When Syrian conflict mark third anniversary

Syria is marking the third anniversary of the beginning of the civil conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, the majority soldiers and fighters, driven six million from their homes, devastated the country, and locked Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, and the Western powers into local, regional and intercontinental proxy wars with Lebanon's Hizbollah movement, Iran and Russia.

When popular uprisings in early 2011 shook longstanding rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stated confidently that Syria was immune from infection by “Arab Spring” unrest. He was wrong. By that time, small scale protests, inspired by events elsewhere and fuelled by poverty and alienation, had begun in Syria.

All that was needed was a spark to light the tinder of discontents. This came on March 6th, when a group of teenage boys were arrested for writing the slogan of the Arab uprisings - “The people want the fall of the regime” - on walls in the city of Deraa in the south. Until then protesters rallying in small numbers had confined themselves to calling for reform and an end to corruption. On March 15th, protests were held in Damascus and Aleppo and on the 18th demonstrations took place in Homs and Hama as well.

On the 20th, 15 protesters were killed in Deraa and the headquarters of the ruling Baath party and offices of a mobile phone firm belonging to Assad's cousin were torched. Assad ordered the release of the school boys and promised reforms. By April, the protests had become a sporadic uprising on a smaller scale than Egypt's “revolution.” External intervention transformed the uprising into a civil conflict in July-August when Turkey recruited Syrian army defectors for the rebel Free Syrian Army to “protect” protesters and set up the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) as an alternative to the Assad regime.

West’s opportunity

Local anti-government militias formed and arms poured into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Europe and the US recognised the SNC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The Sunni Saudis and Qataris and Western powers saw the conflict as an opportunity to weaken Damascus’ chief regional ally Shia Iran and Lebanon's Hizbullah movement. The West sought Assad's ouster to deny Russia its sole ally in West Asia.

The external powers miscalculated. The SNC never amounted to a serious political challenge to the regime and the Free Army remained loosely linked militias capable of creating mayhen but unable to overthrow the regime militarily. Since neither side could defeat the other, a stalemate ensued, attracting tens of thousands of foreign jihadis, some tied to al-Qaeda. Saudi and Qatari guns and funds led the majority of Syrian fighters to join Sunni fundamentalist formations as fanatical as the jihadis. The Western powers have not admitted to this shift, still speak of “moderates” amongst the militiamen, and plan to train and arm them in Jordan ahead of a planned southern offensive against the regime's main stronghold of Damascus.

On the ground, however, the conflict has waned. There are, reportedly, 70 ceasefires between war-weary government and opposition forces. Furthermore, the army has been making slow but steady gains in Aleppo and local insurgent groups have been fighting al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and Syria which holds a stretch of strategic territory in the north-central Raqqa province. Fresh divisions have opened up on the regional political plane. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have withdrawn ambassadors from Qatar on the pretext that Doha is interfering in their internal affairs. The real reason is its support for radical jihadis deployed in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood, proclaimed a “terrorist group” by the Saudis and their allies. Riyadh has threatened to blockade Qatar by air, land, and sea if Doha continues to back these elements. Qatar refuses to alter its policies.

The Shia-fundamentalist dominated Iraqi government, which supports Assad, has denounced Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supporting Iraqi Sunni militants who have been staging their own uprising in western Iraq. Analysts speak of a new “Arab cold war.” On the international plane, Russia and, to a lesser extent, China continue to support Assad. The contest over Ukraine has recently sidelined the Syrian conflict and efforts to achieve a political solution in Syria appear to have been abandoned. Syria's despairing neighbours, Lebanon and Iraq, are reeling from violent sectarian spill-over from the war which is likely to continue well into its fourth year, further destabilising in an already volatile West Asia.

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