More than a decade ago, a peaceful revolt in Syria against the government escalated into a full-scale civil war where cities have been destroyed and other countries have become involved.
Twelve years ago, Syrian protesters went to the streets to demonstrate against the country’s government and its leader, Bashar al-Assad. The protests quickly took on a revolutionary tone, demanding the “fall of the regime.” However, after the government’s violent response, the insurrection turned into a war that drew in several foreign powers, displaced millions of people, and killed hundreds of thousands.
HOW A PEACEFUL PROTEST HAD TURNED INTO A DEVASTATED WAR?
Even before the conflict began, many Syrians complained about high unemployment, corruption, and a lack of political freedom under President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 after the latter’s death. In March 2011, Deraa, Damascus, and Aleppo demonstrators demanded democratic reforms and the liberation of political detainees.
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When the Syrian government employed deadly force to repress dissent, countrywide protesters demanded the president’s resignation. Syrian police, military, and paramilitary troops violently suppressed protests. In 2011, opposition militias formed, and by 2012, a civil war had started. Following the insurgency, extreme Islamist groups, notably the Islamic State, took control of large parts of the nation. They lost almost all of their territory after pro-government forces and a U.S.-led coalition of Western militaries counter-attacked.
THE EFFECT OF THE WAR
According to the World Food Programme, 90% of Syrians live below the poverty line. Last year, the UN estimated that 306,000 civilians—1.5 percent of the population—had been killed since March 2011. Michelle Bachelet, then-UN Commissioner for Human Rights, said the deaths were the “direct result of war operations” and added “this does not include the many, many more civilians who died due to the loss of access to healthcare, to food, to clean water and other essential human rights.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a conflict monitor based in the United Kingdom, estimates that the total number of fatalities will reach approximately 610,000 by March 2023. The group calculated that the war killed approximately 613,400 people, including 55,000 civilians tortured in government prisons. As of March 2023, the Violations Documentation Center, which relies on activists nationwide, had recorded 240,215 battle-related deaths, including 145,765 civilians. Besides the slaughter, over half of Syria’s 22 million pre-war population has fled. Over two million of the 6.8 million internally displaced live in tented camps with insufficient services. An additional 6 million people are refugees or asylum seekers abroad. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which host 5.3 million refugees, have struggled to handle one of the greatest refugee exoduses in history. At the beginning of 2023, the United Nations reported that 15.3 million Syrians were in need of humanitarian assistance, an all-time high since the beginning of the civil conflict, and that 12 million did not know where their next meal would come from.
Michelle Bachelet, then-UN Commissioner for Human Rights, said the deaths were the “direct result of war operations” and added “this does not include the many, many more civilians who died due to the loss of access to healthcare, to food, to clean water and other essential human rights.”
WHO ARE INVOLVED?
A variety of actors are locked in a power struggle in Syria. Both domestic and international powers at the play which made the war more complicated.
- Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad as Syrian president in 2000. He has governed the country with an iron fist and has a history of repressing dissidents, employing chemical weapons against his own people, and imprisoning and torturing thousands.
- The Free Syrian Army (FSA)/Syrian National Army is a loose agglomeration of armed battalions created in 2011 by Syrian army defectors and civilians backed by Turkey and various Gulf nations. After the Battle of Aleppo in December 2016, the FSA has controlled parts of Idlib in northwestern Syria.
- Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was previously known as both Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. In 2011, Jabhat al-Nusra was established in Syria as an al-Qaeda affiliate within the opposition to the al-Assad regime. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham united with numerous other factions to become Hay’at Tahrir-al-Sham in January 2017. HTS now claims to be “an independent entity that follows no organisation or party”.
- Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed Shia political and military party in Lebanon. It entered Syria to support al-Assad but has no influence over the country.
- The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was created in 2015. Its members are mostly People’s Protection Units (YPG) combatants and smaller Arab, Turkmen, and Armenian groups. Raqqa, Qamishli, and Hasakkeh are the primary cities under SDF control.
- ISIL is recognized for its violent foreign fighters, organized governance, and strong social media presence. It ascended to power in Syria in the aftermath of 2012 as civil unrest grew. It declared a “caliphate” in 2014 after seizing major areas. In March 2019, ISIL’s “caliphate” was destroyed, but its return is possible. At its peak in 2014, ISIS controlled about one-third of Iraq and Syria.
- Russia and Iran support the government, while Turkey, Western countries, and numerous Gulf Arab states support the opposition.
- Russia, which had military bases in Syria before the war, launched an air campaign in support of Mr. Assad in 2015, turning the fight in the government’s favor. Russian soldiers stopped the opposition’s attack, but air bombings killed civilians and hospitals.
- Iran helped Mr. Assad with hundreds of troops and billions of money. Thousands of Iranianarmed, trained, and funded Shia Muslim militiamen from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen have fought alongside the Syrian army.
- US, UK, and France first armed “moderate” rebels. Since jihadists dominated the armed opposition, they have prioritized non-lethal aid.
- Turkey is a significant supporter of the opposition, but it has focused on deploying rebel groupings to limit the Kurdish YPG militia that dominates the SDF, accusing it of being an offshoot of a banned Kurdish rebel group in Turkey. Turkish troops and allied rebels have captured territory along Syria’s northern border to stop a government attack on the remaining opposition stronghold of Idlib.
- Saudi Arabia armed and funded the rebels early in the fight to oppose Iranian influence. After ignoring President Assad for over a decade, it is now contemplating how to help Syria “return to the Arab fold”.
- Israel has increased air strikes to stop Iran’s “military entrenchment” in Syria and supply of weaponry to Hezbollah and other Shia forces.
HAS GOVERNMENT REGAINED CONTROL OF SYRIA?
The government has regained Syria’s main cities, but rebels, jihadists, and the Kurdish-led SDF still control much of the country. No frontline shifts have occurred in three years. Idlib and areas of northern Hama and western Aleppo are the last opposition strongholds. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist organization, dominates the region, but Turkey-backed rebel militias are also present. There are 2.9 million displaced people, including a million children, living in camps in deplorable conditions. Russia and Turkey negotiated a truce in March 2020 to prevent the government from retaking Idlib. That halted bloodshed for a while, but air strikes, shelling, and fighting continue.
SYRIAN REFUGEES AT MORE VULNERABLE STATE AMID TURKEY’S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
As the Syrian civil war enters its 12th year, the issue of repatriating Syrian refugees has been a significant theme in Turkey’s latest presidential and parliamentary elections. All three presidential candidates competing against Erdogan had pledged to return refugees. Erdogan himself did not address the issue of migration while campaigning. However, in response to a wave of anti-refugee sentiment, his government has been exploring methods to resettle the 4 million Syrian refugees.
“A road map for the return of refugees will be planned soon. We’ll analyze how soon we can assure their safe return,” Erdogan said in an interview with TRT Haber. The president had added that Turkey had already repatriated 450,000 Syrians and planned to return another one million. Turkey, once known for its open-door policy towards refugees, has faced mounting public pressure as its economy struggles and housing shortages worsen due to an earthquake in February.
Earlier Erdogan had indicated his plans for a new military operation in northern Syria, marking Turkey’s fifth such operation since 2016. The objective was to enhance border security. Previous operations had allowed Turkey to gain control over parts of Northwest Syria and limit Kurdish forces’ influence in the region. The Syrian conflict has significantly influenced Turkey’s internal political discussions, focusing on the conflict itself, Turkey’s involvement in northern Syria, and the refugee crisis. However, there has been a shift in Erdogan’s approach as he considers engaging with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, signaling a potential change after nearly ten years of strained relations. Erdogan’s government has started constructing brick homes in northern Syria to encourage voluntary returns, and it now seeks reconciliation with Syrian President Bashar Assad to ensure the refugees’ safe repatriation.
However, challenges remain, including the Syrian government’s conditions for ties normalization and Turkey’s troop withdrawal from certain areas. Additionally, according to experts, implementing repatriation promises is difficult. Despite difficult living conditions in Turkey, Syrians prefer them over the devastating circumstances in Syria. They would rather remain in Turkey than return to war-ravaged Syria, where they have neither a residence nor a job. The sentiment against refugees and calls for their repatriation have generated tensions and occasional violence, but some residents in Turkey remain unfazed, having already experienced hardships.
WILL THE CONFLICT BE RESOLVED ANYTIME SOON AS SYRIA REJOINS ARAB LEAGUE?
The 2012 Geneva Communiqué calls for a transitional governing body “formed on the basis of mutual consent” and has been endorsed by the UN Security Council. The Geneva II process, nine rounds of UN-mediated peace talks, collapsed because President Assad refused to deal with political opposition groups who want his resignation. Russia, Iran, and Turkey began the Astana process in 2017.
A 150-member committee was formed the following year to design a new constitution, resulting in UN-supervised free and fair elections. After eight rounds of talks, little progress has been made. As the conflict entered its 13th year, UN special envoy Geir Pedersen called the situation in Syria “untenable” and “to carry on in the same manner, defies humanity and logic”. Syria’s return to the Arab League, symbolized by President Bashar al Assad’s attendance at the recent summit in Saudi Arabia, signifies a significant shift and marked the end of the suspension imposed by the league’s influential members, who had long pursued a campaign to change the regime in Syria since 2011. The move reflects a growing realization among Arab states that the Assad regime is likely to remain in power, and they prefer to have open lines of communication to minimize Syria’s reliance on Iran. While the decision is largely symbolic, it will have impacts on various aspects.
Regarding the democratic process in Syria, the Arab League aims to initiate a new political process with the Syrian government. However, experts doubt that it will lead to genuine progress towards democracy, as there are no effective mechanisms in place to hold the Assad regime accountable. From a moral standpoint, the decision has no impact since many leaders in the Arab League nations are seen as corrupt and ruthless, similar to Syria.
According to Kelly Petillo, the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Syrian refugees will face significant hardships as a result of Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. This decision is expected to increase pressure on key host countries like Lebanon and Jordan to push refugees to return to Syria prematurely, leading to immense suffering for them. Furthermore, this development creates more uncertainty for Syrians living outside the country. Faced with the choice of returning to Syria or seeking refuge in a third country, many may opt for the latter, with Europe being a preferred destination. Experts do not believe that European countries will forcibly repatriate Syrians, considering that most Western nations severed diplomatic ties with the Assad regime years ago. Despite the symbolic significance of Syria’s readmission to Arab League, the underlying challenges and complexities of the Syrian conflict may remain unresolved.
In conclusion, while the Syrian civil war has caused immense suffering and destruction, recent developments, such as Syria’s readmission to the Arab League, provide a glimmer of hope for a more positive future. The decision reflects a growing recognition among regional actors that a political solution involving the current leadership is the most realistic path forward. Although challenges remain, increased engagement and dialogue offer opportunities for progress in resolving the conflict and alleviating the suffering endured by the Syrian people. By fostering diplomatic efforts and supporting humanitarian initiatives, there is a chance to bring about a more peaceful and stable Syria, allowing its people to rebuild their lives and envision a brighter future.