Syria Aflame Due to Longstanding and Enduring Historical Problems

Sean Para, Columnist

The international community has played a prominent role in the Syrian Civil War thus far, and only with the continued help of the international community will the wretched conflict be brought to a close. The Syrian Civil War has many traits in common with previous conflicts of its kind. It has taken on international dimensions and drawn in the world’s great powers.

Internal disputes often fall prey to geopolitics. The pattern goes back at least to the Middle Ages and has antecedents in the Castilian Civil War of the mid-14th century and, to use a more recent example, the Korean War. Although it is not a proxy war, Russia and Iran backing the Assad government is crucial, as is the Saudi Arabian, Qatari, American and European support for the rebel groups. The problem is that the conflict is spinning out of control in Syria, as the opposition becomes increasingly fractured and radicalized and begins to turn on itself.

Although the civil war started as an attempt to displace the Assad government — similar to the other revolutions of the Arab Spring — the regime’s tenacity allowed it to survive. Rebel groups sprang up across the country to fight the government. However, as the war dragged on year after year and the Assad government clung to power yet lost control of much of the country, various rebel groups became increasingly radicalized and many committed to establishing an Islamic state in Syria. The opposition groups have begun to fight each other, falling out over religious policies and goals for the war.

The world’s great powers were drawn into the conflict about a year after its onset. This gave the civil war another level of complexity. The United States soon backed the rebels, while Russia backed the Syrian government, its traditional ally. American and Russian arms provided to the two sides has aggravated the conflict. The Assad regime remains entrenched in many parts of Syria, yet has lost effective control of much of the country. Russian arms flow into government hands even as they are used to attack civilians. The U.S. is backing some vetted rebel groups with no ties to terrorist organizations, yet this has not been enough to turn the conflict in their favor. U.N.–backed talks have been initiated several times, yet each time they faltered on preliminary issues. No significant progress has been made.

As all this politicking takes place, the Syrian people continue to suffer. Approximately 130,000 Syrians have died. The economy has been ruined; cities have been destroyed. The government has ceased to effectively exist, concerned not with the welfare of its people, but only with survival. Strong international pressure, mostly on the part of the United States and Russia, is one of the only foreseeable ways to end the conflict. The world’s great powers must exert their influence to bring the two sides back to the table and created a lasting peace. Without this pressure, the conflict will continue unabated.

Syria’s problems date back to its origins as a nation-state. It was created in the aftermath of the World War I as a French protectorate (or mandate, to use the official term at the time of its creation) with no respect to ethnic boundaries. The Alawites, a mystical and syncretic sect of Shia Islam, have backed the Assad regime from its foundation. The civil war has inflamed smoldering sectarian conflicts between different elements of Syrian society. Islamic radicalism has taken hold so quickly as a result of the decidedly secular nature of the brutal regime.