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Good To Know: What is Actually Happening in Syria?

BY AMANDA MOLLER

Contents:
- THE ISSUE
Who is Fighting in the Syrian Conflict and Why?
Domestic: The Beginning of the Syrian Conflict
International: Political Gridlock 
Non-State Actors: Fundamentalist Groups and Extremists
The World at War 
Now What?
- MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND
- RESOURCES

THE ISSUE

Who is Fighting in the Syrian Conflict and Why?

  The Syrian conflict is about no one issue in particular, rather it is the result of a very convoluted set of interests from the multiple parties that are involved. This is not a war with two clear opposing sides fighting over a clear set of outcomes. In order to better explain the conflict I'm going to break it down and explain it within the contexts of three dimensions; domestic - looking at the Syrian government and civil factions that are at war with each other; international - international involvement and what other countries have interests in the outcome of the war; and non-state actors - those who disassociate themselves from governments and fuel the conflict through the interests of their independent group.

Good To Know, Syria, Syrian Conflict, War, Crisis

Domestic: The Beginning of the Syrian Conflict

  The current conflict in Syria finds its roots in 2011. A movement called the "Arab Spring" began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread across North Africa and the Middle East, inciting protests against oppressive government regimes in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco and Syria. You can see a timeline of how these events unfolded here. The Syrian uprisings in particular were protesting for democracy. Their president, Bashar al-Assad, had taken office in 2000 when previous president Hafez al-Assad had died. Hafez had been Assad's father and had ruled Syria for thirty years. While Bashar al-Assad was "voted" into presidency no other candidates had been allowed to run against him, which made it particularly hard for anyone to beat him to the post. Syrian protests began in March 2011 calling for the resignation of Assad in the face of continuous government oppression and corruption, but snowballed into full-blown armed resistance when government forces resorted to violence and started shooting unarmed protestors in a day that came to be known as the "Day of Rage". Read more here.

  Ongoing violent suppression from the government spawned ongoing armed resistance from the Syrian people, giving rise to rebels intent on removing Assad from power with force if need be. Two sides at war with each other. Easy, right? Wrong. The rebel "side" did not then build a united front against the government, instead various rebel groups formed. As of December 2013 it was estimated that as many as 1000 armed opposition groups operated within Syria. This only resulted in fragmenting opposition against Assad. The multiple blocs and shifting alliances decentralized and weakened the "resistance".

  The breakup of the opposition is reflective of social divisions within Syria. The country hosts multiple communities pertaining to different religions, sects, political views, languages, ethnic groups and tribes, and being the home of civilization for over 5000 years, the area we understand to be Syria today has hosted these groups in varying forms for a very long time. Rifts between these groups do not only reflect modern feuds but in some cases stem from historical and traditional differences. Much like any country, when it boils down to it, there is no one definition of the "Syrian people" that can fully encompass everyone. In many cases local, religious and age-old identities surpass any modern, artificially constructed, "national" identity. So local protests sparked a national war, and national dissent exacerbated local dissent.
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  Enter the international community.

Good To Know, Syria, Syrian Conflict, War, Crisis

International: Political Gridlock

  I want to preempt this section with a quick rundown on how the United Nations and UN Security Council works. The UN itself was established in the wake of World War II in an effort to prevent the world from ever again descending into any such catastrophic war. The UN is not an authoritative organization that can supersede the powers of a country's government, rather it works like a mediation channel through which member countries can negotiate and enact agreements. It is made up of multiple departments dealing with various issues, one of which is the Security Council, which as you rightly suspect is purpose-built to maintain global security through diplomacy and peace-keeping missions (in short). Only fifteen countries sit on the Security Council at any one time. Ten positions are constantly rotated between member countries, where a representative will sit on the council for a maximum of two years. The other five positions are permanent and belong to China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA. In order for the council to formalize an agreement on a security matter at least nine of the sitting countries have to vote for it. However, on any matter the five permanent countries have the right to exercise a veto, and if they do, even if all fourteen other members of the council agree to a solution, the solution cannot be passed.

  The Syrian uprising prompted condemnation from much of the international community, including the US and its allies and the European Union (EU). As the conflict went on they denounced the legitimacy of Assad's regime, first in the face of the government's violence and more so when the government was found to be guilty of human rights violations and war crimes. In 2013 the Assad regime was found to be guilty of using chemical weapons against its people, killing hundreds in Damascus. This incited the Security Council to agree on replacing the Assad regime with a transitional government, however while this worked in theory the council could not agree on an action plan to bring it about. Multiple times the council tried but in all attempts this was hindered. For example, the Security Council drafted a move to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold the Syrian government accountable, and thirteen of the council members agreed to this, except Russia and China. They are permanent Security Council members. They used their vetoes. Nothing could be done. And at the time of writing this article solutions put forward by the Security Council, some five years since the conflict began, still face the blocking power of the permanent five's vetoes.

  In the absence of a solution from the UN the international community has been lending its military power and resources to the various Syrian sides. Ironically it is two of the most powerful permanent Security Council members, the US and Russia, who are providing much of the military assistance, and they are each assisting two opposing sides. So while Russia and the US fight each other in the Security Council about how to bring peace to Syria, they each lend their military powers to warring factions and subsequently fuel the war in Syria. The US and its allies (Australia included), along with countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, support various rebel groups. Russia and Iran have sided with the Syrian government. They argue that the Assad regime is the lawful governing party and it is not for the international community to undermine them. They base this view on a technicality in international law, where governments are perceived to be 'sovereign'; that is, a country's government is at the top of the power ladder and no other country, domestic force or international organization has the right to supersede them. The countries that support the rebel factions do so because, due to Assad's war crimes, they argue that his regime renders the Syrian government illegitimate and therefore needs to be removed.

  US and Russian involvement, along with others in the international community, has added an external dimension to this war. Rebels and government forces that initially fought within the context of a civil war are now influenced by their respective international allies, who act in accordance with their own agendas in the face of their own disputes outside of Syria.
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  And then there's ISIS.


Non-State Actors: Fundamentalist Groups and Extremists

  You've heard of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). They've been known by a few names but for the purpose of the conversation here we will use ISIS. You can find here a very good article explaining the evolution and agenda of ISIS, but the short of it is the Sunni extremist group can be traced back as far as 2000. It has taken on a variety of forms, names and links to other extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda, before it came to formerly base itself in Iraq. The aim of ISIS is to establish a caliphate, a state that comes under the rule of a Muslim leader, not a political government (thus its name Islamic State), and they are driven by fundamentalist ideology that promotes jihad. I really recommend clicking on the above link to learn more about ISIS. As far as Syria is concerned, ISIS were able to leverage the Syrian uprising to expand their caliphate, taking advantage of the fragility of Syria by moving in their own forces from Iraq, gaining followers, staking a claim to Syrian land and further enhancing their own military capacity. They were able to take over Syrian oil assets, seeing ISIS in control of an estimated sixty percent of Syria's oil production, enabling them to sustain themselves financially by smuggling oil and selling it on the black market.

  ISIS are not the only extremist group at work in Syria however. Among such extremists are militant group Hezbollah. Within Islam there are two primary sects, Sunni and Shia. While ISIS are a Sunni purist group, Hezbollah adhere to the Shia code. The divide between the Shia and Sunni populations in Syria have seen varying degrees of conflict for over 1300 years. In the current conflict Hezbollah support President Assad. This has fueled already underlying religious tensions in the country and opened a door for Islamic extremists from all over the world to join the fight in the name of their own sect. As of July 2013 it was estimated 5000-6000 foreign fighters from over 40 countries had arrived to fight in Syria. By late 2015 this had risen to an estimated 25,000 fighters from more than 100 countries.

  So to re-cap, on top of a civil war, which attracted international involvement and a super-imposed international agenda, a religious war also flared up and gave rise to a wave of international terrorism. And while at a glance it looks to be at least three "sides" at war; the Syrian government, the rebels and ISIS, each "side" is racked with its own dissent. Assad at times works with his international allies but at times doesn't, the rebel side is broken into factions that at times war against each other, the international community sit around the negotiating table and endlessly debate, with little more than weak and temporary ceasefires to show for it, and ISIS face battles with other religious radicals. And all of them are fighting each other. You can find here a very good article regarding administering emergency food aid in Syria that exemplifies just how convoluted this conflict is.
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The World at War

  While the whole world may not be directly involved with the war in Syria much of the world is affected by it. We already know many countries are backing one side or another in Syria, but as mentioned extremists from over 100 countries have fled to Syria to fight. In response to this countries have had to implement strict internal immigration policies to stem that flow and prevent more fighters from joining the extremist groups. In addition to the flow of people attempting to get in to Syria there is a flow of people trying to get out of there. Millions of people have fled Syria, affecting neighboring countries with waves of refugees, often times creating local unrest, and inciting a worldwide call for other nations to help take them in. Furthermore, much of the world has heightened counter-terrorism efforts against a wave of international terrorist attacks inspired by ISIS, adding to an international security dilemma. Almost the whole world has a vested interest in an end to the Syrian conflict, not just Syria.
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Now What?

  You've seen the flows of refugees, everyday there's a new story of a new attack by one of the parties in Syria, ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks still plague international security - the Syrian conflict is far from over. At the time of writing this article the city of Aleppo was under siege by Russian-backed Syrian forces, just six days after the most recent ceasefire agreement collapsed. There is a long road ahead before any resolution can be achieved.


MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND

  On the points I've made above I have included links to further information. Below I've listed key resources that summarize and explain the situation further. It's important to get a handle on this issue because how we perceive the conflict affects many of our attitudes towards Syria, Muslims and refugees. When looking through the information, consider the following...

- How is your country involved in the conflict? As an Australian, for example, I know that my country's military took part in an airstrike that was meant for ISIS fighters but instead killed almost 90 Syrian government soldiers. I'm in no position to say what's right and wrong when it comes to warfare, but from this I do know that my country's involvement is partially responsible for the warfare that sees so many Syrians flee their country.

- No matter how much of a scholarly expert you are on the Quran the simple fact remains that not all Muslims are extremists. In fact most abhor ISIS and the terrorist acts of fundamentalist groups, just as most Christians abhor the preachings and callous actions of the Westboro Baptist Church. I'm not going to go on ranting about how damaging it is for us to marginalize people based on a stereotype, I think we're all smart enough to work that out for ourselves.

- Consider what choices Syrian refugees. They are not the ones dropping bombs or using chemical weapons or staging terrorist attacks. They just live in a country where this is happening.
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KEY RESOURCES

- BBC - Syria: The Story of the Conflict - A brief timeline explaining the evolution and convoluted dimensions of the conflict up until March 2016. 

- OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs): Syrian Arab Republic - Facts, maps, figures and infographics on Syria and its crisis.

- Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs - published a really good article exemplifying the complexity of the Syrian conflict through emergency food aid. 

- Middle East Policy Council - I highly recommend this article if you want to understand the evolution and agenda of ISIS.

- Great video by Vox breaking the conflict down, along with links here to informative stories they have published:


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