Massacres. Violence on the streets of its cities. A growing refugee crisis. Calls for international intervention.
This is Syria.
Brutality is an everyday ordeal for the devastated country that has been suffering through a two-year-long civil war that has pit government forces against rebel fighters. When looking at the humanitarian crisis that has evolved in Syria, it is difficult to understand how it got to this point.
Here are the top facts you need to know about the Syrian Revolution which has morphed into the Syrian Civil War.
1. The President of Syria is Bashar al-Assad
President Bashar al-Assad stands at the forefront of the confrontation. Bashar has been president of Syria since 2000, taking power after his father Hafez — the 30-year leader of the country — died. Interestingly, Bashar was not expected to be his father’s successor. His older brother, Basel, was in line to take power, but Basel died in a car crash in 1994. When Bashar took office at the age of 35, the world, particularly Western nations, were hopeful that he was to be more moderate than his father, who was a strong Soviet ally. After all, Bashar was young, Western-educated and was studying in London to become a doctor.
The Assad family is ethnically Alawite — a Shiite Muslim offshoot, which is a small minority in Syria. Al-Assad’s political party is called the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.
2. Tunisia Jumpstarted the Conflict
December 2010 marked the beginning of the revolution in Tunisia, which started of the so-called Arab Spring — a media term for a revolutionary wave of nonviolent and violent demonstrations in the Arab world that began in 2010. Tunisia’s uprising was so successful that it inspired other countries who were also experiencing political repression, autocratic leaders, corruption and high unemployment.
Countries that followed Tunisia’s revolution include Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
3. The Revolution Began as a Peaceful Protest
Syria’s protest started out peacefully, but in March 2011, violence broke out. The conflict turned bloody in the city of Daraa, where a group of children and teenagers were arrested for writing political graffiti. After attempts to negotiate the release of the children were rejected by the government, peaceful protests ensued. This marked the beginning of a brutal crackdown from President Al-Assad’s regime as dozens of people were killed and detained after government security forces were called to stifle protests. Massacres in the city were also carried out.
What began in Daraa later spread toward the rest of the country as rebels began organizing themselves for protection against government persecution. By summer 2012, the revolution reached Syria’s Capital of Damascus, as well as Aleppo, its largest city.
4. The Humanitarian Crisis is Catastrophic
The ground reality in Syria today is miserable on all fronts as massive destruction has accompanied staggering increase in civilian deaths. According to the latest estimates by the United Nations, more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in confrontations so far. This figure continues to rise as the average of deaths per month is approximated at about 3,000. There is also a staggering refugee crisis as 3 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, flocking to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Atrocious war crimes are also being documented throughout Syria.
Through the use of social media sites such as YouTube, the world has been able to see the atrocities committed by both sides. Beheadings, mutilations and massacres have all been documented on phones and uploaded for anyone to see. The ubiquity of camera phones and social media are enabling a mixture of propaganda, intimidation and boastful exhibitionism. In this, the first YouTube war, war crime videos have driven the conflict even as they document its horrors.
Videos such as one uploaded in December 2012, which showed a child beheading the body of a Christian man at the request of rebel forces, prompt a troubling question: How do countries who want to support Syria’s rebels make sure they’re not unintentionally aiding rebels who might commit war crimes?
5. Civil War Has Taken an Ethnic Dimension
Syria has been historically diverse. Although there is an overwhelming Sunni Muslim majority (about 70 percent), the population includes Christians Kurds, Alawite and other Muslim minorities. Under the current Baathist regime, these differing ethnic groups have generally co-existed peacefully. However, as confrontations continue, the civil war has taken an increasingly ethnic dimension.
As previously stated, President al-Assad’s regime is Alawite, while the great majority of the country is Sunni. Minorities have allied themselves with Assad as their is fear that — if the Sunni majority gets into power — there could be a ethnic sectarian battle, much like the one seen in Iraq between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Sectarian undertones can also be seen with opposition claims that the government is targeting Sunni families.
Since Syria’s brutal civil war started, there have been countless videos uploaded onto YouTube of beheadings, executions and the aftermath of massacres. However, recently videos have shown the deepened ethnic sectarianism never before seen in this conflict.
For example, a viral and explicit war crime video showing a rebel commander eating the heart of a dead government soldier shows the sectarian hatred which has brewed as a result Syria’s violence. As the Sunni rebel commander mutilated the corpse of the soldier he is recorded saying, “I swear to God we will eat your hearts, Alawite soldiers of Bashar the dog,” referring to supporters of President Bashar al-Assad from the minority Alawite sect. The commander, identified Al Hamad, has said in interviews that he harbors a sectarian hatred for Alawite Muslims, and has revealed that he has other gruesome videos of him killing soldiers of the Alawite faith. Other videos such as this one reveal the same ethnic tensions.
6. The Opposition Has Become Larger and More Organized
The Syrian opposition is not a unified force but an umbrella of groups and individuals. The largest of these groups is called the Free Syrian Army. Many of the fighters are ex-soldiers who defected from the military, but there are also civilians who have taken up the fight against the al-Assad regime.
7. Religious Extremists and Terrorist Groups Have Gotten Involved
The militant terrorist group Hezbollah has showed its support for Al-Assad’s government. Meanwhile, AP reports show that just last month, the leader of an Islamic extremist rebel group in Syria pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. This new allegiance underscores the growth of Islamic radicals fighting on the rebel side of Syria’s war. It also helps bolster Syrian government assertions that the regime is “battling terrorist.” Al-Assad has told Western nations, “Syrian rebels will turn on you.” warning that rebel groups will one day strike the U.S. and others.
8. The United States and al-Qaeda are on the Same Side of the Syrian Conflict
This may be hard to wrap your head around, but it’s strangely true. Al-Qaeda and the U.S are essentially rooting for the rebels in this civil war. The United States has even considered arming the opposition. However, the fact that al-Qaeda is now involved in the conflict has thwarted U.S arming efforts amid fears that weapons could land into the hands of religious extremists. Rebel factions deemed more moderate have received the support of the United States and its allies.
9. The World is Divided on Syria
The Arab League is a regional organization of the Arab states in North Africa and Southwest Asia. A proper comparison is that it’s like a European Union for Arab nations. The league is interestingly divided when choosing sides in the Syrian conflict. Saudia Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have supported insurgent resistance, while Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have allied themselves with Assad’s government. Russia has also been outspoken about its support for al-Assad. Conversely, the United States, France, Israel are against Assad.
The U.S has condemned Russia’s support of President al-Assad and has outspokenly denounced Russia’s sale of advanced surface-to-air missiles to Syrian government.
10. Chemical Weapons are Believed to Have Been Used in the Conflict
The White House has officially stated that it believes forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons against rebels. Although U.S. intelligence has emphasized that “more assessments were needed,” the U.K. Foreign Office echoed U.S. claims, saying it too had “limited but persuasive information from various sources” of chemical weapons use in Syria.
Israeli intelligence sources have reached similar conclusions and added that satellite images coupled with witness testimony had determined the use of Sarin, a deadly “nerve agent.” Similarly, recent photographs depicting victims with “constricted pupils and foam coming from their mouths” are consistent with the use of a nerve agent, reports The Economist. Sarin has been classified as “a weapon of mass destruction” by the United Nations and has been outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.
Meanwhile, Iran blames the use of chemical weapons on rebel factions. Iranian’s foreign minister suggested in televised press conferences that it identified rebel factions as responsible for unleashing chemical weapons. Iran, a strong Damascus ally, was itself a victim of chemical warfare during its conflict with Iraq in the 1980s.
The Syrian Civil War continues to be an international concern as pressures for international intervention are heightened.