The trou­ble with Syria, and why the world ought to be ter­ri­fied

Nairobi Law Monthly - - Review - JANE WACHIRA

Syria, of­fi­cially known as the Syr­ian Arab Re­pub­lic, is a coun­try in western Asia whose cap­i­tal city is Da­m­as­cus. It bor­ders Le­banon and the Mediter­ranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jor­dan to the south and Is­rael to the south west. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­lieve the orig­i­nal civil­i­sa­tion in Syria is one of the most an­cient on earth see­ing as it is part of a fer­tile cres­cent, where some of the first peo­ple on earth prac­ticed cat­tle breed­ing and agri­cul­ture.

It is a coun­try of fer­tile plains, high moun­tains and deserts, and home to di­verse eth­nic and religious groups in­clud­ing Syr­ian Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Ar­me­ni­ans and Assyr­i­ans. Religious groups in­clude Chris­tians, Alaw­ites, Shi­ites and Salafis, with Sunni Arabs mak­ing up the largest por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion. Present day Syria is only a small por­tion of the an­cient ge­o­graph­i­cal Syr­ian land­mass. Greater Syria, as his­to­ri­ans and political sci­en­tists re­fer to this area, is a re­gion con­nect­ing three con­ti­nents, si­mul­ta­ne­ously cursed and blessed as a cross­road for com­merce and a bat­tle ground for the political des­tinies of dy­nas­ties and em­pires. Through­out his­tory, greater Syria has been the fo­cal point of a con­tin­ual di­alec­ti­cal, both in­tel­lec­tual and bel­li­cose, be­tween the Middle East and the West. To­day Syria re­mains an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in the tribu­la­tions of a trou­bled and highly volatile re­gion.


Since be­fore 2000 BC, Syria has been an in­te­gral part, or the seat of govern­ment for pow­er­ful em­pires. The strug­gle among var­i­ous in­dige­nous groups as well as in­vad­ing for­eign­ers re­sulted in cul­tural en­rich­ment and sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to civil­i­sa­tions de­spite political up­heaval and tur­moil. Syria is home to one of the old­est cities ex­ca­vated, Ebla, be­lieved to ex­ist around 3000 BCE. This sought af­ter land was oc­cu­pied by all sorts of an­cient em­pires from the Egyp­tian to Hit­tites, Sume­ri­ans, Assyr­i­ans, Canaan­ites, to Per­sians and Greeks.

Af­ter King Akkad of Me­sopotamia de­stroyed Ebla, Amorites ruled the re­gion un­til their power was eclipsed in 1600 BC by the Egyp­tians. The fol­low­ing cen­turies saw Syria ruled by a suc­ces­sion of Canaan­ites, He­brews, Per­sians, Greeks, Ro­mans, Mus­lim Arabs, Euro­pean Chris­tian cru­saders, Ot­toman Turks, Western Al­lied Forces, and the French. Al­though Syria has ab­sorbed the le­ga­cies of th­ese many and ral­lied cul­tures, the very ex­is­tence of this string of for­eign dom­i­nat­ing pow­ers ex­em­pli­fies the political, eco­nomic and religious im­por­tance of Syria’s strate­gic lo­ca­tion.

Syria fell to the Ot­toman Turks in 1516 and re­mained a part of their Ot­toman em­pire for four cen­turies. Dur­ing this pe­riod, it wit­nessed great de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in eco­nomic, so­cial and political fields. In 1916, the Arabs took the op­por­tu­nity of World War 1 to re­volt against the Turk­ish rule. They re­ceived Bri­tish mil­i­tary sup­port and prom­ises that af­ter the war ended, Arab coun­tries would be granted full in­de­pen­dence. In early 1918, Arab and Bri­tish armies en­tered Da­m­as­cus end­ing 400 years of Ot­toman oc­cu­pa­tion. Later

in 1918, Syria was de­clared an in­de­pen­dent king­dom. This in­de­pen­dence was how­ever short-lived. France and Bri­tain, through the Sykes-pi­cot agree­ment, de­cided to di­vide the Middle East into French and Bri­tish “spheres of in­flu­ence”. Syria was to be put un­der the French man­date. In 1923, af­ter a suc­cess­ful bat­tle of the French troops against Syr­ian rebels, the League of Na­tions of­fi­cially recog­nised French man­date over Syria.

Syria was fi­nally recog­nised as an in­de­pen­dent state in 1944, but of­fi­cially in April 17, 1946. Note that be­tween then and the late 50’s, it had 20 dif­fer­ent cab­i­nets and four con­sti­tu­tions, not a very sta­ble govern­ment, to say the least.

In 1948, Syria got in­volved in the Arabis­raeli war to protest the es­tab­lish­ment of Is­rael. There were three mil­i­tary coup d’états in 1949, lead­ing to a fourth coup in 1954. Egypt and Syria de­cided to merge to be­come the United Arab Re­pub­lic, but the idea only lasted a few years be­cause of Egypt’s dom­i­nance. The 60’s were char­ac­terised by fre­quent coups, mil­i­tary re­volts, bloody ri­ots and civil dis­or­ders. For most of the 20th cen­tury, Syria’s power re­mained in its mil­i­tary and not so much in its par­lia­ment.

Even­tu­ally, the min­is­ter of de­fence, Hafez -al-as­sad, seized power in a blood­less coup in 1970, and thus be­gan a new era for 30 years. Shortly af­ter gain­ing power, As­sad cre­ated a new leg­is­la­ture and lo­cal coun­cils to gov­ern smaller provinces, con­sol­i­dated political par­ties, wrote a new con­sti­tu­tion and de­clared Syria a sec­u­lar so­cial­ist state with Is­lam as the ma­jor­ity re­li­gion.

Af­ter the Gulf War, Syria ac­cepted the US in­vi­ta­tion for an in­ter­na­tional peace con­fer­ence on the Middle East. This marked the launch of bi­lat­eral Arab- Is­raeli peace talks, which called for Is­raeli with­drawal of oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. Syr­ian-is­raeli peace talks reached a dead end in 1996 with Is­raeli re­fus­ing to dis­cuss com­plete with­drawal from Golan Heights. In 2000, Pres­i­dent As­sad suc­cumbed to a heart at­tack and was suc­ceeded by his son Bashar al-as­sad. Peo­ple were ini­tially pos­i­tive as at the start of his regime, he re­leased 600 political pris­on­ers. It, how­ever, did not last long; pro-re­form move­ments were sup­pressed while lead­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als were ar­rested. In 2002, the US of­fi­cially ac­cused Syria of ac­quir­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Al­though things had be­gan to look up, there was a set­back in 2005, when Is­rael led an airstrike in North­ern Syria on what they claimed was a nu­clear fa­cil­ity. In 2008, As­sad met with the pres­i­dents of France and Le­banon ,Ni­co­las Sarkozy and Michel Suleiman re­spec­tively to lay down foun­da­tions for bet­ter diplo­macy, and even hosted a sum­mit that in­cluded Turkey and Qatar, with the goal of a Middle East peace. In 2009, the US sent a spe­cial en­voy to ne­go­ti­ate peace talks and posted its first am­bas­sador in five years. How­ever, this progress came to an abrupt end when, in 2010, the US re­newed eco­nomic sanc­tions against Syria ac­cus­ing it of sup­port­ing ter­ror­ist groups.

The Syr­ian cri­sis

Over the Arab spring in early 2011, Egypt protested and suc­cess­fully changed its regime, which gave Syr­ian civil­ians courage to try and do the same. Un­for­tu­nately, the Syr­ian govern­ment did not re­spond peace­fully, and the protest turned vi­o­lent.

In 2011, army tanks en­tered sub­urbs of Da­m­as­cus in an ef­fort to crush anti-regime protests. In June that year, the govern­ment said 120 mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces had been killed by armed gangs. Troops be­sieged the town and more than 10,000 peo­ple fled to Turkey while Pres­i­dent As­sad promised to start a na­tional di­a­logue on re­form.

Op­po­si­tion re­tal­i­ates

In July 2011, Pres­i­dent As­sad sacked the gov­er­nor of the North­ern Prov­ince af­ter there was a mass demon­stra­tion in his area. Later he sent in troops to re­store or­der at the cost of scores of lives. In Oc­to­ber 2011, the new Syr­ian coun­cil an­nounced that it had forged a com­mon front com­pris­ing in­ter­nal and ex­iled op­po­si­tion ac­tivists. In Novem­ber 2011, the Arab League voted to sus­pend Syria ac­cus­ing it of fail­ing to im­ple­ment an Arab peace plan, and im­posed sanc­tions.

Civil war

In De­cem­ber 2011, twin sui­cide bombs went off out­side se­cu­rity build­ings in Da­m­as­cus killing 44; this was the first of a se­ries of large blasts in the cap­i­tal that con­tin­ued into the fol­low­ing months. In Fe­bru­ary 2012, the govern­ment stepped up the bom­bard­ment of Homs, one of the rebel bases, and other cities.

In­ter­na­tional pres­sure

In March 2012, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil en­dorsed a non-bind­ing peace plan drafted by UN en­voy, Kofi An­nan. China and Rus­sia agreed to sup­port the plan af­ter an ear­lier, tougher draft was mod­i­fied. In May 2012, France, UK, Ger­many, Italy, Spain, Canada and Aus­tralia ex­pelled se­nior Syr­ian di­plo­mats to protest of the killing of more than a hun­dred civil­ians in Houla near Homs.

Op­po­si­tion rifts

In June 2012, Turkey changed the rules of en­gage­ment af­ter Syria shot down a Turk­ish plane, declar­ing that if the Syr­ian troops ap­proached Turkey’s bor­der they would be seen as mil­i­tary threat. In July 2012, the Free Syria army blew up three se­cu­rity chiefs in Da­m­as­cus and seized Aleppo in the north. In au­gust, Prime Min­is­ter Riad Hi­jab de­fected while US pres­i­dent Obama warned that use of chem­i­cal weapons would tilt the US to­wards in­ter­ven­tion. In Oc­to­ber 2012, ten­sion be­tween Syria and Turkey in­creased when Syria used mor­tar fire on a Turk­ish bor­der town killing five civil­ians. Turkey re­turned fire and in­ter­cepted a Syr­ian plane al­legedly car­ry­ing firearms from Rus­sia.

Later in the year, fire in Aleppo de­stroyed much of the his­toric mar­ket as fight­ing and bomb at­tacks con­tin­ued in var­i­ous cities. In Novem­ber 2012, the Na­tional Coali­tion for Syr­ian Revo­lu­tion­ary and Op­po­si­tion forces formed in Qatar ex­cluded Is­lamist mili­tia. In De­cem­ber 2012 the US, Bri­tain, France and Turkey for­mally recog­nised op­po­si­tion na­tional coali­tion as the le­git­i­mate rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Syr­ian peo­ple. In Jan­uary 2013 Syria ac­cused Is­raeli jets of at­tack­ing a mil­i­tary re­search cen­tre near Da­m­as­cus, but de­nied re­ports that lor­ries car­ry­ing weapons bound for Le­banon were hit. In March 2013, Syr­ian war­planes bombed the north­ern city of Raqqa af­ter rebels seized con­trol; the US and Bri­tain also pledged non-mil­i­tary aid for the rebels.

Rise of Is­lamic ex­trem­ist groups

Much of 2013 and 2014 was char­ac­terised by the rise of Is­lamists in­clud­ing The Al­lied Le­banese Hezbol­lah forces and the neu­tral­i­sa­tion of Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons bases by the US and UK.

The Is­lamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mil­i­tants de­clared caliphate in the ter­ri­tory from Aleppo and Raqqa Prov­ince. In Septem­ber 2014, the US and five Arab coun­tries launched air strikes against ISIS around the two provinces. In March 2015, op­po­si­tion of­fen­sives pushed back govern­ment forces and cap­tured pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Idlib. In May 2015, Is­lamic state fight­ers seized the an­cient city of Palmyra in cen­tral Syria rais­ing fear that they might de­stroy the pre-is­lamic his­toric site.

In Septem­ber 2015, Rus­sia car­ried out its first air strikes in Syria, say­ing it was tar­get­ing the ISIS group. But the West and Syr­ian Op­po­si­tion said that is was over­whelm­ingly tar­get­ing anti-as­sad rebels in­stead. In the same month, Is­rael tar­geted at least two mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions in air strikes in Syria in re­sponse to stray rock­ets that landed in the part of the Golan Heights oc­cu­pied by Is­rael. In De­cem­ber 2015, Bri­tain joined Us-led bomb­ing raids against Is­lamic state in wake of Paris sui­cide bomb­ing at­tacks. Syr­ian army al­lowed rebels to evac­u­ate the re­main­ing area of Homs, re­turn­ing Syria’s third largest city to govern­ment con­trol af­ter four years.


Syria’s civil war is the worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis of our time. Half the coun­try’s pre war pop­u­la­tion, which is more than 11 mil­lion peo­ple, has been killed or forced to flee their homes. Fam­i­lies are strug­gling to sur­vive in­side Syria, or make a new home in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. Oth­ers are risk­ing their lives on the way to Europe, hop­ing to find ac­cep­tance and op­por­tu­nity. Syria’s civil­ians are liv­ing a life worse than death.

Ac­cord­ing to Amnesty in­ter­na­tional, the height of hu­man­i­tar­ian atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted is “sim­ply de­spi­ca­ble”, from ex­ten­sive war crimes and gross hu­man rights abuses with im­punity, in­dis­crim­i­nate bom­bard­ing of civil­ian res­i­den­tial ar­eas, and med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties with ar­tillery mor­tars, bar­rel bombs, chem­i­cal agents and the un­law­ful killing of civil­ians. This has en­forced lengthy sieges, trap­ping civil­ians and de­priv­ing them of food, med­i­cal care and other ne­ces­si­ties, with se­cu­rity forces ar­bi­trar­ily ar­rest­ing or con­tin­u­ing to de­tain thou­sands in­clud­ing peace­ful ac­tivists, hu­man rights de­fend­ers, me­dia and hu­man­i­tar­ian work­ers and chil­dren. Non-state armed groups which con­trolled some ar­eas and con­tested oth­ers have been in­dis­crim­i­nately shelling and be­sieg­ing ar­eas con­tain­ing civil­ians who sup­ported the govern­ment.

By the end of 2014, the UN re­ported at least 200,000 deaths. In ad­di­tion, 7.6 mil­lion peo­ple were in­ter­nally dis­placed and ap­prox­i­mately four mil­lion had be­come refugees in other coun­tries. Ev­ery year of the con­flict has seen ex­po­nen­tial growth in refugees. In 2012, there were 100,000 refugees. By April 2013, there were 800,000, which dou­bled to 1.6 mil­lion in less than four months. There are now 4.3 mil­lion Syr­i­ans scat­tered through­out the re­gion, mak­ing them the world’s largest refugee pop­u­la­tion un­der the UN’S man­date.

Syria is a vic­tim of power play, political as well as religious. Her his­tory is not all glit­ter as she has been in­volved in bat­tles long be­fore Charles Dar­win dis­cov­ered the first re­mains of the early man in Africa. She has seen the rule of kings, em­per­ors, prime min­is­ters and now pres­i­dents. Her back­ground has been char­ac­terised by in­sta­bil­ity. She has ex­pe­ri­enced the ex­tremes of both Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam and prob­a­bly be­cause of her in­con­sis­tent, un­sta­ble and overtly di­verse back­ground, to­day she is deep in tur­moil far from the gates of re­cov­ery.

Whose fault is it and can she be saved? Are the Rus­sians, Amer­i­cans, Bri­tons and Arabs fight­ing the real en­emy or in do­ing so are they help­ing the en­emy? Who is to blame; Is­rael? Religious ex­trem­ism? ISIS? Turkey? Pres­i­dent As­sad? Rebel groups? Or Syr­ian cit­i­zens for not fight­ing hard enough to de­fend their na­tion. Jor­dan, Syria’s neigh­bour, is at peace with her­self and with Is­rael af­ter sign­ing a peace agree­ment in 1994; Jor­dan was even ranked the 4th top peace­ful coun­try in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). Had Syria signed the peace treaty with Is­rael in 1996, would she be at peace to­day?

Even af­ter a se­ries of res­o­lu­tions or­ches­trated by the UN, in­clud­ing res­o­lu­tion 2139, 2165 and 2170 to keep peace, the sit­u­a­tion keeps wors­en­ing with more and more Syr­i­ans flee­ing their coun­try ev­ery wak­ing day. Will peace ever be re­stored in Syria or in the Middle East?^


Anti-as­sad pro­test­ers.

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