Civil & Proxy Wars: The Making of a Failed State
The domino effect can best be defined with The Arab Spring of 2010. Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia which began in an attempt to hold the government accountable and oust the heads of state spurred a rapid succession of such revolutions in the Arab nations. Some failed, but some bagged success too, both at the cost of many lives. Among other countries, this movement caused significant upheaval in Syria, and the impact is still felt in the nation.
Syria is home to diverse communities apart from the majority of Sunni Muslims. But the borders were demarcated not in accordance with this but French interests. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 defined borders of the Ottoman Empire for the United Kingdom and France’s spheres of control. The internal disturbances in Syria among the various ethnic and religious groups can be attributed to this among many other factors.
In February 1958, Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli and Egypt’s Gamal Abdal Nasser agreed upon a merger to form the United Arab Republic. This ceased all political parties and communist activities in Syria. Soon, a group of Ba’athist officers took advantage of the growing fragility of the union and formed the secret Military Committee. One of the founding members was Captain Hafez Al-Assad, who along with his son has shaped much of Syria’s history. A coup in 1961 marked the accession of Syria and its establishment as the Syrian Arab Republic. Months of political instability led to another coup in 1963, known as the 8th March Revolution, which was engineered by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. From 1970-2000, Assad remained the Prime Minister of Syria. The baton was passed on to his son, Bashar al-Assad upon his death.
Bashar’s rule came as a ray of hope to the Syrians. In his inaugural speech, he promised economic liberalisation and political reform and called the Syrian citizens to participate in the country’s ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’. An elite class developed under his rule as he adopted the policy of neoliberalism and opened many state-owned businesses and industries to private players. International forces and the fear of sanctions forced Syria to pull out its forces from Lebanon, where it has had considerable influence since its father's tenure. However, the initial ray of hope was short-lived.
Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority population started accusing Assad of favouring the minorities as he himself is an Alawite, a minority Shia Muslim sect in Syria. In 2011, protests erupted in Daraa after security forces detained local school students for spraying graffiti on walls. Allegedly, the boys were tortured and detained under General Atef Najeeb, the president’s cousin. There had been peaceful anti-government protests but this incident paved the way to a full-fledged civil war. Merely three days into the demonstrations, the Bashar government responded to these civil protests with violence; first by security forces and then by the military. On March 23, Special Forces entered a mosque that was a refuge for the injured and killed five people. By March 25, protests had spread nationwide. The rallies were for political and economic reform and the release of political prisoners among other causes. This was met with tear gas, water cannons and fire ammunition by the police. When asked about the crackdown, Assad told USA’s ABC television, “They are not my forces.”
July 2011 witnessed the formation of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] composed of army officers who had defected from the regime with the objective of removing President Assad from power. FSA attacked army bases and intelligence headquarters in retaliation. By July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the fighting to have expanded so much for it to be declared as a state of civil war.
Failed states have always been the superpowers’ favourite as a battleground for another proxy war. Syria’s condition suited their purpose. Russia along with its allies such as Turkey are supporters of the Assad regime and term protesting groups like criminals, whereas the US is in support of the public. In September 2015, Russia launched bombings against these ‘terrorists’ and anti-Assad groups that are backed by the USA. There have also been reports that suggest that the Central Investigative Agency (CIA) spent around $500 million to train and support these groups. Their troops are also stationed in Manbij, an area that borders Turkey.
Attempts at peace talks have also failed due to this divided international stance. For instance, China and Russia have vetoed Western resolutions in the United Nations Security Council.
Assad continues his rule through what some claim to be rigged elections. In a 2012 interview, Assad commented about the ongoing civil war and international interests-
“The problem is not between me and the people; I don’t have a problem with the people. The United States is against me, the West is against me, many Arab countries including Turkey – which is not Arab of course – [are] against me, and if the Syrian people are against me, how can I be here? If the whole world, or let’s say [a] big part of the world, including your people [are] against you, are you superman? No, you’re just a human being – so this is not logical…It’s not about reconciliation between the Syrian and the Syrian; we don’t have [a] civil war. It’s about terrorism and support coming from abroad, to support terrorists and destabilize Syria.”
Like any other war, innocent lives have been the victims. Nearly 5,00,000 people have died in this decade-long civil war. Another problem neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have faced is that of refugees. In February 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had registered over 5.5 million refugees and over 6.5 million internally displaced people.
The repercussions of the Arab Spring makes one question the pursuit of reform- at the cost of lives, economy and the very sovereignty of the nation- are the losses greater than the gains?
Rafizadeh M. (2011, September 16) For Syria’s minorities, Assad is security. Al Jazeera.
Hubbard B. (2021, October 11) Bashar al-Assad Steps In From the Cold, but Syria Is Still Shattered. The New York Times.
Hussain H. (2019, March 15) Remembering the start of the Syrian Revolution. Middle East Monitor.
Syria Events of 2008. Human Rights Watch.