Syria is clearly in a state of internal crisis. Syrians have been facing with similar repressive conditions as those that led other Arab nations to revolutions and uprisings known as the Arab Spring in 2011 but the face of the crisis has changed tremendously. Protests organized on Facebook changed to a hard core militant war between Assad regime and anti-Assad regime.
Reason for the uprising
1. Political repression
President Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez who had ruled Syria since 1970. Assad quickly dashed hopes of reform, as power remained concentrated in the ruling family, and the one-party system left few channels for political dissent. With no peaceful transfer of power since the 1950s, popular uprising was inevitable.
2. Discredited ideology
Syrian Baath party is regarded as the founder of "Arab socialism", an ideological current that merged state-led economy with Pan-Arab nationalism. However, by 2000 the Baathist ideology was reduced to an empty shell, discredited by lost wars with Israel and a crippled economy. Upon taking power, Assad tried to modernize the regime invoking the Chinese model of economic reform, but failed to bring result.
3. Uneven economy
Cautious reform of the remnants of socialism opened the door to private investment, triggering an explosion of consumerism among the urban upper-middle classes. However, privatization has favoured families with personal links to Assad, but seeded anger among common man as living costs soared and jobs remained scarce.
To make matters worse, a persistent drought has devastated farming communities in north-eastern Syria, affecting more than a million people since 2008. Tens of thousands of impoverished farmer families flocked into rapidly expanding urban slums, their anger at the lack of government help fueled by the new ostentatious wealth of the nouveau riche.
5. New media
Although the state media is tightly controlled, the proliferation of satellite TV, mobile phones and the internet after 2000 meant that any government attempt to insulate the youth from the outside world was doomed to fail. The use of the new media is critical to the activist networks that underpin the uprising in Syria.
The system is corrupt. Even for daily activities huge amount of bribes are transited.
7. State violence
Syria's vast intelligence services, the infamous mukhabarat, penetrate all spheres of society. The fear of the state is one of the reasons why so many Syrians simply take the regime as a fact of life. But the outrage over the brutal response of the security forces to the outbreak of peaceful protest in Spring 2011, documented on social media, helped generate the snowball effect as thousands across Syria joined the uprising. More funerals, more protest.
8. Minority rule
Syria is a majority Sunni Muslim country but the top positions in the security apparatus are in the hands of the Alawis, a Shiite religious minority to which the Assad family belongs. Most Syrians pride themselves on their tradition of religious tolerance, but many Sunnis still resent the fact that so much power is monopolized by a handful of Alawi families. While not a driving force of the Syrian uprising, the combination of a majority Sunni protest movement and an Alawi-dominated military has added to the tension in religiously mixed areas, such as the city of Homs.
Actors in the Conflict
• The Regime
The Assad regime’s forces are estimated to number between 100.000 and 200.000. They dispose of heavy military weapons including tanks, fight helicopters, armoured personnel carriers and artillery. Due to this professional military technology, the regime forces have an advantage in the direct military confrontations with the demonstrators. A vast majority of the Alawite community is loyal to the regime for several reasons. High-ranking military posts are held by Alawites, therefore they strongly identify themselves with the regime and they also fear revenge by the Sunni majority in a case of regime’s fall. Also Demographically, wealthier urban areas tend to support Assad more than the countryside.
• The opposition
The Syrian opposition is considered to be divided. Some parts of the opposition groups are considered to be connected to small communities. Currently, there are two main opposition coalitions in Syria.
a) The Syrian National Council (SNC)
The SNC was formally created in Turkey in October 2011 by a range of mostly exile activists. It includes many members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and it is dominated by the Sunni community. The SNC serves as a contact point for the international community, but it struggles with the internal disunity and a lack of efficiency. It advocates for an international military intervention, which leads some Syrians in the country to suspect the SNC as a tool of the foreign regional powers. On the other hand, some protest groups have put aside their differences and respect the SNC.
b) National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB)
The NCB is sometimes referred to as The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC). It is based on an opposition bloc inside Syria and includes many long-term dissidents, who are allegedly afraid of Islamists within the SNC. Unlike SNC, the NCB is willing to negotiate with Assad’s regime, opposes foreign military intervention and communicates with Russia.
Opposition forces are formidable but lack unity of purpose, unity of command, and unified international support. Various opposition groups have, depending on the circumstances, cooperated and competed for influence and control. At present, significant elements of the opposition are engaged in outright conflict against one another. Some observers suggest that more than 75% of the armed opposition may seek to replace the Assad government with a state ruled according to some form of Sunni Islamic law. Kurdish opposition groups control large areas of northeastern Syria and may seek autonomy or independence in the future.
• Free Syrian Army (FSA)
Thousands of Sunni soldiers have deserted the army since the uprising began (up to 60.000 by March 2012, according to the Turkish government data). These soldiers are mostly light-armed and trained on elementary level, as the core of the regime’s high-ranking and well-trained military officials are from the Alawite religious group. Some of those deserters create the core of the FSA, which resorted to arms in its fight against the current regime. Although its leader Riyad al-Asaad (not related to the president) claims he’s got around 40.000 men directly under his command, it is likely that the number is not even a half of this figure (valid estimates are not available). The FSA and the SNC cooperate together on some issues. In addition, there are also thousands of armed opposition fighters not directly associated with the FSA. Efficiency of the armed opposition increases in time partly thanks to the foreign support. Some of the armed protesters allegedly receive salaries, part of which comes likely from abroad (especially from Qatar and Saudi Arabi).This was strongly criticised by the regime as a foreign interference.
Timeline of the events
The revolt in lieu of Arab Spring started February 2011, but by mid-March, a faceless opposition had emerged from the flashpoint city of Daraa in Syria’s largely conservative Sunni southwest. From Daraa, demonstrations spread to the Kurdish northeast, the coastal Latakia area, urban Sunni strongholds in Hama and Homs, and to Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus. Feeling overwhelmed, Bashar al-Assad introduced some measures to satisfy the protesters. He formally lifted the widely-criticised State of Emergency in April 2011. The State of Emergency previously suspended most constitutional protection of citizens and was in place from 1963, commonly used to suppress the dissent. Nevertheless, the regime was criticised for introducing only formal gestures to silence the protesters. Furthermore, Bashar called for a national referendum, which was held in February 2012, to introduce a new constitution through which the space would be open for the political competition outside the Baath party. It was approved by a vast majority of participants, however, it lacked the legitimacy due to the low turnout and ongoing deadly clashes between the regime forces and demonstrators. A majority of the opposition boycotted the election. Promises of limited political reforms did not satisfy the protesters, as most of them saw the only solution to the current crisis in an immediate end of the Assad’s regime.
Later clashes between the Free Syrian Army and security forces in Homs escalated as the siege continued. After six days of bombardment, the Syrian Army stormed the city on 8 November, leading to heavy street fighting in several neighborhoods.
November and December 2011 saw increasing rebel attacks, as opposition forces grew in number. In the two months, the FSA launched deadly attacks on an air force intelligence complex in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, the Ba'ath Syrian Regional Branch youth headquarters in Idlib Governorate, Syrian Regional Branch offices in Damascus, an airbase in Homs Governorate, and an intelligence building in Idlib. In January 2012, Assad began using large-scale artillery operations against the insurgency, which led to the destruction of many civilian homes due to indiscriminate shelling. In February 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution condemning President Assad’s unbridled crackdown on the uprising, but China and Russia, Syria’s traditional patron, blocked all efforts for stronger Security Council action.
Tensions have also spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, and fears have increased with evidence that Al Qaeda was behind a rise in suicide bombings in 2012.
Kofi Annan was acting as UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. His peace plan provided for a ceasefire. The Syrian government in Damascus has agreed to accept UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan on ending the bloodshed prevalent in Syria that had killed around 9000 civilians in the nation.
Under the essential elements of Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, Syria commits:
• To work with Annan "in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people."
• To stop fighting and to immediately stop troop movements and its use of heavy weapons in populated areas. As these actions are being taken, Syria should work with Annan to end all violence under UN supervision. Annan will seek similar commitments from the opposition to stop all fighting.
• To a daily two-hour "humanitarian pause" to deliver aid and evacuate the injured.
• To intensify "the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons" and provide a list of all places where such people are being held.
• To ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists "and a nondiscriminatory visa policy for them."
• To "respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed."
But Syrian armed forces attacked a number of towns and villages, and summarily executed scores of people. The peace plan practically collapsed by early June and the UN mission was withdrawn from Syria. Annan officially resigned.
Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat from Algeria, replaced Kofi Annan as the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria in September 2012. He has pressed the Geneva Plan, agreed to in 2012, which calls for a cease-fire, the formation of a transitional government, and elections.
U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, affirmed their support for a Geneva peace conference in August 2013, but offered little in the way of a strategy to bring the warring sides to the table. Rebels appear unwilling to consider a plan that does not include Assad's ouster, while Assad is unwilling to go voluntarily. Moreover, neither side seems willing to negotiate from a perceived position of weakness.
Use of Chemical Weapon
There has been increasing pressure on the international community to act after it emerged that chemical weapons are being used in the war. But in August 2013, a chemical attack just outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, caused a strong reaction from the likes of America, Britain and France. After the effects of these weapons were seen, there were long discussions over what the rest of the world should do.
In September 2013, United Nations inspectors confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, but the report did not say who was responsible. Syria, however, denies using chemical weapons, which are banned under international law because the effects of their use are so horrific. It blamed the rebel forces for the chemical attack.
During the G20 summit on September 6, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the idea of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control. Russia had suggested to Syria that it relinquish its chemical weapons, and Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem immediately welcomed the proposal.
OPCW began preliminary inspections of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal on October 1, 2013, and actual destruction began on October 6. Under OPCW supervision Syrian military personnel began "destroying munitions such as missile warheads and aerial bombs and disabling mobile and static mixing and filling units." The destruction of Syria's declared chemical weapons production, mixing, and filling equipment was successfully completed by the October 31 deadline. However, the destruction of the chemical weapons themselves is behind schedule. The entire chemical weapons stockpile had been scheduled to be completely removed from the country by February 6, 2014; as of March 4, 2014, less than a third of the stockpile has been removed or destroyed.
International response to the crisis
U.S. sanctions on Syria
The State Department designated Syria a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, subjecting it to sanctions and cutting off most U.S. aid. The United States has imposed several rounds of sanctions since, detailed in this CRS report. As President Barack Obama called for Assad's resignation in August 2011, he signed Executive Order 13582, which froze all assets of the Syrian government, prohibited U.S. persons from doing business with the regime, and banned imports of Syrian petroleum products. Washington closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew Ambassador Ford in February 2012 amid an escalating assault on Homs.
In June 2013, Kerry announced a partial waiver of sanctions to allow the export of commodities and civilian technologies--including equipment for agriculture, infrastructure, and oil production--to rebel-controlled areas.
European Union sanctions on Syria
The European Union has passed numerous rounds of sanctions on the Assad regime since the March 2011 uprising. Sanctions include asset freeze, travel bans, embargoes on equipment that might be used for "internal repression" or communications surveillance, and restrictions on importing Syrian oil and exporting oil-production equipment.
The EU eased restrictions in April 2013, allowing the import of Syrian crude oil from opposition forces in order to bolster their finances. The following month, it relaxed financial restrictions, to assist rebel forces and establish economic ties with civilians in rebel-controlled areas.
Under UK and French pressure, significant parts of the arms embargo, which had been in place since May 2011, were allowed to expire in June 2013.
In July 2013, the European Union designated Hezbollah's armed wing a terrorist organization, due in part to the Lebanese militant group's tactical support to the Syrian regime.
Middle East Policy
The Arab League suspended Syria's membership and imposed economic sanctions on Damascus in November 2011, unprecedented moves by the twenty-two-nation bloc. The following January, the League called for Assad to step down and requested a supporting resolution from the UN Security Council, which was vetoed by Russia and China. In March 2013, the League invited Khatib, then the SC president, to take Syria's seat at its Dubai summit.
Turkey broke with Damascus after the government crackdown intensified, and has since led calls for Assad to step down. Relations reached a boiling point in October 2012 when Turkey shelled Syrian targets after a series of cross-border mortar attacks. Ankara has hosted elements of the opposition and facilitated arms shipments to Syrian territory.
Arab governments, including Gulf states and Jordan, have provided arms and financial and diplomatic support to the opposition. At the United States' urging, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar agreed to halt support to extremist groups, funneling arms through the Supreme Military Council instead. Sudan, vying for influence and profits, has supplied some of the military equipment paid for by Arab donor states despites its close ties with Iran and China.