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News fast five: Syrian Civil War

A+ceasefire+between+the+Syrian+government+and+many+of+the+rebel+factions+has+held+since+first+being+signed+on+Dec.+29%2C+2016.+A+peace+conference+in+Astana%2C+Kazakhstan%2C+begining+next+week+will+seek+to+bring+a+permanent+end+to+the+conflict.

A ceasefire between the Syrian government and many of the rebel factions has held since first being signed on Dec. 29, 2016. A peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, begining next week will seek to bring a permanent end to the conflict.

Tendrils of the Syrian Civil War have stretched across the world, binding it in issues directly connected to the conflict. While the fighting itself remains confined to the quagmire of Middle Eastern conflicts, its global effects range from the shifting balances in global power to the refugee humanitarian crisis, shaping the future of our world.

With that in mind, we’ve boiled down the Syrian Civil War to its five most important aspects that you need to know about how it affects our world. 

We spoke with Leila Hudson, an associate professor in the Middle Eastern and North African Studies program who focuses on Syria and conflict dynamics. Her knowledge of the conflict has made one thing clear in the way we talk about this conflict.

“This is an issue of great complexity,” she said. “It’s really important to resist thinking in simplistic, one-dimensional ways.” 

1: Civil war

The conflict in Syria is a civil war. Spurred by the success of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, with citizens in those countries overthrowing authoritarian leaders in what became known as the Arab Spring, Syrian activists took to the streets in peaceful protests in early 2011 hoping for similar results.

According to Al Jazeera, the protests were in direct response to the detention and torture of 15 boys caught writing graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One was tortured and killed.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s human rights violations were only one of the many issues facing the country, which included tightening of political freedoms and economic stresses caused by drought leading to mass migration to the country’s cities, increasing poverty and social unrest.

Assad responded to the protests with the murder and imprisonment of hundreds of people. Eventually, some military officials announced their opposition to Assad’s actions and formed the Free Syrian Army in July 2011, the primary fighting force of the rebellion.

2: Deadliest conflict of the 21st century

Prior to the onset of civil war, Syria had a population of 22 million people. According to Hudson, half of that population is now displaced, either internally or externally.

“If you look at some of the drone footage of the city of Aleppo… that gives you an idea of the impossible destruction of wealth, not to mention human life,” she said.

In terms of sheer numbers, while no one has an exact count of the toll on human life this war has taken, estimates now hover around 450,000 to 500,000 deaths and millions injured.

Aside from death, Syria’s infrastructure and economy has been decimated as well, leaving challenges for whomever takes control of the country’s future and little hope for those who once called it home to return to the lives they once had.

3: Shifting balance of global power

Prior to the outbreak of war, the U.S. was the dominant powerbroker in the Middle East after fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When war broke out in Syria, the U.S. took staunch opposition to the Assad regime.

While hesitant to engage in the conflict, President Barack Obama vowed that he would not stand for the use of chemical weapons. However, in August 2013, Assad did just that, and the U.S. looked on the verge of launching airstrikes against the Syrian military.

However, at the eleventh hour, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reached a deal with his Russian counterpart to remove all the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. This allowed Assad to stay in power and Russia to retain its influence in the nation.

“Russia’s main goal is to support the Assad regime, which has turned this into an absolutely brutal, proto-genocidal conflict,” Hudson said. “After waiting, waiting, waiting, making sure this wasn’t a bluff of some kind on the part of the United States, [Russia] moved in with full commitment to backing up the Assad regime with airpower, rescuing that faltering regime and basically coming to own Syria.”

Russia entered the fighting in late 2015 under the pretext of attacking ISIS. However, their assaults, as well as attacks from other powers, have focused on rebel fighters as well.

“For every one sortie against ISIS that they might fight, there were a hundred or three hundred against targets that suited their interests,” Hudson said. “Russia is now the superpower in Syria, and therefore … Russia has been calling the shots in Syria and the Middle East.”

4: Fueling the rise of extremism 

One of the most imminent threats to come out of Syria is the evolution of ISIS as an existential threat to western society. Conflicts like the one in Syria give the terrorist organization a chaotic theatre in which to gain power.

“It’s almost like an incubator for bad evolution,” Hudson said. “People who are more moderate, less extreme, are basically wiped out by people who are more extreme, more violent and more psychopathic.”

What is a tragedy of the majority of the Syrian civilization and the world at large creates an opportunity for ISIS to garner support for their cause, whether those it recruits believe in their ideology or not, and ISIS plays that opportunity to its full extent.

As Hudson puts it, “If you’re in the middle of a warzone and an unsavory party is the one offering you food when you’re starving and a paycheck to support the family and the hand you need, you’re supposed to bite that hand just in order to maintain a good relationship with the people who did not come to your aid?”

ISIS, the Assad regime and Russia by association have been using this disarray to affect political and social dynamics throughout Europe, “effectively weaponizing human misery and exacerbating political and infrastructural weaknesses” of countries in the EU, Hudson said.

Hudson said there are 1 million refugees in Europe, which puts economic and social strain on already fragile countries, such as Greece, which has taken on 50,000 refugees in addition to their own financial crisis.

This intake has fueled extremism on the other side, leading people to oppose refugees in their country.

“What’s going on now is people’s fear and ignorance are being very strategically manipulated by the bad actors,” Hudson said. “If you want to look at where the danger of this extremism being fueled by this smoldering, unending, brutal conflict comes from, it comes from bad actors and their organizations and their much more abundant resources.”

5: Refugee crisis

With such large numbers as the amount of refugees fleeing from Syria, it’s difficult to place each one of them into the context of their own lives. Hudson said the people of Syria are hard-working, resilient people who want to get on with their lives.

“The thing about the refugee crisis itself is that they are an amazing reservoir of human potential,” she said. “The fact that they’re being targeted by this fascist extremism and xenophobia is another tragedy.”

Though that accommodation can be difficult, very few refugees choose where they end up, only deciding they are not safe in their home country. The United Nations estimates around 6 million refugees have fled Syria. The United States has taken 10,000.

“The refugees who reach the United States are very few in number compared to the need and the historical role of the United States,” Hudson said. “To get to the US, Syrian refugees are more carefully vetted, I’d say, than people who are applying for top secret security clearance.”

According to Amnesty International, 2.7 million refugees reside in Turkey, 1 million in Lebanon, 656,000 in Jordan and 229,000 in Iraq, where 3.1 million are already displaced internally from the conflict there.

Houda Makansi is a 19-year-old Syrian refugee whose family relocated to Tucson after years of trying to escape violence in Syria. Houda’s family lived in Aleppo.

Houda’s story parallels that of many refugees. Her family is part of a community of Syrian refugees here in Tucson that struggle to integrate into our society, mostly due to the language barrier. The men usually find work in kitchens or manual labor, but the children seem to fair best, going to school and making friends.

Houda said the most important thing about the conflict that has ravaged her home country is that it’s unforgiving. 

“It has destroyed Syria’s history and civilization, destroyed stone and humans, destroyed the education of many children now in Syria,” she said.

The parts of home she misses most are things we’d ordinarily take for granted. She misses her family. She misses the sky in Syria. She misses her neighborhood and her home. 

For her, “the happiness there is unparalleled.”


Follow Nick Meyers on Twitter.


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