Inside the Syrian War

By Robert Berman in Opinion

The Indy sat down with political science professor Nick Forrest to discuss the current conflict in Syria. Below is a synopsis of the interview.

You can also listen to the full audio here

Q: Why should Americans be paying attention to Syria?

A: First of all, everyone should pay attention when tens of thousands of people are dying. The U.S. has an interest in stability in Syria. Some rebel groups are allied with Al-Qaeda, which we don’t want to gain a power base.

If either side of the war threatens Israel, we will probably go to Israel’s aid diplomatically and logistically. We also have long-standing ties with neighboring Jordan and a military alliance with Turkey.

If we do intervene, we have to realize that it would have serious costs. We don’t have a magic solution.

Q: What is the historical background for the conflict in Syria?

A: Syria is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the world. However, Syria as we know it was mostly created after World War I. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, France and the U.K. divided the Middle East between themselves, including what we now call Syria.

Syria’s current borders create many of the country’s problems. The borders the Europeans created did not reflect the region’s local politics and culture. The Middle East at the time was mostly made up of families and cities that had their own separate identities. When France and the U.K. drew Syria’s borders, they lumped those distinct peoples and cultures together without their permission. That made the country inherently unstable.

A series of dictators have ruled Syria since then, culminating in Hafez al-Assad’s takeover in the 1970s. He died in 2000 and passed leadership to his son, Bashar al-Assad.

Q: Who are the major groups living in Syria?

A: Arab Sunni Muslims make up the largest group in Syria. However, there is a substantial population of Shiite Muslims, including a subset called Alawites.

Hafez al-Assad was an Alawite. When he took power, he began elevating other Alawites within the government. The Alawites are less than 10 percent of the population in Syria, but they held almost every position of power in the Syrian government under Hafez al-Assad.

Aside from those groups, there is a significant population of Christians. There are also nomadic groups, Palestinian refugees and Kurdish people. The different nations and religious sects have centuries of suspicion between them. It is very difficult for one leader to gain acceptance from all of those groups.

Q: What were the more recent events that led up to the current conflict in Syria?

A: It’s part of a larger picture called the “Arab Spring,” which began a few years ago with protests in Tunisia, and later in Egypt. In both countries, the opposition deposed their country’s dictator with relatively little violence.

Suddenly demonstrations began all over the Middle East.

About two years ago, groups of up to 10,000 people began gathering in Syria’s major cities to peacefully demonstrate against the Assad regime.

The Assad regime responded much more violently than other Arab states. It started with thugs beating protesters. The violence escalated quickly, and the government began using military weapons. The Assad regime was not going down without a fight.

After several months, anti-government groups realized that a peaceful transition was not coming.

They began arming themselves and linking with outside organizations. Part of the problem for the rebels is that they have no central coordinating force. There are dozens of different factions within the rebel army. Some support the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which the U.S. endorse. There are also Islamic fundamentalists. Some are cooperating with militant groups like Al-Qaeda.

There is no George Washington of Syria who people can more or less agree upon if Assad is deposed. There would probably be a dozen different groups trying to seek power. Different regions may even split from Syria. Arguably, if the Assad regime does fall, the violence might get worse.

Q: What stakes do the neighboring nations have in this civil war?

A: First of all, they are affected through refugees. There are an estimated one million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. None of these countries are prepared to receive that many people.

This creates challenges for those countries, like where to house these people and how to feed them. In some cases, the Syrian army has allegedly pursued refugees over the border.

All of the neighboring countries want a stable Syria. Nobody wants Syria to dissolve into a chaos of warring factions.

One country with a serious stake in this war is Israel. They do not get along with the Assad regime. Hafez al-Assad got into several wars with Israel. Yet, in the last couple of decades, Israel has not had any major conflicts with Syria. Their fear is that whoever succeeds Assad could be even worse.

The final wild card is Russia, which has a history of working closely with Syria. The only remaining Russian naval base left in the Mediterranean lies on Syria’s coast. They have an interest in maintaining it.

Q: The use of chemical weapons in Syria was a big topic this summer. What, if anything, do we know about that?

A: It is almost certain, based on recent inspection by the U.N., that someone used poison gas on Syrian civilians. It was most likely the Syrian government. It is highly unlikely that the rebels could get ahold of chemical weapons and use them correctly. Poison gas is a tripwire, because it is a so-called weapon of mass destruction.

Q: What makes WMDs exceptional?

A: These gasses are terrible things. First of all, they’re absorbed through the skin, so simply wearing a gas mask won’t protect you. Some of these gasses cause nerve malfunction, so people can start thrashing until they literally break their own bones. They are being used on completely noncombatant people.

However, the Syrian government had already been killing civilians. As bad as poison gas is, it isn’t necessarily worse than killing civilians with artillery shells and air strikes. The regime has killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people, mostly with conventional weapons.

Q: How did the U.S. respond to the chemical strikes?

A: The U.S. made a bit of a mistake when we declared that use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.” On one hand, we don’t want Syria to have or use chemical weapons. However, if the Syrians did cross that line, what were we going to do?

We could use long-range weapons and air strikes. In that case, what could we strike? We could hit chemical weapons depots, if we know where they are. The regime would still be able to use armed infantry.

Recently the U.S. and Russia agreed that the regime should destroy its chemical weapons stock. Surprisingly, Syria agreed to allow U.N. inspectors track down and eliminate their poison gas inventory. This is a good face-saving way out for everybody.

Most countries in the U.N. are using economic sanctions against the regime. That is impacting the Syrian government and its allies. That may be the best long-term solution.

Q: Where can students go to learn more?

A: Al Jazeera is an international broadcast network that has a focus on the Middle East. They’re pretty objective in their coverage of Middle Eastern politics. They have detailed coverage of the war in Syria.

The BBC has pretty good coverage of world news. There are also a number of Arab newspapers that are available in English. The New York Times and The Washington Post are also decent places to read world news. There’s nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point.

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