Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What's happening in Syria?

Several people have asked me recently what the heck is going on in Syria. So I've written a brief run down of what's going on and how we got here. This is meant as a primer, and a lot of what I wrote is admittedly overly simplified. But hopefully it captures the important stuff without obfuscating too much.

This is what is happening in Syria:

Inspired by other Arab uprisings, the Syrian people began a peaceful movement in 2011 to reform and later overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. Bashar and his father Hafez before him have ruled Syria with an iron grip for decades. It was therefore no surprise the regime responded with a violent crackdown. Assad promised that the region would burn if the international community supported the opposition.

The Syrian opposition failed to unify in the face of regime violence, as some continued to protest peacefully but others began to pick up arms to meet force with force. Neighborhood defense forces and military defectors grew into the Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of armed groups across the country opposed to the Assad regime. Protests morphed into clashes and, soon enough, full-on battles.

The violence exacerbated pre-existing societal cleavages within the country, and sectarianism grew increasingly salient. Sunnis, who represent the majority of Syrians, became the loudest voice within the opposition. Assad, who comes from the minority Alawite community, attracted the support of other minority sects, including Shia and Christians, who feared Sunni intentions. Of course, not all Sunnis support the opposition and not all minorities support the regime – but these schisms have grown ever deeper. Kurdish Syrians have also fought both sides as they attempt to carve out their own autonomy.

Now, radicals from all communities have drowned out moderates. This process has been accelerated by the intervention of outside forces that have stirred the sectarian pot. Assad has relied increasingly on Iran and Hezbollah – both Shia who face common Sunni rivals. Meanwhile, Sunni groups inspired by and part of al-Qaeda have joined the fight on the side of the opposition and become some of its most powerful military forces. Gulf states, also Sunni, have contributed arms and financing to the rebels. As the war has become more transnational, so has the risk that it’ll spill over in neighboring Lebanon, Iraq and to a lesser extent Turkey and Jordan. Now, factions within both the regime and the opposition speak openly of ethnic cleansing and have committed countless war crimes.

And to be clear, Syria is a civil war. Over 100,000 people have died in the past two years in Syria, and there is no sign the violence will abate any time soon. One in four Syrians are now displaced from their homes. The battle has reached largely a stalemate, after a series of rebel advances were stopped and reversed earlier this year. The opposition has secured control of much of the north and the east, near the Turkish border. The regime has control of the south and the west, near the Lebanon border. The capital Damascus is controlled by the regime, but the rebels control many of the Damascus suburbs.

It is in these suburbs which the Assad regime has most recently used chemical weapons, likely sarin gas. It is not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons, but the scale of this attack (somewhere between 300 and 1200 dead) is unprecedented. It is the worst use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980's. We know the regime used chemical weapons because we intercepted regime communications talking about the attack. Still, the attack only represents a small fraction of the total people killed in the past two years, largely from small arms, shelling, and bombs.

It is not clear why Assad would use chemical weapons on this scale. The timing is also odd, because the UN had just deployed a team of chemical weapons experts to investigate previous attacks. Some experts say the attack may not have been approved from the top. Others suggest that they meant to use chemical weapons, but accidentally killed more people than they intended. What is clear, however, is Assad has been perfectly willing to kill civilians indiscriminately in a myriad of ways, and there have been little international repercussions for doing so thus far. So the fact he's willing to gas his own people is, sadly, not shocking. For what it's worth, the regime has denied responsibility and said it was the rebels who used chemical weapons. 

President Obama warned Syria last year that the use of chemical weapons was a red line that would fundamentally change our approach to the conflict. From an early stage of the revolution, the US said Assad should step aside to allow a political resolution. As the revolution turned violent, the administration resisted pressure to arm the Syrian rebels, claiming that their disunity would make it impossible to prevent arms from falling into extremist hands. After Assad first used chemical weapons earlier this year, the administration decided to finally arm the rebels, even though those very extremists are even more powerful than before. No weapons have yet been delivered in any sizable amount, but we have provided training to armed opposition groups and likely have provided other logistical support.

Unlike the US, Russia has not hesitated to provide substantial military and economic support to the side it supports: Assad. Russia, along with China, has consistently stymied every move at the UN to condemn and punish the Assad regime.

The latest chemical attack will likely push the US to respond with military force. The goal will not be regime change like in Libya, but to punish Assad for crossing our red line and for violating the international norm against using chemical weapons. We will likely target a few military installations and other key infrastructure, causing enough damage to make it hurt but not so much to force Assad to retaliate. It is unlikely we will risk flying our own planes over Syria, so we will instead rely on cruise missiles.  

For his part, Assad has threatened retribution against anyone who supports a military strike by the West. Fighting for his literal survival, it is unclear if any amount of cruise missiles will force him to abandon his murderous path.

Our European allies, and especially Great Britain, will stand with us politically and in a few cases militarily. Arab states seem hesitant to provide political support, especially after a July 3 coup in Egypt removed the pro-opposition president Mohamed Morsi. Unlike in Libya, the Security Council will not approve any military action, because Russia and China will veto any measure authorizing the use of force. They say it’s because they’re angry with NATO for overstepping its mandate in Libya by taking a mandate to protect civilians and using it to overthrow the Muammar Qaddafi regime. But in reality, they just care for what they perceive are their national interests. The US will instead look to build an ad hoc coalition to try to give our intervention the veneer of international legitimacy. 

There is now little hope in Syria, and our bombs falling on Assad targets will be lost in the noise of violence that has engulfed the country. Even if Assad were to fall tomorrow, the violence he has unleashed will continue for years to come. Worse, there are fewer and fewer good guys to support as extremists take control across the political spectrum. We can only hope to try to curb the worst excesses of violence within the country and try and prevent it from engulfing the rest of the region.

UPDATE: I added a few lines about why Assad may have used chemical weapons.