Have you met the new war on the block?
Syria, a West Asian country of considerable geographic and ethnic diversity, is currently under a bloody power struggle between civilian rebels and the Syrian government that has, to date, resulted in over 110,000 civilian deaths.
In early 2011, Syrian civilians began protests against their current governmental regime, the Ba’ath Party, which has dominated the country’s parliament since 1963. By July 2011, the protests had grown from moderate, isolated demonstrations to a global call for the resignation of Bashar al-Assad, who has been President of Syria since 2000.
A general unrest was evident by no later than Jan. 2011, but the movement really gained steam in mid-March when 15 boys between the ages of 15 and 20 were arrested and tortured for painting anti-Ba’ath graffiti. Outraged at their treatment, many Syrians took to the streets to call foul.
On March 18 of that year, thousands of protesters poured out of the Al-Omari Mosque in Daraa, one of Syria’s 14 provinces, after a congregational prayer. Security forces initially attempted to quiet the peaceful exhibitions by attacking them with stones and batons. By the end of the day the weaponry had escalated to the use of water cannons, teargas and even live ammunition. Sadly, the killings and beatings that occurred on that day were only a drop in the bucket compared to the devastation that President Bahar al-Assad would eventually bring to the civilian population.
Perhaps in an effort to relieve the uprising, Syrian officials released the youths who were arrested for their graffiti, albeit badly beaten, which only served to fuel the passions of the growing resistance. More Syrians than ever began to vocalize their anger in peaceful demonstrations, accusing their government of corruption and calling for more basic human freedoms.
Beginning that April and under the command of al-Assad, the Syrian Army responded to the insurrection with a systematic and brutal assault on not only protesters but funerary processions and those trying to enter the city to participate in the demonstrations. Infantry carriers, artillery and tanks were deployed and the death toll began to skyrocket. By the end of the month, al-Assad had imposed a military siege on Daraa. Basic services were cut from the public and emigration from the city was strictly prohibited.
Months of continued sieges, violent attacks and repressed rights transformed the overwhelmingly peaceful opposition into a veritable armed rebellion, helped in part by the fact that some Syrian soldiers refused to carry out their terrible orders, defected, and joined the insurgency.
The exact date that Syria began its civil war is moot, but on July 29, 2011, a band of defected officers proclaimed the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a group that went on to envelope and represent the opposition.
According to The Human Rights Watch, the number of civilian deaths had climbed well into the thousands by then, and those injured were intentionally prevented from acquiring medical attention. Even paramedics who arrived to provide aid were not spared execution, and many women and children fell among the dead. Thousands more were arbitrarily detained and tortured.
Internationally, these events have sparked strong reactions and endless debate, particularly with Syria’s more recent usage of weaponized chemicals against its population. For some reason, the chemical attacks—and not the bullets, which have been killing Syrian innocents for some two-and-a-half years—have been the primary motivator for U.S. intervention. Many still oppose the notion altogether.
Admittedly, these decisions should not be made hastily. After all, there is a whole political kaleidoscope to consider. For example, Syria’s government currently receives military support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria’s longtime ally, Russia. Alternatively, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been documented in providing the rebels with firearms. Attacking Syria or merely deploying troops there could have unforeseen consequences.
As is usually the case with wars, it’s a big, bloody mess, and progress comes in at a trickle.
For now, Syria has staved off an American attack, in part because of their present completion of step one in an agreement to neutralize and dispose of all chemical weapons. So far, they have submitted a declaration of their chemical weapon arsenal, which means we know how much of what they have according to them. It may sound like step zero, but at least they’re jumping through hoops. On the other hand, it buys Syria time to go about business as usual, which lately has contained an awful lot of killing people.
Chemical weapons should not be the only international concern about the Syrian conflict. Aerial bombings have killed large groups and destroyed families’ homes. Armored vehicles are patrolling Syrian neighborhoods, and the order has been clearly dictated: “shoot to kill.” Should we stay or should we go?