KU Conversations 8- The Syrian Civil War and Refugee Crisis

By: Courtney Aaron

Good morning KU students and welcome to our 8th KU conversations posting. Today we are going to discuss the Syrian Civil War and the refugee crisis. To start us off we chose an article from the New York Times. Lately some of you who have been watching the intense election season this year may have heard about the scandal surrounding the Libertarian party candidate Gary Johnson. While being questioned on the talk show Johnson was asked what he would do about Aleppo if he were elected. In response Johnson asked the question “What is Aleppo?”, bringing heavy doubt to his knowledge of foreign policy and hurting his chances of being elected. After hearing about his interview blunder anybody who didn’t already know about Aleppo wondered what Aleppo was themselves. Here’s a short BBC article discussing the second largest city in the country of Syria, and the difficulties the country has faced through out the years. Like many cities and towns within Syria, Aleppo is also experiencing the horrors of the Syrian Civil War. The city eventually became divided in half, the eastern side of the city controlled by the opposition and the western side controlled by the Syrian government. In mid-2016 things changed when Russia assisted the government forces with airstrikes stopping the rebels route east and laying siege around 250,000 people. The resulting destruction pushed Aleppo into the media spotlight, making the city a major topic of discussion concerning the Syrian War.

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Photo provided by United Nations Cartographic Section

According to Biography in Context, Syria has been under the authoritarian Assad Regime since 1971 when Hafez al Assad overthrew the previous president Nur al-Din al-Atasi in a military coup. Hafez al Assad often used military dictatorship methods to handle the multiple opposing political parties within Syrian. Hafez al Assad passed away in June of 2000 of heart failure, his second son (and current president) Bashar al Assad became president. Tensions truly began to rise in 2011, leading into the now 6 year civil war. In the beginning years of the civil war, as further explained by the  Encyclopedia Britannica, there were multiple pro-democracy protests (the Arab Spring protests) that took place across northern Africa and in the Middle East.

Following the surprising quick success of Tunisia and Egypt’s protests, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria also began protests of their own. However, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Syria protests won’t be resolved so quickly. In the city of Dar’a multiple teenagers and children who used graffiti to write anti-government messages were arrested causing protests in the city. The protesters were fired upon by the governments security forces. Further protesting happened in Damascus (Day of Dignity) for the release of political prisoners. Protesters continued to resist even after the government cabinet was dismissed and president Assad claimed reform would happen gradually. A new cabinet was introduced and the country’s 48 year state of emergency ended along with Syria’s Supreme State Security Court (which tried people who were accused of opposing the government), but the government increased it’s use of violence protests with larger forces (including the use of tanks in multiple cities). Even the government forces themselves weren’t entirely safe, government soldiers who disobeyed orders to shoot protesters were also shot in retaliation for their in-action.

Organizations outside the country began to get involved mid 2011. The European Union imposed sanctions against multiple government officials and a weapons embargo on the country, starting the decreasing support of Syria’s allies and beginning the call for the end of Assad’s presidency. Later the EU decided to expand those sanctions and extend them to include Assad himself. Between late 2011 and mid 2012 there were two attempts at resolving the civil war and deployments of observers to ensure the attempts were working. The first was employed by the Arab League in December of 2011. The Arab league created an initiative where the Syrian government would release political prisoners, stop violence against protesters, and remove armored vehicles and tanks from the cities. The Syrian government agreed to the initiative but it was later revealed in January of 2012 that all of the reports claiming the initiative was working were lies and that the observers from the Arab League were being shown orchestrated scenes and didn’t have full access to all areas. The second group of observers were sent to oversee a ceasefire sponsored by the United Nations.While there was a brief decrease in violence in the spring, the ceasefire failed by the summer and violence picked up again. Between 2012 and 2013 each side began to reach a stalemate and began openly receiving assistance and funding from other countries.

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A poster of Syria’s president at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, Jan. 14, 2014. Photo by: Elizabeth Arrott a Middle East correspondent.

Then the unthinkable happened on August 21, 2013. On this day there was a suspected chemical weapons attack on the capital city of Damascus. The Syrian government denied the presence of chemical weapons while the opposition accused the government of using them. The chemical is called Sarin and we have a brief Gale Reference passage explaining the effects of Sarin and other well known instances it’s been used in history. At this point the U.S., Britain, and France all began to consider assisting the opposition against the Syrian government while Russia, Iran, and China decided against military action. The U.S., Britain, and France ultimately decided against military action but on September 14, 2013 Syria, Russia, and the U.S. agreed to place the chemical weapons under international control. We have further information about the later half of the Syrian conflict from this CNN timeline. Later on October 6th 2013 the Syrian government began to dismantle their chemical weapons program. This lead to another attempt at peace negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland to identify any war crimes in Syria and attempt to reach a peaceful conclusion to end the civil war starting in January of 2014. Like the other attempts at ending the civil war, this round of negotiations were unsuccessful.

In the beginning of June 2014 president Assad was re-elected for another term. In late September the U.S. and other allies began to get inadvertently involved by doing airstrikes in the city of Raqqa aiming for ISIS targets. Here is another CNN source explaining how ISIS is involved with Syria and more information about their rise in activity during 2014 and 2015. Unfortunately in March 2015 there is another instance of chemical weapons use through chlorine gas in the town of Sarmin. Later in the year Russia begins to get directly involved with the civil war by setting up a base in western Syria to support the Syrian government in its fight against ISIS. However, skeptics believe Russia’s real intent is to help the Syrian government against the rebels, among other alarming theories. The U.S. also made the decision to deploy a small number of special operations groups. Eventually in February 27th 2016 a tentative ceasefire was put in place for the Syrian conflict (not including battle fronts against ISIS and other terrorist organizations). However, the ceasefire has been mostly unsuccessful due to multiple violations to the ceasefire.

How long do you think it will take for the Syrian Civil war to end? Will Syria reach a resolve on its own or will other countries and organizations mediate a resolution? Feel from the discuss your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below or on our Facebook page post!

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