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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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.