Syria: A Shattered Soul

By Adri Glova

This is the Syrian War in a nutshell: over a quarter of a million people dead (about 60,000 of which are civilians including 10,000 children), over 840,000 people wounded, at least another 30,000 missing and more than 11 million people displaced from their homes – let that sink in for a moment. As we go on with our daily lives, arguably the worst humanitarian crisis of this generation rages on without an end in sight. With a disaster of epic proportions, there is a tendency to reduce lives into statistics. Lest we forget, these are humans with families, whether combatant or civilian. These are children being orphaned or outright robbed of a future to speak of. In a larger scale, this is a state slowly being reduced to rubble, with an economy and social fabric in shambles.  How did it happen?

Arab Spring

Arab Spring Movement

In 2010 and 2011, the Arab world was rocked with a series of protests (both violent and non-violent) as citizens voiced out their dissatisfaction against the oppression of authoritarian regimes in the region citing human rights violations, corruption, sowing sectarianism among other reasons. Dubbed as the Arab Spring, it was swift and decisive, although occasionally violent, as it toppled ruling regimes (e.g. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen) or caused reforms to be enacted in response to the protests (e.g. Jordan, Oman, Morocco).

Syrians take to the streets to protest against Assad.

The movement also spread to Syria as they called for democratic reforms, the release of political prisoners and the curbing of corruption. President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has been in power for more than 40 years, did not heed the calls but instead, violently cracked down on the protests. Soon, the anti-government protesters took up arms alongside Assad defectors as the once peaceful demonstrations descended into an all-out civil war.

Sectarian and Political Puzzle

To simplify that the conflict in Syria is a dichotomy between Assad loyalists and anti-Assad rebels is erroneous. The civil war eventually took up sectarian overtones as disgruntled Sunni Islamists began to exploit tensions between the Shiite Alawites, whom despite being a minority in Syria have ruled over the past 40 years via Assad, and the majority Sunni population. This development led to the rise of the Sunni-dominated ISIS in Syria, as they were able to capitalize on decades upon decades of Sunni discontent. As ISIS captured swathes of territory, Shia militias from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (yes, another group designated by the US, EU and NATO as a “terrorist organization”) started to flock to Syria to bolster the defense of the Assad regime. In between the Sunni and Shia militias were moderate rebels (non-Islamist in short) against Assad. Conventional wisdom in foreign policy dictates that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, but this wasn’t the case in Syria as ISIS imposed its puritanical and extremist beliefs even on the anti-Assad moderate rebels… but wait there’s more.

Land of the Kurds

Another player in the Syrian war are the Kurds (an ethnic group in the Middle East spread mostly across Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Syria) intent on building a state and consolidating territory dating back to the end of the Second World War. The Kurds were eventually dragged into the conflict as they competed for territory against Islamists and anti-government rebels. It’s also noteworthy to mention that a mix of Kurdish nationalism and Marxism motivates many Kurdish parties, further complicating the issue. In fact, some Kurdish organizations like the Kurdish Workers’ Party are also tagged as “terrorist organizations” by the US, EU, NATO, and especially Turkey, being afraid of Kurdistan’s secession.

Furthermore, leadership issues further divide the Sunni-jihadists, as some groups are still intent on following the lead of al-Qaeda, notably Jahbat-al-Nusra, instead of pledging allegiance to ISIS. Historically speaking, ISIS was a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq which eventually splintered and self-declared a caliphate to the dismay of its former mother organization. Estimates peg the number of armed groups involved in the conflict at 1,000. In the battlefield, the lines between friend and foe are blurred, as there are short-term collaborations for common goals. Nevertheless, there are no permanent alliances among the factions.

Syria 2
The many players in Syria’s war.

Long story short: you have ISIS fighting other Sunni-jihadist groups, fighting moderate rebels fighting Syrian Army forces backed by Shia militias, fighting one another. Oh, and let’s not even go to Russia and China supporting Assad, and the USA calling for the ouster of Assad AND the degradation of ISIS (by funding moderate rebels and Kurds, although Kurds are enemies to Turkey, who are allies of the USA). Let’s also not go into rich Gulf emirates funding various groups in the conflict.

Syrian territory breakdown as of February 2015.
Syrian territory breakdown as of February 2015.

In essence, the war in Syria has evolved into a proxy war that involves many powerful state and non-state actors, which is why many contest calling the said war a “civil war”. Indeed, this is a tricky and interesting case study for International Relations. It highlights the strength of non-state actors, pits conflicting national interests. In the case of the US for instance, which is the priority, fighting ISIS or toppling Assad? Should it aid Iranian militias, a known enemy of another ally in Israel? Should it fund the Kurds, to the dissatisfaction of Turkish friends? Maybe al-Qaeda? Or maybe it should not meddle in these affairs in the first place. This conflict has placed factions in the uncomfortable situation of being friend and foe at the same time.

Costs of Conflict: An Economic Perspective

Syrian GDP projections quoted in local currency units by WB, IMF and other institutions clearly showing the massive dip in output at the onset of the war
Syrian GDP projections quoted in local currency units by WB, IMF and other institutions clearly showing the massive dip in output at the onset of the war
  • Forgone consistent economic growth. It is estimated that it will take Syria 30 years to reach its pre-war value given the assumption that it grows by 5% annually. The losses have been estimated to amount at over 200 billion dollars since the conflict began in 2010.

  • Poverty incidence has skyrocketed to more than 75% while the unemployment rate has risen to more than 50%.

  • Syria’s HDI score plummeted from “medium human development” to “low human development”, essentially losing 40 years of human development reflecting in the significantly poorer health, education and employment opportunities in the country. For instance, life expectancy in Syria has been reduced by 20 years (from 75.9 in 2010 to 55.7 in 2014).

  • Depreciation of the Syrian pound by more than four-fifths of its value (from 48 to 230 Syrian pounds vis-à-vis one US dollar in early 2015), devastating its purchasing power for citizens.

  • Syria’s public debt is now 126% of its GDP due to borrowing and spending pressures to finance the administration’s war efforts.

  • Borderline hyperinflation as the cost of basic living expenses is up by as much as 360 percent.

Refugee Crisis

Syrian refugees by the numbers
Syrian refugees by the numbers

Caught in between the hostilities are Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers desperate to flee the conflict. As the war carries on, the number of displaced Syrians also grows by the day. It’s impractical for Syria’s neighbors, namely Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt to absorb virtually all of these displaced Syrians, besides the fact that conditions are not always favorable in these refugee camps (such as lack of clean water, language barriers and lack of employment and long-term settlement opportunities). As such, many Syrians embark on the dangerous and illegal (yes, it’s migrant trafficking) journey to cross the Mediterranean, with Europe as the final destination. Of course, it doesn’t always end well, with many boats capsizing and people dying – such was the unfortunate fate of three-year old Aylan Kurdi.

The picture that moved the world – the motionless body of Aylan Kurdi, a victim of the Refugee Crisis who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
The picture that moved the world – the motionless body of Aylan Kurdi, a victim of the Refugee Crisis who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

At the same time, EU countries are imposing strict border control mechanisms primarily due to security concerns (because anybody can

disguise themselves as a Syrian refugee). To date, there has yet to be an amicable resolution to the said refugee crisis. Military intervention does not seem to be the answer either, judging by the results of the recent American foray in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, this will not end well for the Syrian people, as well as for the entire region, if it will end at all.

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell


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