Before the Arab Uprisings, Syria was one of the safest countries in the world. There were robust protections for women and ethno-religious minorities. While the government was authoritarian, the trends were towards liberalization—both economic and political. While there were some factions within Syria who were understandably dissatisfied at the pace of reform (which was, indeed, glacial), the President remained (and remains) popular domestically. In the Middle East, while many were wary of Syria’s close ties to Iran, the President was respected as a bulwark against (perceived) Israeli aggression in the region. On the larger world-stage, Bashar al-Asad was hailed as a moderate and a reformer.
2/2011: Protests begin
The protests began in Syria not long after the military coup which removed Husni Mubarak from power in Egypt.
2- 4/2011: Two-Pronged approach
Bashar’s response to the protests was two-pronged. On the one hand, there was the sense that something big was happening in the region. Bashar felt confident that he could ride it out, as he was already in the process of instituting the sort of reforms being demanded in these other countries. And he moved to accelerate these reforms in order to stay on the “right side of history.” For instance, seeing the importance of social media to the revolutionary rhetoric, Bashar’s first move was to lift his country’s ban on Facebook and Youtube, which had been in place for 3 years. He then dismissed his cabinet and vowed to draft a new constitution to put to referendum, to be followed by free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections. Finally, he vowed to lift the emergency laws which had been in place for several years and curbed a number of civil rights and civil liberties. At the same time, however, Bashar was suspicious of the protests, and he had good reason to be. A Wikileaks cable showed that the U.S. had been developing opposition groups within Syria and throughout the diaspora beginning in 2004 under the Bush Administration. Moreover, the U.S. played an integral role in all of the “Arab Spring” regime changes after Tunisia: America played a decisive role in getting the Egyptian military to depose Mubarak; along with Saudi Arabia they directly brokered the deal to get Yemen’s president Saleh to step down. The White House (particularly Hillary Clinton) played a pivotal role in getting the U.N. authorization for the intervention which unseated Ghaddafi in Libya. In short: America’s fingerprints were all over these revolutions. And when one considers the immense strategic importance of Syria for the U.S., there was plenty of reason to suspect American involvement in the protests (Syrian refugees and expatriates had also long attempted to stir up trouble within Syria). Beyond the fears of outside manipulation, Bashar was distrustful of the primarily Sunni composition of the protestors. The Sunni majority had previously persecuted and marginalized religious minorities in Syria (and throughout the region); prior to the rise of the al-Asad’s, the Alawites were were persecuted openly and legally, they were barred from participation in many aspects of society. The President wanted to preserve the secular government and the relative peace among sects, which represented the legacy of the al-Asad Regime—in stark contrast to neighboring Lebanon and Iraq over the same period. And there was always the specter of al-Qaeda, who had been working for decades to overthrow these secular dictators (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, etc.). But they had it out for Bashar al-Asad 3 fold—as a secularist, as a dictator, and as an Alawite. The Regime represented an apostate religious minority imposing oppressive and godless law over a Sunni majority. To the mind of the Regime, the Sunni composition of the protests evoked all of these fears at once. So, while showing his sensitivity to the protestors concerns, the President wanted to bring the demonstrations to a close immediately. For their part, the police and military were not used to tolerating civil disobedience, and were far too willing to respond forcefully to threats or disrespect. Various elements within the protest movement exploited these tendencies, trying to goad regime forces into an overly-forceful response, knowing that while some of them may be injured or killed, it would ultimately boost public support for their cause (or undermine public support for the Regime). This is a time-honored tactic in protest movements. And the government took the bait, and the protest movement grew with each casualty, unjust arrest, or case of police brutality or torture—especially if children or women were the victims of these crimes. Although I should emphasize that the overwhelming majority of the casualties of the conflict were adult men in their 20’s and 30’s. Moreover, we should add that throughout the protest period, the demonstrations were fairly small (200- 2000), and the protestors were initially calling for an acceleration to reforms, not for regime change. And there were typically counter-protests in support of the Regime, following or simultaneous to those against it—these were often larger than those of the opposition, although they received little media coverage (indeed, the pro-Regime demonstrations were largely obscured throughout the Arab Spring because they complicated the media’s narrative, but in Syria, they were larger and more frequent than anywhere else). However, the protest phase of the revolution would come to a halt in July of 2011.
7/2011: The FSA
One of Bashar’s major reforms had been increasing the Sunni participation in the military, to include appointing them to leadership positions. He tried to recruit people from among the bedouin and the countryside as these tended to be more moderate, religiously—thereby minimizing the risk of a sectarian coup. However, military regimes always run the risk of a coup, especially during moments of relative weakness; this was how Bashar’s father and predecessor (Hafez al-Asad) took power, and the person he overthrew (Salah Jadid) had also taken power through a coup—both of these taking place in times of crisis and turmoil… ironically also largely the result of U.S. attempts to “democratize” Syria during the Cold War. Following this tradition and seizing upon a moment of perceived opportunity, in July 2011, Col. Riad al-Asad announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army. However, while there were initially a number of defections, virtually all from among these Sunni recruits, the overwhelming majority of the army continued (and continues) to side with the Regime. His initial bid failed, and under threat of death, the Col. fled to Turkey. The military defectors had little choice except to press the fight (it was not an option to say, “oops, just kidding”), and were soon augmented by the more militant aspects of the civilian protestors—also overwhelmingly Sunni. However, from outside of Syria, Col. al-Asad had a difficult time coordinating the FSA forces. Moreover, the civilian fighters, while brave and (more or less) well-intentioned, were poorly armed, untrained, undisciplined, and largely out of synch with the military leadership. The armed opposition quickly devolved into a composite of essentially autonomous militias who did not readily communicate or cooperate with one-another. As a result, they were easily decimated whenever they came into contact with Regime forces. But in the early stages of the conflict, each new case of martyrdom only led others to join the movement.
8/2011: The SNC
In August 2011, the Syrian National Coalition was formed. Sponsored by the West, they were supposed to be an umbrella under which all of the political and military opposition groups could unite and coordinate, ensuring that the post-Regime government would be liberal and secular, with the transition being as smooth and as stable as possible. They were immediately recognized as the legitimate government of Syria by the US and Europe. However, as with the FSA, because they were stationed outside of the country—specifically, in the E.U. and the U.S., they were unable to establish this coordination they were created to ensure. Moreover, they lacked credibility with the Syrian people, as they were comprised almost entirely out of expatriate Washington insiders, pro-Western ideologues, and arm-chair intellectuals—most of them had not been inside of Syria for decades, and they were clearly puppets of the sponsor nations. So while the SNC and the FSA continued to speak for the opposition, neither group had much control over them. No one does. They are united only by their common enemy, President al-Asad. And if he is deposed, it is likely that they will turn on one-another. With the formation of the FSA, the protest movement became an insurgency. With the formation of the shadow-government, it took on the character of a civil war.
2/2012: Constitutional Referendum
In an attempt to undermine these developments, the President moved to make good on his promise to accelerate reforms. In February 2012, he presented a new constitution for the Syrian state, and called for a referendum on it. The constitution contained a number of dramatic concessions: for the first time in 40 years, it eliminated the Ba’ath party’s guaranteed majority in the Syrian parliament. Moreover, it defined presidential term limits as 7 years long, with the potential to be re-elected only once; effectively, defining an end to Bashar’s rule of Syria: if the president chose to run in the elections scheduled for 2014, and he won (not much of a stretch), he would still be guaranteed to be out of power forever effective 2021. The opposition called upon Syrians to boycott the referendum; the majority ignored that call. 57% of the electorate turned out to vote, and the constitution was overwhelmingly approved, with 89% voting in favor of it. Although there was no evidence provided of election fraud, the opposition and their Western sponsors refused to acknowledge the vote as legitimate. The fighting continued.
3/2012: The 6-Point Peace Plan
Seeing the situation spinning out of control, the U.N. got involved, appointing Kofi Annan as a special envoy to Syria. In March 2012, the Regime and the FSA agreed to Annan’s 6-Point Peace Plan. In accordance with that plan, Bashar immediately opened up Syria to U.N. Peacekeepers, the Red Cross, and a limited group of journalists. He also promised to soon hold Parliamentary elections, in accordance with the newly-ratified constitution. In compliance with Annan’s ceasefire, the Regime pulled back the military and police forces, maintaining a protective presence in the major metropolitan areas and the vulnerable minority-dominated areas. The ceasefire failed because, while the FSA complied with the ceasefire, they were unable to control the civilian militias, who continued their attacks on regime forces despite the formal truce. After a few days of tolerance, the Regime began contained retaliatory strikes at the militants who continued to fight. The FSA interpreted this as a violation of the ceasefire on the part of the Regime, and they abandoned it as well.
05/2012: Parliamentary Elections
Despite these setbacks, in May 2012 parliamentary elections were held in Syria—under the supervision of U.N. peacekeepers. Again, in defiance of opposition calls to boycott, and attempts at voter-intimidation in rebel-held areas, 51% of the electorate turned out to vote. The Ba’ath Party still won a majority, but this was largely due to the opposition’s boycott. In any case, the new Parliament was endorsed by a majority of the electorate, once again demonstrating the people’s desire for a smooth, gradual and peaceful transition—not a revolution. Given this commitment by the public, and the Regime’s willingness to cooperate and institute reforms, it seemed as though a peaceful resolution may have been possible if the rebels could be convinced to lay down their arms. Most of the defected soldiers might be willing to abide by a deal if they were provided with amnesty in exchange for surrender, but there would still be the issue of bringing the civilian militias into line.
6/2012: U.N. debacle
Seeing that the conflict was being largely perpetuated by outside actors, in June 2012 Kofi Annan sought to get international compliance with his peace plan. The hope was that these international powers could pressure the rebels into engaging more fully in the peace process, while keeping the Regime’s feet to the fire. All of the major international players attended this meeting, and agreed to comply. However, the very next day, the US and other Western nations attempted to push a Chapter 7 Resolution on the Syrian conflict through the Security Council. In direct contradiction to the peace plan they had just agreed to the day before, this resolution placed the entire blame for the conflict on the Regime; it called for President al-Asad to immediately step down, imposed new sanctions on the country, and could have paved the way for military intervention (a la Libya). Upset by NATO’s overstepping the boundaries of the Chapter 7 Resolution on Libya, the motion was blocked by Russia and China (although there were other Security Council members who also voted against the motion or abstained). Kofi Annan was livid at this betrayal on the part of Western nations; the US was outraged that the motion failed. An angry Susan Rice declared after the vote that the US and its allies would, henceforth, have to go around the UN in order to ensure the outcome they desired in Syria. Thereafter, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar dramatically increased funding, training and supplies for the rebels, to include weaponry. Turkey created “safe zones” along their border with Syria, which they defended militarily, in order to afford the rebels a base of operations. Jordan and Turkey agreed to open their borders to refugees, and to provide them with aid. The intensity and devastation of the conflict increased dramatically as a result of these actions– they removed all incentives for the rebels to negotiate.
July 2012: The Tipping Point
In July 2012, Annan proposed a last-ditch effort: a new ceasefire strategy which focused on de-escalating problem zones first, and then building outwards to the rest of the country. Again, the President agreed without hesitation. However, the SNC and the FSA, emboldened by the promises of the West and its allies, rejected this proposal without consideration, saying there would be no further negotiations with the Regime until the President stepped down (or was removed). Given this new aggressive position on the part of the rebels, and the massive amounts of money and weapons now pouring into the country, al-Qaeda ratcheted up their involvement as well (specifically through their affiliates Jahbat al-Nusra and AQI). While they had been doing sporadic car bombs and suicide bombings for months prior, they began providing advanced munitions from Libya and other theaters. They began training the rebels on guerilla warfare, including the creation and deployment of IED’s, car bombs, and suicide bombings. These have since become hallmarks of the opposition. The watershed moment for the opposition was Liwa al-Islam’s July 18, 2012 suicide bombing which killed several high-ranking members of the Syrian military and cabinet—to include the President’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat. Following up on that success, the al-Nusra Front helped “take the fight to the Regime,” launching offenses in the population centers of Damascus and Aleppo. While small in number, the mujahadeen involvement was decisive in re-energizing the opposition. Prior to their involvement, the opposition had been losing ground militarily, virtually any time they came into direct conflict with Regime forces. They had been having an increasingly tough time finding new indigenous recruits: military defections had virtually ceased by this point (whoever was going to defect had already defected, and the ineffectiveness of the rebels was a deterrent for any potential defectors). The events of July 2012 gave the rebels a 2nd wind, and began a period of time when the conflict began to shift in their favor.
August 2012: Shakeup at the UN
Given this escalation in the fighting, the U.N. was forced to withdraw their observers from the country. Disgusted with the international community’s perpetuation of the conflict, and the U.N.’s inability to prevent it this interference, Kofi Annan resigned from his post as Special Envoy to Syria. He was replaced by Lakhdar Brahimi.
October 2012: Brahimi’s Ceasfire
After a few months of progress, the rebellion’s luster began to taper off again. In many areas of the countryside, civilian brigades began preventing the rebels from entering their areas—largely due to increasing incidences among the rebels of rapes, looting, torture, massacres, terrorism, summary executions, the use of child soldiers, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity—especially when paired with the rebel’s general ineffectiveness against the Regime in direct combat. Typically, the rebels would draw Regime forces into a given area; that area would be decimated by the conflict, and the rebels would be soon forced to retreat, leaving the locals to pick up the pieces and bury the dead—in the meantime consuming scarce community resources. Basically, the presence of the rebels tended to bring only trouble, and the civilian populations were increasingly deciding they’d had enough of it. For their part, the U.S. was beginning to have concerns about the increasing influence of international salafi groups, who tended to be better armed, better funded, better trained, and less corrupt than their FSA counterparts, and for this reason were causing a good deal of the civilian militias to side with them over the liberals. These concerns were amped up dramatically following a botched terror attack in Jordan (10/22/2012), which was to be carried out with munitions provided to the rebels in Syria. The US discreetly pressured the FSA and SNC to re-enter negotiations. Soon thereafter, Lakhdar Brahimi announced a new ceasefire set to take effect in commemoration of Eid al-Adha. The Regime agreed to comply, as did the FSA and SNC. However, as with the previous ceasefire, the opposition leadership was unable to constrain the civilian militias, and the truce broke down in a matter of days.
11/2012: SNC 2.0
Frustrated with the leadership’s lack of control over the opposition forces, following the failed truce, Washington disavowed the SNC, and called for the formation of a new opposition government—one that included members some members of the old SNC, as well as the FSA. The new body also included representatives from various civilian militias, and religious leaders from a number of sects—and all of these, people from inside of Syria (not decades-past expatriates or refugees or else 2nd generation Syrian-Americans or Syrian-Europeans). It was their hope that this new government would be recognized by more than just Western nations—that hopefully the people in Syria would take them seriously. However, the new opposition was in a Catch-22: given the previous SNC, which was a joke, the new government would have to demonstrate itself as being able to bring some kind of results, in the form of aid, weapons, or intervention, in order to be taken seriously. However, the SNC’s Western allies were loath to provide such assistance until the SNC had proven itself credible, lest they fail to control the arms that were provided, or be unable to seize control of the country in the event of an intervention. Without the ability to garner support from the Syrian people or from the West until after they somehow provided results—the new SNC found itself, almost immediately, in the same legitimacy crisis as its predecessor.
2/2013: Direct Talks?
From there, things only got worse for the opposition. The Regime successfully goaded the rebels into making a big push into Damascus, where they had set a number of traps. The rebels incurred extremely heavy and humiliating losses, and were driven back from the city. Meanwhile, the Regime had managed to retake several key areas, shoring up their defenses and slowly expanding their secured territories. The rebels were running out of money, and resorting to lootings shops and historical sites, to extorting the public, etc. in order to sustain their efforts. The Regime, meanwhile, was showing no signs of cracking. And this was even as the brutal winter was turning even more of the public against the rebellion, in order to return normalcy to their country, and get critical infrastructure and services running again. Simultaneously, Bashar began negotiations with other (non-SNC) indigenous opposition groups, and began putting together a new body of reforms as a result of those talks. The SNC was at risk of being rendered irrelevant. From this new position of desperation, the SNC’s president Moaz al-Khattib agreed to direct talks with the Regime, dropping their insistence that the President would have to first step down. It is looking increasingly obvious that the President will remain in power at least until the 2014 Syrian presidential elections—what is at stake in any forthcoming negotiations seems to be whether or not Bashar can be convinced not to run in the upcoming elections, allowing him to end his presidency gracefully, on his terms, with the state remaining intact, and with asylum provided for him and his family. Whether or not Bashar is willing to accept such a proposition will depend heavily on how much stability the Regime is able to reassert over the next year. If the country remains chaotic, it is likely that the President would attempt to stay the course until he is removed from power, or until order is restored. However, if the SNC can settle on a mutually-agreeable plan, and then actually exert enough control on the ground to see it through, there may be an end in sight for this conflict. These are no small tasks, but it is encouraging that, at long last, the U.S. and the opposition may be doing what they should have done all along: earnestly pursuing a negotiated settlement. In doing so, they are fulfilling the wishes of the Syrian people, who never supported this armed rebellion in the first place, and want nothing more than to see it come to a swift and orderly close. It is a shame that is has taken so long for things to get to this point, at the cost of so many lives and so much devastation. But God willing, their efforts will be successful.