Dana Adibifar Gen Z Global Affairs. Syrian Civil War Background Episode Transcript
Hello and welcome to the Gen Z Global Affairs podcast. I’m your host Dana and I can’t wait to get started with today’s episode. Our episode today is going to discuss the Syrian Civil War. A lot of you have probably heard about Syria in the news for quite some time now- Sadly, the Syrian Civil war started in 2011 and is still unfortunately ongoing today.
The reason I wanted to officially start off this podcast with Syria and the Civil war as my first topic is because although there have been a lot of more recent and emerging conflicts, wars, and political crises, I believe understanding Syria will help us understand the dynamics that have led and influenced some more recent events in and outside the region. For example, the handling and the international response to Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War has direct ties to the Russian invasion of Ukraine happening currently.
So let’s jump into some basic background and foundational information about Syria including demographics, it’s geography, and also some of it’s history. It’s a very ancient country with a lot of history so I can’t go into too much detail or go that far back in it’s history. Syria is a country in the middle east and it shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. It has 14 provinces or governorates which are similar to states that we have in the U.S. but they’re basically just distinctive territories. Some of the notable ones are Aleppo, and Damascus, but there are obviously 12 more. Syria has a very diverse population when you compare it to other Arab countries because it's composed of various ethnic groups and religious groups as opposed to having a homogeneous population. I really want to highlight the diversity in Syria because having a thorough understanding of the ethnic and tribal dynamics in Syria is crucial to understanding the civil war as a whole. Ethnic groups in Syria include Arabs who are the majority, Alawites who are an ethnoreligious group, kurds, Turkmen, and some other minority groups who make up very small percentage of the population. The different religious groups in Syria include sunni muslims, who are the majority at about 75%, then alawites who as I mentioned earlier are an ethnoreligious group who are shia muslims not sunni, followed by christians, and another ethnoreligious group called Druze. Just something quickly about Druze is that they are mostly from the the levant which is why you might not have heard of them. The levant for those of you who might not know refers to a specific part of the Middle East which is the Easten Mediterranean which includes Lebanon, Syria, and also Turkey- but some don’t categorize turkey as the middle east. I also quickly want to highlight the fact that the two main religious groups in syria are Sunni muslims and Shia muslims who are the alawites. Obviously these two groups still both practice islam but you might not know that these two groups of muslims typically hold hostility towards one another. The conflict between Shia and Sunni muslims is categorized as a sectarian conflict, and this sunni/shia conflict is especially relevant when talking about the civil war and honestly just a lot of conflicts in the middle east.
Now that we’ve covered the geography and demographics of Syria, let’s move on to it’s more recent history starting from the 20th century. So in the 1920s Syria and Lebanon were occupied by France, and then after a series of revolts and negotiations, Syria was finally recognized as an independent republic in the 1940s. After that, an important series of events took place like the Arab-Israeli war and also military coups and that led to Syria actually joining with Egypt and becoming the United Arab Republic. This new republic only lasted a few years because of Egypt’s dominance, and Syria separated and became independent again, this time officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic or just Syria. Then in 1970, a man named Hafez Al-Assad seized power in a coup and became the president of Syria. Again, this is the basic gist of Syria’s modern political history, it most certainly doesn’t cover everything.
Syria Under Assads
So now that we’ve covered up to the point of the power grab by Hafez Al-Assad, let’s move into Syria under the Assads. Something that’s important to note about the Assads is that they are not Sunni Arabs like the majority of Syria, they are Alawites- the ethnoreligious group that I mentioned earlier. As you might have guessed from their last names, Hafez Al-Assad and the current Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad are related- they’re father and son. And actually, Bashar was never supposed to succeed his father, his older brother was being groomed for the presidency but he was killed in a car accident. So Syria has been led by the same family since 1970, making it an authoritarian government and also sort of a police state- as opposition to the president and the regime is not accepted. Under Hafez Al-Assad who was president from 1971 until his death in 2000, Syria actually became a lot more modern especially because it was the first time in a while that Syria was independent and stable for the most part. Even though Syria became more stable, it’s neighbors still faced significant instability with events like the civil war in Lebanon and the ongoing arab-israeli conflict. Syria was on an upward trajectory until the Hama massacre which was carried out by the Syrian Regime under the orders of Hafez Al-Assad in 1982.
Essentially the gist of what happened during the Hama massacre was that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic insurgents had been calling for the toppling of Hafez Al-Assads regime for quite a while- at least a few years and one day they got into violent clashes with the Syrian Army. The violent clashes led to the massacre because the Syrian Army essentially went into the city of Hama to ‘cleanse’ the city of any insurgents or islamic extremists as they put it once and for all. No one know’s the death toll for certain, but the estimated death toll of this massacre is anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000. Hama is a city comprised of mostly sunni muslims so when this massacre occured it also flamed more sectarian tension because again the Assads are alawites who are shia muslim not sunni. So essentially under Hafez’s rule there was some modernization in Syria, and it certainly became a key player in the middle east and more of a force to be reckoned with in the region. But, like any authoritarian government the government and itls leaders quelled any dissent and did what they had to, to remain in power and ensure the survival of their political dynasty.
Now let’s get to Bashar Al-Assad, the current president of Syria. As I mentioned earlier, he became president after his father’s death in 2000, and when he became president, he was actually popular, and people both in and out of Syria had high hopes for him. This is because when he came to power after his dad, people thought of him as a reformer and someone who could really improve Syria’s economy. They also thought he could make Syria a more secular society which was especially popular with western powers. If someone is secular that means they are not very religious- but in Syria’s case, the hope for secularism was to separate church and state, or in this case mosque from state. Bashar Al-Assad was actually more popular amongst ethnic and religious minorities because they felt like he would protect them from extremism that could emerge from the majority sunni muslim population of Syria. At the beginning of his rule, Assad became a lot closer with Western powers but I need to add that his father had already begun to mend relationships with western governments during and after the persian gulf war. Hafez Al-Assad and Saddam Hussein the ruler of Iraq were essentially enemies and so when the Iraqi government invaded Kuwait, the Syrians helped Kuwait’s allies which included the United States strategically because Syria and Iraq share a border among other geopolitical uses that Syria provided. Since then, Syria was once again on an upward trajectory. However, that started to change with the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Syria opposed the invasion and tension arose more specifically because the Syria-Iraq border was being used by foreign fighters and supporters of Saddam Hussein. So the relationships between Syria and Western powers remained strained and in 2006, the United States even sanctioned the Commercial Bank of Syria. Sanctions are essentially a series of penalties imposed upon countries or key individuals due to violations of international law or their failure to comply with international law or other countries.
Moving past that, things started to change in 2009 when President Obama became the president of the United States. President Obama really wanted to shift American foreign policy in the Middle East, and Syria needed to be a part of that shift. So, in 2010 an American ambassador was appointed to serve in Syria. Mind you, there hadn’t been a U.S. ambassador in Syria since about 2005, so this was a big step forward. The year was 2010 and things were going great until the Arab Spring.
Start of Uprisings
Actually, a lot of you might have heard about the Arab spring. The Arab Spring was a series of sweeping anti-government protests that occurred almost simultaneously across the Arab world. These protests happened for similar reasons like poor economic conditions, corruption, and authoritarianism. It all started in Tunisia and spread to Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Algeria, Iraq, Morroco, and of course Syria. The outcomes of these uprisings were different in each country. For example, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, their governments were fully overthrown while in countries like Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman, and Jordan, there were major changes to their governments. Conversely, civil war started in two countries: Iraq and Syria. The civil war in Iraq ended in 2017, and obviously, the war in Syria is still happening.
Main Syrian Civil War
Now that we’ve covered the Arab Spring and what was happening regionally, let’s delve deeper into Syria’s uprisings specifically. Ultimately, the high unemployment rate, political repression, the desire for more democratic institutions, and drought were driving factors for the protests. The drought in Syria had been really bad for a few years at that point and it effected food supply because farms didn’t have the necessary means to keep up their crops and supply. Corruption in the government was another large reason for the protests especially because in the eyes of the majority of the population, Bashar Al-Assad favored his Alawite community by doing things such as giving Alawites great positions in government roles and also awarding them important business contracts. Young people were definitely at the heart of these protests and a part of that reason is that the older generation was more afraid to rebel because they saw the massacres that Hafez Al-Assad carried out against rebellions and the hardline approach he took to rid the country of any dissent. In general, though bad blood had been boiling against the Assads for decades especially because of his father’s massacres.
The reason that Syria has had the most devastating fallout from the Arab Spring is because of the government's brute force and refusal to listen to it’s population, for example in Egypt and Tunisia, the governments stepped down without vast bloodshed, but the Syrian government took a different approach and instead of engaging with protesters to bring about sizable reforms, they operated on a shoot-to-kill approach meaning that government forces would go out in the streets and kill protestors. When the Syrian people came to the realization that they were just simply not going to be heard, instead of retreating and letting go of this new movement, they pushed back harder and harder. That gets us to the creation of organized and armed opposition groups to the Syrian government. One of the first and most notable opposition groups was a group by the name of the Free Syrian Army which had a lot of members who had a military background. This is where things start to get pretty complicated in Syria.
Different Groups at War
You now know about the Free Syrian Army and might be wondering why weren’t they successful in overthrowing the Assad regime. The answer is that foreign governments both in and out of the region started to get involved and support different groups. A lot of these groups were separate from the Free Syrian Army, so there was not a united front against the Syrian government, and instead, all these different groups started to not only fight Assad but also fight each other. Let’s go over the different opposition groups involved in the conflict. First is obviously the Free Syrian Army which also is now known as the Syrian National Army, then you have a group called Al-Nusra Front, then the Islamic State or as we all know ISIS also called ISIL, and finally you have Kurdish opposition groups who for the sake of clarity I’m going to group together. Kurdish people have a lot of infighting and various political groups that are always disagreeing with one another but it’s too complex to simplify here so it’s going to be another topic on the podcast in the future.
I’m also going to quickly break down the ideologies of these main groups who oppose the Assad regime starting with the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Army. They are described as the most moderate opposition group because they are composed of people who are sticking to the original mission of the uprisings in 2011. Al Nusra Front is an Islamist group and they have been linked to Al-Queda even though they claim to have broken off from them. In their perfect Syria, everything would be in accordance with Sharia Law and Syria would be a theocracy. A theocracy for those who don’t know is when a government is run by a certain religion’s values. So it’s the exact opposite of the separation of church and state. ISIS is a group I’m sure we’ve all heard of, they are an extremist group who commit extremely grotesque crimes against anyone and everyone who they consider lesser than just because they are not Sunni muslim or even if they disagree with their ideologies. Finally, we have the Kurds, the ethnic minority group in Syria. Kurdish people are not just in Syria, there are Kurds in Iraq as well as Turkey, and also small parts of Iran. There is actually an autonomous region in Iraq that is designated as Kurdistan but they don’t have their own country. The Kurds have opposed the Syrian regime for quite some time because they want to separate and have their own country.
So all these groups as I mentioned earlier are backed by different countries and governments. Syria’s government- the Assads are backed majorly by Iran and Russia. Russia has strategic reasons for backing Assad, as does Iran, but Iran also has another reason for backing Assad and that reason in that Iran’s government just like the Syrian government is run by Shia muslims who are also not Arabs. These are the only two countries that are run by Shias which makes them stick together more because they’re surrounded by Sunni Arab countries. The Assads are also backed by a group called Hezbollah which is a political group based in Lebanon. They are also Shia muslims and are said to be one of Iran’s proxies. Proxies for those who don’t know are basically extensions of a government or group that protect their interests in a certain area or voting block. So for example, Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy because they protect Iran’s interests in Lebanon and other countries.
Oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf have also heavily funded opposition groups, I’m talking funding in the billions- billions of dollars. Qatar which is a small but wealthy country has financed Al-Nusra Front. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also strongly supported Al-Nusra. Most of these monarchies are also rivals of Iran, so the fact that the Iranian and Syrian governments have been working together is another reason they back groups like Al-Nusra. Turkey is also a major backer of certain groups because Syria is on their border, so this conflict is high stakes for them. Turkey has backed the Free Syrian Army and also Al-Nusra Front. It’s important to note that Turkey does not like the Kurdish opposition at all because of Kurdish separatists in Turkey. The United States and other western powers like the United Kingdom and France support rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army but a lot of their focus was fighting back against ISIS which they viewed as a threat to their national security. The CIA actually tried to create a rebel force in Syria and the code name of this operation was Timber Sycamore if any of you want to look it up. Essentially the U.S along with other countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan trained rebels and armed them heavily. This plan didn’t really work, the operation has allegedly since ended, and a lot of the resources and weapons provided by the CIA have reached the hands of extremist groups like Al-Nusra and even ISIS I believe. Obviously, there are other key players but these are the major ones who have had the most pull and influence in regard to the conflict.
Where We Are Today
Finally, that brings us to current times. The largest tragedy in all of this is the toll this conflict has taken on the Syrian people. It’s estimated that the civilian death toll of this conflict has been around 300,000 but other estimates have calculated that the overall death toll has actually been closer to 600,000. More than 13 million Syrians have either been internally displaced or have left the country. In this conflict, foreign involvement has made everything really complicated because different countries all support different opposition groups- there is no unity on the international front when it comes to Syria and at the end of the day, it is the Syrian people who take the brunt of it. Though there have been very strict sanctions against Syria, some countries like the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have called to normalize relations with Assad again. But as of right now, the future of Syria and the Syrian people is still unknown.
With all that being said, that is all for this episode of the Gen Z Global Affairs podcast. I hope this helped you all understand the ongoing crisis in Syria better! I want to end with a book and documentary recommendation for those of you who are interested in learning more about this topic in particular. For books, I would recommend Assad or we Burn the Country. For a documentary, I would highly recommend For Sama, which is a documentary made from the point of view of a young Syrian woman. Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter which you can do by visiting our website genzglobalaffairs.com, and as always, if you have any questions, comments, feedback, or requests for future episodes and topics please let me know by sending an email to email@example.com