Giana Dawod, JHU:
Moscow’s decision earlier last week to end its combat mission in Syria fell on the grim 5th anniversary of the country’s conflict. What began as political protest spiraled into a civil war, sparking the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades, and spawning a new global terrorist threat. Starting as peaceful anti-government demonstrations, the conflict quickly escalated into armed uprising after repressive crackdowns from the Syrian regime, followed by half a decade of war. Relentless bloodshed has left 470,000 Syrians dead, 4.5 million as refugees, and 6.5 million internally displaced (1). What went wrong? Peaceful anti-government protests are not novel, drastic measures; for decades, citizens of the world’s most powerful countries have utilized this effort to signify dissent on political, economical, or social issues with their government. Contrary to popular belief, research indicates that of all major nonviolent and violent campaigns, peaceful protests are significantly more successful than the use of violence for toppling dictators (2). Data collected from 1990-2006 shows that if just 3.5% of the population itself—understood to still add up to a hefty number of upset citizens—non-violently rose against a government, that faulty government would be brought down. So if the original idea was to bring about a better life under the Assad regime through peaceful protests with a fair amount of passionate citizens, why didn’t it end up working in the favor of the people? As Daesh currently holds control of Syria’s once flourishing cities, the Western nations use the remnants of the country as a battlefield for its personal advancement in the Middle East. Ultimately, we turn to ask—did what was initially intended to be a peaceful, effective protest to reform the Syrian government turn into a conspiracy by foreign powers?
In the midst of the Arab Spring, the Syrian uprising began in 2011 as a response to the systematic and rampant corruption in the Syrian government, as well as the absence of political cooperation. Peaceful protests calling for freedom and social justice soon ensued. What began as demonstrations under a government where tyranny thrived turned into regional powers capitalizing on the chaos of Syria’s state of affairs and its advantageous geopolitical position. This begs the question: how did the Western nations’ approach on foreign policy worsen or ameliorate the conflict? At least as far back as 2005, the US has been financing and training anti-government opposition in Syria with an angle toward regime change, in an effort to “promote democracy”. But, looking at how the US has handled states of urgency in other nations, we cannot help but question what “promoting democracy” has truly come to mean. Referring to an earlier crisis in Ukraine in 2014, political scientist John J. Mearsheimer writes that “…when you talk about promoting democracy, what you’re really talking about is putting in power leaders who are pro-Western and anti-Russian” (3).
The initial demonstration that is believed to have sparked the 5-year conflict was the protest in Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria, on March 17, 2011. Amidst reports of violent crackdowns, Israeli National News reported days later that “seven police and at least four demonstrators in Syria have been killed in continuing violent clashes that erupted in the southern town of Daraa last Thursday” (3). The report continues, indicating that although the government’s response had been brutal, the opposition was not altogether peaceful, but instead were armed and firing at police. We learn that there were more policeman than demonstrators killed. Coverage of the situation continued a week after the protest, with Reuters reporting that thousands of Syrians had gathered for a pro-government rally, signifying that many in the country still supported the Assad government (4). However, by August, news reports would report that Syrian forces were running into heavy resistance with anti-tank traps, protestors armed with heavy machine guns, and an overall armed resistance. This contradicts the Western media, showing the complexity and duplicity of the situation – it suggests that the police force may have initially been outnumbered by a well organized gang of professional killers. Although the US-NATO-Israel agenda claims that Syrians blame Assad for the killing of his own people, this agenda consisted of supporting an Al-Qaeda affiliated insurgency and integrating death squads and professional snipers. Surely these were no typical protests given that there was anti-tank machinery and no shortage of arms? How could a country accomplish this without significant foreign intervention and assistance? This same strategy was utilized in February 2014 in the Ukraine Maidan protest movement, as professional snipers shot at both demonstrators and policemen with an end goal of incriminating the president, Vikto Yanukovych, of mass murder of his people. It was subsequently revealed that these snipers were controlled by the opponents of president Yanukovych, who are now part of the coalition government (5).
Why did Syria attract the voracious tendencies of Western power and agenda? Unemployment had increased and social conditions had deteriorated, but we cannot disregard the political nature and past of the country of Syria. Syria has served to be a secular Arab country, a place where religious tolerance thrived, allowing Muslims and Christians to live together in peace for centuries. Thus, we look to external sources for this decay of state. The agenda of Western intelligence, and how it sees Syria as a threat or asset, is what can be blamed for this crisis. The Syrian government was in no way justified for violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations with brutal military crackdowns. However, little attention was paid to the fact that at the time the issue was brought to light, protesters had as well been armed, and had been attacking the security forces, or the fact that significant pro-government demonstrations also occurred. Both Washington and London have contributed to the support of these armed Islamic fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Libya, etc. in the past as a means of triggering ethnic strife, sectarian violence and political instability (3). It wasn’t until later that the former FBI translator, Sibel Edmonds, came out to admit that the US and NATO were operating a secret training camp in Turkey to “organize and expand the dissident base in Syria” in the spring of 2011 (6). What started out as a protest by the people sadly became a race to divide Syrian society in an effort to justify Western intervention in the guise of humanitarian efforts. With the West’s close ties with Tel-Aviv, and given the anti-Israel remarks assumed by the Bashar al Assad regime – and prior Syrian leaders – it sets a precedent that the interest of the Western powers and Israeli self-interest would trump the stability of Syrian society (3).
So what does this mean for the future of the Middle East – a region so rich in culture and history yet torn apart by religious and political strife, exacerbated by foreign intervention? The instability and violence will regrettably trickle down. We already have seen the divisive issue of the refugees in Europe and the US come to be not only a political issue but also a moral one. As Europe frets over how to properly deal with the waves of migrants seeking refuge in their countries, the nature of situation evades an equally accommodating solution for both sides. In my home country of Jordan, the streets of Amman are crowded with influxes of Syrian and Iraqi migrants, as Jordan proves to be the benevolent hub for displaced Arabs all over the Middle East. Given the fact that Jordan now hosts more than 1 million displaced people, President Obama has recently agreed to sustain financial aid to the kingdom as it copes with the masses of people. According to the Jordanian Economic and Social Council, the cost of housing Syrian refugees could reach as high as $4.2 billion in 2016 (7). Although Jordan’s ability to punch above its weight is commendable, it won’t solve the rampant discrimination against refugees in Europe or the US. It will also not be able to return Syria to a home for 25 million people, 11.5% of which have been killed or injured (8). The culpable capitalization on the public outcry for change in the government is unfortunately not reversible and its consequences – the strengthening of Daesh and creation of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis—will remain an issue until the root of the problem can be addressed. And for now, the Syrian people will sadly fall as the greatest victim of this event. What started out as passive objections has become a regrettable injustice. At the beginning and the end, the people of Syria will suffer beyond this civil war.