How the Syrian civil war began


The flag of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad at left and the flag of the rebel movement at right. Discover the story behind the war which has claimed over 100,000 lives.

Over the past few years, the Syrian civil war has been consistently in the news. There have been stories that speak of rebel defeats and victories, government atrocities, and refugees. In the wake of rebel claims that Assad’s government has been using chemical weapons, the newest headline asks a serious question: Should the United States get militarily involved in the conflict?

Chances are you’ve also probably had a few questions of your own. How did the civil war start? Why do people hate Bashar al-Assad so much? Is any side even winning? They may seem simple, but those are complex questions with complex answers.

In order to understand how the civil war started, it is necessary to look at the state of the whole Arab world. The roots of the conflict are hundreds of miles away in Tunisia, a country with half the population of Syria.

On December 17, 2010, 26 year-old fruit vender Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. Considered a martyr, his death sparked protests across the country. After a month of protests, now called the “Jasmine Revolution”, the country’s authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down and fled to Saudi Arabia.

The downfall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia sent a message throughout the whole Arab world: The Arab people did not have to bow to their autocratic rulers any longer. Spurred on by this message, anti-government protests and riots started in Algeria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Unfortunately, the autocratic leaders also got the message that they were in danger of losing their power. Instead of giving concessions to protesters, most responded with brute force, and killed hundreds across the Middle East and North Africa.

That is not to say the protests weren’t successful. After weeks of protests in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, stepped down. In Libya, dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s brutality towards protesters led to a full blown civil war. After rebels declared the country free on August 22nd, Gadhafi, dictator for 42 years, was killed on October 20th, 2011.As in Libya, peaceful protests quickly turned into violent confrontations in Syria. In mid-March, thousands of people started protesting against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

As in Libya, al-Assad’s regime responded with brute force. After a month of being beaten, shot, tortured, and maimed by the soldiers and militiamen of the regime, Syrians of almost every variety starting shooting back in what became a nationwide armed uprising.

As rebels became more coordinated, the simple uprising escalated into a violent civil war. In a few short months, peaceful protests turned into the newest war of the 21st century. Some of the most vicious fighting has taken place in the city of Homs, the ancient northern city of Aleppo, and the capital of Damascus.

During the civil war, many of al-Assad's soldiers have defected and joined the rebel Free Syrian Army. These ex-Syrian Army soldiers are pictured holding an FSA flag.
During the civil war, many of al-Assad’s soldiers have defected and joined the rebel Free Syrian Army. These ex-Syrian Army soldiers are pictured holding an FSA flag.

Since the conflict began just two and half years ago, the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, mostly civilians. To make matters worse, the violence isn’t confined to Syria. Over the civil war’s course, there have been border clashes with Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Three airstrikes struck southern Syria’s Rif Dimashq Governate in May 2013. The airstrikes were alleged to have been carried out by Syria’s longtime arch- nemesis, Israel. But for all this trouble, why are the Syrians fighting? Why do so many Syrians hate Bashar al-Assad?

The answer to that question is not simple. The roots of the conflict go back to 1970, when Hafez al-Assad took power in a coup d’etat. The reign of Hafez al-Assad ushered in more than 30 years of Ba’athist rule over the country. Ba’athism is a secular political ideology which mixes Arab socialism, Arab nationalism, and also the need for state power.

In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, but his son Bashar al-Assad immediately took power, continuing his father’s repressive legacy.

Like many Middle Eastern conflicts, religion is a central issue. The situation is similar to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Iraq, where the Shi’ite majority was oppressed by the Sunni minority. While the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, they are oppressed by the secular government which is run by the Alawite Muslim minority of the country.

Because of this, most Alawites and Shi’ite Muslims support Assad and most Sunni Muslims support the rebels. Many rebels wish to replace the secular government with an Islamist one, while many are fighting to implement a secular democracy.

It is not clear who is winning the war. Like the First World War and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War has remained, for the most part, a stalemate. At no time has one side controlled the whole country and different regions have shifted control over the past two and a half years. Rebels make serious headway, but are then beaten back by government forces and vice-versa. It is a vicious cycle that has cost thousands of lives.

Even worse, there is no end in sight. Syria is supported by its two strongest allies, the Russian giant and a potentially nuclear Iran. Even the Hezbollah terrorist group supports Bashar al-Assad.

On the other hand, the rebels have almost no foreign support to help them overthrow the government. The rebels are also very fractured and unless they organize as a single group as the rebels did in the 2011 Libyan Civil War, they will likely never get much foreign support.

Lastly, the war will drag on until one side is completely wiped out. The rebels know that if they surrender, they will be punished and thousands will be executed. At the same time, Bashar al-Assad knows that if he and his government surrender, the rebels will likely give no quarter to their defeated foes.

On a personal level, President al- Assad also knows that if he is defeated, he will be killed, much like former Libyan dictator Gadhafi.

With allegations that he has used chemical weapons in the conflict, al-Assad has also attracted the wrath of the United States government. If the United States and other countries choose to intervene, President al-Assad and his government’s days are numbered. The same thing happened when the United States and a coalition of other nations intervened in Libya’s civil war. It seems that he has not learned from history so he will likely be doomed to repeat it.

Whether or not foreign military intervention will occur and tip the scales in Syria is uncertain. What is certain is that in this Middle Eastern prize-fight in which more than 100,000 have been killed, both sides have yet to deliver the knockout blow.