Some Stuff About Syria

From 2014 to 2016 I spent time researching the Syrian Crisis.

This began as a bit of a personal mission, in that I was quite interested in trying to understand the situation as best as I could, and eventually developed into the subject of my thesis for my Masters in International Journalism.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Syria, it is far more complex than my limited research, a 40,000 word Dissertation, could have ever hoped to cover.

However I do know that undertaking this research exposed me to things which aren’t common knowledge in the spheres of our everyday lives. After the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack last week on April 4th, many of my friends tagged or messaged me asking for my opinion.

It occurs to me that Syria is something that people should spend some time thinking about. But it is a big, complex issue, I can’t blame anyone for feeling overwhelmed or despondent when they consider the ramifications of a six year civil war.

So I decided to write this post to try and help provide some context on the issue, in what limited ways I am able.

I don’t want to tell you what to think about Syria, but I would like you to think about it.

I will try to keep my subjective opinions confined to a minimum, and clearly marked as such. A lot of this information I came across in my research, and  I’ll cite it, so you can see where it came from.

So, here is some stuff about Syria.

 

A very, very brief look at the pre-2011 Syrian political landscape.

Syria has been a part of a long history of conquerors, war, and violence and it has been seen as the seat of and symbol of Persian Power. It was subject to the colonizing forces of both Britain and France and it has been a site of regular conflict with Israel since the late 1940’s.[1]

Since 1970 the country of Syria has been under the leadership of the Assad family. After coming to power as the leader of the Baath (Resurrection) Party, Hafez al-Assad, faced the problem of ruling a complicated country. In part thanks to British and French colonization, large portions of Syria’s urban populations were made up of minorities, (including his own Alawite sect of Shi’i Arabs), with most of the country’s majority Sunni Muslim population residing in rural areas.[2]Hafez al-Assad tried to moderate a growing enmity against his rule, but eventually in 1982 Syria erupted in sectarian violence. The end result was a consolidation of power centralized in Hafez al-Assad himself, which left the city of Hama and the political uprisings devastated.[3]  After three consecutive decades of rule Hafez al-Assad died in 2000. At which time his son, Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency. Like his Father, Bashar initially made conciliatory moves towards those hostile of his rule; including allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to resume political activities and he attempted to legitimise his position through subsequent controlled elections. Also like his Father, Bashar’s political approach was distinctly authoritarian.[4]

Prior to the democratic protests and uprising which formed part of the Arab Spring movement in 2010, Syria had endured four years of drought.[5]

 

Syria and the Arab Spring.

One thing which my research did show me was that it’s very helpful to look at Syria within the context of the Arab Spring and the internet. Journalist’s haven’t been allowed inside Syria for some time, so those few that do put themselves at risk in a big way. A lot of the information we get about the situation in Syria is coming from those who are still living there, through youtube footage and tweets.

As part of my research, I read Marcy Jatovsky’s thesis The History of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East Since 1960 and in it I found a succinct and well-made argument explaining the catalysts of the Arab Spring.

“Suddenly, the use of internet technology and new communications media woke up Arabs to alternative forms of government such as democracy and parliamentary rule. They suddenly were becoming aware of the true nature of democracy as a form of government that protects the rights of the individual such as free speech and the right to assemble and protest political, economic, and social issues peacefully; these human rights were forbidden in many Arab and Muslim countries ruled by dictators over the past half century.”[6]

At this point of 2010, as previously mentioned Syria had already endured a severe period of drought, resulting in in reduced food reduction, increased unemployment and the resulting wide spread dissatisfaction that ultimately led to this civil war.[7]

But this crisis began as an offshoot of the Arab Spring movements. Like the other movements, it started out as peaceful protests in pursuit of democratic reforms, organised through new platforms of social media which connected citizens across the country in a common goal. It erupted as a civil war when members of the military defected from the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad in July 2011. They called themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA), they vowed to help the people of Syria overthrow its corrupt leadership.[8]

Then, in August 2011 Syrian cyber-activists uploaded footage from the city of Hamah [9] This footage uploaded by Syrian activists was taken during a protest when Government forces opened fire on protesters, killing at least 11. This was perhaps one of the first times the Western Mainstream Media was able to see footage of an attack on unarmed civilians by Assad’s regime. And it was thanks to everyday citizens with smart phones and twitter.

The first known use of a chemical attack on the Syrian population occurred in Qusayr in March 2013. The Independent Panel confirmed deployment of themobaric weapons, “fuel-air bombs” in September of 2013 in a statement in Geneva, “There are reasonable grounds to believe limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used” in Aleppo and Damascus on March 19, in Aleppo again on April 13 and in Idlib on April 29. “Other incidents remain under investigation,” the panel then reported. And have continued to report since, in countless statements from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic over six years.[10]

By 2014 the commission had gathered proof of the type of chemicals and determined they came from the Syrian military stockpiles. It’s important to keep in mind that during a civil war it’s possible for rebel factions to gain control of government ammunitions and weaponry. The fact that they can be traced to the Syrian military stockpiles alone is not enough evidence that Assad’s forces carried out the attack.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was embarrassingly quoted as saying that Syria is baddies vs. baddies. It’s a terrible analogy. Definitely not the sort of thing I want to hear from my head of state on national television. However, it’s worth trying to remember that many rebel factions have begun to operate in Syria, so that you can understand how difficult it is to uncover hardline proof about where such cruel and devastating attacks come from.

Throughout the chaos an influx of foreign fighters with ties to terrorist organisations have funneled into the region and start operating, including Al-Nursa, a group with ties to Al-Qaeda who entered the conflict around 2012. Some of these Al-Nursa operatives would eventually form the splinter group, ISIS/ISIL, who have been operating in the region since 2013.[12]

So while baddies vs. baddies is not the best analogy, the idea Abbott was trying to get across was that there are many groups in this region now vying for control and so citizens of Syria are subject to attacks from all angles. It’s not a pretty place to be.

 

Some of the facts and figures I think about when I think about Syria.

 

Perhaps one of the most significant and what I have found to be the most little known facts about the Syrian crisis is that prior to the outbreak of hostilities, the country was home to many refugees from neighbouring countries. Places such as Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.  This is hugely important because it basically means that refugees who had been rebuilding in Syria after gaining status there, are now forced to re-enter the system for a second time. This contributes hugely to the diversity of the refugee population, and on a personal note, makes it difficult for me to swallow claims from some more conservative media publications about “real” Syrian refugees. The fact of the matter is, this former refugees from other middle eastern countries are affected by conflict in Syria now, just as they were in their home country. It doesn’t make them somehow any less of a victim of the Syrian conflict.

To crunch some numbers for perspective, prior to the conflict it was estimated that Syria was host to approximately 1.2 million refugees from Iraq as a result of its open door policy which it held until 2007[13], as violence from the civil war escalated, many of them fled. At the time of writing my paper last year,  UNHCR currently estimates there are only 200,000 Iraqi refugees currently residing in Syria.[14]

Of the half a million Palestinian refugees the country was previously host to, officials estimate less than half have remained inside the war-torn country.[15] The result is one of the most ethnically diverse group of refugees from a single conflict since UNHCR began recording such details. Though “inevitably the humanitarian focus is on Syrian refugees, the situation of Palestine & Iraqi refuges secondarily displaced from Syria is extremely dangerous.”[16]

This diversity is not the only thing which makes the crisis such a unique one.

This crisis has seen the largest numbers of unaccompanied minors claiming asylum, 25% of all refugees from the Syrian crisis are children aged 17 or younger.[17] Many refugees enter and live within the communities of host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, rather than remaining in camps, with an estimated 75-80% of the then 3.3 million refugees residing in this type of alternative accommodation. A situation that brings with it both positives and negatives.[18]

These numbers are always rising, as conflict in the country continues to escalate. In 2016 there have been continued reports of the use of chemical warfare by Assad’s troops and his allies. Isis forces were confirmed to have used mustard gas in the region in 2015.[19]

The humanitarian refugee system itself is struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of displaced persons.[20]

Looking at the UN Syria Humanitarian Response plans for the last two years, you can easily see that it is critically underfunded.

2015 syrian response plan

Figure i UN OCHA Financial Tracking Service (FTS)[21]

UN current funding syrian response plan

Figure ii  UN OCHA Financial Tracking Service (FTS)[22]

This means refugees receive cuts in food aid, often have inadequate means of shelter from weather conditions and have limited access to education or healthcare. It is conditions such as these that prompt refugees to overcome geographical and political barriers to seek asylum in third countries, further away from the conflicts and struggles of the destabilizing region.

 Do you have any advice for me if I want to continue to stay informed about Syria or help in some other way?

I know there is very little I can do actively from my home in Australia, so far from the conflict.

Read up on Syria as much as you can. Not just in the news either. Visit OCHA’s website and look for statements from the panels who are getting information from Syria daily. Check Aljazeera as well as checking your own country’s mainstream media, because Aljazeera has more journalists close to the region who can deliver on the ground reporting. Check the news wires like AP and AFP to see where your Newscorp publications and your New York Times or Post or Guardian are getting their first-hand accounts from. This will give you a clear eye to see the narrative your local daily rag is building around the facts.

Lastly and most importantly. Talk to people about it. Make sure that members of your community know what you know,
Press your elected officials to listen to your opinions about the situation, and how your money should be spent. Consider writing some letters and sending some small gifts (socks or flip-flops, pencils and notebooks) as donations to refugee centers in places like Turkey, Lebanon and other countries who are currently supporting the largest numbers of refugees.

You may think that these small actions are a waste of your time, but I assure you

Are there any charities you know of helping Syria that you would personally endorse?

If you feel you want to contribute something financially but are concerned about reputable organisations to give to, I can tell you I personally donate monthly to UNHCR and MSF. I trust these organisations to spend more in the field than on advertising. My personal experience working with the UN as an intern gave me a good insight into how programs are developed and run, and I have friends who have worked with MSF throughout Africa and Latin America and were happy to share their experiences with me. This is what has given me confidence in these NGO’s, not reading their annual reports.  I’m happy to give them my endorsement, but I encourage you to do your own research and make sure you feel comfortable with the aims and methods of any charity or NGO you want to contribute to.

References and Sources are included and hyperlinked where available. When able and under Fair Use I have included excerpts from thesis and journal articles where I have quoted them.

[1]Jatovsky, M. (2012) The History of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East Since 1960 PhD thesis Drew University, New Jersey Proquest UMI 3524974

[2] Dyer, G. (2016) Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and the Making of the New Middle East Reading, Periscope, p 93-94

[3] Ibid

[4] Jatovsky 2012 p 110-121; Dyer 2016 p 85-100

[5]Fountain, H. ‘Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change’  New York Times 2nd March 2015; Gleick, P.H. (2014) Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria’ Weather, Climate, and Society Vol 6, No. 3 p 331–340 http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1

[6] Jatovsky, 2012 p 137

[7] Jatovsky, 2012, p 134-137; Polk,W. R. ‘Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad’ The Atlantic 10th December 2013

[8]Holliday, J. (2011) ‘MIDDLE EAST SECURITY REPORT 2: the struggle for syria in 2011’, Washington, Institute for the Study of War, p 6, 14–17

[9] Jatovsky, 2012 p 138

[10] Cumming-Bruce, N. ‘U.N. Panel Reports Increasing Brutality by Both Sides in Syria’ New York Times June 4th 2013; OCHR Syria Session Statements 2013-2015 http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/StatementPSP11March2013.pdf ; http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session25/_layouts/15/WopiFrame.aspx?sourcedoc=/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session25/Documents/A-HRC-25-65_en.doc&action=default&DefaultItemOpen=1

[11] Solomon, E. ‘Six Islamist factions unite in largest Syria rebel merger’ Reuters, 22nd November 2013

[12] Dyer, 2016, p 149-167

[13]Lischer, S.K (2008) ‘Security and Displacement in Iraq: Responding to the Forced Migration Crisis’ International Security Vol. 33, No. 2 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40207133

[14] Hawley, C. ‘Iraqi refugees flee Syrian conflict to return home’ BBC, 29th October 2012

[15] Toameh, K. A. ‘100,000 Palestinians have fled Syria to Europe, official says’ Jerusalem Post 9th June 2015

[16]Zetter, R. & Raudel, H. (2014) ‘Development and Protection Challenges of the Syrian Refugee Crisis’ Forced Migration Review Iss. 47, p 7

[17] UNOECD, (2015) ‘Is this humanitarian migration crisis different?’ Policy Migration Debates No. 7 p 1 -15; “THE COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS HOLDS A DISCUSSION ON ASSESSING THE SYRIAN REFUGEE CRISIS.” (2014) Political Transcript Wire, Oct 10 http://search.proquest.com/docview/1609567671?accountid=14681

[18] Ibid

[19] Agence-France Press, ‘UN watchdog confirms mustard gas attack in Syria’ Guardian, 7th November 2015

[20] Grant, H ‘UN agencies ‘broke and failing’ in face of ever-growing refugee crisis’ Guardian, 7th September 2015

[21]OCHA FTS, August 17th 2016 https://ftsbeta.unocha.org/countries/206/summary/2016

[22] Ibid