The Syrian Conflict Regime, Opposition, Regional and International Actors
The Assad Regime: Hafez al-Assad • Hafez al-Assad took over Syria and the Ba'ath Party in a bloodless coup known as the Corrective Movement in 1970 • By the time this coup took place, the Ba'ath Party in Syria had become increasingly rural, minoritarian, and Alawite (considered by some an offshoot of Shia Islam) • To provide security for the regime, Hafez al-Assad formed strong connections with certain urban Sunni businessman, later awarding some favorites with positions in the rapidly expanding security apparatus
The Assad Regime: Bashar al-Assad • After assuming power in an uncontested presidential election following his father's death in June 2000, Bashar al-Assad made gestures of goodwill towards regime critics. A brief flurry of democratic activism that was soon shut down by the Assad regime. • In 2005, following Syria's expulsion from Lebanon, the Muslim Brothers in exile and Damascus-based secular opposition groups signed the Damascus Declaration, a broad call for democratic change. • Coupled with then Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam's defection, this prompted another regime crackdown, causing most opposition to flee abroad.
Pre-Revolutionary Opposition: History of the Muslim Brothers • 1960's: Muslim Brothers become a major player in Syrian politics • 1964: Outlawed by the Syrian Ba'ath Party, which the Brothers had opposed since it took power in 1963 • 1976: Syrian intervention in Lebanon sparks a Muslim Brother's-led insurrection against the Assad regime. • 1980: Membership in the Brotherhood made a capital offense. • 1982: Muslim Brothers defeated at Hama, ten to thirty thousand people killed. Remaining Brothers sent into exile.
Pre-Revolutionary Opposition: Human Rights Groups • Before the revolution, there were some 10 human rights groups operating inside of Syria and 2 centers for human rights studies • These groups operated by reporting the Assad regime's human rights abuses to international non-governmental organizations • These groups often suffered from severe underfunding as well as occasional conflicts between the organizations themselves
Pre-Revolutionary Opposition: Civil Society • Following the activism and ensuing crackdown of 2000-2001, two civil society organizations remained until the 2005 crackdown: • The Committee for the Revival of Civil Society • Jamal al-Atasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue • These groups acted as a forum to voice criticisms of the regime as well as a meeting ground for different ethnic and religious groups. • In the 2005 government crackdown, the Jamal at-Atasi Forum for Democratic Change was shut down.
Pre-Revolutionary Opposition: Political Parties • Political parties in pre-revolutionary Syria, although officially illegal, were constantly being formed by two or three political entrepreneurs. While other forms of opposition activity increased from 2002-2005, party membership declined. • The largest party alliance was between the Nasirists, advocates of pan-Arab nationalism, and the Democratic National Gathering (DNG), formerly the Syrian Communist Party. • The DNG, a liberal secular party, was the only party to see membership increase from 2002-2005.
Kurdish Population • The Kurdish population of Syria is mostly located in the northern and northeast of the country. • Kurdish cultural, linguistic, and political rights have been denied throughout the history of modern Syria. In 1962, a large portion of the Kurdish population was stripped of its citizenship in a census. In 2004, a riot at a Kurdish-Arab football match and the response by Syrian security forces led to death of 65 people and arrest of nearly 2000 Kurds. • The Kurdish National Council (KNC), a group of 15 Kurdish political parties, formed in response to the Syrian uprising. While opposing the Assad regime, it has come into conflict with the Syrian National Council in its demands for autonomy.
Kurdish Population • During the uprising, the KNC came into conflict with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the only armed Kurdish group, which has ties with the anti-Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) • In July of 2012, the PKK and PYD signed a cooperation agreement and established a Kurdish Supreme Committee, backed by an armed wing called Popular Protection Units, or PYG • Kurdish forces have come into conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ghuruba al-Sham, jihadi groups operating in Syria, raising speculation that Turkey is sponsoring the jihadi groups to fight Kurdish groups with ties to PYD and PKK
Syrian National Council • The Syrian National Council (SNC) is an opposition coalition formed in August 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey • The Council included a variety of opposition groups, including the exiled signatories of the 2005 Damascus Declaration and the Muslim Brothers • In January of 2012, the SNC reversed its previously non-militarized position on the uprising and made an agreement to help supply funds to the FSA • The SNC has been criticized as over-representing the Muslim Brothers and failing to make significant progress in arming the FSA. • Kurdish nationalists have refused to participate in the SNC over disputes about the nature of post-Assad Syria, Kurdish autonomy, and the influence of Turkey.
Syrian National Coalition: Domestic Issues • The Syrian National Coalition formed in November 2012 in Doha, Qatar. The Coalition incorporated the Syrian National Council and just over a third of its members are also Council members. • Moaz al-Khatib, considered by most to be a moderate Islamist, was elected president of the Coalition. The Coalition has two vice presidents, democracy advocate Riad Seif, and secular feminist Suheir Atassi. A third spot remains open for a Kurdish representative, although the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has rejected the legitimacy of the Coalition. • The Coalition is supported by the FSA and has seen broader support in Syria than the Syrian National Council outside of Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra and possibly other Islamist groups.
Syrian National Coalition: Foreign Relations • The Syrian National Coalition was recognized by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, and by each Gulf state independently, as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people". • The Arab League, with the exception of Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon, has recognized the Coalition as the "the legitimate representative and main interlocutor with the Arab League" • NATO countries such as France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Turkey have all been supportive of theCoalition • While Turkey and the European Union have recognized the Coalition as the sole representative the Syrian people, the US has called the Coalition a legitimate representative of the Syrian people but has refused to label the Coalition as government in exile or supply arms to the Coalition.
Free Syrian Army • The Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed in late July 2011 after Syrian military personnel refused to fire on protesters, defecting and calling on others to join them in overthrowing the Assad regime. The FSA operated out of Hatay province in Turkey until September 2012, when it moved to the rebel-held Idlib province of Syria. • The FSA's formal leader is Commander-in-Chief Riad al-Asaad, although the effective military leader is General Salam Idris. • The FSA is composed of several regional units, and has been criticized for lacking a unified structure and coherent ideology among rebel groups. Throughout 2012, the FSA launched several campaigns to unify rebel ranks, with mixed results.
Salafist Groups • Throughout the second half of 2011, the opposition's stress on national unity and self defense began to be challenged by Salafist Islamism, an ideology stressing literal interpretation of scripture as exemplified by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. • Jabhat al-Nusra emerged in January 2012 and has widely been considered the most radical, jihadist group, displaying tactics similar to those of Al-Qaida in Iraq and winning praise on pro-Al-Qaida online forums. Jabhat al-Nusra was labeled a terrorist organization by Washington in December 2012. • Other Salafist groups have since emerged. These groups vary in the intensity of their Salafist rhetoric and are often sponsored by wealthy Gulf-based donors.
Salafist Groups and the FSA • While the FSA has been criticized as lacking a clear, specific and unified ideological framework or vision for post-Assad Syria, it has espoused general principles of non-sectarian democracy. • While Jabhat al-Nusra has used clearly sectarian rhetoric, portraying the struggle as a Sunni uprising against an oppressive Shia minority, other Salafi groups have been less clearly or vehemently sectarian in their rhetoric. • Despite occasional clashes between FSA units and Salafi groups, their ideological differences have not severely hampered cooperation.
Syria, Lebanon, and Israel: Hafez al-Assad Regime • In 1976, Syria invaded Lebanon to rescue Christian militias from defeat to the Muslim National Movement and their Palestinian allies. Hafez al-Assad regarded a pro-Syrian regime in Lebanon as vital to Syria's strategy against Israel. • Lebanon remained a top security priority during Hafez al-Assad's regime, fighting Israeli and Lebanese attempts to shake Syrian control. • Following the 1989 Ta'if Agreement and expulsion of former general and then Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun in 1990, Syria enjoyed near total control of Lebanon until 2005.
Syria, Lebanon, and Israel: Bashar al-Assad Regime • In Lebanon's 2005 parliamentary elections, Rafic Hariri, a prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese politician, was assassinated during his bid to challenge the extension of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Émile Lahoud's term • The assassination provoked widespread outrage in Lebanon and led to French, American, and Saudi pressure for Syrian forces to leave, which they were ultimately forced to do. • Many inside and outside of Lebanon have grown concerned over the conflict spilling over into Syria's western neighbor, also prompting Israeli fears over collusion between anti-Israel Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
Turkey • The Bashar al-Assad regime and the Turkish government had a strong diplomatic and economic relationship before the uprising • Early in the uprisings, Turkey sought to convince the Assad regime to initiate reforms. As killing of civilians continued, however, Turkey cut off all relations with and imposed an arms embargo on Syria. • Since then, Turkey has acted as a host for refugees fleeing the crisis and has hosted both political and military opposition to the Assad regime. • Turkey is in the process of installing several batteries of NATO-controlled Patriot missiles, designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles, near the Syrian border.
Russia, China, and Iran • Both Russia and Iran have and continue to be supporters of the Assad regime, supplying arms and diplomatic support to the regime • Russia and China vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions aiming to impose sanctions on Syria • While Iran has shown steadfast if not increasing diplomatic and arms support for Syria, the Russian relationship has shown more complications: • Briefly hinted at changing its position when Assad appeared to be mobilizing chemical weapons in early December 2012 • Evacuated a portion of its population in late January and again in late February 2013 • Plans to meet with the Assad regime's foreign minister in late February 2013 and plans to meet separately with opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib in March
Resources for further learning: • International Crisis Group's Syria Page: • http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/egypt-syria-lebanon/syria.aspx • Middle East Resource and Information Project: • http://merip.org/ • Jadaliyya's Syria Page: • http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/Syria • Syria Deeply: • http://alpha.syriadeeply.org/ • Al-Jazeera's Syria Page: • http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/syria/ • International Rescue Committee's Syria Report: • http://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/resource-file/IRCReportMidEast20130114.pdf • Human Rights Watch's Syria Page: • http://www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/syria • Syria Tracker: • syriatracker.crowdmap.com