Syria is currently engaged in a bloody civil war which has by most estimates has led to more than 40,000 deaths and 350,000+ refugees, not to mention IDP (internally displaced people) to date. Starting as a peaceful protest against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. Assad responded violently against the protests, which led to a violent response from the protestors. The rest, as they say, is history.
The demands made by the protestors are relatively straightforward. Assad’s Ba’ath party, which has been in power in Syria since 1963, represents only a small fraction of Syrian people (about 12% of the population is Alawite, Assad’s sect). Most uprisings in today’s world are protracted social conflicts (PSCs), stemming from low levels of socio-economic development, human rights violations, and lack of civil and political liberties—Syria is no exception.
It is not uncommon for a legitimate uprising to be hijacked by violent factions even without provocation, as opportunist see the opportunity to seize power. Extremist groups have been associated with the Syrian rebels, and a recent report suggests that Al-Qaeda may have a foothold in the group. This raises concerns about who will fill the power vacuum once Assad is removed from power, and complicates American involvement.
The UN, for its part, has mostly had its hands tied. Security Council / NATO based resolutions are systematically voted down by China and Russia on national sovereignty grounds. These two governments state they do not want a repeat of what happened in Libya, despite Libya being a recent success story of international intervention. Kofi Annan, the original UN-Syrian peace envoy, resigned in frustration of the elusive peace process. His replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi, has had little more success than his predecessor.
Besides China, Russia, Iran, and extremist organizations throughout the world, there is little support for Assad’s continued rule. Syria has drawn economic sanctions from much of the Western World, and was even expelled from the Arab League (November 2011). Syria had been able to subvert sanctions by trading through Iran. Whenever high demand natural resources are in play, it is very difficult for sanctions to work fully—they often lead to the formation of a black market.
There is certainly blood on the hands of both sides of the conflict, but it is disproportionately on Assad’s hands. Assad has recently taken to blindly bombing areas assumed to host rebels, and civilians constitute a large portion of the total casualties in Syria.
Recently, the Syrian opposition has unified into a more inclusive and transparent group. The idea is to create a legitimate parallel government that will be ready to take over when the Assad regime is toppled. The group has received recognition from France and many other EU governments. The U.S. was instrumental in creating the new coalition, but has understandably been reluctant to offer direct military support. After expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. will tread lightly and try to avoid direct military intervention if at all possible. Even arming the rebels is not a foolproof approach, as weapons often do not end up in the intended hands.
Assad’s position seems increasingly bleak. New concerns suggest that a desperate Assad may turn to chemical weapons if he believes he has no other options. This is a stated “red line” for the U.S., that any use of chemical weapons would draw a U.S. military response.
It will be interesting to see how things play out, as the Syrian conflict seems to be at a crossroads. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Assad is able to escape from Syria alive, much less continue to rule in Syria, but certainly nothing is written in stone at this point.