Why Have 4 Million People Fled Syria? A Primer On This Complex War

Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time: now in its fourth year, it has cost over 200,000 lives, while at least 7.6 million people are internally displaced and another 4 million have become refugees in other countries, half of them under the age of 18. They are fleeing the fighting between government and disparate non-state armed groups that continues to rage across the country.

 

syrian-child-refugeePhoto Credit: Freedom House

But why? How did this situation get so bad?

To understand what’s going on in Syria, we have to look back in time.

Syria’s Past

Syria has a rich history, going back thousands of years; in fact archaeologists believe the country was home to one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Subsequently the area known as Syria has been taken over by many ancient empires, including the Egyptians, Sumerians, Phoenicians, Persians and the Greeks.

Jumping forward to the 16th century, the country that came to be known as Syria was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1516 and remained part of their empire for four centuries. At that time Syrian territory included the area we now call Syria, as well as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, the Gaza Strip as well as parts of Turkey and Iraq.

With World War One came the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and in 1916, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain and France divided up the entire area in what looks like pretty arbitrary fashion. They decided to put Syria under French mandate, and in 1918, when Arab and British troops captured Damascus and Aleppo, Syria became a League of Nations mandate and moved under French control in 1920.

So Syria, just like its neighbors Iraq and Lebanon was a country created artificially by Britain and France. Also as in both of those countries, the western colonial powers created an ethnically divided society. About 70 percent of the population of Syria is Sunni, about 15 percent are Alawites (a Muslim sect with Shia links), and there are also several smaller groups, including ethnic Kurds and Christian Arabs.

map-of-middle-eastPhoto Credit: Image Editor

Sowing The Seeds Of Today’s Civil War 100 Years Ago

Here’s where the seeds of today’s civil war were sown. 

In the 19th century, under Turkish rule, the two groups lived in separate areas. However, in their great wisdom, the French and British colonialists decided to manipulate things differently in the Middle East. In the case of Syria, French colonialists collaborated with the minority Alawites to impose order across Syria. When Syria gained independence from France, the Alawites held all the power and influence, causing much resentment amongst the Sunni majority. 

That situation still holds true today. Although most Syrians are Sunni Arabs, the country is still run by the minority Alawite government, which rules through a repressive dictatorship.

For much of the rest of the 20th century, Syria’s history was characterized by unrest. During the ’60s there were frequent coups, military revolts and civil disorders, and eventually, in 1970, the Minister of Defense, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in a bloodless coup. He was a brutal dictator: in 1982, he responded to a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama by destroying entire neighborhoods. He was responsible for killing thousands of civilians, many of whom had nothing to do with the uprising. Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, and his son Bashar al-Assad took over, continuing the brutal policies of his father.

Bashar_al-AssadBashar al-Assad | Photo Credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebor/ABr

How The Civil War Started

But the prolonged killing began in April 2011: following the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia, peaceful protests took place in Syria, as the Sunni majority sought to challenge the minority Alawite regime. However, what started out as peaceful quickly became horrific. Security forces began by quietly killing activists. Then came a program of kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing activists and their family members and dumping their bodies in the street. Finally, troops simply opened fire on protestors. 

That’s when civilians started firing back, and by July of 2011 army defectors had loosely organized the Free Syrian Army, with many civilian Syrians taking up arms to join them.

Fighting escalated from there until it became a civil war. Armed civilians organized themselves into rebel groups, while the army tried to terrorize people into surrender by indiscriminately shelling and bombing whole neighborhoods and towns. It’s generally thought that the Alawites fear they will be wiped out if the Sunnis win the civil war, so Assad believes he has little choice but to continue fighting; for this reason he has no interest in negotiating.

Early on in the civil war, both the U.S. and U.K. governments supported the Sunni rebellion, and called for bringing down Assad. Then, in the summer of 2013, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron proposed an airstrike campaign after Assad’s regime was caught allegedly using chemical and biological weapons against the rebels. That idea was scrapped when Russian President Putin stepped in, to convince Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons stockpiles.

From those seeds of discord planted by the colonial powers almost a hundred years ago has grown this civil war. That at least is how it started, but the entry of Islamic State forces, or ISIS, into the equation, has made the situation vastly more complicated and dangerous.

The Arrival Of ISIS

Now the Assad regime is not only fighting a Sunni rebellion that has included the Free Syrian Army, but also increasingly Islamic State terrorists, who regard Alawites as heretics.

(Many people believe that the U.S. fueled the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. That is too long a topic to explore here, but check out this awesome article from The Guardian.)

The aim of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which started as an al Qaeda splinter group, is to create an Islamic state, referred to as a caliphate, across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria.

Here’s how they are doing that: as the unrest in Syria erupted into civil war, fighters loyal to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi crossed into Syria exploiting the power vacuum to seize territory.

The group was initially welcomed by Syrian rebels as an ally in the fight against the Assad regime, but ISIS soon revealed their true colors. They began moving into territory that rebels had won from Syrian troops, and gradually assuming control. The province of Raqqa, for example, was first liberated from Syrian troops by rebels in March of 2013, but then ISIS took it over, and established its own rule, governed by a medieval interpretation of Islamic law.

In the two years that the group has been active in Syria, ISIS has horrified locals with public beheadings and crucifixions, often targeting other rebels, civil activists and journalists. One particularly gruesome example was the story of 81-year-old archaeologist Khaled Asaad who had devoted his life to the ancient ruins of Palmyra. He wanted to preserve the city from the hands of ISIS, and so they killed him for it. Last month, they beheaded him in front of dozens of people, then hung up his corpse in the center of town with a sign denouncing him as being a supporter of the Syrian regime.

To get an idea of the ongoing devastation in Syria, you can click here.

Then It Gets Even More Complicated

The Syrian civil war had made strange bedfellows. By the summer of 2014, the Assad regime, along with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the Iranian regime and Hezbollah, all dominated by Shiites or the related Alawite sect, suddenly found themselves fighting on the same side as the Sunni rebels who oppose ISIS, with whom they are fighting to control areas of Syria seized from government troops. 

Some experts even believed that Assad has been playing a duplicitous game: allying himself secretly with ISIS to take advantage of the group’s willingness to fight other rebels.

“It’s a logical strategy for Assad. ISIS fights Syrian rebels, so the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” one diplomat close to Assad said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Recent Developments

Now CNN has reported that at least 75 fighters trained by U.S., British and Turkish forces have entered northern Syria. The fighters crossed over from Turkey on September 18 and 19 and are now located in areas north of the city of Aleppo, said the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At the same time, Russia has recently increased its support for Syrian government forces, and this appears to have given new hope to the Assad regime, as it carried out a series of air raids in the de facto ISIS capital Raqqa last week.

From The New York Times:

“As the first Russian combat aircraft arrived in Syria, the Obama administration reached out to Moscow on Friday to try to coordinate actions in the war zone and avoid an accidental escalation of one of the world’s most volatile conflicts.

The White House seemed to acknowledge that the Kremlin had effectively changed the calculus in Syria in a way that would not be soon reversed despite vigorous American objections. The decision to start talks also reflected a hope that Russia might yet be drawn into a more constructive role in resolving the four-year-old civil war.

At Mr. Obama’s instruction, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Friday opened a dialogue on Syria with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, aimed at making sure that American and Russian forces avoid running into each other by mistake.”

Until recently, the U.S., Britain and their Gulf allies have supported the Sunni rebellion against a Shia-backed regime. It remains to be seen what will happen next in this tragic conflict, now that President Putin is making his move. Four million refugees have already fled their country, and the U.N. estimates that number could rise to 4.27 million by the end of 2015.

 

 

104 comments

Lorrie O
Lorrie Oabout a month ago

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Jack Y
Jack Y4 months ago

thanks

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Jack Y
Jack Y4 months ago

thanks

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John J
John J4 months ago

thanks for sharing

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John J
John J4 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Darryll Green
Darryll Green3 years ago

Shari R. - What about all the men in these pictures showing the exoduse, why in the hell aren;'t they fighting for their freedom back in Syria or are they isis in disguise trying to get to America and bring their evil here

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Shari left a comment on the following article:

Why Have 4 Million People Fled Syria? A Primer On This Complex War
This is probably the best article I have ever read on this website. It includes facts, the author seems to know what they are talking about, it has relevant links and is more than an incoherent jumble of five sentences. I'm amazed. David F, I imagine that women, the elderly, the disabled and small children are less able to walk miles every day in the searing heat with little food or water, hold onto the undercarriages of moving vehicles, jump onto moving trains from a height or fend off people who want to rob, rape or defraud them. But they still do it. As the article stated, half of these refugees are under the age of 18. And yesterday I read an article that mentioned a woman who tried to jump onto the top of a moving train. She was 8 months pregnant. Is that desperate enough for you?



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Shari R.
Shari F3 years ago

This is probably the best article I have ever read on this website. It includes facts, the author seems to know what they are talking about, it has relevant links and is more than an incoherent jumble of five sentences. I'm amazed.

David F, I imagine that women, the elderly, the disabled and small children are less able to walk miles every day in the searing heat with little food or water, hold onto the undercarriages of moving vehicles, jump onto moving trains from a height or fend off people who want to rob, rape or defraud them. But they still do it. As the article stated, half of these refugees are under the age of 18. And yesterday I read an article that mentioned a woman who tried to jump onto the top of a moving train. She was 8 months pregnant. Is that desperate enough for you?

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Shari R.
Shari F3 years ago

This is probably the best article I have ever read on this website. It includes facts, the author seems to know what they are talking about, it has relevant links and is more than an incoherent jumble of five sentences. I'm amazed.

David F, I imagine that women, the elderly, the disabled and small children are less able to walk miles every day in the searing heat with little food or water, hold onto the undercarriages of moving vehicles, jump onto moving trains from a height or fend off people who want to rob, rape or defraud them. But they still do it. As the article stated, half of these refugees are under the age of 18. And yesterday I read an article that mentioned a woman who tried to jump onto the top of a moving train. She was 8 months pregnant. Is that desperate enough for you?

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