Syria has been the site of a civil and political mess, with their government and factions warring it out at the cost of their people. Their human rights track record is barbaric, with the U.N. indicating that their indiscriminate use of weapons in civilian areas qualifies as war crimes.
Though modern Syrian history has been uneasy since post-WWI, it has been within the past 4-5 decades that tensions have been exacerbated. For the past seven years, it has been downright hell for the people caught in this Syrian Civil War.
The 2011 Arab Spring sparked hope among the youth of Syria, desperate for change as they and their families faced high unemployment rates, widespread corruption, and general oppression under Bashar al-Assad. These hopes were immediately quashed by Assad and his government, who began by detaining and torturing peaceful protesters, followed by even more protester detainment and executions.
Who Against Whom?
It has been a relentless fight since, escalated in part by the intervention of the international community. Iran, Russia, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia have all put efforts into various sides of this conflict, which some say has prolonged the fighting and exacerbated sectarian interests.
Additionally, terrorist groups like ISIL and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (a derivation of Al-Nusra/Al-Qaeda) have also seized on the opportunity in taking advantage of the divide within Syria, further fueling the conflict. The Syrian army has been supported by Shia militiamen from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen with purported interest in protecting Shia holy sites; however, there are political underpinnings to these interests, as we’ll discuss later.
Historically, the Sunni majority has been pitted against the Shia Alawite sect. The Alawites have been largely ostracized since the ‘60s, even when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized power in 1970 and nepotistically filled his cabinet. Though other Alawites soon became drawn to other institutional positions, the origins of their identity became lost as Hafez al-Assad effectively supplanted it with a reverence for himself and his regime, which carried over into Bashar al-Assad’s rule. A civil war in the late ‘70s – early ‘80s spurred by The Muslim Brotherhood rebellion further inflamed discord among the Alawites and Sunni majority. In both al-Assad regimes, the Alawite identity has become a deeply fortified love and loyalty for al-Assad.
Brutality Against Civilians
Just within the period from March – July 2017, the UN has documented major trends and patterns of international human rights and humanitarian violations committed. There has been significant, if not absolute, disregard for civilian life from the warring parties, who have displaced and killed numerous victims. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and ISIL have even killed children with their tactics that include car and suicide bombings, and have taken hostages as well.
Government forces are no better. Chemical weapons have been used against civilians in areas occupied by oppositional forces. In April 2017, the Syrian Air Force deployed the nerve agent, Sarin, in the northwestern part of Syria, killing over 80 people of whom were mostly women and children. Medical facilities were also targeted, compromising efforts to render aid to those injured during the attacks and thus allowing the civilian casualty rate to increase. Syrian forces also used weaponized chlorine in the western and southwestern parts of the country. Despite the Syrian Arab Republic acceding to the 2013 Convention on Chemical Weapons, these are clear violations of this and international humanitarian law.
Global Concern & Implications
Though this technically has been a civil war among Syrians for the past seven years, the regional and international involvement in this crisis have become a global concern. Not only is human life being continually devalued and violated, but these consequences ultimately spread far across Syrian borders.
In particular, Iran, a long-time ally of Syria, has literally and metaphorically planted itself quite firmly in Syrian soil. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has deployed tactical advisors throughout military bases in Syria, regularly has commanders on the front line of battles, and is actively backing and training fighters in Syria. Iran also utilizes newer technologies like drones for spying, with potential for use in aerial attacks.
By taking advantage of the dissent running rife in Syria, Iran is positioning itself to gain a stronger foothold in the region against its biggest threat: Israel. Analysts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies say Iran is shoring up relations with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to ensure support and permanence in the area in case of war.
Though Israel and Lebanon do not want a war and were effectively ‘pacified’ against further hostilities since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Israel may feel threatened enough to attack if Iran continues down this path.
Taking it one step further, Iran strategically placing itself in this conflict is yet another reason why analysts are intently concerned about negotiations with Iran and the crisis in Syria. Many fear if Iran’s military and nuclear activities go unchecked, a diabolical superpower could emerge successful.
For example, Mark Dubowitz, an expert on Iran, Iran sanctions and nuclear non-proliferation, has been a long-time advocate of identifying the flaws in the nuclear deal with Iran and fixing them in follow up negotiations so that Iran can never have a dangerous nuclear capability.
It is for these reasons, the international community should be compelled to pay more attention and remain informed and involved.