Understanding the Syria Crisis

Originally reported on SensibleReason.com on September 15, 2013

With the displacement of over 6 million Syrians, recent reports of chemical warfare, and threats of military action from the United States, the Syrian conflict has escalated in a rapid fashion throughout the past few months, dominating the front page of newspapers and infiltrating itself into daily conversation. But while Syria’s crisis seems to have taken over international news, with its complex history and even more complicated future, many still struggle to grasp all of the details of the issue. Here at SensibleReason, we’ll lay out everything starting from where and how it all began to the next steps taken by the international community in dealing with Syria.

Syria’s Civil War

Syria President Bashar Assad speaks at parliament in Damascus.

President Bashar Assad took office in June of 2000 following his father’s death, taking the reigns of the Ba’ath Syrian government that has ruled the single-party state since 1964. Although many hoped that with the change in Presidency would come a change in rule, Assad arrested 10 leading activists in 2001 who called for democratic elections through a campaign of civil disobedience, reinforcing the dominant political authority of the Ba’ath party. For the next decade the government worked to restrict the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly rights in an effort to suppress human rights activists and critics of the government.

In December of 2010, mass anti-government protests spread throughout the Arab world, igniting revolutionary armies that forced many dictators out of power. The Arab Spring, as it is known, created a sense of unity and earnest within the Middle East as many watched their neighboring states fight for the end of corruption and oppression. Syria was not any different.

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In January of 2011, large scale protests against government corruption and human rights violations broke out across the country. The government responded by enacting large measures of censorship and enforcing mass arrests that led to the torture of prisoners and many reports of police brutality. The war continued to escalate through battles and protests between forces loyal to Assad’s government, and those who were fighting to oust it.

Timeline of Events

April 2011: Assad gives citizenship to Kurds residing in Syria who have been fighting for it for decades, promises greater political and social rights for citizens.

April 2011: As protests continue Assad launches large-scale military operations using tanks, infantry carriers, and artillery, resulting in a large number of civilian deaths. Many soldiers and low-level officers resign from the Syrian army after being told to use methods of lethal force against unarmed protestors. Those who refuse to open fire against civilians were executed by the army.

April 2011: Protestors demand the resignation of Assad and the end of the Ba’ath party rule.

June 2011: Beginning of an armed insurrection of opposing forces; angry protestors set fire to a building and seize weapons, killing 120 Syrian troops as a result.

July 2011: The Free Syrian Army, made up of defected officers and members of the main opposition army, forms, but still lacks a central leader.

August 2011: The Syrian Navy gets involved in the conflict at the Siege of Latakia. Navy gunboats fire heavy machine guns at the waterfront districts of Latakia as ground troops raid several neighborhoods.

August 2011: The US, France, Germany, Britain, and Canada call for Assad’s resignation.

October 2011: Neighboring Turkey offers support to the Free Syrian Army, allowing the rebels to operate their command center and headquarters safely from inside the state. Turkey acts as a safe zone and supply route for the opposition force.

October 2011: Russia and China veto a Western-drafted resolution which would have taken steps to hold the Syrian government accountable for damage and deaths if it continued military actions.

December 2011: Syria is suspended from the Arab League after warnings to Assad to stop the violence.

March 2012: Death toll reaches 10,000.

April 2012: Syria enters a UN mediated ceasefire, but it ultimately fails because of infractions by each side. The UN mission withdraws by June.

June 2012: The UN Action Group meets and agrees on a 6 point plan outlining free elections in Syria, but the plan was rejected by Western countries as lacking pressure and excusing Assad of his wrongs. Russia and Iran publicly express support for Assad.

June 2012: Egypt severs diplomatic relations with Syria.

August 2012: The US, UK, and France provide the opposition with non-lethal aid (food, medical supplies, armor, communications equipment, etc.,). Saudi Arabia arms and bankrolls the opposition.

October 2012: Lakhdar Brahmini, of the UN, arranges for another ceasefire during the holy Eid al-Adha, but again the peace plan collapses and fighting continues. Bombing of Damascus, one of the largest cities in Syria, expands.

December 2012: The US, Britain, France, Turkey, and other Gulf states formally recognize Syria’s opposition national coalition as the legitimate representation of the Syrian people.

As the fighting continues into 2013, reports of chemical weapons surface, and the UN attempts to investigate without avail.

19 March 2013: Twenty-five citizens are killed after missiles containing chemical materials are fired into Aleppo and Damascus, the two major cities in Syria. Both the rebels and the Syrian army revert responsibility to the other side. Russia says they have evidence that the Free Syrian Army commanded the strike, while Israel accuses the Syrian government for the crime.

23 April 2013: The British and French governments send confidential letters to the UN Secretary General claiming evidence that Assad’s government used chemical weapons in Aleppo, Horns, and Damascus. Meanwhile, a US assessment declares that Assad used sarin gas, but explains that more work has to be done to verify. An investigation team from the UN is denied access into Syria.

29 April 2013: Another chemical attack with the use of sarin gas is reported in Saraqib. The investigation carried out by the UN states that limited amounts of chemical warfare were used in at least four attacks, but more evidence is needed to determine what chemicals were used and who ordered the attacks.

13 June 2013: The US announces that they have definitive proof that the Syrian government used limited amounts of chemical weapons; France has tests to confirm. Russia attacks the credibility of the statement, reasoning that Assad lacks motivation for the attacks as the government already has a military advantage in the war.

5 August 2013: Opposition forces report another unidentified chemical attack and document injured on video. Over 400 civilians are affected.

21 August 2013: At 2:30 AM explosions followed by clouds of chemical gas hit Damascus, killing over 1,300 civilians, around 400 of which were children. Neither side takes responsibility, but the Syrian government initially prevents UN investigators from again reaching the site of the attack. On August 25 they allow investigators to enter, but again order them away on August 26.

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PHOTO: Bassam Khabieh

Initial Steps Towards Resolve 

In the first few days following the chemical attacks foreign nations around the world grappled with how to properly punish those responsible for the death and injury of thousands; is an intervention even justified? Where is the concrete evidence? How much action is enough, and how much is too much?

Following over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan after a similar quickly-intented intervention, many governments feared getting too involved and risking the lives of their own men for another country’s civil war.

However, the use of chemical warfare is prohibited by the United Nations Security Council, and therefore, a call for action was necessary.

Almost immediately the United States and the United Nations deployed ships along the Mediterranean near Syria, although no attack had been approved. Britain, France, and the United States discussed whether militaristic action should be taken by the three states. On August 29, however, the British Parliament voted against British intervention in Syria. The vote left the United States without a key ally in the Syrian war.

On August 31, in a speech to the nation, President Barack Obama announced that he would seek Congressional authorization before sending American troops to take action in the Syrian war, stating that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a mockery of international norms that needed to be stopped. France offered full support if the United States were to take action.

Obama continued on a full congressional campaign to gain votes for an air-strike on Syria, but in doing so, prolonged military action on the state. Meanwhile, the Arab League endorsed international action against Syria to deter any further chemical attacks but discredited Obama’s call for intervention due to his lack of urgency.

As Obama and French political leaders work to gain congressional approval, Assad continually denied any involvement in the chemical attacks on August 21. Assad also warned Obama that Syria could and would retaliate if attacked. However, the Obama administration stressed again and again that this would not be a prolonged effort, but instead a limited air-strike to keep Assad accountable for his actions and remind him that he can not get away with this again.

Mixed pleas from both sides of the Syrian conflict only made things harder for Congress. Some begged Obama for help against Assad’s tyranny; others shamed the United States for swearing off terrorism in other states but supporting the terrorist rebels in Syria.

Finally a breakthrough came on September 9 when Obama agreed to work with Russian leaders to come up with a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. He promised nothing less than a plan that was enforceable and serious, but continued to advocate for military action in Syria incase no such plan was achieved.

In a speech to the nation on September 10, Obama announced that he would delay a military strike on Syria once again in order to focus on developing a plan with Russia to obtain and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.

Later that day Assad’s government admitted possession of chemical arms, and agreed to the Russian initiative to release those arms into international control so to avoid American aggression on the state. However, in exchange for releasing his chemical arsenal, Assad demanded that the United States stop arming the Syrian opposition.

What’s Next?

On September 14 the United States and Russia moved forward with plans to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control to be contained and destroyed in the coming months. Under conditions of the deal, Syria must provide a comprehensive list of its chemical weapons within a week, while international inspectors from the Organization of the Prevention of Chemical Weapons must be allowed “unfettered” access to said weapons immediately. The deal also states that all chemical weapons must be contained and destroyed by mid-2014.

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PHOTO: AP Larry Downing

US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference in Geneva on Saturday that the deal was pushed forward in order to “expedite the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons” and protect citizens of any nation from the dangers of chemical warfare.

If fully implemented, the removal of chemical weapons would be “credible and verifiable,” Kerry said. “The world will now wait for the Assad regime to honor its commitments. There is no room for anything other than full compliance.”

Russia and the United States have agreed on the type and amount of chemical weapons in Syria’s possession and are fully committed to dissembling their arsenal without protest. Kerry said that should Assad refuse to comply, extreme measures would be taken by the UN Security Council and the US.

He clearly stated that the Commander-in-Chief President Barack Obama must uphold the right to defend the United States and its interests, and so the threat of force remains open and rely on Assad’s actions within the next few months.

General Selim Idris, of the opposition army in Syria, was less enthusiastic about the deal. “All of this initiative does not interest us,” Idris said. “Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people. A crime against humanity has been committed and there is not any mention of accountability.

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