Syrian conflict: the background and the current situation on the ground

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Syrian conflict: the background and the current situation on the ground

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The conflict in Syria appears on the surface to be a battle between those loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad and those who oppose him. However, reducing the situation to a fight between the ‘good’ masses struggling for freedom against an ‘evil’ government is both simplistic and inaccurate. Al-Assad has been in power since 2000, when he succeeded his father, who had ruled the country for 30 years. The uprising against him began in March 2011 in Deraa, when several demonstrators were killed by security forces while protesting against the arrest of some teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. This spread to nationwide protests in May, demanding the President’s resignation.

Fighting intensified and the government used military force to crush any opposition. In February 2012 this approach saw tanks sent into Deraa and the city of Homs hit with rockets and mortars, killing 700 people. Also in 2012 the conflict reached the capital of Damascus and the second city of Aleppo. There were numerous bombings, and while officials blame ‘terrorists’ linked to al-Qaeda, the opposition claim security forces planted the bombs to discredit both rebels and peaceful protesters.

According to the UN, 80,000 people have died so far in the conflict, although casualty numbers are difficult to verify as they come from either government or rebel sources both with their own vested interests. 1.6 million Syrian refugees are receiving aid in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, but some 4.25 million people have been displaced in total. The UN recently launched an emergency appeal for $5bn as it warns half the population will require humanitarian aid by the end of the year. There have been a number of massacres since the conflict began, including one in Houla in May 2012 in which 49 children died. The UN has accused forces loyal to the government of violating international law by targeting civilians.

But why has the fighting continued for so long without resolution? One reason for the conflict’s complexity is the fractured nature of the opposition. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces aimed to create a cohesive, organized movement, but it remains weak because most of its leaders live in exile and it is contested by the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Committee. This division is mirrored on the ground amongst the Free Syrian Army and other smaller rebel groups loyal to local leaders.

Map of the Syrian conflict, June 2013

The question of foreign powers is no clearer. Western authorities do not know how to resolve the crisis, but the European Union has not renewed the arms embargo originally imposed in May 2011. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have stepped in to fill the vacuum by arming rebels, the former does so in order to weaken the regime’s ally, Shia Iran, and the latter to extend its own influence in a post-Arab Spring Middle East.

Recent developments do not point to signs of resolution. In the past month, tests carried out by British and French governments have uncovered the use of sarin gas as a weapon, although Russia has insisted there is no real proof yet that chemical weapons have been used in the conflict. After two weeks of clashes, government forces recaptured the town of Qusair in early June, strategically important for its position near the Lebanese border and its links to other key locations, such as Homs and the port of Tartous. However, this is not indicative of overall gains and the conflict looks to have become increasingly sectarian in nature.

Death toll, refugees and Internally displaced persons, June 2013

Timeline of the Syrian conflict, June 2013