic Reform
17 V. Perthes, Syria Under Bashar al-Asad: Modernisation and the Limits of Change (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.
18 Badr Eddin Rahimah, The Class Oriented Rationale: Uncovering the Sources of the Syrian Civil War, 2016, p. 182
19 "Syrian suicider is 'Hasan Ali Akleh'. Damascus has banned a demonstration in support of Egypt", Middle East Transparent, Retrieved 30 January 2011
20 Demonstration on the day of anger in Hasaka and Syrian authorities arrested dozens" Retrieved 15 February 2011. Free-syria.com
22 Majid Rafizadeh , 2014, The Syrian Civil War: Four Concentric Forces of Tensions, p. 42
25 Julien Barnes-Dacey, Syria: Towards a Political Solution, , European Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012
26 National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Syrian Coalition Fact-Sheet (www.etilaf.org/en/about-us/fact-sheet.html), as well as the overview of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (www.etilaf. org/en/coalition-components/supreme-military-council-of-the-free-syrian-army.html), Elizabeth O’Bagy, The Free Syrian Army, Middle East Security Report no. 9 (March 2013), 25 (www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/The-Free-Syrian-Army24MAR.pdf ).
27 See, e.g.,MarkMazzetti, Christopher John Chivers and Eric Schmitt, Taking Outsize role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms to Rebels, NY Times, 29 June 2013.
28 See, e.g., UK to Send Armoured Vehicles to Syrian Opposition, BBC News, 6 March 2013. The existing EU embargo was eased in February 2013 with a view to enabling such non-lethal assistance. See EU Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP of 28 February 2013 amending Decision 2012/739/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against Syria, OJ 1 March 2013, L-58/8.
29 Tom Ruys , 2014, Of Arms, Funding and “Nonlethal Assistance”—Issues Surrounding Third-State Intervention in the Syrian Civil War, p. 16
30 Furkan Halit Yolcu, 2016 Iran’s Involvement with Syrian Civil War: Background, Reasons and Alternatives, p. 38
31 Mekki Uludag, 2015, The Syrian Civil War: Important Players and Key Implications – A Factsheet, p. 4
33 Ibid, p.5