Silence has Killed Syria

This semester, I took a class on Genocides, focused in the 20th and 21st century. For my research paper, my focus was on the Syrian Revolution turned into civil war. I am by no means an expert on the crisis, nor know the full story, but felt the need to share that this is not the only time the United States government had a chance to do something in the five years of the Syrian government. They have continued to do nothing, despite these chances:

Fifteen years ago, Kofi Annan issued a report to the UN General Assembly on the international community’s failure to prevent the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995. He called it, “A horror without parallel in the history of Europe since the Second World War”.[1] Reporter Janine Di Giovanni argues that similar horrors are repeating themselves:

What began as a peaceful protest in March 2011 has launched into full-scale civil war between the brutal and oppressive dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian rebels, and jihadist forces struggling for freedom and power.

As of 2016, the Syrian Center for Policy Research claims that over 470,000 people, or 11.5% of the population, have died in Syria since March 2011.[2] Despite these astonishing numbers, the international community, particularly the United States and other Western Nations, have all but ignored the conflict, citing multiple reasons that border on excuses. The United States and other Western Nations had multiple opportunities to stop the conflict but chose not to, as it did not influence their political agenda. Thus, the conflict has ballooned into a world humanitarian crisis that leaves Western Nations in a precarious position, and with a newly elected president, a potential destruction of the Syrian State.

The Arab Nations historically have had icy ties with the United States and the West. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. continued to perceive the world through the eyes of hegemony, an action that, according to Samuel Huntington, has contributed to conflict in other regions around the world.[3] The United States’ pressure to impose democratic and capitalist ideals on historically autocratic and communist regimes has dubbed them as an “evil force” in world affairs, especially among Arab elites.[4] Despite this tension, the United States, and other Western nations have maintained what is called the “stability paradigm”— the model of Arab governments doing the West’s bidding in return for the West overlooking the suppression of dissent.[5] Historically, Syria has done the opposite, and the United States has opposed the Syrian regime for its promotion of terrorism in countries nonaligned to the United States.[6]

When the revolution began in Syria in March 2011, it took the entire world by surprise. To the outside world, Syria seemed stable, its people content with an Assad regime. Internally, Syria’s authoritarian government was deteriorating. Its geographic position, as well as a history of exploiting leaders, has made the country weak and trapped in a pattern of instability. Syrians were ruled by the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, then France until 1946, when Syria gained independence.[7] The 1970s brought the Assad regime, a family belonging to the Alawite minority and about 15% of the Syrian population, a minority compared to the 75% Sunni population.[8] Hafyz Assad ruled the nation with an iron fist and effectively eradicated all opposition groups in the country.[9] In 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood began a terror campaign targeting the Alawite sect, legitimizing Assad’s retaliation on the enemy, and inherently, its citizens.[10] Syria’s turbulent past, particularly after independence, resulted in overall fear and hesitation of any activities that could result in instability and chaos. Jean-Pierre Filiu argues that the resilience of Arab regimes stems partly from their ability to portray themselves as the only alternative to chaos.[11] The Assad family promoted this narrative, ensuring his citizens that without him, Syria would be unstable and chaotic.[12] This narrative helped halt the potential of revolutions and protests for years and kept the international community at bay. This narrative is also why the international community did not intervene in the affairs of Syria, limiting its involvement to economic sanctions each time they believed Syria promoted terrorist acts.[13] This faux stability was so deeply ingrained, it penetrated the beliefs of the Assad regime. When the Arab Spring arose, President Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal that Syria was immune to the wave of protests sweeping through the region due to its extreme stability.[14]

The Arab Spring vastly changed this immunity, and the repercussions were felt throughout the Arab nations. Young adults had witnessed the oppression of the Syrian government first-hand, as well as heard stories from their parents and grandparents. At the beginning of the 21st century, 61% of the Syrian was under the age of 25,[15] and had been trapped in a youth bulge. The young, highly capable population was unable to make ends meet. The youth were also inspired by the acts of Egypt and Tunisia before them. In both countries, waves of protest had the ability to depose leaders who were serving lifetime roles, inspiring Syrians who believed this was not possible.

In addition, at the beginning of his presidency, Bashar al-Assad promised the Syrian people, social and political reforms. In November 2000, he ordered the release of 600 political prisoners, and in April, allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to resume political activity.[16] These reforms, titled the “Damascus Spring”,[17] resulted in a massive wave of civil society organizations, pro-democracy groups and increased criticism toward the government. These actions increased the potential of opposition against Assad, and as a precaution, he rescinded most of these reforms. By September 2001, Assad had crushed the hopes of millions of Syrian youth who believed their country had moved past authoritarian rule. Instead, sectarianism continued under a veil of modernization.[18]

 

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Photo from NYTimes 

 

Syrians were outraged by Assad’s false promises, but this was stifled by the Mukhabarat, a police intelligence agency tied to Assad’s regime.[19] The United States was aware of the Mukhabarat and critiqued its use of force to subdue the Syrian people. In 2002, a Senior US official included Syria in a list of states that make-up an “axis of evil”, first listed by President Bush.[20] This was due to the Mukhabarat being closely affiliated to the regime, allowing them to run rampant without any accountability. Their use of overt intimidation and fear left Syrians, including at times, Bashar al-Assad, complacent.[21] An international student studying in Aleppo prior to the revolution noticed that the Mukhabarat were everywhere: “inescapable in their unofficial uniform of black leather jackets and dress pants”.[22] Though the United States and other Western Nations vehemently opposed the use of Mukharabat, criticism, and economic sanctions were not enough to stop the Assad regime.

Violence and political oppression were only the beginning of Syria’s problems and the ingredients for a revolution. Many theorists believe that major crises occurred during Assad’s regime that was not addressed, exacerbating the conflict. In this case, Syria experienced a severe drought from 2006-2010, which resulted in large-scale migration of populations and malnutrition.[23] The government’s response to the drought was to downplay the conflict, deny it, or blame it on the international community.[24] These attempts to solve the conflict made it worse and introduced an opposition that historically was ambivalent: the rural areas. Assad’s denial of the crisis would inevitably prove consequential.

Five years later, the conflict in Syria has become sectarian, and the actors involved continue to shift alliances and struggle for power. Those involved have depended on the international community for help, and the amount of assistance determines which side has the upper hand. In the early months of the revolution, as violence grew with the use of the regular military in acts of repression, defection within the army rose, leading to the birth of the Free Syrian Army (FSA, al-Jaysh al-Suri al-Hurr).[25] Their demands include the end of the use of torture, stop the killings of protesters, and stop the arrests of friends and family.[26] They are the “official” opposition and are supported by the West, though limited.

The direct opposition to the Free Syrian Army is the Syrian Armed Forces, the remaining military members who have yet to defect and support Assad and his regime.[27] The Syrian Armed Forces completely dominate the air and have been accused numerous times throughout the war of human rights abuses.[28] In addition, the regime gains strength in the support it receives through minority communities who have taken up arms in Syrian regions, including the Alawites, the Druz, the Christians, and the Kurds.[29] The Assad regime has devoted itself to be the “protector of minorities”, which could easily change under new leadership. The Syrian Armed Forces receive substantial resources from Russia and Iran, Syria’s two main allies and their support is the only reason the Syrian Armed forces Assad have remained standing.

In addition to the Syrian Armed Forces and the Free Syria Army, both groups also fight against numerous jihadist and extremist groups that have entered the area since the conflict began. These include Hezbollah, the Islamic Front, and the Islamic State.[30] While Hezbollah is in support of the regime, both the Islamic Front and the Islamic State seek to establish an independent state in regions in Syria, complicating the conflict.[31] Their presence has also influenced the West’s role in the conflict. Since their arrival, the United States and other countries significantly reduced their intervention aid for fear of supporting Islamic terrorists, a policy the United States does not negotiate.[32]

As mentioned above, the international community plays a crucial role in the outcome of the Syrian revolution, and ultimately, who will end up the sole winner. Russia is one of President Bashar al-Assad’s most significant backers, as the survival of its regime is critical to maintaining Russian interests in the country.[33] Russia has intervened militarily through the launch of air campaigns against the Islamic State so that President Assad can continue to focus his forces on the rebels still in control of prominent areas of the country.[34] Russia has also blocked resolutions critical of President Assad at the UN Security Council, as well as continued to supply weapons to the region, despite international disapproval.[35] Iran is also the main contributor to Assad’s regime. The BBC claims that Iran has spent billions of dollars a year since the revolution, as well as sent in trusted military advisors, subsidized weapons, and oil transfers to substantiate the cost.[36]

 

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Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Photo from The Telegraph

 

Historically, Iran and Russia are tense allies to the United States, and their involvement could be the main reason has chosen not to become heavily involved in the conflict, despite multiple opportunities. Apart from providing humanitarian aid, the country has done nothing to substantiate the conflict to favor the rebel forces. The United States threatened military intervention if Assad did not destroy his chemical weapons arsenal being utilized on citizens, but the pressure was ineffective. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Assad’s regime, as well as the Islamic State, were utilizing chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, in rebel-held areas as recent as 2016.[37] The United States also developed a program in 2013 to train and arm 5,000 Syrian rebels, but it failed and was seen as a great embarrassment for the United States, with few having reached the frontline at all. [38]

All actors involved have utilized some form of violence during the revolution and civil war, and it has been the method to achieve any victory. As the war has progressed, so has these acts of violence, becoming more lethal, and often, considered human rights abuses by the UN and Human Rights Watch. These acts of human rights abuses have been targeted and intentional, bordering on genocidal and were present in the early onstage of war. Ignoring the complicated stream of power struggles, the United States had the power to intervene on these issues in the early days of the revolution but chose not to remain laisses-faire, which has ultimately backfired. During the first months of the uprising, the Assad regime reacted to the protesters with unnecessary violence, commanding forces to open fire on demonstrators, sparking nationwide protests and a demand for Assad’s resignation.[39] The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic also discovered that both the rebel forces and Assad’s regime have committed war crimes against the other party, including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances.[40]

One major act of genocide has been the use of mass rape in Syria, on both sides of the conflict. In February 2013, the International Rescue Committee’s report included surveys from Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan identifying rape as the primary reason their families fled the country.[41] Similar to the effect of rape in Bosnia-Herzegovina, rape can be devastating to Muslim women, who can be shunned from the community if known they were raped, and many women who escape become subject to sexual predation and sex slavery in the region, particularly as refugees.[42] Torture is also extremely common among those who are kidnapped. Inmates at government-controlled prisons in Aleppo have died of starvation and infectious diseases caused by denial of food, sanitation, and medical care.[43] Prisoners who survived torture recall electrocution, beatings, burnings, and cuttings. In one case, a man’s intestine was pulled from his body and left for two days before the wound was stitched closed.[44]

Chemical weapons and restriction of humanitarian resources have also been a tool of Assad’s regime, as well as the Islamic State. The Washington Post claims hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at several suburbs of Damascus, and that they were targeting women and children specifically.[45] Sulfur mustard and sarin have also been claimed to use. The Atlantic describes the use of sarin as a subtle way to kill civilians: “Since sarin has no smell or taste, the person may very well have no idea what’s going on. Their chest tightens and vision blurs. If the exposure was great enough, it can progress to convulsions, paralysis, and death within 1 to 10 minutes”.[46] Military helicopters, shelling, and barrel bombs have been used indiscriminately in neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals, cutting food supplies and resources, effectively starving out hundreds of thousands of people.

Some of the most horrifying human rights abuses have occurred to children. In a report by Unicef, the number of children living under siege has doubled in less than one year, and nearly 500,000 children live in Syria, almost completely cut off from sustained humanitarian aid and basic services.[47] Syrian children are also heavily at risk abroad as refugees. The New York Times claims that over one million Syrian children live in Turkey, and thousands of them, like Ahmad, are in sweatshops, factories or vegetable fields instead of in a classroom.[48] Classrooms in besieged areas such as Aleppo contain some underground classrooms, but those are often destroyed in the shelling. Restricted educated access can lead to an entire generation unable to read or write, or displaced permanently and unable to return to rebuild Syria once the revolution has ended. In addition, these children have left against their will, against brutal circumstances. This type of trauma at such a young age is what leads to the emergence of youth extremist groups in the future, and evidence of this can be seen in 20th-century conflicts, such as the Interahamwe in Rwanda, whose membership age range averaged between 15 and 25.

These human rights abuses should have been legitimate enough to influence Western nations to become involved, especially as the conflict begins to affect their own infrastructure. As of December 2015, there are 6.6 million internally displaced persons within the country,[49] and 4.2 million have fled the country and strived to find refuge in other countries.[50] These numbers prove that this conflict is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the 21st century, and certainly larger than the world had assumed. The United States’ method to wait has been thrown back in their faces, and their sudden intervention and advocacy for peace have come too late.

What could have the United States and Western nations possibly done for the people of Syria? It could be argued that due to intense relations with Iran and Russia, the United States didn’t stand a chance in protecting the Syrian people. Others claim that it was the United States’ ability to ignore massive international conflict until it becomes detrimental to their own political agenda. The United States has openly criticized Assad’s regime, as well as his father’s, but did nothing to promote his deposal other than impose economic sanctions and “threaten” military action. Samuel Huntington argues that The United States is the sole country in the world with an upper-hand in every domain of diplomacy, ideology, economy, and military to promote certain interests in differing parts of the world,[51] yet have remained silent. It could be argued that the United States has no leverage in the Middle East, particularly post 9/11, but even countries such as Saudi Arabia, whose relations are tense, has expressed anger over the Obama administration’s decision not to intervene militarily time and time again.

 

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Photo from the National Post

 

Currently, President Bashar al-Assad has recaptured most of Aleppo, becoming a turning point in an almost six-year war.[52] He commented earlier this week that “It is a significant landmark toward the end of the battle, but the war in Syria will not end until terrorism is eliminated”.[53] Both Russia and Syria desire the complete destruction of the Islamist State. The newly-elected president, Donald Trump, supports Russia wholeheartedly and is motivated to make a partnership. During the election campaign, he also discussed the importance of destroying ISIS, which could effectively destroy the Syrian state in its entirety, as IS currently holds major territory in the region.[54] And yet, the Obama administration has remained involved at arm’s length, not enough to produce meaningful change. Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, called territory reclamation “an indication that something positive could happen, but we’re going to have to wait and see,” and that the United States’ approach to the situation is to listen carefully, but scrutinize the actions of the Russians.[55] Unfortunately, waiting does not bode well for the Syrians, who are trapped inside their own country while the world watches them die.

The United States’ policy of waiting has put them in a precarious position. Unable to intervene militarily for fear of a larger conflict involving other foreign forces, they are forced to observe and to negotiate in a region that has been let down by a once dominating superpower. It is unclear how Trump will approach Syria, but has stated that Assad’s resignation is less important than the destruction of ISIS.[56] The tables have turned for Assad, but only time will determine whether the conflict ends in the utter destruction or relative peace. What is clear is that Obama’s lack of initiative in the Syrian region will ultimately haunt his political legacy.

Sources to help Syria and Aleppo:

British Red Cross

White Helmets

Doctors Without Borders

Preemptive Love

SYRIAN AMERICAN MEDICAL SOCIETY

[1] Di Giovanni, Janine. The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016. P.165.

[2] Ian Black, “Report on Syria Conflict”, The Guardian (The Guardian), February 11, 2016.

[3] Huntington, S. P. (1999). The lonely superpower. Foreign Affairs, 78(2), 35-49.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] Nicolas Pollock and Shadi Hamid, “The Spectacular Failure of America’s Do-Nothing Policy in the Middle East,” The Atlantic (The Atlantic), October 13, 2015

[6] Syria Profile – Timeline.” BBC Middle East (BBC News), December 5, 2016.

[7] Ibid., 2016.

[8] Shehabat, Ahmad. The Social Media Cyber-War: The Unfolding Events in the Syrian Revolution 2011. Austrailia: Global Media Journal, 2012.

[9] Ibid., 2012.

[10] Filiu, Jean-Pierre. The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Pprising. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers, 2011.

[11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Lesch, David. The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012, 88.

[13] Syria Profile – Timeline.” BBC Middle East (BBC News), December 5, 2016. US imposes economic sanctions on Syria over what it calls its support for terrorism and failure to stop militants entering Iraq.

[14] Solomon, Jay and Bill Spindle. Syria Strongman: Time for “Reform.” (wsj.com), January 31, 2011.

[15] Lesch, David. The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012, 88.

[16] BBC, “Syria: The Story of the Conflict,” BBC Middle East (BBC News), March 11, 2016

[17] Lesch, David. The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012, 80.

[18] Droz-Vincent, Philippe. “‘State of Barbary’ (take Two): From the Arab Spring to the Return of Violence in Syria.” The Middle East Journal 68, no. 1 (2014). 40.

[19] Lesch, David. The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012, 87.

[20] Syria Profile – Timeline.” BBC Middle East (BBC News), December 5, 2016.

[21] Lesch, David. The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012, 88.

[22] Panter, J. G. (2011, July 13). Life among Syria’s Not-so-Secret Police.

[23] De Châtel, Francesca. “The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution,” Middle Eastern Studies 50, no. 4 (January 27, 2014). 522.

[24] Ibid., 526.

[25] Droz-Vincent, Philippe. “‘State of Barbary’ (take Two): From the Arab Spring to the Return of Violence in Syria.” The Middle East Journal 68, no. 1 (2014): 51.

[26] Filiu, Jean-Pierre. The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Pprising. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers, 2011. 167.

[27] Stringer . / Reuters, © Raheb Homavandi / Reuters, and © Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters. WHO’S WHO IN THE SYRIAN WAR FACT SHEET.

[28] Stringer . / Reuters, © Raheb Homavandi / Reuters, and © Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters. WHO’S WHO IN THE SYRIAN WAR FACT SHEET.

[29] Zisser, Eyal. “Can Assad’s Syria Survive Revolution?” Middle East Quarterly 20, no. 2 (2013): 68.

[30] Stringer . / Reuters, © Raheb Homavandi / Reuters, and © Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters. WHO’S WHO IN THE SYRIAN WAR FACT SHEET.

[31] Ibid.

[32] BBC, “Syria: The Story of the Conflict,” BBC Middle East (BBC News), March 11, 2016.

[33] “Syria Crisis: Where Key Countries Stand.” BBC Middle East (BBC News), October 30, 2015.

[34] BBC, “Syria: The Story of the Conflict,” BBC Middle East (BBC News), March 11, 2016.

[35] “Syria Crisis: Where Key Countries Stand.” BBC Middle East (BBC News), October 30, 2015.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Syria Crisis: Where Key Countries Stand.” BBC Middle East (BBC News), October 30, 2015.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “Syria: The Story of the Conflict.” BBC Middle East (BBC News), March 11, 2016.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Di Giovanni, Janine. The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016. 22.

[42] Di Giovanni, Janine. The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016. 23.

[43] Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Report Issued on War Crimes in Syria.” Middle East (The New York Times), March 19, 2014.

[44] Di Giovanni, Janine. The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016. 70.

[45] Kaphle, A. (2014, January 20). Timeline: Unrest in Syria. Washington Post.

[46] Ajaka, N, and Hamblin, J. “What Does Sarin Do to People?” The Atlantic, 8 May 2013. 18 Nov. 2016.

[47] UNICEF and UN 041513. “Half a Million Children Live Under Siege in Syria.” November 27, 2016.

[48] Yeginsu, Ceylan. “In Turkey, a Syrian Child ‘has to work to survive.’” Europe (The New York Times), November 15, 2016

[49] Aleppo Tartous et al., Syria Trapped in the Country, and Out of the Picture, (Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 2016),

[50] UNHCR Syria: 2015 End of Year Report,” 2001, accessed December 7, 2016.

[51] Huntington, Samuel P. “The Lonely Superpower.” Foreign Affairs 78, no. 2 (1999): 35.

[52] Barnard, Anne. “Russia Says Aleppo Combat Has Ceased; Residents Disagree.” Middle East (The New York Times), December 9, 2016.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Stringer . / Reuters, © Raheb Homavandi / Reuters, and © Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters. WHO’S WHO IN THE SYRIAN WAR FACT SHEET.

[55] Barnard, Anne. “Russia Says Aleppo Combat Has Ceased; Residents Disagree.” Middle East (The New York Times), December 9, 2016.

[56] Mohammed, Arshad. “Albright, Hadley Urge U.S. To Weigh Using More Force in Syria.” November 30, 2016.