The current conflict in Syria has evolved from a small uprising against the authoritarian regime into a full-scale war that is characterized by social and state collapse, severe military actions, international armed conflicts, and terrorist insurgency. Nowadays, Syrian population experience direct and indirect violence, large-scale displacement, sectarianism, radicalism, territorial fragmentation, and the collapse of critical infrastructure. The conflict has occupied vast territories of rural and urban Syria. It embraced numerous domestic and external stakeholders that have personal interests to participate in the conflict, support key actors, adopt and defend their own strategic positions. Currently, the major parties of the conflict strive to fight for survival and leave no room for compromise. The paper presents an overview of the history and current status of the conflict, its major actors and stakeholders, their strategies and objectives in the conflict.
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History of the Country
Modern Syria originated in 1920 under the French Mandate (Zissser, 2013). The state proclaimed its independence 26 years after its establishment (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). However, since then the county has witnessed numerous political struggles, coups, and instability. When the Baath party gained control over Syria in 1963, a series of coups ended in the country (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). However, the internal conflicts within the Baath party soon prompted political instability. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad got a leadership position in the Baath party and established an authoritarian regime in Syria for the next 30 years (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). The authoritarian rule, poor social life, and economic stagnation prompted people to rebel against the state regime. Therefore, Syria has witnessed constant bloodshed and deaths. For example, the state authority has suppressed violently an armed rebel conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, which caused thousands of victims.
The current president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad began to govern the country after the death of his father Hafez in 2001 (Zissser, 2013). Bashar al-Assad was a younger child in the family. Therefore, he had no political ambitions, as his elder brother was the successor to the president. However, Bashar al-Assad’s brother died in a car accident in 1994 (Zissser, 2013). Consequently, Bashar became the only possible candidate of the Baath party to get the position of the President. Thus, he has ruled Syria ever since his election.
Since the beginning of his ruling, Bashar’s state policy was progressive and supported by the people. Thus, the President limited political reforms and launched economic liberalization. The most significant event was the release of hundreds of political prisoners. However, Bashar al-Assad’s regime continued to suppress political opposition for a decade. Bashar al-Assad had strained relationships with other countries. Thus, Syria became isolated on the international scene, as its regime opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and aligned with Iran (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). However, the Syrian authority was interested in maintaining its traditional partnerships, for instance with Russia.
It is important to analyze the Syrian population with the aim to determine the existing social groups, religious minorities, and their ideology. Thus, the population of Syria is not diverse and similar to other Middle Eastern countries. In general, 22.5 million people inhabit the country (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). According to Zissser (2013), “90% of citizens are ethnic Arabs, followed by 9% of Kurds and small minorities of Armenians, Turkmans, and Circassians” (p. 68). The religious diversity of the population is important for determining and analyzing the political orientation of social groups that support the ruling regime or the opposition. Thus, Bashar al-Assad comes from the Alawite religious group. More than 70% of Syrian people are Sunni Muslims (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). Moreover, there are 12% of Alawites, 4% of Druze, and a small minority of Ismails who originate from the Shian branch of Islam (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). The Christian minority comprises 10% of the total Syrian population (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). Therefore, the majority of Syrian people are Muslims, which stipulates a major influence of Islam on politics.
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History of the Conflict
The reasons of the conflict’s development in Syria concern several factors: authoritarian government’s pressure on the people, restriction of political freedoms, and economic difficulties. The first serious attempts to organize protests in the country were recorded in February 2011 (Berzins, 2013). Bashar al-Assad applied some measures to satisfy the protesters. He conducted a national referendum, adopted a new constitution, and established the first parliamentary election (Berzins, 2013). However, people did not agree to accept Assad’s policy and protested the election. Moreover, the protesters denied limited political reforms of Assad’s regime and strived to stop his governance. Therefore, the Syrian conflict began to grow.
According to a report of ARK Group DMCC (2016), the key domestic actors of the conflict are the Assad’s regime, opposition, and other minority ethnic groups. Asseburg and Wimmen (2012) also name external actors of the conflict, which are Russia, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan. Thus, the Syrian conflict has a diverse array of actors who have specific objectives and politically, militarily, economically, and socially influence the trajectory of the conflict. The Assad’s regime strives to stop oppression and make people follow obediently the regime’s policy and ideology. The opposition aims to ruin the authoritarian regime and promote social, political, and economic development and freedom in the country. Christians and Kurds are involved in the conflict to prevent its escalation to civil war in case of the fall of Assad regime.
External actors of the conflict have personal interests and objectives that are based on the strategy to support one of the key domestic stakeholders: the Assad regime or the opposition. Thus, Russia provides constant support of the Assad regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin strives to project its power and challenge the position of the US in Syria and the Middle East (Katz, 2013; Hill, 2013). According to Balcells (2011), “security and political considerations remain the most crucial strategic interests for Iran” (p. 399). Syria also presents significant geoeconomic opportunities to Iran, as it opens a maritime way to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe. Turkey is involved in the conflict with the aim to pursuit its leadership role in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is interested in adopting various approaches across the region to assert its leadership of the Sunni Arab world as well as challenging and defeating the threats to the monarchy’s sustainability. The United States strives to facilitate the fast ruin of the Assad regime, as it will limit Iranian influence in the region and hinder Russian intentions to establish supremacy on the Mediterranean. Jordan strives to find a balanced approach to deal with the Syrian conflict as well as ensure its stability and safety.
The events of the conflict in Syria are characterized by severe violence and disruption.
According to the public point of view highlighted in the reports of international organizations, the urban struggle in Aleppo that started in 2012 is the most crucial battle in the history of the Syrian conflict (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). Aleppo was the last major city where opposition had a real presence. According to the analysts, the battle of Aleppo was considered as the culmination of many years of fighting (Balcells, 2011). Assad’s regional allies and regime’s forces planned to recapture Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. They used massive military weapons to fight with rebels and managed to stop supply flow from Turkey to the rebel area. Therefore, the citizens of Aleppo and rebels could not get food, medical aid, and ammunition. The international communities accused military actions of the Assad regime that made Aleppo increasingly unbearable for civilians. According to the data of ARK Group DMCC (2016), approximately 20,000 civil citizens have been killed in the four-year battle. According to Asseburg and Wimmen (2012), the fall of Aleppo was the worst rebel defeat within the conflict in Syria, which resulted in the establishment of the Assad regime control over the state’s five major cities. Therefore, the battle in Aleppo could be the end of the Syrian conflict. President Assad has previously declared that the recapturing of Aleppo would not mean the end of the war in Syria (Balcells, 2011). However, it would be a huge step toward its end and the victory of the regime.
Type of Insurgency
The majority of people that participate in the conflict are Sunni Arabs. However, they have different political orientations. Thus, most of the rebels serve in the Free Syrian Army. The soldiers come from the Sunni provincial heartlands and do not consider the Alawites to be real Muslims. Therefore, they denied the right of Assad to rule the state because he originated from the Alawites. Consequently, some analysts state that the Syrian war was established on the base of political confrontation between the Sunni and Alawites (Zissser, 2013). Moreover, after the outbreak of the people’s rebel in 2011, the vast majority of Alawites supported the Assad regime to prevent the Sunni’s majority.
Middle-class Sunnis and some businessmen support the Assad regime in the conflict with the aim to protect their properties and material status. Many other social groups do not trust the opposition. They are threatened by Islamist groups within the rebel movements. The Arab Christian minority in Syria at one time supported the regime’s nationalist ideology and enjoyed relative security under Assad. They strived to support the Assad regime, considering it to be repressive but religiously tolerant. By contrast, the possible Sunni Islamist regime could discriminate their minorities’ rights and positions in the society.
Key Actors’ Strategies
More than 100,000 people comprise the military force of Assad (Berzins, 2013). They use heavy military weapons including fight helicopters, tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers. Due to this professional military technology, the regime forces have an advantage in the direct military confrontations with the rebels. Assad’s government had reportedly used chemical weapons on August 21, 2013 in a Damascus suburb, killing up to 1,400 civilians (Balcells, 2011).Therefore, Assad’s party of the conflict uses a mixed generation of warfare. The key strategy ofAssadis a well-organized army.It also conducts the function of the logistical backbone for regime-sponsored militias. Additionally, Assad’s army provides a significant aid for the regime’s supporters, particularly Russia and Iran.
The military equipment and weapons of Assad’s opposition are varied and mixed. The warfare is divided among several factions of opposition that have differing agendas but share a common goal of ousting Bashar al-Assad. The Free Syrian Army supplies the opposition with military equipment such as tanks and vehicles. The rebels get mainly arms and military equipment that are imported by foreign combatants and friendly nations. Moreover, they receive funding from private donors. Thus, the United States of America provided a significant supply of ammunition and weapons to Syrian rebels. In 2015, the U.S. shipped 994 tons of weapons and ammunition (Asseburg & Wimmen, 2012). In general, the opposition is supplied by small arms, explosives, anti-tank and anti-craft weapons, tanks, and armored vehicles.
Actor’s Structures, Supporters, and Operation
The major strength of the Assad regime is its effective organization. The regime has the support of its army and foreign partners. The army’s resilience has been essential for the Assad regime’s survival. The army succeeds to avoid many battlefield losses due to authorizing the ground operations to paramilitary forces. Moreover, it helps to prevent mass defections and establish the army’s image as a strong and sound unity among regime supporters. The Assad regime conducts successful military operations due to significant logistical, financial, and human resources support from Russia and Iran.
The Syrian opposition is considered to be divided into the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, and the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian National Council was formally created in Turkey in October 2011 by a range of mostly exile activists (Asseburg & Wimmen, 2012). It includes many members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and is dominated by the Sunni community. The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change includes numerous dissidents who are afraid of Islamists. The Free Syrian Army consists of Sunni soldiers who have deserted the army since the start of the uprising and comprised 60,000 people in 2016 (ARK Group DMCC, 2016). These soldiers are mostly light-armed and have elementary military skills.
Extreme violence against civilians is one of the central drivers of the Syrian conflict. It is defined as physical damage causing death, injury, and psychological trauma. Violence became a key feature of the Syrian crisis largely as a result of a chain reaction in which the repression of civilian protests led to an armed uprising against the regime. According to Balcells (2011), the stakeholders apply direct and indirect types of violence during the conflict. Violence against civilians is a part of the Syrian regime’s war strategy. Thus, Assad strives to decrease opposition groups, crush the morale of the survivors, and force them to accept local cease-fires.
Current Status of the Conflict
The war in Syria has been lasting for more than six years. According to observers of ARK Group DMCC (2016), the total death toll in Syria reached approximately 12,000 civilians. The Syrian civil war is without doubt the worst and most brutal conflict in the world. Therefore, there are numerous efforts from the side of international organizations and other countries to stop the war in Syria. Consequently, the Assad regime has stopped the fighting in some areas at the end of last year. However, the regime’s forces have continued to attack armed rebels around the territory of Damascus. Currently, the Assad’s party of the conflict has fire superiority. Involvement of some radical Islamic groups in the Syrian conflict is becoming a serious issue within the conflict. There have been registered more than 40 reported cases of car bombings and suicidal attacks. Al-Qaeda as well as other smaller Islamist groups claimed responsibility for some of the attacks.