There has been a lot of news and controversy about Syria in the last 2 years, so here are some facts and some recommendations:
First some history:
From 1516 – 1919, the region we now call Syria was ruled by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire – which was based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). During this time the territory of Greater Syria included modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip and parts of Turkey and Iraq.
During WW I, the Ottomans decided to support Germany and when the war ended, they lost most of their territory and the modern Syrian state was established as a French mandate
The country gained independence as a parliamentary republic on 24 October 1945 when Syria became a founding member of the United Nations
The current Arab Republic of Syria came into being in late 1961 but remained an unstable nation until a coup d’état by the Ba’athist party – which has been in power ever since. This “government” enacted an Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens (eg. It was illegal to form another political party).
Bashar al-Assad, the current president has been president since 2000 and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1970 to 2000. Even though there are national, parliamentary elections every four years, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party (controlled by Bashar al-Assad) has controlled 85% of all seats and therefore the government since 1973.
Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Syrian Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Circassians, Mandeans and Turks. Religious groups include Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis. Sunni Arabs make up the largest population group in Syria, but al-Assad and his government are from the Alawite tribe (a branch of the Shia form of Islam) which represents only 10% of Syria’s population.
So, Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite government are effectively dictators of Syria.
The current mess
Since March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in an uprising against Assad and the Ba’athist government as part of the Arab Spring – a popular uprising in Middle Eastern countries who began to rebel against their strongmen dictators.
In Syria, the conflict began when residents took to the streets to protest the torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. Protesters demanded reforms, the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, allowing political parties, equal rights for Kurds, and broad political freedoms, such as freedom of the press, speech and assembly. In reply the Syrian government launched a series of crackdowns. Security forces used tanks and snipers shot and killed protestors, water and electricity were shut off and began confiscating flour and food. As the war continued, Al-Assad used chemical weapons and cluster bombs on civilians in violation of international human rights.
The war is now being fought among several factions:
- Assad and his allies (Iran and Russia) want to suppress and control the rebels and continue to rule the country as in the past (with no real democracy).
- The rebels and their allies (USA and western European countries) want to remove Assad and move the country towards a democratically elected government.
- The Islamists (ISIS and al-Nusra) want to remove Assad, eliminate democracy as an idea and run the country as an Islamist state.
- The Syrian Kurds want to split off a section of the country which would give them their own independent state (north-eastern Syria)
As of May 2016 the country is controlled as follows:
- Al-Assad government held 40% of Syria (66% of the population);
- ISIL-held territory constituted 20–30%;
- Rebel groups 20%
- Kurds 20%.
Since the war began
- Syria was a country of 20 million people – now the population is approximately 13m
- 440,000 Syrianians have been killed
- 14 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance, of which 7 million are internally displaced within Syria, and over 6 million are refugees outside of Syria
- Many Syrians refugees have escaped to Turkey (1.5m), Lebanon (1m), Jordan (1m) and Western Europe (1m). This is creating a series of economic, cultural and political issues in those countries accepting such unprecedented number of refugees.
- As of August 2016, Canada has accepted 33,000 Syrian refugees and the USA has accepted 7,500.
- The world has contributed over $17b towards humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees – led by Turkey (8b), USA (4.5b), European Commission (1.8b), UK (1.5b), Germany (1.2b) and Canada (1b)
Because of the complex nature of the combatants and their goals, there appears to be no obvious end to this war (or even to a cease-fire in order to get food and medical supplies to civilians caught in the cross-fire).
What’s the solution?
Everybody has an opinion on this – so here’s mine:
- Russia, the USA, Turkey and Western European countries must create a 50 square mile territory inside Syria where displaced Syrian refugees can be housed, fed and protected until the war ends. This will address the humanitarian crisis that currently exists inside the country and significantly reduce the mass migration of refugees to other countries.
- Tribal and religious differences are such that the only way to end the conflict is to partition Syria into sections that align with their cultural norms. Of course this option is already being criticized by idealists who prefer an “all or nothing” plan – and that’s what keeps with war going. Assad is the biggest opponent of this idea because he is unwilling to give up any control of the country – regardless of how long the war lasts or how many Syrians are killed.
- ISIS in Syria exists because of the vacuum of power and control. Once the government (Alawites), the rebels (pre-democracy) and Kurds agree on a partition arrangement and stop fighting each other, they must unite to defeat ISIS.