As the wave of the Arab Spring swept from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt through the Middle East, authoritarian Arab regimes that were thought to be secure from protests and impossible to topple began to face immense protests (Inbar 102). Attacks on government agencies and buildings as well as elite leaders sourced from public opinion developed differently in each country, employing localized strategies to mobilize and gain public support. The Arab Springs in 2011 triggered a number of social movements and change of regimes across North Africa and the Middle East. Despite being related, uprisings in each country took a different form and resulted in various effects. As of March 2015, approximately 220,000 people in Syria were killed as the proponents and the opposition to the Bashar’s government battle (Al Jazeera para. 2). Civil war can be explored along several independent variables highlighted from the Syrian case and various resources on civil war: territoriality of the conflict, the nature of the government in power, militarization of the conflicting sides, regional players and international influence.
This research paper focuses on the development of the conflict in Syria under President Bashar al-Assad. In other words, the paper seeks to identify the factors that led to the 2011 conflict in Syria and made it spiral into a civil war. In the same line, it discusses why the situation had not been stabilized or resolved before the conflict evolved into widespread violence and inclusion of many actors. The identified factors are relevant to the illumination of the instrumental, conceptual and semantic nature of civil war in general.
President Bashar al-Assad has ruled Syria since July 2000. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria between 1970 and 2000 (CNN para. 2). The Syrian conflict evolved into civil war due to various variables. Cruel crackdowns, alienation of protestors by al-Assad’s regime and unstable civil society exacerbated the grievances tabled by the opposition and smoothed other religious, tribal and ethnic tensions. Militarisation of the opposition forces and localization of the conflict created specific territories for loyal and rebel armed forces. Further, international intervention and regional rejection of President al-Assad’s use of force against the opposition pushed the conflict in Syria into one of the worst post Arab Spring conflicts in the Middle East (Al Jazeera para. 3). Popular concerns for security, mild reforms as well as media, regional and international waffling of the al-Assad’s regime has managed the conflict to an extent.
Typically, a civil war is territorially confined to the state area. However, this issue can be entangled by the regional influence and porous nature of the state borders. The United Nations definition of statehood and territoriality is used in this context to provide the distinction between separatist uprisings and border disputes from civil war. Syrian conflict is extended beyond an intrastate conflict and has evolved into a civil war (BBC para. 5). In civil war, the government is one of the actors, serving as an armed entity whose agenda is to preserve its control over resources and political mobilization. Considering the Syrian case, the government has introduced mild reforms and made little effort to address the grievances of the opposition. In line with this argument, President al-Assad addressed the nation in televised speech on March30, 2011 (CNN para. 3). The speech acknowledged that the government had not met the people’s needs and the state of emergency was still in effect. Three weeks later, President Bashar lifted the 48-year-old state of emergency. However, the government is still adamant to take into consideration most of the pertinent issues and continues to use lethal force against the opposition. Further, the opposition is organized under party or strategic leadership platform, local recruitment, commands the territory and bids for national control.
Besides the Arab Springs, the Syrian civil war spiralled from anti-government protest and civil unrest in 2011. In March 2011, violence and protests flared in Daraa region after a group of teenagers were arrested and detained for drawing political graffiti (Al Jazeera para. 5). Following the government effort to quell the protest, dozens of people were killed by the security forces. In response to the growing protest, the Syrian government came up with several measures to appease citizens. One of the measures was that state employees would receive a salary increment. In the same context, the government was to restructure licensing of political parties and the existing emergency law.
Nature of the Regime
Syrian government was founded on a sultan-based system of control, marked by leadership monopoly of political and governmental processes similar to that of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In fact, the Syrian conflict began with sporadic protest in January 2011 and spiralled into a consolidate uprising in March 2011, and since then has become one of the bloodiest conflicts interconnected with the Arab Spring (Jones para. 5). Both military and opposition forces have suffered thousands in casualties since the beginning of the protest and army involvement. Just like the civil war in Libya and the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Syrian protestors or the opposition continue to demand a regime change. The death toll has surpassed the threshold making it a civil war. The leadership eliminated public engagement in political process and power transition. However, the succession of President Bashar al-Assad from his father minimized the dissatisfaction and opened space for reforms. Unfortunately, the historical sectarian conflict and instability in Syria forced civilians to accept repression from the government in exchange for security. Additionally, loyalty to al-Assad’s government was induced with favours in terms of welfare and social programs. As protests occurred sporadically across the country, the al-Assad regime attributed the unrest to sectarian tension and foreign conspiracies (Inbar 102). Al-Assad referred to Arab Spring as a foreign conspiracy and simultaneously considered lifting the state emergency law, but denied contributing to the unrest when the security agencies crushed dissent. The government made few compromises between the Kurdish minority and Syria’s conservative Muslims. Some of the grievances that were dealt with include the closure of Syria’s only casino and the declaration of the Kurds’ New Year celebration as a national holiday. However, the protests evolved into demonstrations as a response to the unmatched force used by security forces against protesters around the country (Hashemi para. 10).
Further, the government’s decision to retain the power to suppress public protest intensified the situation. After the dissolution of Syria’s Supreme State Security Court, and the repeal of the emergency law, the government passed a new law that required Syrians to obtain government permit before protesting. In the same context, the Syrian government communicated that demonstrations would be treated as a threat to public safety and the government. In fact, this was demonstrated by the government’s escalation in the use of force against protesters. At one point, the government security forces fired live bullets on protesters, killing about 75 civilians (BBC para. 3). Despite regional and international outcry triggered by the killing, the government carried out new armed operations to silence demonstrations. A large number of troops were deployed to anti-government centres of protests, including Homs, Dara and Baniyas. The protestors’ perception of the government’s lack of commitment to cease-fires, non-violence and democratic change translated to a widespread notion that al-Assad’s government was repressive and violent, eventually propelling demonstrations into violence and civil war (Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons: Foreign Affairs Committee 15).
The protests centralized in several regions including Homs and Darra (Al Jazeera para. 5). Homs is the second largest city in Syria and it is occupied by the Sunnis. As the government tried to regain control of Homs from armed Sunni rebels, resistance form Homs turned to a bloody conflict. Unlike other large towns such as Hama, the violence on Homs resulted in shared casualties between government and opposition forces. Observably, the conflict in Syria was decentralized and neither the government nor the opposition forces occupied large bases (Ryan 31). Additionally, ethnic heterogeneity in Syria prevented rebels from exploiting and controlling large regions for military prowess. The siege cities support the argument that the conflict intensified and had not been curbed in time due to territoriality (Kamrava 103). The decentralization of the conflict complicated the government’s effort to address the consolidation of the rebels. In spite of the mild reforms, incomplete mobilization and militarization of the opposition forces, as well as the waffling action of regional and international organizations, the cruel and repressive al-Assad regime pushed the conflict to reach the semantic and instrumental threshold of civil war.
The decentralization or non-consolidation of various rebel groups in Syria prevented the government’s tactical military deployment to quell the uprising. Further, the accessibility to arms from Iraq aggravated the protests into a civil war (Hashemi para. 5). Contrary to the reports that the protesters were totally unarmed, there were several instances where regime forces suffered from violence and causalities from protesters. However, the Syrian rebels lack adequate arms, command centralization and military training. In fact, the rebels are divided between the Damascus-based National Council of Coordination, Turkey-based Syrian National Council and the Syrian Free Army (SFA): the factions disagree on the scope of negotiations and the use of violence, with none representing majority of the opposition (Ryan 28). Despite the fact that the SFA consists of professional soldiers defected from the national army, the rebels lack coherence in both military and political mobilization. In this regard, negotiations have become difficult. While loyalists to the al-Assad government have access to heavy weaponry, the rebels have resorted to guerrilla warfare, which is very complex to manage or quell. With the growing militarization of the rebels, Syrian conflict will continue to result in more casualties, instability in the regions and economic downturn (Inbar 103).
Regional or International Influence
International perception and media coverage of the conflict was uncertain and inconclusive. Media houses were to an extent aligned to government-persecuted citizens and uncertain of the nature of the conflict (Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons: Foreign Affairs Committee 85). Uncertainty was heightened by political implication of naming the Syrian conflict. For example, identifying the conflict as a sectarian conflict could reduce the authenticity of any interventions. In turn, the international community would sideline the conflict as noted by the Arab press. The dormant nature of the international community can also be illustrated in Libyan and Egyptian cases. UNHCHR warned a civil war could erupt in Syria as it happened in Libya but major actors remained disinterested in helping the opposition to change the oppressive Syrian regime (Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons: Foreign Affairs Committee 88).
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The balance of power in the Gulf region also complicated the scenario because the neighbouring countries did not want to import sectarian conflicts into their states. Iraq’s PM denounced Assad’s government and warned that it could result in a civil war (Al Jazeera para. 2). In the same context, the Jordanian King Abdullah noted that lack of reforms would destabilize Syria and the region. These denouncements of the Assad regime polarized the opposition. Additionally, Syria was suspended from the Arab League on November16, 2011 which complicated the matter. The Arab League suspended its mission in Syria in January 2012 following increased violence (CNN para. 2). Lebanon and Iraq abstained from voting because of concerns about the transfer of the Syrian conflict and the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran made cohesion with the Gulf impossible. At the centre of these bilateral agreements is the creation of a stable region to remove economic hardships that would result into civil unrest, as in the case of the Arab Spring in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a regional economic and political coalition consisting of six Gulf States namely, Oman, Bahrain, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE (Kamrava 95; Legrenzi and Momani 100). On February 7, 2012, the member states of the GCC pulled out their ambassadors from Damascus and expelled the Syrian ambassadors from their countries (CNN para. 5). The announcement came a day after the United States had recalled its diplomats and closed its embassy in Syria. The United States vowed to give Israel military support if Syria became a threat. This implies that the entire Middle East Region was under tension because if the U.S. took part in any military activities within Syria, Syria would attack Israel, potentially drawing Iran into action (Carpenter 11).
The Syrian conflict is one of the bloodiest post Arab Spring conflicts in the Middle East. Over four years, it has grown in scope and intensity, with the UN estimating more than 220, 000 casualties and millions displaced. The situation spiralled into civil conflict due the intolerant nature of the government, sectarian conflicts, passivity of the international community, and decentralized nature of the rebellion. Observably, the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East, including Libya and Tunisia was caused by several factors, including patronage; high level of corruption; socio-economic injustice; nepotism and misuse of power. In recognition of the principal causes of the Arab Spring or the conflict in Syria, the Syrian government should strive to distribute national revenue evenly, create more employment opportunities, improve political engagement or democracy, improve the quality of education and minimize or rather eliminate incidences of nepotism.