New Delhi: The conflict in Syria has taken a new turn over the last few months — after a decade of being an outcast, the government of Bashar al-Assad is now mending ties with its neighbours, even as civil war continues to ravage the country.
After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the Arab world has started to normalise relations with Syria, and Joe Biden’s US administration has so far not invoked the Caesar Act (to authorise sanctions) against any of these countries.
The US’ close ally Jordan’s King Abdullah received a call earlier this month from al-Assad, after over a decade of strained ties. This followed an announcement on 27 September that the borders between the countries would open for trade.
Soon after, economic engagements between Syria and the UAE began, when the finance ministers of the countries met on the sidelines of the Dubai Expo on 5 October. The US has backed a gas pipeline plan that runs through Syria — which seen as a signal that Biden is also on board.
However, last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that the US does not support efforts to “normalise relations” with al-Assad’s regime, which remains under sanctions.
ThePrint looks at al-Assad’s regime and the Syrian civil war, which has reportedly killed a staggering 4,00,000 people, as estimated by the United Nations, and has resulted in over 66 lakh Syrians becoming refugees, according to UN records.
Syria before the civil war
Syria gained independence in 1946 from France after being ruled for 26 years following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But what the country didn’t achieve was stability.
Syria is a state of 2.2 crore people, nearly 75 per cent of them Sunni Muslims. But President Bashar al-Assad is from the Alawite sect, which accounts for around 12 per cent of the population.
Between 1949 and 1951, there were four military coups in Syria. Then, in 1958, Syria ceded to the United Arab Republic (UAR), a new union of Syria and Egypt led by the latter’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, only to separate again in 1961 due to a coup led by Syrian Army officers to re-establish the state of Syria.
In another coup in 1963, the Ba’ath Party, which was founded in 1947 by Michel Aflaq, came to power. But the civilian wing of the party was not part of the leadership due to a rift with the military wing — even Michel Aflaq was left out.
The military wing included Hafez al-Assad, who took power in 1971 after a series of coups, and remained in the position till his death in 2000. Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad became the president of Syria at the age of 34, and was seen as a fresh leader with progressive ideas. For him to be president, the minimum age was reduced from 40 to 34 years.
Bashar released around 600 political prisoners during his early years as president. These steps were seen as progressive, as he pursued comparatively liberal policies. However, soon there was dissent within the Ba’ath party, and Bashar began to assert control over the country and the party. In a 2007 election widely acknowledged as a “sham”, he won unopposed, getting 97.6 per cent of the votes.
Arab Spring and the war
During the spring of 2011, pro-democracy movements started in Arab countries, beginning with Tunisia and then Egypt. The movement was called the ‘Arab Spring’, and it also reached Syria among other countries.
Protests erupted in Syria’s south western city of Daraa, when children were arrested for the first pro-democracy graffiti that appeared against al-Assad’s regime. Government forces opened fire on civilians, killing over 400 people in the city within two months. This led to a series of protests throughout the country, and thus began the civil war that still continues.
A resolution was brought in the UN Security Council in October 2011 condemning the government’s crackdown and calling for sanctions against al-Assad’s regime, but it was rejected after China and Russia vetoed it.
Initially, those opposing the regime were local people. But now, there are rebels, militias backed by foreign forces like Turkey, and Islamist organisations like the Islamic State or ISIS.
By 2013, Islamist terrorism started taking grip in Syria. In April that year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an al-Qaeda leader, combined his forces in Iraq and Syria to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (a historical name for the region including modern-day Syria).
In November that year, a coalition of seven Islamist militias was formed into ‘Islamic front’. ISIS started capturing cities in 2014, implemented strict Islamic laws, and killed people ruthlessly. In September 2014, the US and other countries including Jordan, UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia scaled up their attacks against ISIS.
In early 2015, Bashar al-Assad was at his weakest. But later that year, Russia came in his support by launching airstrikes against anti-government forces. From there on, al-Assad started making big gains again.
In 2020, escalations led to a ceasefire with the rebels. But since then, the ceasefire has been violated multiple times. In Daraa, this year, after multiple killings and fighting, Russia helped rebels reach an agreement with the government, which practically meant al-Assad had won the city from where the rebellion started in 2011.
There are many foreign countries which are supporting the opposing sides in Syria’s civil war.
Iran, and Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, backed al-Assad’s regime, even setting up infrastructure and sending in soldiers to help. Iran and Hezbollah are also supporting Syria in its war against Israel, with which it shares a long border.
Last Thursday, reports suggested that Israel had attacked Iran’s infrastructure in Syria. This has happened earlier too, with Israel attempting to restrict Iran-backed Syrian troops from gaining territory in the war, and to stop Iran from gaining strength in the region.
Syria and Israel have been enemies since the creation of the latter in 1948. There have been multiple armed conflicts that continue between the two nations. Syria experienced a major setback when Israel took Golan Heights during the war of 1967, and further gained territory in the October War of 1973.
Russia also backs al-Assad’s regime. It has filled the power vacuum, and President Vladimir Putin’s support is seen as a primary reason for al-Assad’s revival after 2015. Russia claims to strike only terrorist forces, but it is no hidden fact that all anti-government forces are suppressed by it.
Turkey is the most prominent country that openly backs rebels in Syria, because it accuses al-Assad’s regime of supporting Kurdish forces. Turkey’s interest mainly lies in suppression of Kurdish People’s Protection Group (YPG), because it considers the Kurdish militia of Syria as extending support to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish terrorist organisation in Turkey.
Among the Western countries, the US, UK and France have been active in Syrian geopolitics. The US has around 900 soldiers in Syria to support the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), a rebel front that fought ISIS in the civil war.
Although the US has imposed stringent sanctions on the Syrian regime, its primary interest is to keep a check on Islamist terrorism growing on the country’s soil.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)