One year has passed, and the painful events in Syria continue to capture our attention. They have done so in spite of many ambiguities and a lack of information to help us understand the situation on the ground since a popular march -- the first of its kind -- took place on February 17, 2011 in the capital, Damascus. For the first time, that march’s purpose was not to glorify or immortalize the leader, chant about the achievements of the ruling party or wail against Zionism and US imperialism -- the enemy of all the Arab peoples. It was rather a modest march, in which participants chanted for the first time: “The Syrian people shall not be humiliated” and “Enough humiliation and degradation.” The march came as a spontaneous reaction to an individual incident, and Syrians have suffered similar incidents thousands of times during over the past half century of oppression and brutality.
Now that the uprising is entering its second year, it has become clear that the Syrian crisis is not merely another episode in the “Arab Spring” series in which peoples are demanding liberties, democracy and the eradication of corruption. Nor is it only about the government’s false promises of enacting reforms and change. The events have since their outset -- unsurprisingly -- been marked by the regime’s use of excessive force. What seems more puzzling is the fact that massive amounts of advanced and heavy weaponry have fallen into the hands of the regime’s opponents. Thus, understanding the Syrian crisis -- which has so far refused to become a copy of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya -- requires a more comprehensive assessment, one that takes into account historical, international, regional and local considerations.
Historically speaking, the special mosaic that makes up Syrian society holds a certain significance. Syria consists of ethnic, racial and religious minorities that have long coexisted in harmony despite their unique characteristics. This special composition has long distinguished Syrian society from the region’s dominant Sunni Muslim majority that has ruled for centuries. The features of this complex and multifaceted society were solidified after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Greater Syria was formed when the region was divided up between French and British mandates -- two powers which at the time had just emerged victorious from World War I. The French mandate period had a significant influence on [Syrian society]. There existed a longstanding conflict between the Sunni Muslim majority which controlled the country politically and economically -- representing a sort of feudal class -- and members of the Alawite sect which was socially and economically downtrodden during that time. The Alawites generally lived in the coastal areas adjacent to the border with Iskenderun, which the French cut off [from Syria] and granted to Turkey as compensation for its defeat in the war. This conflict was largely over religious differences, but it was also over the low standard of living of which the Alawite community complained. As a result, Alawite leaders at the time submitted a petition to the French authorities expressing their hope of obtaining a homeland independent from Sunni Syria. (France actually did early on in its mandate divide Syria into four statelets, including an Alawite statelet). However, in essence the demands of the Alawites did not see the light of day. The French authorities dismembered the Syrian entity and created sectarian strife through the provisions they imposed, which discriminated among sects by granting privileges to religious minorities at the expense of the Sunni Muslim majority. This prompted the poor and destitute classes of Syria to join the Armed Forces and the Ba’ath Party, which in turn deepened the gap between social classes and led to people being classified according to religion and class (Druze, Kurds, Alawites, Christians, Circassians, etc…)
Syria’s Sensitive Geographic Location
From a geopolitical perspective, Syria’s sensitive location played a key role in attracting Western ambitions from World War I until the present day. The region’s decade-long instability has also contributed to this. Syria only witnessed relative stability during the tenure of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, which was marked by tyranny, oppression, the suppression of freedoms and the erosion of rights. This was primarily due to [Hafez] Al-Assad’s characteristic ability to play various conflicting interests off of each other. He was a master in the art of political wordplay and rope-pulling, and knew how to take advantage of opportunities available to him. The geopolitical scene surrounding Syria at the time could be summed up as follows: Cold war alliances, [the West] protecting Israel's security and its economic interests in the region, and the traditional conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites, which was reinforced by the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For its part, Turkey was keen to maintain good relations with Syria in order to permanently close the files of Iskenderun and Cilicia. It might perhaps have been motivated by a desire to save the glory of the Ottoman Empire. Israel was keen to maintain calm on its northern border, Lebanon needed stable routes through its eastern and northern borders and Iraq was looking to gain the trust of a neighbor that had always brought it problems and instability.
Recently, Qatar has sought to market its natural gas to Europe and the world by running pipelines under the Mediterranean Sea through Syria and Turkey. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin dreams of restoring the prestige of the former Soviet Union by playing the role of major arms supplier to Syria, which has been its key ally in the region. Russian military experts have enjoyed the special privilege of training the Syrian military, which in turn granted them vast privileges in the field of espionage and information gathering during the Cold War. Today, the masters of the Kremlin dream of restoring these advantages. And the list of factors contributing to Syria’s superior strategic [position] does not end there.
Expansion of the Crisis
The local scene has been marked by a dramatic turn of events over the past year. These events range from peaceful demonstrations and the spontaneous chanting of slogans for freedom and justice -- as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt -- to quasi-wars and violent armed confrontations. This turned the Syrian crisis from a mere episode in the series of Arab Spring [revolutions] into what appears to be a comprehensive strategic war. While this may at first glance look like a local civil war, the conflict carries strategic depth. This suggests the imminent outbreak of a regional crisis with global proportions -- so we would not call it a regional war on Syrian territory. These emerging dynamics began to be felt in early fall when the Russian and Chinese representatives to the UN Security Council twice vetoed resolutions condemning the Syrian regime or those which would open the door to discussion over a possible military intervention. [Suddenly], all talk stopped about the need for urgent reforms, the country’s slow collapse, the innocents dying every day and the rising number of casualties -- which has reached into the tens of thousands and include individuals from all parties, affiliations and religions. All discussions shifted toward schemes, plots, draft resolutions, intervention attempts and competition over the provision of advice and settlement proposals. In the midst of all of this, the voice of the people directly concerned by the crisis was lost, along with their demands for reform, freedom and democracy. These were swept away by the winds of murder, bombing, and destruction. The true [heroes] of the revolution have completely eluded attention, and all dialogues, councils and conferences were forgotten as well. What’s more, the blocs and alliances established at the beginning of the mass protests lost the standing or influence required of them. The efficacy of the peaceful opposition at home and abroad was also lost due to its fragmentation and polemics, as well as its exaggerations in personalizing the revolution and reducing it to icons and personalities.
Based on this multi-angular review of Syria’s history and present situation the reality of the country’s situation today can be summarized by one broad term. The sitaution is exactly the same as that of Iraq throughout the past ten years or Lebanon over its fifteen years of civil war. It is a “proxy conflict” -- a conflict where the interests of others are battling it out on Syrian territory and to which the ruling regime in Damascus seems to have chosen to become party.
The longer the crisis lasts, the primary and secondary players in this conflict -- which are now very well known -- will increase. From Iran and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon; to Syria’s neighbors Iraq and Turkey; to Russia, the heir of the “Soviet glories and the Cold War” and its new Czar Putin; France, the sponsor of colonial mandate; all the way to China in the far east of the globe and the United States, the farthest to the West. Super-regional powers are fighting over a brittle legacy, which has resulted from the inability of the ruling authority to preclude the events and impose an urgent peaceful settlement. Its lack of wisdom and clear vision has left it unable to save this country, which is witnessing a human tragedy of epic proportions. Although we did not want to say this, the current crisis in Syria is the result of the ruling authority’s vengeful nature, its desire to hold onto power at any cost and its wish to preserve the booty it has accumulated during decades of injustice, oppression, persecution, torture, looting, theft and rape.