A Short Explanation of the Warfare in Syria

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by Stanley Heller, PEP Administrator, Dec. 2016

 Syria has been ruled by one family since 1971, the Assad family. The Assads are from a family that takes an Alawite view of Islam and for decades Alawites were favored in government, especially as heads of the military and police.  Alawites are a minority in Syria. Most Syrians follow the Sunni vision of Islam. In the ‘70’s Hafez al-Assad became increasingly dictatorial.  More and more government power came into his hands and he ruled with an iron fist.  Dissidents were jailed and often tortured. A Sunni opposition best known as the Muslim Brotherhood grew stronger and launched violent attacks on the Assad government.  In 1982 Hafez al-Assad crushed this movement in Hama, razing the city killing perhaps 20,000 people.

Though Israel has occupied Syrian land in the Golan since 1967 Assad made no move to regain the territory.  While formally at war, Syria and Israel did not clash in that area. However, Assad intervened in other countries, especially Lebanon.  During the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970’s Assad sent troops into Lebanon to oppose and defeat an alliance of Leftist Lebanese and Palestinian militias which was gaining the upper hand. At the Tel al-Zaatar massacre thousands were killed by Syrian troops and Syrian allies.  Assad’s troops and secret police remained in Lebanon until 2005.  They fought Israeli soldiers during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.  In the mid-80’s Syrian soldiers supported a Lebanese faction, Amal, against the Palestinians in their refugee camps.  During the “War of the Camps” there were sieges that went on and off for years only ending in 1987.  In 1991 Syria supported the U.S. led war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Hafez Assad claimed he was always fighting for Arab interests, but judged by his actions what was uppermost to him were the interests of the Assad family.

Hafez Assad died in 2000 after picking his son Bashar to take over the country. Bashar moved the country in more “free market” direction meaning less government aid and more opportunities for the wealthy to enrich themselves.  One man Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin became fabulously successful.  He was worth $5 billion and was said to control 60% of Syrian business. This was happening during Syria’s worst drought in modern times. Over a million fled farms for cities where they received little help.

This all boiled over in 2011 after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. In March some children in the city of Deraa wrote graffiti on walls, slogans copied from the revolutions.  They were seized and tortured. Many had their fingernails ripped out. Their parents protested and were met with water cannons and live ammunition. Four were killed.  Instead of ending protests opposition grew.  From Deraa marches and demonstrations spread to other cities.  People came out in the thousands and the tens of thousands. At first the opposition was united and religion and ethnicity didn’t matter.  The response of the government, the regime, was violence and more violence. On April 29, 2011 its forces shot 62 people dead in Deraa. They framed their fight as one against Islamic terrorism.  Anyone in the opposition was supposedly a “terrorist”.  To help make this claim truthful Assad actually released al-Qaeda and other extremist supporters from its prisons.  It was a big gamble, but the regime wanted to picture itself as the least bad option, a plan that it has stuck with permanently.  The regime also vastly increased its prison system, what Amnesty International terms its “death prisons”.  The group estimates 18,000 have died in those prisons after terrible mistreatment.   This was dramatically shown to the world after a Syrian military photographer calling himself “Caesar” smuggled out of Syria thousands of pictures of corpses that he said were prisoners killed by Assad jailers.  Thousands of political prisoners remain in Assad prisons at any one time.

Assad and his Russian and Iranian government allies say that the uprising in Syria was a result of a plot by Saudi and other Gulf monarchies and the United States.  Besides failing to explain how a foreign plot could mobilize hundreds of thousands of Syrians to protest despite terrible violence it gets the facts wrong.   In the first months of the uprising against Assad, the Saudis and other monarchies were on the side of Assad. They did not break with Assad until August of 2011. The United States government interferes everywhere and Syria was no exception.  Several million dollars was given in the 2000’s to opposition groups.  On the other hand after 9/11 the U.S. sent prisoners to be questioned (tortured) in Assad prisons and restored full relations with Syria after sending an ambassador back to Syria in February of 2011 a month before the first protests.  The first U.S. calls for Assad’s removal were not until the middle of August 2011.

Syrian mass protests continued for months in 2011.  Many were coordinated by the non-violent LCC’s (Local Coordinating Committees).  It was not until the mid-summer after the regime had killed over 2,000 people that the first calls for an armed overthrow of the regime were made.  The LCC’s opposed it, but in the face of all the killing and torture and with military deserters being savagely hunted down, armed struggle came to dominate opposition action.

A loose coalition of armed groups called itself the Free Syrian Army.  It fought Assad forces with weapons it got from deserters, purchased on the black market and those it made itself.  In 2012 it started to receive weapons from Gulf monarchies and from the United States.  Assad forces started to use every weapon in the Syrian military arsenal against the opposition, moving from rifles to air dropped bombs to chemicals.  The most horrific single attack took place on August 21, 2013 when Assad forces sent missiles into opposition areas filled with sarin gas.  Over 1,000 people were killed including hundreds of children.  The Obama Administration threatened an armed response.  Russia suggested that Syria give up its chemical weapons and a deal was made and the U.S. did not bomb.

Increasingly Islamic militias dominated the armed opposition.  Some opposed the initial democratic goals of the revolution hoping to set up an Islamic state. Thousands of foreigners flocked to their call.  One of the stronger groups called itself al-Nusra and was  openly allied with al-Qaeda, the group that attacked the U.S. on 9/11.

Then another factor was added to the Syrian conflict with the rise of ISIS which called itself the Islamic State. Appealing to mistreated Sunni in Iraq they expanded into Syria and conquered Raqaa and a wide swath of other area.  In 2014 they took over Syrian oilfields.  The United States bombed ISIS in Syria.  It never attacked Assad forces who by any measure inflicted many times more killings and human rights abuses on Syrians.

One tactic of the regime has been to put whole cities and towns under siege. No food is allowed unless there is surrender.  Over a million people were under siege by the government.  In January of 2016 skeletal images of Syrians provoked widespread outrage.  The United Nations Security Council had demanded free access for its World Food Program to feed all hungry areas as early as February 2014, but did nothing to enforce its demand.  The WFP does airdrop food to one Assad controlled area under siege by ISIS.

The deaths and terrible conditions in Syria have led to another world problem…refugees. Over 4 million have fled the country.  Turkey has taken in over 2.5 million.  Britain and the U.S. though much richer have taken in very few. Pitiful images of refugees on rubber boats in the Mediterranean or dead on shores after drowning gained sympathy, but not much help from Western governments.  Fear of refugees in Europe and the United States has led to anti-refugee candidates increasingly winning elections.

Palestinians had been warmly received in Syria since the late 1940’s when they were expelled from their homes by Israel.  By 2011 the refugee camp called Yarmouk was home to some 200,000 Palestinians and hundreds of thousands of Syrians.  Palestinians tried to maintain neutrality in the Syria fightingfor several years, but were increasingly drawn into the war.  By the end of 2012 Assad forces put Yarmouk under siege.  A terrible picture of people lined up for food in 2015 brought home the suffering to the world.  Yet a year later Yarmouk was nearly all destroyed, a few thousand people remained with ISIS and al-Qaeda fighting over sections of the ruins.

Russia has been a long-time ally of Assad forces and sells its weapons.  Iran’s Shia dominated government is also an ally. Russian-Iranian military support dwarfs anything provided to the opposition by the Gulf monarchies and the U.S. The U.N. Envoy for Syria estimated in 2015 that Iran was spending $6 billion a year to aid Assad.  Thousands of Iranian troops are in Syria helping Assad as is the Hezbollah militia from Lebanon.

In the late summer of 2015 Assad forces were suffering severe reverses.  Then in September Russian planes began it first bombing attacks on opposition areas to great effect.   Hospitals and other medical facilities (clearly marked and known to all governments) were deliberately and routinely bombed. A convoy of Red Crescent trucks were blown up in 2016 after a cease-fire fell apart. Assad-Russian total war tactics are having success.  After medical facilities in Daraya and Moadamiyeh were wiped out in 2016, the cities surrendered to Assad forces.  By November 2016 there were reports that all hospitals in opposition controlled eastern Aleppo had been attacked and were no longer in operation.  A quarter million people in eastern Aleppo are with very little food.

  • International forces should airdrop food and supplies to all besieged areas
  • Corridors should be created for civilians and wounded to leave areas under attack if they so wish
  • Ceasefires should be encouraged, but not used to force evacuations
  • Political prisoners should be released