Syria’s story at crossroads as civil war declared
In Syria’s ancient capital Damascus, battle is raging more furiously than ever. With the uprising now officially a civil war, this is a new chapter in Syria’s uprising. What happens next?
Ancient, sweltering and majestic, Damascus has been a hub of the Arabic world for over four thousand years. Today, it is at war.
From the centre of Syria’s historic capital, sounds of mortar fire can be heard. Armoured vehicles rumble through the streets. Rebels fire volleys from the alleyways, while sympathetic residents pile roadblocks to halt the army’s advance.
This is by far the fiercest fighting that Damascus has witnessed since the Syrian Uprising began. And the violence spreads far beyond the capital. This is no longer a rebellion, the Red Cross has declared. It is officially a civil war.
Scanning recent news, it is tempting to think that the Syrian story has progressed little: more fruitless talks, more massacres, more suffering. Yet each month, the rebels become more organised and better armed. The conflict is becoming entrenched: no clear victory is in sight for Assad, and a willingly negotiated settlement is a distant hope.
What then is the next chapter in Syria’s uprising? There are several possibilities.
The first is a long and destructive civil war fought along ethnic and religious lines. The original aims of the uprising forgotten, ordinary Syrians watch helplessly as militia leaders fight endlessly for control of the country.
If such a conflict can be decisively won, power will fall to the generals of the winning faction. And from this arises a second scenario, in which Syria’s fate rests with victorious generals. The country’s future is in military hands.
What both of these narratives lack is international involvement. But foreign powers are already active in Syria: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are arming the rebels, while much of Assad’s weaponry comes from Russia. China, too, opposes the rebels; the West supports them. If major powers became more heavily involved, Syria could become the battleground for a long ‘proxy war’: one side backed by Russia and China, the other by the USA.
Is there any hope for peace? Possibly. Kofi Annan, former UN leader, was in Russia yesterday holding talks. Some commentators think intervention could work, if Russia is offered concessions and Assad assured of protection. But this is a rough road, and getting bumpier with each passing week.
A twist in the tale
‘Enough!’ cry interventionists. War is here, and the West is to blame: the USA and its allies could have toppled Assad long ago. No more hesitation, they say, and no more negotiation – action now. It is nothing less than a moral obligation.
But others suspect secret motives in this cry for battle. The West always plays the saviour, they say; but just like in Iraq and Vietnam, ordinary Syrians are just pawns in a struggle between international elite.
- Is Western intervention in foreign countries ever purely humanitarian? Or are there always more selfish motives as well?
- If it meant an end to the civil war, would it be acceptable to offer protection to a violent tyrant like Assad?
- Make a list of every reason you can think of that a country might go to war. Split your reasons into three categories: always just, sometimes just and never just.
- Choose one of the book titles in the graphic, and write the opening three paragraphs for it. If you have time, briefly sketch out how it might continue in bullet point form.
Some People Say...
“There’s no such thing as a virtuous war.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why does the West even care about Syria?
- Most believe that the concern is at least partly humanitarian, though cynics dispute that. Russia and China support Assad partly because they believe that backing an armed rebellion is a dangerous precedent. But there are also bigger, geopolitical reasons.
- Like what?
- Oil rich, volatile and with a strategically crucial location, the Middle East is a hugely important region. And with its relative wealth and military power, Syria is a major player in this region. It is an old ally of Russia in a part of the Middle East surrounded by nations that tend to lean toward the West.
- Over four thousand years
- Damascus is sometimes described as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and with good reason: there have been towns near to its current location since around 9,000 B.C. It was only in the Second Century BC, however, that it became a major settlement. Even so, that makes it incredibly old.
- Syrian Uprising
- Syria’s rebellion began 16 months ago. It was part of a wave of uprisings against Arab dictatorships, in what is known as the ‘Arab Spring.’ But whereas the rulers of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were soon toppled, Assad’s violent crackdown on protest has allowed him to cling to power.
- Officially a civil war
- The International Committee of the Red Cross, a medical charity for disaster-hit zones, is highly respected as a non-partisan international observer. Its decision to label Syria’s conflict a civil war means that both sides are bound by humanitarian legislation on war crimes. If either Assad or the rebels open fire on civilians, for instance, they may be tried in international courts.
- The West supports them
- Over eighty countries around the world have pledged support to those rebelling against the Assad regime, by joining the group called Friends of Syria. These include all the major Western powers, as well as the UN, the USA, the EU the Arab League.