By Jane Wachira
Syria, officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic, is a country in western Asia whose capital city is Damascus. It borders Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the south west. Archaeologists believe the original civilisation in Syria is one of the most ancient on earth seeing as it is part of a fertile crescent, where some of the first people on earth practiced cattle breeding and agriculture.
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It is a country of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, and home to diverse ethnic and religious groups including Syrian Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Armenians and Assyrians. Religious groups include Christians, Alawites, Shiites and Salafis, with Sunni Arabs making up the largest portion of the population. Present day Syria is only a small portion of the ancient geographical Syrian landmass. Greater Syria, as historians and political scientists refer to this area, is a region connecting three continents, simultaneously cursed and blessed as a crossroad for commerce and a battle ground for the political destinies of dynasties and empires. Throughout history, greater Syria has been the focal point of a continual dialectical, both intellectual and bellicose, between the Middle East and the West. Today Syria remains an active participant in the tribulations of a troubled and highly volatile region.
Since before 2000 BC, Syria has been an integral part, or the seat of government for powerful empires. The struggle among various indigenous groups as well as invading foreigners resulted in cultural enrichment and significant contributions to civilisations despite political upheaval and turmoil. Syria is home to one of the oldest cities excavated, Ebla, believed to exist around 3000 BCE. This sought after land was occupied by all sorts of ancient empires from the Egyptian to Hittites, Sumerians, Assyrians, Canaanites, to Persians and Greeks.
After King Akkad of Mesopotamia destroyed Ebla, Amorites ruled the region until their power was eclipsed in 1600 BC by the Egyptians. The following centuries saw Syria ruled by a succession of Canaanites, Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Muslim Arabs, European Christian crusaders, Ottoman Turks, Western Allied Forces, and the French. Although Syria has absorbed the legacies of these many and rallied cultures, the very existence of this string of foreign dominating powers exemplifies the political, economic and religious importance of Syria’s strategic location.
Syria fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1516 and remained a part of their Ottoman empire for four centuries. During this period, it witnessed great deterioration in economic, social and political fields. In 1916, the Arabs took the opportunity of World War 1 to revolt against the Turkish rule. They received British military support and promises that after the war ended, Arab countries would be granted full independence. In early 1918, Arab and British armies entered Damascus ending 400 years of Ottoman occupation. Later in 1918, Syria was declared an independent kingdom. This independence was however short-lived. France and Britain, through the Sykes-Picot agreement, decided to divide the Middle East into French and British “spheres of influence”. Syria was to be put under the French mandate. In 1923, after a successful battle of the French troops against Syrian rebels, the League of Nations officially recognised French mandate over Syria.
Syria was finally recognised as an independent state in 1944, but officially in April 17, 1946. Note that between then and the late 50’s, it had 20 different cabinets and four constitutions, not a very stable government, to say the least.
In 1948, Syria got involved in the Arab-Israeli war to protest the establishment of Israel. There were three military coup d’états in 1949, leading to a fourth coup in 1954. Egypt and Syria decided to merge to become the United Arab Republic, but the idea only lasted a few years because of Egypt’s dominance. The 60’s were characterised by frequent coups, military revolts, bloody riots and civil disorders. For most of the 20th century, Syria’s power remained in its military and not so much in its parliament.
Eventually, the minister of defence, Hafez -al-Assad, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970, and thus began a new era for 30 years. Shortly after gaining power, Assad created a new legislature and local councils to govern smaller provinces, consolidated political parties, wrote a new constitution and declared Syria a secular socialist state with Islam as the majority religion.
After the Gulf War, Syria accepted the US invitation for an international peace conference on the Middle East. This marked the launch of bilateral Arab- Israeli peace talks, which called for Israeli withdrawal of occupied territories. Syrian-Israeli peace talks reached a dead end in 1996 with Israeli refusing to discuss complete withdrawal from Golan Heights.
In 2000, President Assad succumbed to a heart attack and was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad. People were initially positive as at the start of his regime, he released 600 political prisoners. It, however, did not last long; pro-reform movements were suppressed while leading intellectuals were arrested. In 2002, the US officially accused Syria of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Although things had began to look up, there was a setback in 2005, when Israel led an airstrike in Northern Syria on what they claimed was a nuclear facility. In 2008, Assad met with the presidents of France and Lebanon ,Nicolas Sarkozy and Michel Suleiman respectively to lay down foundations for better diplomacy, and even hosted a summit that included Turkey and Qatar, with the goal of a Middle East peace. In 2009, the US sent a special envoy to negotiate peace talks and posted its first ambassador in five years. However, this progress came to an abrupt end when, in 2010, the US renewed economic sanctions against Syria accusing it of supporting terrorist groups.
The Syrian crisis
Over the Arab spring in early 2011, Egypt protested and successfully changed its regime, which gave Syrian civilians courage to try and do the same. Unfortunately, the Syrian government did not respond peacefully, and the protest turned violent.
In 2011, army tanks entered suburbs of Damascus in an effort to crush anti-regime protests. In June that year, the government said 120 members of the security forces had been killed by armed gangs. Troops besieged the town and more than 10,000 people fled to Turkey while President Assad promised to start a national dialogue on reform.
In July 2011, President Assad sacked the governor of the Northern Province after there was a mass demonstration in his area. Later he sent in troops to restore order at the cost of scores of lives. In October 2011, the new Syrian council announced that it had forged a common front comprising internal and exiled opposition activists. In November 2011, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria accusing it of failing to implement an Arab peace plan, and imposed sanctions.
In December 2011, twin suicide bombs went off outside security buildings in Damascus killing 44; this was the first of a series of large blasts in the capital that continued into the following months. In February 2012, the government stepped up the bombardment of Homs, one of the rebel bases, and other cities.
In March 2012, the UN Security Council endorsed a non-binding peace plan drafted by UN envoy, Kofi Annan. China and Russia agreed to support the plan after an earlier, tougher draft was modified. In May 2012, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia expelled senior Syrian diplomats to protest of the killing of more than a hundred civilians in Houla near Homs.
In June 2012, Turkey changed the rules of engagement after Syria shot down a Turkish plane, declaring that if the Syrian troops approached Turkey’s border they would be seen as military threat. In July 2012, the Free Syria army blew up three security chiefs in Damascus and seized Aleppo in the north. In august, Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected while US president Obama warned that use of chemical weapons would tilt the US towards intervention. In October 2012, tension between Syria and Turkey increased when Syria used mortar fire on a Turkish border town killing five civilians. Turkey returned fire and intercepted a Syrian plane allegedly carrying firearms from Russia.
Later in the year, fire in Aleppo destroyed much of the historic market as fighting and bomb attacks continued in various cities. In November 2012, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition forces formed in Qatar excluded Islamist militia. In December 2012 the US, Britain, France and Turkey formally recognised opposition national coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. In January 2013 Syria accused Israeli jets of attacking a military research centre near Damascus, but denied reports that lorries carrying weapons bound for Lebanon were hit. In March 2013, Syrian warplanes bombed the northern city of Raqqa after rebels seized control; the US and Britain also pledged non-military aid for the rebels.
Rise of Islamic extremist groups
Much of 2013 and 2014 was characterised by the rise of Islamists including The Allied Lebanese Hezbollah forces and the neutralisation of Syria’s chemical weapons bases by the US and UK.
The Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants declared caliphate in the territory from Aleppo and Raqqa Province. In September 2014, the US and five Arab countries launched air strikes against ISIS around the two provinces. In March 2015, opposition offensives pushed back government forces and captured provincial capital of Idlib. In May 2015, Islamic state fighters seized the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria raising fear that they might destroy the pre-Islamic historic site.
In September 2015, Russia carried out its first air strikes in Syria, saying it was targeting the ISIS group. But the West and Syrian Opposition said that is was overwhelmingly targeting anti-Assad rebels instead. In the same month, Israel targeted at least two military installations in air strikes in Syria in response to stray rockets that landed in the part of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. In December 2015, Britain joined US-led bombing raids against Islamic state in wake of Paris suicide bombing attacks. Syrian army allowed rebels to evacuate the remaining area of Homs, returning Syria’s third largest city to government control after four years.
Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Half the country’s pre war population, which is more than 11 million people, has been killed or forced to flee their homes. Families are struggling to survive inside Syria, or make a new home in neighbouring countries. Others are risking their lives on the way to Europe, hoping to find acceptance and opportunity. Syria’s civilians are living a life worse than death.
According to Amnesty international, the height of humanitarian atrocities committed is “simply despicable”, from extensive war crimes and gross human rights abuses with impunity, indiscriminate bombarding of civilian residential areas, and medical facilities with artillery mortars, barrel bombs, chemical agents and the unlawful killing of civilians. This has enforced lengthy sieges, trapping civilians and depriving them of food, medical care and other necessities, with security forces arbitrarily arresting or continuing to detain thousands including peaceful activists, human rights defenders, media and humanitarian workers and children. Non-state armed groups which controlled some areas and contested others have been indiscriminately shelling and besieging areas containing civilians who supported the government.
By the end of 2014, the UN reported at least 200,000 deaths. In addition, 7.6 million people were internally displaced and approximately four million had become refugees in other countries. Every year of the conflict has seen exponential growth in refugees. In 2012, there were 100,000 refugees. By April 2013, there were 800,000, which doubled to 1.6 million in less than four months. There are now 4.3 million Syrians scattered throughout the region, making them the world’s largest refugee population under the UN’s mandate.
Syria is a victim of power play, political as well as religious. Her history is not all glitter as she has been involved in battles long before Charles Darwin discovered the first remains of the early man in Africa. She has seen the rule of kings, emperors, prime ministers and now presidents. Her background has been characterised by instability. She has experienced the extremes of both Christianity and Islam and probably because of her inconsistent, unstable and overtly diverse background, today she is deep in turmoil far from the gates of recovery.
Whose fault is it and can she be saved? Are the Russians, Americans, Britons and Arabs fighting the real enemy or in doing so are they helping the enemy? Who is to blame; Israel? Religious extremism? ISIS? Turkey? President Assad? Rebel groups? Or Syrian citizens for not fighting hard enough to defend their nation. Jordan, Syria’s neighbour, is at peace with herself and with Israel after signing a peace agreement in 1994; Jordan was even ranked the 4th top peaceful country in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). Had Syria signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1996, would she be at peace today?
Even after a series of resolutions orchestrated by the UN, including resolution 2139, 2165 and 2170 to keep peace, the situation keeps worsening with more and more Syrians fleeing their country every waking day. Will peace ever be restored in Syria or in the Middle East?