The Assad Regime explained (ish)

So you know that the Syrian Civil War is going on, you know it involves people rebelling against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. You might even know that Russia has been working really, really hard to make sure that he stays in power.

But why did people rebel against his rule in the first place? If things are looking so bad for him and so many people want him gone, how has he survived so long? And why does Russia care so much about the whole situation? There are heaps of other countries and regimes they could support that wouldn’t take up nearly as many resources and would have the advantage of not backing a man who for a while was one of the most hated men in the world.

(Disclaimer: It’s not big surprise that the answers to these questions are complex. So in the interest of not overloading people with information I’ve had to make some judgement calls about what information I believe to be the important highlights.)

Let’s get started

Syria map
Source: http://www.yourchildlearns.com/online-atlas/syria-map.htm

This is Syria. Since it gained independence in 1946 it’s had a pretty dynamic history. Brushing over a lot of important events, it started as a democracy but was overthrown in 1949 led by a general, who was then overthrown by a different general shortly afterwards. In 1958 Syria briefly joined Egypt to form “The United Arab Republic” but this country dissolved after only three years because the Syrians thought the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was too ambitious. At this point a new coup occurred and after a few tries the Ba’ath Party took over and they haven’t left since.

Meet the Assads

From left to right: Maher, Majd, Basel, Bushra, and Bashar. Standing with him is his wife Anisa Makhlouf. -
Hafez Al-Assad and his family. A young Bashar Al-Assad is on the far right looking dope. Source: http://www.vocativ.com/world/syria-world/assads-women-the-glamorous-powerful-and-educated-ladies-of-his-inner-circle/

In 1970, Hafez Al-Assad (let’s just call him Hafez), Bashar Al-Assad’s father, took over the Ba’ath party and the country and got its first taste of stability. As well as looking like your headmaster, Hafez ruled Syria for 30 years. The length of time is actually a really important point. This is less due to what he did while he was in charge, although there were some pretty big things, but more because of the fact that after such a long period of fighting, instability and leadership changes, having one person in charge for such a long time was a really welcome change. Considering this we can begin to understand why many older Syrians who remember the constant instability would support the Assad family. In their minds, no matter how dictatorial things get (very), it was better than what was happening before.

Hafez_al-Assad_1
Your headmaster, Hafez Al-Asad. Source: http://www.upi.com/topic/Hafez_al-Assad/

After Hafez died in the year 2000 we finally get to the Assad we’re familiar with – Bashar. Fun fact, originally Bashar had little to no political aspirations. He was the second son of the President, and with his older brother first in line to become the new President, Bashar began studying to be a doctor, eventually becoming an ophthalmologist. However, his older brother died in a car accident in 1994 and Hafez began grooming his second son to replace him.

Assad’s first few years as President were actually very well received, many people in Syria and the West spoke about him as a reformer who was going to move Syria towards a more equal society. He was romanticized as the reluctant President who wanted to be a doctor, but who was doing the best he could whilst in charge. For all we know, this may have even been the case at first, but as with most dictators, the true nature of their rule comes out in how they act when their rule is challenged.

Enter the 2011 Arab Spring

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People forget the role of women in the Egyptian revolution. Source: http://muftah.org/revolutionaries-unveiled-cyberactivism-womens-role-in-the-arab-uprisings/

In 2011, the Arab Spring happened. A series of democratic uprising occurred all over the Arab world, starting in countries like Tunisia, and spreading to other countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and also Syria. It really only began to get Western attention during the fall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. He was a man who everyone thought had been ruling Egypt with an iron fist. After he went down, many news analysts and experts began to predict the same results all over the Arab world, particularly in Syria. This fitted well into the idea many Westerners had that many countries would just naturally demand to be democracies like in the US and Europe. After all, they thought, why wouldn’t everyone want to be like the US and Europe?

The protests calling for democracy in Syria actually had a relatively slow start. This was mostly due to the fact that there had been a superficial calm in Syria for the past few decades. But after the warm up time they needed, the protests exploded in size and intensity.

There were a few moments that led to the swell in protests. One involved the arrest of some of the children of the leaders of a small rural town nearby the capital. The boys had been caught writing anti-regime graffiti. The parents of the boys and a small crowd went up to the police station to demand their release. The crowd began to get bigger and more agitated, and eventually the army arrived and began firing on the participants.

Assad cracks down on his own people

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The wreckage of a market place in the city of Aleppo after Syrian government airstrikes. Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/syrian-government-airstrikes-kill-dozens-activists-say/

Without going through a step by step breakdown of the escalation from there we can say that as the resistance grew louder, Assad cracked down in harsher and harsher ways, laying siege to his own towns and villages, which in turn caused more and more people to join the uprising. Eventually some members from his own army broke away and began supporting the resistance, calling themselves the Free Syrian Army.

Whilst this was the first big organized rebel group, there would be many more to come (for a much more detailed breakdown of the different rebel groups check out my article here). By mid-2012 Assad’s army was launching large-scale operations to retake certain cities and neighbourhoods, but they were losing more ground each day. It reached a point where Assad began cluster bombing his own civilians. 2013 was largely marked by an international effort to try and stop Assad from using chemical weapons against his own civilians, an effort that was repeatedly blocked by Russia (We will get to you Russia, don’t think I’ve forgotten you). 2014 saw the introduction of ISIL into the mix and 2015 has been marked by a mammoth international effort by a broad range of parties to influence the way the war is going, mostly through airstrikes.

As of August 2015, it is estimated that the Syrian government firmly controls something between 18% and 25% of the entire country. This may seem like a meagre amount (and it definitely is) but it’s actually the second most any single group holds (ISIL holds the majority at 35-50% but most of the territory under their control consists of smaller villages, towns and desert with only a handful of large population areas. It’s a difficult line to walk when talking about ISIL as you must make sure not to underplay how dangerous they are but also not to overplay how successful they are. Hopefully I will get to them in another article).

So how has Assad’s regime survived?

quote-no-government-in-the-world-kills-its-people-unless-it-s-led-by-a-crazy-person-bashar-al-assad-64-57-67
A genuine quote from 2011. Source: http://www.azquotes.com/author/613-Bashar_al_Assad

So with these massive pushbacks, being attacked from every side, having had some of the world’s biggest powers trying to take it down, how has the Assad regime lasted? The answer boils down to a few key factors, namely the unique style of Assad’s government and the support of Russia and Iran. Let’s address each one separately.

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, many people assumed that Assad would fall just as other Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Mubarak did. But this was a flawed assumption based on the idea that all Arab countries were the same, which they objectively are not. Egypt’s big revolution had a two things going for it that Syria’s did not. The first was a set of unhappy business owners and middle class. When Egypt’s university students began to demand more democratic systems, a lot of business owners and richer members of the middle class agreed with them, and therefore began throwing money at the protestors whilst withdrawing money from government areas. This had a very heavy impact with the second thing the Egyptian revolution had going for it; the army. The Egyptian army doesn’t function the same way we imagine an army to function. For one, the army actually owns a huge amount of businesses and business interests, selling things from bottled water to washing machines. This means that they have an even stronger interest in stability than most armies already do. When they saw other business owners throwing their lot in with the rebellion, they knew which way the wind was blowing. Whilst they didn’t actively help the rebellion at first, they refused to fire upon protestors despite being ordered to and eventually were rumoured to pull their troops away from the Presidential palace in the final days before Mubarak resigned.

Syria had a completely different situation.  For one thing, despite everything else, Assad was quite popular amongst many business owners and the higher middle class. Business conditions were good and businesses hesitated slightly too long before picking sides.  The result was that the early rebellion never got a lot of the funding it needed. As well as this, the army in Syria is very much under the control of the government, in direct contrast to in Egypt where the army is a power in its own right. This is because, due to obvious historical reasons, Bashar Al-Assad’s father Hafez made sure to keep the army under a tight leash than before. He also drilled into Bashar the importance of keeping the army happy, so that when the initial rebellion arose, the bulk of the army stayed loyal to the Assad family.

That has changed to some extent. While the army remains loyal to Assad, the soldiers are not always loyal to the army. The army started the war with 325,000 soldiers and as of mid-2015 are down to 178,000. Most of these men have defected to one rebel group or another. They are still the biggest single fighting force in Syria but are stretched to their capacity, struggling to keep a hold on the land they still control.

The second reasons is Russia and Iran, and whilst Iran is important here, the bulk of the credit needs to go toward Russia. Unfortunately for you I’ve been informed that this article is already getting a little long. So to find out about them you’ll need to wait until the next article.

The Syrian Rebels Explained (ish)

The Syrian Rebels

rebels training

Even putting aside how messed up it is, the Syrian conflict is slowly developing into one of the more confusing conflicts going on in the world at the moment, not least of all because of the sheer amount of combatants, the giant mess of allegiances and the fact that the Syrian conflict isn’t just located in Syria (It is also going on in Iraq, the Sinai in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and depending on who you ask, everywhere. Frankly I shouldn’t be calling it the Syrian conflict at all, yet here we are).

Very very loosely and very very simply, the conflict consists of the Syrian Government, led by President Assad and backed by Russia and Iran (kind of) vs the Syrian Rebels, which are actually over 20 different groups, many of whom are fighting each other, some of which are backed by a US led coalition consisting of the UK, Jordan, Turkey, the UAE, France, Saudi Arabia and a bunch of other countries but most of who are backed by no one.

Whilst these two loose groups are fighting each other another player enters the game, ISIL, a group originally from Iraq, once backed by Saudi Arabia (no longer). ISIL begins fighting everyone involved, declaring war on everyone who isn’t them. All the various sides fighting each other agree that ISIL is awful, but they don’t quite agree on what to do about them.

Emerging as a response to ISIL a fourth player enters the game, the Kurds. Now when we say the Kurds we don’t mean all the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnicity mostly found in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey who have been persecuted for a while. This persecution led the Syrian Kurds to develop their own army which they promptly deployed against ISIL (other groups of Kurds as well but if you want to know about them we’ll need a whole new article). The Syrian Kurds allegedly have began using this fight as a chance to finally begin to carve out land to create their own Kurdish state. Turkey doesn’t really want this and have begun fighting them whilst also fighting ISIL. This has become a little awkward as Turkey is part of the US led coalition who are big fans of the Syrian Kurds.

Complicated? That’s fine, I drew a graph with a comical amount of arrows.

Syria Graph 1

It’s fine if you don’t understand what’s happening, most of the people actually fighting the war don’t either. All that matters for the purpose of the rest of this article, is that when I say “Syrian Rebels” you understand that they’re the ones fighting the Syrian Government, ISIL and each other.

In the media you will often hear the Syrian Rebels referred to as if they are one or two groups. Whilst this is wrong, it is understandable why the media would want to do this, as the conflict is hard enough to describe even radically simplified. Referring to each rebel group individually would make the story even less accessible to the general public than it already is. Unfortunately, that’s what I’m about to try to do. I will try to do this as simply as possible, but what this means is that I’m inevitably going to be stuck on an impossible mission to make the information accessible whilst still trying to present an accurate picture of what’s going on. Also due to the ever changing nature of the conflict I will not be mentioning all of them, just some of the main players and some miscellaneous other groups. So please bear with me as I attempt this balancing act.

Let’s jump right into it. The many groups of Syrian Rebels can loosely be divided into two broad groups. The first is the Syrian Opposition who are mainly fighting to rid the country of President Assad for a list of reasons ranging from wanting Syria to be a democracy to wanting Syria to be a dictatorship but just under a different person. The second broad group are the Jihadists, many of whom are branches of the better known group Al-Qaeda, they mostly want the country to be run by a more religious Islamic government rather than the secular but still awful Assad government. This isn’t to say that there aren’t members of the first group who want the country to be more religious, the main thing that distinguishes this second group is the Al-Qaeda affiliation.

Let’s attempt to describe some of the bigger players:

Free Syrian Army:

288px-Free_syrian_army_coat_of_arms.svg

When most people think about the resistance, this is the group they are normally thinking of.  Originally started in 2011 by several defected Syrian army officers they defined their enemies as all Syrian Security Forces attacking civilians and their stated their goals as bringing down the Assad Regime. Sounds noble and heroic? It probably was before the original group was destroyed near the beginning of the war. The group now calling itself the Free Syrian Army is actually a coalition of over 10 different groups many of whom have widely different philosophies. This coalition is the most ethnically and religiously diverse entity in the war, featuring 90% Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, secular forces, Druze, Palestinians, international volunteers and many other assorted groups. How big is it? The answer is we don’t know. As the FSA is a mesh of so many different groups under one loose banner, and as these groups all exist in the confusing Syrian warzone, it is increasingly hard to measure. It is however estimated by many different sources that their strength ranges between 45,000 and 60,000. They are however, along with the YPG (the biggest Kurdish force) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (we’ll talk about them later) the main group supported by the West’s coalition. This doesn’t mean they are the good guys, in fact a large amount of war crimes have been attributed to the FSA. However being the collection of over 10 very different organizations that they are, it is hard to work out which part of them committed these crimes.

As of the moment, their main enemies include Assad’s forces, ISIL, the Al-Nusra front (we’ll talk about them in a bit), and they have a working relationship with the Islamic Front.

The Islamic front:

Logo_of_the_Islamic_Front_(Syria).svg

Formed by seven smaller groups merging in 2013, this group is largely made up of Sunni Islamists and is backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Their website describes their objectives as such. “The Islamic Front aims to completely overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and build an Islamic state who’s only sovereign, reference, ruler, direction and individual, societal and nationwide unifier is Allah Almighty’s Sharia law”. Unlike a lot of the other Islamist groups, these guys are fine with Syria being a democracy, as long as Sharia law is sovereign. They also acknowledge the ethnic and religious minorities that live in Syria and say they are welcome there, as long as they follow Sharia law. Depending on whom you listen to, and who you count as the Islamic Front, their numbers range anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000, although most people tend to guess closer to the 40,000 side.

As of the moment their main enemies are Assad’s forces, ISIL and Shia militias such as Hezbollah. They have a working relationship with both the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra, despite the fact that these two groups are fighting each other.

Al-Nusra Front

Flag_of_the_Al-Nusra_Front.svg

The Al –Nusra front can basically be thought of as Al-Qaeda, Syrian department. Not that Al-Qaeda is one organization, or has departments. But that’s not important at the moment. On a face value, they have similar goals to an organization like the Islamic Front. They both want to destroy the secular Assad regime and replace it with Islamist rule, governed by religious Sharia law. There are however some very very very important differences. The first and most obvious one is Al-Nusra’s open affiliation with the international jihadist movement followed by the fact that Al-Nusra’s interpretation of what Sharia law is, is a lot more hard-line than that of the Islamic Front. As well as this, unlike the Islamic Front, Al-Nusra refuses to work with secular groups like the Free Syrian Army. The difference between the two groups is so stark, that until the emergence of ISIL, Al-Nusra was considered to be the most extreme, most radical group involved in the conflict. The big problem comes about in that until recently, they were also the most effective and well trained fighting force out of the Syrian Rebels.

Al-Nusra and ISIL have a tangled history. The leader of Al-Nusra was originally sent over by ISIL leadership to set up Al-Nusra to be ISIL’s proxy. After ISIL split from Al-Qaeda they suggested a merger, going as far as announcing this merger before consulting with Al-Nusra’s leadership. This merger was prompted rejected and after about a month of intense negotiation between the two organizations, ISIL executed some senior officials of some of Al-Nusra’s allies in the region. This lead to open warfare between the two groups. That Al-Nusra decided that ISIL was too extreme for them tells you nothing about Al-Nusra, but everything about ISIL.

Their numbers are probably the hardest to estimate. It is estimated that they have over 11,000 core members, but possibly up to 20,000 troops that come from local Syrians who may not have the Jihadist ideology, but who joined to protect their territory. As of the moment, their enemies include the Free Syrian Army, Assad’s forces, ISIL, Hezbollah and many other smaller groups and their allies include the Islamic Front and other Islamist Forces who are sympathetic to Al-Qadea.

Minor groups

Whilst these three are the biggest groups that make up the Syrian Rebels, there are many other groups operating, each of whom could probably have a book written about them. Just to mention a few.

The Sham legion

Sham_Legion_Logo

Created in 2015 and is an alliance of about 19 different groups to consolidate the strength of moderate Islamists. Estimated around 4,000 fighters

Army of Mujahedeen

Army_of_Mujahedeen_logo

Translating to “Army of Conquest”, this group formed in 2014 to almost exclusively fight ISIL whom they accused to disrupting security and stability. They also fight the Syrian Government to the side. They have shrunk radically due to a cut in foreign support. Estimated between 5,000 and 12,000. At least one of these people must be a designer because they currently boast the only flag with a nice, blue gradient.

Jaysh Al-Sham

Jaysh_al-Sham_Logo

A group actually existed with this name briefly in 2014, but disbanded shortly afterwards. The new Jaysh Al-Sham was created in October 2015, as an offshoot of Ahrar Ash-Sham who in turn are now a part of the Islamic Front. Simple as that. Not much is known about them besides that their flag seems to be made out of the Arabic version of Microsoft Wordart, estimated to number anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000.

Fatah Al-Islam.

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A Sunni Jihadist group that formed in 2006 in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. After fighting the Lebanese army for a while they decided to fight the Syrian Army instead when the war began, but didn’t do very well. Estimated around 200 members left.

Syrian Democratic Forces

Flag_of_Syrian_Democratic_Forces.svg

Technically not a minor force. This group was created only in October 2015. It consists of break offs from the Free Syrian Army, most of the Kurdish forces in Syria and many Christian militias. It aims to take the focus away from Assad and towards forcing ISIL out of Syria. While it’s too early to call how they will do as a movement, they appear to have had many early successes, possibly due to their huge amount of support from the Western coalition. Their numbers are estimated to be roughly around 40,000, about three quarters of which, come from the Kurdish YPG.

Conclusion

The list goes on and on and on and on. And the truth is new groups are forming and disbanding all the time, each with their own ideologies, manpower, allies and enemies. It is my personal opinion that no single group, including governments, participants and experts, has an accurate picture of what is actually happening on the ground, which makes it a particularly discouraging topic to try and write an informative piece on. A disclaimer, as I’ve been concentrating on the actual rebels, I have left out many layers of complexity, including (but not limited to) the Gulf States, Jordan, more detail about ISIL and the different Kurdish factions. If people are interested, I’m more than happy to write up something about them later.

But just to make things clear, I updated the previous graph and made it a whole lot more accurate

Syria Graph 2

Much better

 

For my sources and/or a bunch of useful links to find out more, click here