Conflict in Syria shows no signs of abating

On March 18, 2011, when Syrians took to the streets against the Bashar al-Assad regime, they could not have known the ripples they were triggering would turn into a violent storm shaking the entire  Arab world. 

The Syrians were inspired by similar protests in Tunisia and Egypt which had toppled two well-entrenched dictators.  They hoped for something similar in Syria, a totalitarian state since the early ‘60s.  

But the people’s aspirations have since been belied. In the three years since 2011, their  protests have not yielded the desired results.  The al-Assad regime has held on to power while the movement for democracy has all but splintered  – ranging from the liberal, secular  to extreme fundamentalist conservative factions.

Worse,  the opposition factions have over the last two years turned in on themselves – killing one another and indulging in violence including the possible use of chemical weapons to exterminate rivals. Some blame the Syrian government for resorting to its chemical arsenal but the jury is out on this.  According to the United  Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of Syria’s population of 18 million,  nine million are internally displaced and 2.5 million have fled the country. 

By all accounts, the complexity is bewildering -- no one really knows who is fighting whom and on whose behalf. The situation has now reached a stage where many ordinary Syrians have been quoted saying they want a return to the pre-March 2011 stability, democracy or not. 

In March 2011, the Syrian movement for democracy promised quick returns with its leaders estimating that the al-Assad government would fall in 18 months.  The government, however, had other ideas – security forces came down heavily on the protesters and in the initial round even school children were not spared.  Some 15 of them were arrested in the town of Deraa for writing graffiti asking the regime to step down. 

Fight for democracy

As the protests intensified, a section of officers and soldiers from the Syrian military and officials from the government defected to the Opposition, forming the Free Syrian  Army (SFA).  Syrian leaders  in exile got together under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council (SNC).  Both were largely secular and demanded that al-Assad step down and  democratic rule be instituted in the country.

Not all were in favour of a secular democracy.  A sizeable section wanted an Islamic dispensation to replace the existing Syrian secular state.  The SFA or the SNC were not in complete control of various local militias that had sprung up across Syria.  And many of these militias were religious extremists backed or inspired by the al-Qaeda.  They were mainly Sunni-driven and harboured resentment against the al-Assad family which belongs to Syria’s minority Shia Alawaite sect.  In short, the sub-plot was the playing out of a longstanding Shia-Sunni feud. 

Despite the use of fire power and indiscriminate targeting by the Syrian military, the opposition violence has not been quelled.  The reason for this is the extensive military backing of the Free Syrian Army by the Western powers. While European nations and the United States have been supplying weaponry to the secular FSA, they have been unable to prevent significant quantities from falling into the hands of the Islamist factions.  Skewing the situation further, foreign fighters affiliated to extreme Sunni politics in the neighbouring countries made their way into Syria and mingled with the local opposition.

  This changed the character of the fighting and the nature of opposition to al-Assad. The Syrian government’s warning that the al-Qaeda was infiltrating into the country proved prophetic.  A United Nations human rights team in December 2012 said it was worried over the infiltration by foreign fighters who had their own vested interests. The foreign fighters formed the Jubhat al-Nusra with their base at Homs, one of the worst-hit cities.  The entry of these fighters polarised Syria with the ruling Alawaites, Christians, Armenians and the Druze backing the al-Assad regime while the majority Sunnis supported the opposition. 

Into this waded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, originally from Iraq and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who has since transformed his group into a violent band of fighters considered even more extremist than the al-Qaeda.  Though the ISIL has now been declared a terrorist group by the West and even by countries like Turkey,  there is no let up in its activities.  Many Syrian neighbourhoods are under their control and the space for the secular opposition has reduced.  The ISIL spilled over to Iraq where it is now threatening the Shia-dominated  government in Baghdad. 

The emergence of the ISIL and the degeneration of a mass protest into a chaotic armed struggle have willy-nilly strengthened the position of President al-Assad.  The Western powers too are now cagey about engaging with the armed rebels. Amidst this, the common Syrian is left having to face a nightmare that defies a solution in the immediate future.

(The writer was Editor at Al-Jazeera based in Doha)

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