Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis


The Syria sinkhole

The Syrian opposition recently offered a dangerous ultimatum, which is symbolic of the overall deterioration for the prospect of a political transition in Syria:

“The Syrian opposition will not attend the proposed Geneva conference on the crisis in Syria unless rebel fighters receive new supplies of arms and ammunition, the top rebel military commander said Friday.

‘If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva,’ Gen. Salim Idris said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in northern Syria. ‘There will be no Geneva.’”

“Mr. Assad’s military position has been strengthened by flights of arms from Iran and the involvement of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. The change of fortunes on the battlefield was illustrated last week when the Syrian military and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Qusayr.”

“The proposal to hold talks in Geneva at a point when the Syrian opposition has suffered a bitter reversal has led many in the opposition to question the West’s strategy. In effect, they say, Mr. Kerry is insisting that the Syrian opposition sit down with representatives of a Syrian president who appears as determined as ever to hang on to power and at a time when the opposition’s leverage has been diminished.”

“‘There is agreement on one point within opposition circles: the regime, Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, aim to win; the U.S. aims for talks,’ said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior State Department official who worked on Syria transition issues. ‘This helps to explain the opposition’s reluctance to attend a Geneva conference and the difficulties it’s having organizing itself around a coherent goal.’”

“At the State Department, Mr. Kerry and his aides have long said that it is vital to change Mr. Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to maintain his grip on power in order to facilitate a political transition.”

“At a meeting in Istanbul in late April, Mr. Kerry announced that the Supreme Military Council should be the only funnel for providing Western and Arab military support to the opposition.”

“General Idris said that while the West has been debating how much military assistance to provide to the moderate opposition, extremist groups like the Nusra Front have begun to play a more prominent role in the struggle against the Assad government.

‘They are now winning sympathy from the people,’ he said. ‘They are very well financed.'”

This is essentially textbook protracted social conflict (PSC). The Syrian government denied the majority of Syrians the human rights they believed they deserved. Peaceful protests were met with violence, turning the ideological divide into a civil war. As the war has progressed, opportunistic extremist groups (Al Nursa for example), seeing a void in Western support for the rebels, have filled that void.

This further complicates American intervention, as arming the rebels could eventually lead to greater military capabilities for anti-American Jihadist organizations.

The call for greater European intervention is well heard, and steps have been made in order for Europe to put itself in position to provide weapons to the opposition should peace-talks not bear fruit (which is not unlikely, but they must at least be attempted). But the Syrian opposition has to realize it cannot try to force military aid, that it must play ball and prove in open forum that Mr. Assad’s “calculations” will not be changed (except to be further emboldened by bolstered support while the opposition loses momentum).

It is an order of operations thing; I truly believe that if the opposition comes to Geneva and makes a real attempt to negotiate a political transition, that if that attempt failed, European powers would provide more military support to the Syrian Supreme Military Council.

Another Western ally that is being dragged into the Syrian sinkhole is Israel. This past week, fighting broke out along the Golan Heights.

“The United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF) monitors the buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.”

“Austria – which contributes about one-third of UNDOF’s troops – has announced its decision to withdraw its soldiers, reportedly citing a lack of freedom of movement and an unacceptable level of danger to its personnel.”

“‘Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if it is temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate,’ Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant of the United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council for June, told reporters after closed-door talks on the latest developments.

“‘Everyone felt that UNDOF played a key role in guaranteeing the 1974 ceasefire disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria and also acting as a conduit of communications, including in the last few days between Israel and Syria,’ he added. ‘It was therefore an important symbol of the stability across the Israel-Syrian border.'”

Russia has offered to replace the Austrian troops. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest Russian troops would represent in Syria, the offer was rejected on legal grounds:

The UN has declined a Russian offer to bolster the understaffed peacekeeping force in the cease-fire zone between Israel and Syria. Austria has said it would be withdrawing its troops from the Golan Heights.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Friday that permanent Security Council members were barred from deploying peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, under the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria.”

Israel would like to remain out of the Syrian Civil War, but the small military power continues to collect intelligence on the Syrian military and strongly reaffirms it’s right to protect itself:

“The confluence of events confronted Israel with the complex reality of a civil war just across the border in which both sides are hostile to the Jewish state. Hezbollah has vowed in recent weeks that it would facilitate attacks on Israel through the heights. And the most effective rebel force is made up of radical Sunnis aligned with Al Qaeda, while many of the other militias are led by self-identified Islamists.

The result has been a kind of paralysis in Israeli society, where options are debated but no clear consensus has emerged about which outcome of the Syrian crisis is preferable or how to prepare for it.”

If Western powers decided to intervene militarily, they would have to rely on Israeli military supremacy and geographic position to support the operation (Turkey is another important geopolitical ally, while Egypt remains a bit of a wild card). The Syrian opposition and Israeli leaders should be in communication with each other (if they are not already) as they are likely to need to have a working rapport in the foreseeable future.

All the while, the silent majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced peoples continue to bear the brunt of the suffering and human rights violations, threatening regional stability in the Middle-East:

“The United Nations launched a $5 billion aid effort on Friday, its biggest ever, to help up to 10.25 million Syrians, half the population, who it expects will need help by the end of 2013.”

“The appeal comprises $2.9 billion for refugees, $1.4 billion for humanitarian aid and $830 million for Lebanon and Jordan, the biggest recipients of Syrian refugees.”

“The appeal updates and multiplies the existing aid plan for Syria, which sought $1.5 billion to help 4 million people within Syria and up to 1.1 million refugees by June. The worsening conflict soon overtook those projections.

The new forecasts expect the refugee population to more than double to 3.45 million from 1.6 million now, based on current numbers arriving in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

But it assumes the number of needy Syrians inside the country will remain static until the end of the year at 6.8 million. The number of internally displaced Syrians is also assumed to stay where it is now, at about 4.25 million.

That means the current plan could again turn out to be an underestimate if the fighting goes on.”

“‘We have reached a stage in Syria where some of the people, if they don’t get food from the World Food Programme, they simply do not eat,’ the WFP’s Syria Regional Emergency Coordinator Muhannad Hadi said.”

“A few months ago I would like to recall that there was a donors’ conference in Kuwait, and Persian Gulf monarchies promised to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.N. agencies in order to help Syria,” Russian ambassador in Geneva Alexey Borodavkin added.

“I don’t think that the amounts mentioned in Kuwait ever reached these agencies and were ever used to help the Syrian people.”

World powers are famous for committing money for development / humanitarian purposes and falling short on those commitments. And often it is for understandable reasons, as it is difficult to be sure the money is going where it is supposed to go. But given the global attention and direct UN involvement in the Syrian humanitarian crisis, these fears need not prevent commitments from being fulfilled.

It is difficult to be optimistic about a political end to the Syrian Civil War. Mr. Assad seems recently emboldened, while the opposition continues to shoot itself in the foot. Hopefully the opposition rethinks its position; only with Western support can they hope to remove Assad from power, be it politically or militarily.  All Syria’s most vulnerable can do is sit back and watch, and hope the the UN can raise the aid needed to keep them alive as the conflict grinds towards its eventual conclusion.


33 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis

  1. What a mess! You make some good points but it is also true that peace talks right after a major change in power balance look suspicious at best. I like the way you refer to the situation as a “sink hole” – very well described.


  2. I don’t know if there will ever be peace in Syria! Probably not in our lifetime. I think it takes more than the UN but a meeting of minds, right?


  3. Do the opposition represent any more righteous a cause than the regime? Oh, if only it were so simple. The impression NOW is that the Syrian middle class, the intelligentsia – ”society’ rallies to Assad. Pans out to this Shia/Sunni schism – which is way beyond me. Is the Middle East war.

    Breathtaking politik from Putin. Best analysis I heard was US commentator painting as the ‘defence of the despots.’ Like Caucescu, Putin is very ugly.

    Repect to you analysing most difficult and tragic subject.

    Thanks atb


  4. Lumatiza: They have been talking about holding these peace talks for months now, so I do not think they was any foul play going on here. It is possible that Assad was biding his time until Russian and Iranian military reinforcements arrived, but considering those two countries have been funneling Assad weapons for the duration of the 2+ year civil-war it is probably just a coincidence. Momentum has shifted back and forth during the war and it is hard to tell who really has the “advantage” at any particular time.

    I think more important is the lapse in the European-Syrian arms embargo, as it is plainly clear which side Europe would arm if it decided to get involved. Agreements were made a year ago to form a transitional government, but neither side honored those terms. I think Europe wants to see one more crack at a political transition, this time with the added after-though that if talks do not work out, European powers are ready to arm the opposition. The Syrian opposition just has to be patient and show it is willing to play ball, it cannot try to force more powerful countries hands. Not agreeing to come to the table is a lose-lose situation for the Syrian opposition–lose a chance (however slight) of a political transition, and lose political capital / “Western”support (which as I stated is critical if Assad is to be removed from power politically / militarily / otherwise).

    Segmation: Yes, the UN tends to have its hands tied in situations like this. Once big military powers are involved, UN military capabilities become irrelevant (as highlighted by the shrinking UNDOF in the Golan Heights) , and the UN has to play a more of a diplomacy / open forum / impartial observer role (which lets be honest is the most effective role the UN can play).

    The meeting of the minds is exactly what peace-talks are supposed to be about. Will they happen? Will they create lasting peace if they do? The purpose of the meetings is not to change Assad’s mind, anyone who is willing to slaughter his own people and call them “terrorists” is not a legitimate leader–Assad is a madman who cannot be reasoned with. This is in essence the purpose of the peace talks IMO, to show all actors exactly where everyone stands. Russia, Europe, the U.S. and China share too much common stake in the world economy to let Syria continue to disrupt global security. S.o.S. Kerry talks about changing Assad’s “calculations”, these talks could do just that if either a) Russia agrees to stop aiding Assad, or b) Europe decides to arm the rebels.

    Brightonsauce: I think the opposition originally represented people who had legitimate gripes with how the country was run. Over time, and as Western aid has lagged, extremist groups have latched onto a once legitimate Syrian opposition. This makes it much harder to arm the Syrian rebels, and would probably require much more direct oversight alongside any arms deals. It has also turned a plea for indiscriminate human rights to a sectarian Civil War. This is why I talk about human rights violations and the parallel humanitarian crisis that has accompanied the Civil War, because it is all to easy to forget there is a majority of people who simply want to live meaningful secure lives. Whoever represents these people is who I support, and that honor goes almost by default to the opposition,

    I cannot speak to Syrian sentiments toward Assad, but I did recently read an article about Alawite’s convening in Egypt to organize an anti-Assad movement. It is generally a pretty good representation of who you are as a leader when even the minority you are supposedly protecting are organizing against you (as if the mass civilian killings and regular defections from his regime were not enough of an indicator of popular support for Assad). I am not sure Assad even has any supporters left besides his cronies and international backers.

    It is true both sides have committed human rights violations, but these violations are committed with much more regularity and brutality by the Assad regime.

    Russia and China are indeed playing “defense of the despots”. It is sad that these countries think stopping human rights violations is an infringement of national sovereignty. It is primarily the states responsibility as “duty bearer” of human rights. If the government cannot fulfill this role, or even worse perpetuates human rights violations, it is up to the international community to step in.

    This responsibility to protect (R2P) should not be able to be vetoed on grounds of setting a bad precedent–R2P does not rely on precedent, each situation is reviewed in great detail on a case-by-case basis (with military intervention only as a last resort). Russia and China should have no fear of foreign intervention in their own countries, they are on the UNSC for god sakes!


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  6. What’s worse? The fact that they’re killing themselves over there. Or that majority of Americans could care less


  7. Very lucid assessment of a very emotive situation 🙂


  8. Thanls for this article. I wouldn’t say, that Russia try to get deeply involved. And I think Syrian people should try to resolve their problem without any other countries.


  9. Pingback: Conflict Watch: The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis | Leonardo34's Blog

  10. Sports King, Americans are understandably tired of expensive far-off wars. I think if there was more press about the human face of the war, as opposed to the two sides fighting, people would probably care more. But this is Europes battle due to its location and history of dealing with Russia.

    Viktor, wouldn’t that be nice! But after WWII Africa was divided up without considering different groups that did not get along, which continues to fuel sectarian violence on the continent. When a government perpetuates human rights conflicts, it is the job of the international community to intervene. Russia continues to support Assad, so leaving it up to the Syrians would mean allowing Assad to continue to wage war on the majority of Syrians.


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  12. Reblogged this on Review and Remove and commented:
    Fantastic and insightful article into an escalting and worrying humanitarian crisis.


  13. It is truly saddening that the general public doesn’t know/care enough about these current issues. Check out my blog if you are interested in more social commentary and argument.


  14. Pingback: The Geopolitics of Gas and the Syrian Crisis: Syrian “Opposition” Armed to Thwart Construction of Iran-Iraq-Syria Gas Pipeline |

  15. Reblogged this on International Ramblings and commented:
    Some excellent points here! Will be referenced in my upcoming post!


  16. Some excellent points here! Very interesting commentary, will be referenced in my upcoming post!


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  19. Getting fooled by warmongering media, only a few know what really happens in Syria:
    This is a hidden proxy Guerrilla war of the USA/NATO/Arab League against Syrian people:


    • Your comment about this being a primarily foreign war is correct, this is a reality of the world we live in, there are foreign fighters on both side of the conflict. But while the rebels have received mainly non-lethal and small arms from their supporters, Assad has received advanced weapons.

      I do not believe the conspiracy theories about the intl community / Obama administration–the last thing we want in America is to get involved in another war in the ME.

      What about Assad continuously shelling Syria, killing indiscriminately, I suppose that is a justified response to an uprising that according to you only extremists and international terrorists are taking part in.

      Both sides have committed atrocities and human rights violations, an inevitability of war; one can certainly cherry-pick sources that makes Assad seem like the “good guy”. However the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Assad is willing to destroy Syria to remain in power.


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  21. down with israeel and america


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