December 11, 2013

Rose Wilson Harrison

Syrian people expressing support for Assad regime

“It’s not goodies versus baddies, it’s baddies vs. baddies.” – Tony Abbott, August 2013.

Apparently, Tony Abbott thinks that his explanation of the Syrian civil war is enough for the Australian public. And while he’s right in saying that there is no clear cut “good guy” in the Syrian civil war, since both sides have committed atrocities, it’s really not that simple…

Who is involved?

Sunni rebels and Shiite government –

About 90% of the Syrian population is Islamic.  The Syrian government (controlled by Bashar al-Assad) is made up of people from the ‘Shiite’ Islamic sect, whereas most of the population comes from the ‘Sunni’ Islamic sect (about 74% of the population is Sunni).

The minority was oppressing the majority, with Shiite Muslims taking most of the top government and military positions.

The United Nations-

The most noteworthy states (ie. the states that can actually get stuff done) are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – America, China, France, Russia and the UK.

America, France and the UK are supporting the rebel groups because they don’t see the Assad regime as legitimate.

Russia and China, on the other hand, insist on co-operation with the Assad government. Russia has important trade ties with Syria and both China and Russia want to avoid any interventions in their own internal affairs.


In July 2011, local rebel groups formed the Free Syrian Army. As one of the more ‘moderate’ opposition groups, it plays a role in negotiating with the international community and the Assad government.

Terrorists?  –

The conflict creates a perfect setting for terrorist groups to recruit, train and plan attacks. No-one will be paying attention to them in the midst of a civil war.  Furthermore, some of the groups that are fighting are directly associated with terrorist organisations.

What happened?

You may remember the Arab Uprisings in 2010, an outbreak of protests against oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen – the Syrian public was spurred on by these uprisings and began peaceful protests in 2011.

Crowds of Syrian civilians demanded greater freedom, an end to corruption and the end of Assad’s leadership. The government responded with brutal violence, which led to the rebels taking up arms.

That was two years ago. As of October 17th 2013, the death toll has risen to more than 115,000 people (an estimate that is probably less than the actual amount). More than 2.1 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries and are now surviving on humanitarian aid (to put that in perspective, Australia accepted a total of 13,750 refugees in 2011).

Multiple peace plans have been attempted, and failed mostly because the Security Council states couldn’t agree on what to do.

Chemical Weapons

Assad Government attacks on its own civilians

In August, chemical weapons were used in the conflict. The nerve gas, ‘sarin,’ killed somewhere between 300 and 1,400 people – no one is really sure –  who died suffering from convulsions, difficulty breathing, vomiting, blurred vision and running noses, followed by loss of consciousness and death.

You may be wondering why the deaths of these 1,000 people were more significant to the UN than the 100,000 or so already dead . This is because unlike military attacks, chemical weapons are completely indiscriminate – they kill men, women and children, ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies.’ Gas can’t be fought against with guns and victims must get medical attention in order to survive.

It is generally assumed (but hasn’t been proven beyond doubt) that the Syrian government unleashed the sarin gas upon its own people.

In international law, the use of chemical weapons is considered a war crime. There are multiple treaties on the topic, but Syria has only signed some of them. States that have signed those treaties now have an increased obligation to intervene.

America initially threatened to attack Syria with missiles following the sarin attacks. After negotiations, they backed off and agreed to just destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons instead.

Will it ever end?

Unfortunately, this conflict has the potential to span generations. My research in 2011 found reports of children who claimed they would not hesitate to kill children from the other side. After two years of fighting, that animosity can only be further entrenched.

Even worse, other states in the region are being destabilised by the huge amount of refugees they have to deal with, so the conflict could possibly spread. Some analysts say that a military intervention in Syria could lead to World War III.

The Free Syria Army

Solutions are very difficult to negotiate, since there are about 1000 different groups fighting in the war, including some associated with terrorist organisations. Even if the FSA triumphed, there would be disputes over leadership and peace would be a long way off. They may defeat the oppressive government, but true freedom would not come easily.

If the Assad government managed to “win,” it would only be met with more protests in the future.

It’s important to know what’s happening in Syria, because it will affect us. Syrian refugees are seeking asylum here, and the Australian government will be involved in conflict resolution in some capacity (which may include military).

It’s up to us to inform ourselves, since our Prime Minister obviously can’t be bothered.

-Rose Wilson Harrison

– Photo 1 Smhar Kaddour via Flicka

– Photo 2&3 Freedom House via Flicka


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