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Syria: What Went Wrong

Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, a group of Syrian demonstrators took to the streets of Deraa to protest against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, demanding the release of political dissidents. Seeking conciliation, President Assad lifted a 48-year old state of emergency and released tens of Syrian political prisoners. Although the Syrian opposition blamed Assad for releasing a select radical crew, anti-regime demonstrators unanimously called for his immediate resignation and a change in the Syrian status quo.

In response, President Assad deployed his military to Deraa, Homs, and Damascus – among several other Syrian cities – to contain growing anti-regime sentiments in the country. Soon, his use of military force against Syrian demonstrators prompted the formation of as many as a thousand armed-rebel groups in Syria, all of whom were seeking his ouster. Whereas the United States and Saudi Arabia – including their allies at large – envisaged Assad’s downfall at the hands of these militant rebel groups, the Syrian President rationalized a premise on which he could predicate his use of military force: “foreign-backed terrorism.” Further emboldened and legitimized by the armed resistance against him, Assad resorted to military force to tame an opposition which has enjoyed the international community’s support and to fend off what he considered a violation of Syria’s domestic sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In August 2012, then-President Barack Obama decided to help the armed opposition by authorizing operation Timber Sycamore, a covert Syrian rebel training program run by the Central Intelligence Agency. According to Brown University’s Cost of War project, the United States spent $54 billion during 2014-19 on its Syria operations, which also includes Syrian rebel training and arms funding. However, the armed opposition has been blamed for several human rights violations and defections to ISIS and the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in the country.

In March 2012, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) public letter to the Syrian National Council reported abuses committed by opposition forces, including “the use of torture and the execution of security force members and civilians.” The letter points to “attacks targeting Shias and Alawites” which “appear to be motivated by sectarianism,” illustrating a religiously intolerant armed rebellion that has further widened the schism between Syria’s Sunni populace and Assad’s Alawite regime supporters. While HRW acknowledges rights violations that have been committed by Assad’s forces in Syria, it also warns the United States and its allies of the degree to which Syria’s armed opposition has compromised humanitarian values for sectarian motivations.

Had Syria’s 2011 protests remained peaceful throughout their span and had the international community not immediately armed rebels against President Assad, his asymmetrical use of military force on peaceful protesters might have ultimately pressured Iran and Russia to end their support for the Syrian regime. Instead, Iran – a Shiite powerhouse in the Middle East – has deployed its militia troops including Hezbollah to fight what it considers a radical Sunni insurgency in Syria. Coupled with Russia’s unwavering support for Assad, his downfall remains an implausible prospect – at least in the foreseeable future. While Syrian opposition forces made some territorial gains against President Assad’s army, they also provided Iran and Russia with a rationale for their active presence in Syria. Without a Russian-backed Iranian offensive against Syrian armed rebels, the Assad regime could have collapsed, albeit amidst political uncertainty that Syria’s chaotic armed opposition could establish a fair and democratic government.

These Iranian and Russian counter-efforts outperformed the level of rebel support the United States could muster. In November 2016, President Trump signaled an end to American support for armed rebels in Syria due to their inefficacy in bringing down the Assad regime, saying,“We have no idea who these people are.” Indeed, the United States has lacked close access to ground logistics in Syria, unlike Iran, which has had an organized militia presence propping up President Assad’s forces as they retake rebel-held territories. While Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, has been blamed for a lack of resolute action in Syria, his decision to deploy troops would have prolonged Syria’s war and dragged the United States into another haphazard nation-building experiment, the likes of which did not produce favorable results elsewhere in the Middle East.

To suggest that the Syrian demonstrators should have succumbed to the regime’s oppression negates any humanitarian regard for democratic ideals. President Assad may have released violent prisoners in 2011 to radicalize peaceful anti-regime protests. That this justified an immediate transformation of Syria’s democratic rebellion into an armed insurgency – under the aegis of the United States and Saudi Arabia – only indicates abrupt policymaking in Washington and Riyadh. If anything, Syria’s division into armed rebel factions has tilted the balance of power in favor of President Assad and ensured his reign as Syria’s leader.

Divided into a plethora of militant factions today, Syria embodies a human tragedy. As of August 2018, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 364,371 war casualties with 100,000 undocumented deaths. His country’s plight, however, has not weakened President Assad.  

While the Syrian regime’s downfall under Timber Sycamore never seemed plausible (given Assad’s outside military patrons and his own organized military offensive against an armed rebellion in disarray), the political process by which Washington and Riyadh would have installed a new democratic government in Syria still remains ambiguous. That a brutal armed rebellion can ultimately carry out fair elections and ensure a more competent Syrian government denotes a fallacy that has dictated much of Washington’s Middle East policy-making.

It wasn’t long after the peaceful demonstrations in Deraa that Syria’s dynamic shifted to an internationally-backed armed insurgency and an eventual civil war. Thus, Syria represents a political and military debacle for the United States and epitomizes its misplaced military priorities and short-sighted political experiments. A peaceful and persistent Syrian opposition may have allowed the nation to navigate a democratic path to a new government. While dire humanitarian conditions merit action on the part of the international community, the political humility to consider its unforeseen consequences remains ever more paramount. Syria’s catastrophe serves as an appalling testament to ill-informed policymaking at the cost of a human tragedy and a devastated nation.

Photo: “Syrian Civil War