Face Off – The Syria Story

Face Off – The Syria Story

By Daniel Wheaton

In a matter of months, the faces of leadership across the Middle East changed dramatically. Angered by oppressive governments and long-standing political tensions, Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Col. Muammar Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh lost control of their countries during an uprising called the Arab Spring. One regime fought back and hasn’t stopped fighting more than two years later. The Syrian Civil War has torn Syria into pieces, leaving its citizens dead and destroying its cities. Recent estimates put the death toll at more than 80,000 and more than 1 million people have fled the country.

The Man Behind The Conflict

Syria’s Prime Minister, Bashar Al-Assad, isn’t going to let the Arab Spring destroy his political power. Assad has been in control of Syria since 2000 when he became prime minister of Syria after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad. He is an heir to a political dynasty that represents the powerful Alawite minority in Syria. Before he ascended to power, Assad was seen as a possible reformer in the Middle East. In his early life, news outlets descried him as quiet and reserved. His original intention was to become an ophthalmologist. He studied medicine at the University of Damascus and had a medical residency in the Tishreen military hospital. In the ‘90s, he lived in London practicing medicine and lived in relative anonymity.

It was a car accident that altered his future.

Bashar’s older brother, Bassel , was groomed to succeed Hafez, but he died in 1994. Hafez decided Bashar would succeed him, which surprised much of the Syrian elite. Hafez’ less popular and relatively unprepared son entered the military academy in Homs and became a colonel in 1995. Bashar and his father grew closer as Bashar worked as a political adviser. When Assad ascended to power, the international community thought he would revolutionize his country. He was young and well educated, contrasting with the ageing dictators that ruled the rest of the region. When push came to shove, it became clear he wasn’t the reformer the world hoped for. The so-called Damascus Spring that was aimed at modernizing Syria failed, and the economy slumped. He was never able to gain the same level of respect his father and other brother had, and his political frustrations seemed to contribute to unrest. On April 17 of this year, The Atlantic went as far as questioning: “Did his inept policies contribute to the civil war?”

According to Jean-Marie Quemer, a reporter who has written about Assad, his countrymen saw him as a bit of a joke. Satirical websites often called him “Beesho ” or “baby Bashar.”

During his rule, he militarized his country and ruled Syria with an iron fist. Following the failure of the Damascus Spring, Assad had effectively rooted out any political dissenters in his administration. Travel bans were put in place for dissidents and Syrians did not have a forum for free speech. By 2011, social media was completely blocked.Foreign policy remained largely the same. Syria continued to support Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups that support Islamic Jihad. Relationships with less Islamist nations slowly deteriorated, which left Syria with only one true ally: Iran.

Assad’s method of dealing with conflict plays a major role in the Syrian Civil War. The conflict’s roots lie in entrenched differences between Alawites and Sunnis. Political imbalances boiled over when the Alawite government responded with force against the citizenry, which was largely Sunni. Beginning on March 15, 2011 protesters demanded Assad to step down from rule. One month after the initial protests, Assad deployed the Syrian army against the protestors. Now, Syrian rebels are composed largely of defectors, civilians and mujahedeen from all areas of the Middle East.

Economic and political power has long been unevenly distributed between Alawites and the Sunnis. The Alawites are a sect of Shia Islam that live in northeast Syria and in neighboring Lebanon, an estimated 12 percent of Syrians are Alawites, compared to the majority Sunnis. Assad’s family is Alawite. Since his father has been in control, they have monopolized political control over the nation.

Conversely, Sunnis Muslims represent the largest religious sect, with the least amount of power. They represent most of the lower and middle classes.

A Synopsis

The first few days of the Syrian Civil War looked similarly to earlier protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square or in the streets of Tunis. Unarmed citizens marched on Damascus, demanding action from Assad. In five days, clashes with police resulted with several deaths.

Damascus remained the focal point of the conflict, but similar marches occurred in other cities in Syria: Banais, al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir az-Zor and Hama. March 15 2011 was the first “Day of Rage” against Assad. His response was conciliatory in the beginning— he released some political prisoners trying to win favor with his citizens.

In May and June of 2011 , Assad’s army began mobilizing. Tanks began patrolling Damascus as people fled. The rhetoric from Assad continued to be calm, calling for a discussion on reform. At this point, the United States and the European Union began tightening sanctions on Syria.

By the fall of 2011, the opposition to Assad began to coalesce. The emerging conflict evolved from small skirmishes to a fully-fledged war, so the international community considered joining in. Through the United Nations, the US considered taking action to depose Assad. Russia and China, two members of the UN Security Council, vetoed the plans, which stopped the UN from acting.

Much of 2012 passed with small skirmishes in all major cities in Syria. By February 2012, an estimated 7,500 deaths had occurred. In June, Assad began admitting the scope of the conflict saying to officials that Syria was close to “real war.”

In July, rebels seized the northern city of Aleppo. The tide of the conflict turned toward the rebels when the government failed to recapture Aleppo. By August, the UN General Assembly demanded Assad’s resignation. Rebels continued to make small gains toward capturing Damascus.

The lack of progress on Assad’s resignation frustrated UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who resigned from his post in September. Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi replaced him. Brahimi’s work hasn’t been effective in removing Assad or staving off the war.

During the rebel advances, tensions between Syria and Turkey almost resulted in an international conflict. The Turkish army intercepted a Syrian plane allegedly carrying arms from Russia.

The final months of 2012 marked changes from the international community. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was created in Qatar and the Arab League almost endorsed the rebel forces. Some Islamist groups decided to stay out of the coalition.

By December, the US, Britain, France, Turkey and Gulf states formally endorsed the coalition as “the legitimate response” of the Syrian people.

The first half of 2013 was colored with an increased level of frustration from the west, and a continuing stalemate on both sides of the conflict. President Barack Obama has made numerous statements on the war. Many have said Assad is close to crossing the “red line” that will lead to intervention.

The United States has been leery about sending weapons to the rebels. Members of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are known to be a part of the anti-Assad forces. The Iraqi-based wing of Al Qaeda, the Islamist Nursa Front, has dedicated almost half of its members to deposing Assad , according to a May 17 Reuters report. This hesitation stems from the 1980s, when the US armed mujahedeen in Afghanistan that were fighting the Soviet Union. That mistake still harms attempts to establish peace in Afghanistan today.

Israel has been the most proactive in opposing the regime. Fearing any violence spilling over its border, Israel has launched several airstrikes into Syria. On May 3 , Israel attacked the Damascus International Airport claiming the intention was to destroy weapons sent from Iran to Hezbollah. Israel has remained patient, but has threatened more strikes if necessary.

The United Nations issued a statement on May 15, which raised the official death toll. “At least 80,000 have perished since the start of the hostilities, with most of these casualties believed to be civilians,” Vuk Jeremic, the president of the General Assembly, told the New York Times.

The United States and Russia plan to hold a peace conference sometime soon to discuss how to end the conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said they plan to hold the conference “as soon as practical, possibly, hopefully as soon as the end of the month .” While Russia is a supporter of the Syrian regime, they have suggested that they would be willing to help depose Assad if necessary.

“I would like to emphasize we do not, we are not interested in the fate of certain persons,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters on Tuesday. “We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people.”


Ordinary citizens are facing the brunt of pain from the conflict. Fearing for their own lives, thousands have fled the country to neighboring nations.

According to the UN, almost one million people have fled Syria . The majority of which have gone to Jordan. Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt also report large numbers. António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and former minister of Portugal, wrote an Op-Ed in The International Herald Tribune that an estimated 7,000 people flee Syria every day . Donations and humanitarian aid is stretched as more Syrian women and children flee.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has asked for more international aid for the displaced, saying that Turkey and Jordan shoulder “the tremendous burden.”

The West’s Response

Although the West has remained largely supportive of the rebel forces, no country has acted to end the conflict.

Obama has used strong rhetoric against Assad, but domestic issues have remained the focus. Immediately after the uprising turned violent some members of the international community wondered if the United States or the UN would use a similar tactic used to depose Libya’s Gadhafi against Assad.

Instead, allies have sent billions of dollars in non-lethal aid fearing weapons could end in the wrong hands.

Recently, concerns over the use of chemical weapons sparked action from the west. A BBC report on May 16, found evidence of the use of a nerve agent against civilians. The report states that canisters containing sarin were dropped on households in Saraqueb. The UN classifies sarin, a neurotoxin, as a weapon of mass destruction.

“We were taken to Maryam Khatib’s house by one of her nephews,” said Ian Pannell on a BBC radio segment. “He showed us where the device is said to have landed. A small hole has been smashed into the tiled floor; a pair of disposable surgeon’s gloves lie abandoned nearby. The plants around the site appear to have withered and died, showing signs of possible contamination”

Eight people had been admitted to a hospital in Saraqeb on April 29, all of which were suffering from breathing problems and vomiting. Khatib later died.This is the fourth possible use of a chemical weapons in the conflict.

On May 16, Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss how to end the fighting in Syria. In the White House Rose Garden, they held a joint press conference. Turkey has suffered some violence from the conflict, a car bombing attack in mid May is suspected to be linked to the Syrian regime.

“We’re going to keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime and working with the Syrian opposition,” Obama said. “We both agree that Assad needs to go.”

What Now?

In the war, both sides have edged themselves into a bloody corner. The upcoming summit between Russia and the United States is the closest the international community has come to solving the conflict. With the abhorrent amount of death and destruction, the world may be seeing the final days of Assad.

Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Aharaa told a Lebanese newspaper that neither side can win.

As the conflict drags on, it appears al-Aharaa is right.

Daniel Wheaton

Daniel Wheaton is a reporter who covers politics, emerging tech and economics. He is also a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying journalism, broadcasting and informatics. Daniel has been published in the Paragould Daily Press, KFOR 1240, Silicon Prairie News, the Nebraska News Service, USA Today, the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire and several small and medium news organizations nationwide. At school he's one of the editors of the campus newspaper the Daily Nebraskan and is a member of the university speech and debate team. He is also a coffee snob. After graduation, Daniel plans on developing his data journalism and coding skills.

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