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Why is there war in Syria?

Think Tanks | 2016-12-18 14:01:41
Why is there war in Syria?
(CNN)- According to the UN, more than 400,000 people have died in Syria's civil war.

Thousands of these victims have included women and children caught in the crossfire

In the most recent horrific scenes, children were said to have been burned alive as the Syrian government launched a brutal assault on the rebels in Aleppo.

In the words of one local police chief: "People are facing bombing by every kind of weapon of war … spreading fear in the hearts of civilians in the marketplaces, streets and even mosques."

As the war reaches some of its bloodiest, and perhaps final scenes, we look at its causes.

Why is there war in Syria?



The conflict began not, as many assume, as a clash between different kinds of Muslims, but with protests stemming from a range of social grievances centred on policies pursued by President Bashar al-Assad.

His father Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in a 1970 coup, led a repressive regime that tortured and killed those who sought to oppose him.

But in his early years in power he adopted a paternalistic approach towards the mass of people who didn’t cause him trouble: keeping down prices, encouraging agricultural development in rural areas and providing new public sector jobs in urban areas, many of them in the state bureaucracy.

By the 1980s, however, the economy was showing strain and cuts began in the rural areas that provided Assad Senior with the bedrock of his support.

There was a rapid decline in agricultural subsidies, co-operative ownership models were ditched and the diverse production of crops was abandoned.

Agricultural productivity nosedived, and from the 1990s there was a movement of migrants from rural communities into slum areas around the major cities.

By the late 2000s, it has been estimated that around 20% of the Syrian population was housed in some sort of slum village.

Under London-trained eye surgeon Bashar al-Assad, who became President when his father died in 2000, the move away from paternalism accelerated and neoliberal policies were pursued that eliminated welfare protection and hurt the poor.

At the same time, there was very little opportunity for the expression of political dissent.

Some civil society groups were established as part of Bashar al-Assad’s reform agenda, but they tended to be strictly controlled and were led by intellectuals and elites.

They discussed the future of Syria in largely theoretical terms and didn’t involve groups that were suffering as a result of the economic turmoil.

Protests began in the southern city of Dar’a in February 2011 after 15 teenage schoolboys were arrested and detained for spray-painting the common Arab slogan: “The people want the downfall of the regime” on their school wall.

As the days went on, protests against the boys’ detention widened into calls for the release of other political prisoners, emergency laws, poor living conditions, corruption, police brutality and arbitrary detention.

By March 15, 2011, the protesters had increasing momentum in the city and were in direct conflict with the security forces, who opened fire with live munitions.

Protests then spread to other major cities including the capital Damascus, Aleppo, al-Hassakeh, Deir ez-Zor and Hama. There was no central co-ordination of demonstrations, which sprang up spontaneously.

Nevertheless, a list of demands quickly grew: the resignation of President Assad, the dismantling of the repressive security apparatus, the removal of elite groups from positions of power and the introduction of political reforms that would repeal emergency laws and lead to a new, genuinely democratic constitution.

The failure of the regime to quell the protests was succeeded by more repression, with Assad asserting that foreign powers and Islamic fundamentalist groups were fomenting trouble.

At that stage there was no evidence of that at all – but as the conflict extended, the range of participants increased.

Initially the regime had a two-pronged response to the protests, introducing cosmetic reforms while at the same time increasing repression with arbitrary imprisonment, beatings, torture, kidnappings and murder.

By June 2011 violence was escalating, with protesters being regularly imprisoned and tortured.

Anyone suspected of sympathy with the demonstrators became targets of the regime, and thousands of Syrians were detained and hundreds killed.

Aerial bombing was used by the regime after 120 soldiers were killed by armed rebels in the north-west of the country. This marked the beginning of the militarisation of the conflict, which rapidly turned into the war on multiple fronts that has continued until today.

Who are the opposition forces?


Experts have identified five distinct social groupings who took part in the early protests: secular, educated, urban middle classes; tribes or kinship groups concentrated in deprived areas; political Islamists; political activists; and the unemployed and marginalised.

They all shared political and economic grievances, but had not previously been involved in opposition activity and organised themselves under conditions of extreme repression.

In October 2011 the Syrian National Council was formed, the first coalition of the political opposition formed after the uprising.

It was composed almost entirely of exiled groups outside Syria, and was fraught with internal divisions from the outset.

Such disagreements prevented the establishment of a united opposition that could have toppled Assad

In June 2011 army defectors formed brigades and called themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The armed opposition quickly spread with new units and brigades set up in major cities and rural areas across the country.

This led to a dramatic expansion of violence, the growth of different armed group and before long the geographical fragmentation of the country.

The FSA’s failure to defeat the regime paved the way for the emergence of other armed groups, some of which were explicitly jihadist, including Jabhat an-Nusra – the local arm of Al-Qaeda – and Islamic State.

At the same time the regime’s Syrian Arab Army decreased in strength and came to rely on home-grown militia groups and regional groups like Hezbollah.

This change in the nature of the conflict exacerbated religious divides. Assad, a member of the minority Alawite Shia sect, led a country whose population was predominantly Sunni.

With different ideological agendas, the opposition militias hated and fought each other as much as they hated and fought against the regime.

Why are civilians dying in such numbers?


The conflict has been “civilianised” because many of the armed groups involved were originally formed to protect local areas.

Military units, whether in rebel-held or regime-held areas, are embedded in their own communities.

With the objective of those perpetrating violence being to consolidate and control specific areas, civilians are inevitably in the firing line.

Aerial bombardment by the West and Russia – who became involved in the conflict to pursue their own strategic interests – finally created the conditions that turned literally millions of displaced persons into refugees seeking a safe haven in Europe and elsewhere.

Why is the war now focused on Aleppo?



Aleppo and its surrounding areas is seen as the most strategic region of Syria because it is on Turkish supply routes that are crucial to the survival of armed groups.

For years the groups have fought each other for control of highways, routes, checkpoints and border crossings.

At least five different rebel groups have been entrenched in Aleppo, each seeking to expand their base at the expense of the others.

The failure of the FSA to defeat the regime encouraged and allowed other non-affiliated groups to expand their territory.

As Assad’s forces have regained the initiative, Aleppo has become a symbol for him, if not of victory, of survival.

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