Since the Arab uprising in 2011, commonly known as the Arab Spring, the Middle Eastern region in general and Syria, in particular, are entangled in a long spiral of violent conflicts. Although initially the uprising was triggered by an individual incident of self-immolation of a vendor (Muhammad Bu Azizi) in Tunisia, however, its roots are embedded deep in history. The deep socio-political and economic chasms and inequalities between the rulers and the ruled led to the emergence of inherent conflicts within these countries which ultimately manifested into violence in the backdrop of the Arab Spring. People stood up against the tyranny and despotism of these rulers who had been ruling them for decades, demanding greater individual freedom and equality.
The conflict in Syria is the continuation of the Arab Spring, which emerged as a result of people’s protest against Bashar Al Asad’s regime that turned into an unending violent civil war.
Since March 2011, people took to the streets against the oppressive regime, demanding their rights to freedom and access to an economic and political institution without any discrimination. However, the coercive government response and the interplay between and among the regional and international players for their own vested interests plunged this country into an unabated cycle of violence resulting in the worst humanitarian crisis after the Second World War. More than 500,000 people have been killed and over 10 million Syrians have been displaced.
Syria like the rest of Middle Eastern societies is a multi-communal society divided mainly along sectarian lines. A Muslim majority state comprising 74% Sunnis, 16% other sects (Alawites, Druze & Ismailis), and 10% Christian and Jewish population. Such multi-communal societies, where one community dominates and is unresponsive to the needs of other communities, provide firm bases for conflicts to arise. Syria is a Sunni-majority state that has been ruled by the Alawite minority since the early 1960s. With their ascendency to power, Hafiz al Assad embarked upon policies of discrimination and marginalization mainly on the basis of sectarian affinities and affiliations. In an attempt to consolidate and sustain his power, Suunis from all the important political and military positions were replaced with minority Alawites, thus deepening the feelings of hatred and animosity which had been there between these sects since Ottoman rule. Though apparently secular, his regime was avowedly prejudiced and hostage to socio-political and economic inequalities that privileged Alawites while discriminating against the Sunni majority.
After the death of Hafez Al Assad, his son Bashar Al Assad succeeded him as the new president of Syria in 2000. Inheriting a fragmented society where there was a disarticulation between the state and the society mainly on the basis of non-identical identities, Bashar Al Assad tried to unite his people but to no avail. His cosmetic reforms agenda coupled with an enforced integration of society plan further alienated people from the state resulting in more fragmentation and divisions, pitting the two major sects against one another. The Arab Spring proved to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin. People’s protests against growing inequalities and injustices were met with a coercive state response with a concocted plea presenting the protestors as Sunni extremists to overthrow the Alawite government purely on the basis of sectarianism. Hence the struggle against the repressive policies of the regime was deliberately transformed into a sectarian conflict that invited many regional players, protracting the war.
The protraction and longevity of the Syrian civil war owe greatly to the communal discord between the Sunnis and the Alawites that had been brewing up since Ottoman rule and exploited by Hafez and Bashar Al Assad for sustaining their rule.
Hence the underlying socio-political and economic grievances fed into the already existing communal fault lines resulting in a long brutal civil war. Capitalizing upon the sectarian element, the regional powers, mainly Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran threw their weights behind opposing parties to the conflict for their own vested interests. Due to changing geopolitical dynamic of the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia has been wrestling for political and religious hegemony in the region. While Turkey’s policies in the Syrian conflict remained in flux throughout this period due to its changing foreign policy objective. In the preceding years of the war, it supported the rebel groups (including Kurdish militias) who were fighting the regime forces and ISIS in an attempt to quell international terrorism. But due to fear of Kurdish empowerment, it joined hands with Russia and Iran in supporting Assad in order to restrain Kurdish activities.
Similarly, the dissatisfaction of international powers with the existing global power structure and the declining hegemony of the US in the international political arena encouraged other states like Russia and China to challenge the status quo. Since then these powers have been utilizing every misstep of the US to the fullest. Owing to declining US dominancy in the Middle East they have been flexing their muscles in a bid to outdo it. With this objective in mind, Russia has been vocal.
M. Tayyab is an analyst, based in Islamabad. He specialises in Middle East Politics.