The early days of the current Syrian conflict can be traced to the spring of 2011, when four young children wrote the words “It’s your turn, Doctor,” on a wall in Der’a, a city in the south of Syria. This was the Arab Spring, and the regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Zine Al Abidine in Tunisia fell one after another.
The children’s graffiti referred to the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist who had trained in the United Kingdom, and who called himself a reformer.
The children were arrested by the security forces of President Assad. A fortnight after the arrests, the people of Der’a took to the streets in protest, and demanded that the youngsters be set free. They were, after all, known as a courageous and outspoken people.
These protesters were fired at by Syrian forces, marking the first casualties in a war that has lasted seven years and has taken more than 500,000 men, women and children. The more deaths, the more protests. The more protests from the people, the more retaliatory violence from the Assad regime.
Other areas such as Damascus, Idlib and Homs also broke out in protest. At that time, the force behind the uprisings in the Arab countries was disaffected youth standing up to repressive leadership. But the success in other countries was not to be found in Syria, where the government fought back in more and more brutal ways. The world has watched in real time as the conflict has reached the point of chemical weapons dropped on entire Syrian towns.
The conflict has been characterized most of all by intense human suffering.
Syria’s story has been different from the rest of the Arab world due to several factors. Least of this is that President Assad is the head of a minority government surrounded by other minorities. Unlike in other countries where people from the same ethnic groups are loath to fire at each other, in Syria, this is not the case.
Former US President Barack Obama asked Mr. Assad to step down in 2011, enrolling the assistance of allied nations in Europe and in the Arab League, as well as imposing sanctions on buying Syrian oil. President Assad refused, and instead, his government’s repressive and violent actions intensified. Syrian citizens organized under the Free Syrian Army (FSA), taking up arms against Mr. Assad, which escalated into a Civil War by 2012.
Both the government and the FSA refused offers of help from Russia and the US to broker some sort of peace agreements and end the violence. The rebels had gained control of half of Aleppo, a major city in Syria. The government forces then started firing Scud missiles at the rebels, and the body count and number of refugees started to grow.
Another factor to consider was the various and fractious factions that faced Mr. Assad, some of which were Salafist and jihadist groups. Different nations funded these different groups.
By August of 2012, US intelligence had reported that the Assad government was using chemical weapons against their people, and President Obama famously said, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Human rights groups estimated that by that time 500,000 refugees were leaving the country, and 50,000 people had been killed.
The Islamic State was also on the rise. New agents were entering the battle fray, such as Iran and the Hezbollah, who supported President Assad. On the other hand, the Kurds in the north sought independence. Terrorist groups were sprouting everywhere. And Mr. Assad himself continued to use chemical warfare. President Obama made a deal with Russia, which he hoped would end with stopping the use of chemical weapons.
In the meantime, ISIS continued to grow, and in by 2014, it was roughly the same size as Britain. ISIS stood against President Assad and the fledgling US backed Iraqi state. President Obama finally agreed to launch air strikes in Syria. That year, 76,000 Syrians died, and over a million left the country as refugees. Russia, however, continued to back the Assad regime.
America eventually found itself fighting both the current president as well as ISIS, and by 2016, had to contend with the additional problem of Turkey invading Syria to hamper the Kurds. At this point, the US was in the middle of a contentious and difficult presidential election that took up everyone’s attention. And by this time as well, 11 million Syrians, half of its 2011 population, were fleeing the country.
President Donald Trump’s first foray in Syria was in April 2017. Mr. Assad had used the nerve gas Sarin against his people, something he had vowed not to do. President Trump bombed the base from where the nerve agent had originated. At the same time, Mr. Trump was also having to face the problem of ISIS.
Last week, with the confirmed use yet again of chemical weapons in Syria, President Trump launched an assault, which his Secretary of Defense James Matthis called a “one-off” as opposed to a continued strategy to end the violence in Syria.
Syria is currently the biggest humanitarian disaster post World War II. The body count from this war is now at 500,000 people, with myriads of others wounded or unaccounted for. More than 13 million Syrian refugees need help, including the 5 million that are internally displaced within the country. Many more are unregistered. In Lebanon, Syrian and in Jordan refugees now equal almost a quarter of the population. And other nations have joined the fight including Israel, Iran and Turkey, while negotiations in Geneva have all but stalled in producing ceasefires or settlements.
There is a very real possibility that Syria will go the way of Lebanon, with a Civil War turning into a regional conflict destined to affect the lives of millions for years to come.