Why Syria matters: regional stability at risk

by Andrew Edwards

Andrew Edwards

After weeks of escalating tension surrounding the Syrian civil war and potential American intervention, military strikes seem to have been taken off of the table, at least for now, as the Syrian government has agreed to surrender its stockpiles of chemical weapons. While this unexpected development is good news, the situation in Syria is still far from a permanent resolution and many Americans remain confused about the nature of the conflict and how it could affect the U.S.

Given the complexity of the situation, it’s not hard to see why. There are a range of factors including the country’s history and various competing international interests contributing to the current state of affairs. To begin understanding why things have played out the way they have, some background information is necessary.

Syria is a country roughly the size of Washington located on the Mediterranean Sea with a population of around 22 million. Civilizations have existed in this area for thousands of years, but the borders of the modern country of Syria did not exist until the 1920s when they were drafted by colonial European powers. Because of the way these borders were drawn, the population of Syria is composed of many diverse ethnic and religious groups.

Syria’s government has basically functioned as a dictatorship ruled by the Assad family for more than 40 years. Its current leader, Bashar Al-Assad, took over after the death of his father in 2000. While the majority of Syrians practice Sunni Islam, the Assad family belongs to a minority group called Alawites that practice Shi’a Islam. While there is too much history to explain here, Islam is split into two major branches, Sunni and Shi’a, and the two often do not get along. This will be important later.

The current turmoil in Syria started around April 2011 with peaceful protests against the Assad regime by citizens inspired by revolutions in other countries during the Arab Spring. The government responded with force — kidnapping and assassinating dissidents and firing on demonstrations. Eventually the civilians started firing back and formed their own militias to fight the government. The regime responded with a campaign of terror, launching attacks on neighborhoods and towns suspected of housing or supporting opposition against the government. The tactics used by the Assad regime were inhumane: government snipers fired on anyone suspected of opposing the regime; warplanes and mortars were used to bomb civilian areas.

Instead of discouraging the rebels, these actions only made the conflict worse as more citizens joined in the effort to topple Assad. Firsthand accounts and videos of atrocities committed by Assad’s forces soon spread across the internet and garnered sympathy for the Syrian opposition from much of the international community.

In an effort to coerce the Assad regime into stopping its military actions, the Obama administration brought several motions before the U.N. to impose sanctions on Syria. Issues that involve military force, military aid, and war in general are brought before the U.N. Security Council, a 15-member body with five permanent members: France, China, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. These members have the ability to veto any motion brought to the council, and any motion that is vetoed fails automatically. Every motion the U.S. has brought to the Security Council concerning Syria failed because it was vetoed by Russia.

You might be wondering why Russia would defend a country that kills so many of its own people, and the answer is that Russia has several interests in keeping Assad in power. Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East and houses the only Russian naval base on the Mediterranean. Since the U.S. wields so much influence and military power in the region, Russia doesn’t want to lose its presence in the Middle East.
Without Russia’s support in the Security Council the U.S. would not be able to impose any real international sanctions, and until just recently, military strikes against Syria were off the table. This changed on Aug. 21, however, when the Syrian regime allegedly deployed sarin, a deadly nerve agent, in a civilian area of Damascus, the country’s capital. Estimates on the number of people killed, including children, vary from 300 to 1,500.

While Syria and its allies Russia and Iran blame rebels for deploying the gas with the intent of drawing foreign powers into the conflict, U.N. inspectors have determined that the rockets used to deliver the gas were launched from areas controlled by the regime. The Syrian government is also known to have a massive stockpile of chemical weapons, including the one used in the attack, so it seems hard to deny that Assad’s forces were responsible.

It’s clear that the U.S. has been trying to find a way to stop Assad’s forces from killing civilians for a while, but have been unable to because of deadlock in the U.N. After the chemical weapon attack, the Obama administration now had a way to garner international support outside the U.N. for targeted strikes against Syria, which would be meant to punish the regime for the attack.

What would be the point of launching attacks on Syria if they would not do much to stem the tide of the war? The proposed strikes weren’t meant to affect the outcome of the war, they were meant to make an example of Assad for what would happen to those who deploy chemical weapons. The Obama administration isn’t interested in overthrowing another dictator and getting drawn into maintaining order in the power vacuum left behind as the Bush administration did in Iraq.

In many ways, the Syrian civil war has become a regional conflict with radical elements on both sides. Earlier I mentioned that Syria is a country with a Sunni majority that has been ruled by a Shi’a minority, making it the only Shi’a led country in the Middle East aside from Iran. Shi’a were granted special privileges under the Assad regime while other groups were repressed, so a lot of resentment has built among the Sunni population. Because of this tension, Syrians had already been divided along sectarian lines.

The same sectarian split applies to the Middle East as a whole, so some in the region see the conflict as Sunni vs. Shi’a, and since everyone wants to see their side win, fighters from other countries have joined the fray on both sides. In many cases, these fighters are religious extremists and members of terrorist groups. These include members of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front on the rebel side and the Iranian-funded terrorist organization Hezbollah on the Syrian government’s side.

The rebellion in Syria comprises many different groups that don’t always have the same goals. There has been infighting among them and some have allegedly committed atrocities like the Assad regime. Because of this, any support provided by the U.S. could potentially end up in the hands of extremists and/or contribute to further fighting between different rebel factions -both of which would only make the situation worse. A stable Middle East is in the best interest of the U.S. and its allies, since any instability is likely to raise the price of oil. The best option is to seek a diplomatic solution.

Whether it was intentional or not, the Obama administration’s threat of military action against Syrian military targets actually seems to have started this process. It forced Russia and Syria to negotiate and get the Assad regime to begin the process of destroying its chemical weapons. Whether Assad will go through with this remains to be seen, but at least it is a start.

Syria’s long-term future is uncertain, but the best outcome to hope for would be some sort of peace deal between the rebels and the government leading to future reforms. With the threat of the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons removed, the country could be moving in that direction.

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