The war in Syria began more than two years ago in March of 2011 as a mass uprising against a police state. At least 80,000 have died — an American woman from Michigan is among the most recent casualties — and an estimated 1.6 million Syrians have fled the country and sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries.
This past Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that his country has obtained weapons from Russia and warned that he would respond to any Israeli air strikes with the same. In the interview broadcast by Al-Manar television (which is owned by Lebanon-based Hezbollah), Assad was “vague” about whether those weapons include an advanced missile system. On Friday, the U.S. and Germany called on Russia not to supply Syria with such weapons, for fear of prolonging, and broadening, a conflict that has lasted far longer than foreign leaders had predicted.
Online videos show self-described rebel forces capturing military outposts and seizing weapons, but they have — in contrast to the Libyan rebels who early on held Benghazi and all of the east, as well as Misrata in the west — gained hold of only one of 14 provincial capitals, writes long-time Middle East observer Patrick Cockburn.
Indeed, from the start it has been exceedingly difficult to get a clear view about what exactly has been happening on the ground in Syria. It has also been unclear who exactly is among the insurgents, what military successes they have had and whether some have committed atrocities, some of which were broadcast on YouTube, such as a recent video of a man cutting out the heart of a dead Syrian soldier and eating it.
In the past six months, Assad has withdrawn troops from outlying areas and focused on buttressing the capital of Damascus and other major population centers, as well as the routes to them. In the meantime, the Syrian opposition, which has been fragmented since the beginning, has “stumbled towards ever more serious disarray,” according to the New York Times. Internal disputes in the coalition — whose 63 members are mainly comprised of long-exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood, academics who have lived outside the country for decades and political activists who have recently fled Syria – have led to it planning to boycott a United Nations peace conference that will occur in upcoming weeks.
The toll on Syrians has been immense. Women and children comprise 78 percent of the refugees in Lebanon, due to the numerous casualties in the conflict; many men have remained in Syria to fight, says the United Nations HCR. The result is that “the majority of Syrian refugees are also the most vulnerable” and reports of sexual harassment and assault of women and girls are common.
Families are also marrying girls, some as young as 14, to far older men, for economic reasons and for security. Kecia Ali, a professor of religion at Boston University who specializes in issues of gender-based violence, describes the girls’ families as choosing the lesser of two evils in marrying them at such young ages: “Those who are being victimized…specifically by early marriage; are sometimes being victimized in order to shelter them from other forms of victimization.”
The Syrian conflict has evolved to recall the protracted civil wars in Lebanon and Iran, writes Cockburn, and one that seems inevitably poised to unsettle the entire region. At another level, the war in Syria is turning into a “reborn Cold War confrontation,” setting the West against China and Russia and disrupting the lives of thousands of Syrians who now find themselves living in tents in countries not their own.
Photo from Thinkstock