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Last Updated: 06/25/2013Syria's Civil War: Regional and International Implications
Jehun Alexander Hong
Jehun Alexander Hong discusses the continued escalation of the Syrian civil war in terms of internal, regional, and international power struggles, in the overlapping sectors of ethnic, religious, political, and economic rivalry. Emphasis is placed on the question of chemical weapons and the high number of child casualties, as well as the impacts of the conflict on neighbouring countries, in terms of displaced persons and wider conflict.
Introduction: The Significance of Awareness of the Conflict
Starting in 2011, and having escalated for almost three years, the Syrian conflict or so-called, "civil war" has resulted in a level of death and destruction that is difficult to describe. Aside from its intensity and cruelty, reflected in the number of casualties, near one hundred thousand deaths, and the tremendous numbers of displaced Syrians, which has already surpassed one million, the necessity of covering this issue in a very precise and urgent manner is that the conflict has now reached a level of complication that implies further warfare, not only in the intrastate level, but at the regional and international level. With the greater involvement of other countries, the human rights abuses which have already been committed will only be further obscured, and we have no way of knowing how the conflict will come to an end, or what the ultimate result of the tragic decisions now being made will be. Considering that, this analysis will focus on understanding the complications and implications of the conflict as it now stands, with only a brief mention of the prospects for a feasible and positive resolution.
The Implications of the Conflict
To begin with, the current Syrian conflict has not been limited to just two actors, such as the Syrian government and the rebel forces. Rather, the situation involves multiple actors with diverse interests including power struggles in religion, ethnicity, political affiliations, as well as local, regional, and international influence. The conflict was basically started by Syrian people's strong will against unreasonable and brutal aspects of the autocratic government, which has opposed democracy and its spirit for more than forty years, and was in line with the so-called "Arab Spring", using popular and peaceful protest. However, given the intensity of the political crisis triggered by the protests, and the ongoing warfare in the region, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the Syrian conflict has been intentionally escalated and supported by other nations, sub-state organizations, and regional unions, in various ways for each of their specific purposes.
Thus, the Syrian "revolution" has been molded steadily into the Syrian "conflict" or "war" which has been nurtured by outrage over the deaths of innocent people on all sides, and leveraged for the interests of certain groups or actors. One of the opposition groups, the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigades, revealed an insanely humiliating video containing the mutilation of the corpse of a pro-government fighter, while some senior Sunni Muslim clerics in Mecca have claimed that they are clearly supportive of the rebel force fighting against the Shi'a government in Syria backed by Iran, by all means. The worst incident to date has been the Israeli bombing of Syrian military installations on the 3rd and 5th of May, in accordance with Israeli concerns that Syria is carrying missiles for Hezbollah, which also speaks to the “proxy war” nature of this conflict among the countries behind the Syrian authority and the opposition groups.
It must be emphasized that the Syrian people's demand for an accountable and democratic regime has been lost somewhere along the line, leaving the atrocities of warfare alone. In the following sections below, the implications of the war will be analyzed in depth with some specific points of view.
Two Issues: The Employment of Chemical Weapon and the Children Casualty
Aside from the human right abuses mentioned above, here two further abusing situations occurring on the soil of Syria should be dealt with: the illegal usage of chemical weapons, and the high number of child casualties.
The suspicion of the employment of chemical weapon is among the most contentious issues, and has taken a central place in the debates on Syria in the international society including the United States of America (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, and the United Nations (UN). The implication that the employment of chemical weapon brings would be that it will definitely cause more specific international intervention upon the Syrian conflict in the name of justice or humanitarian intervention, which may greatly increase the scale and the aftermath of the war.
After the initial assertion by Western society and Israel that chemical weapon have been used, UN investigators found reasonable evidence to show that some limited amount of toxic chemicals have been used in at least four attacks. The US has also alleged that they now have the certain proof of the chemical weapon employment which has been used to justify arming the Syrian rebel forces. Russia, on the other hand, has protected Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring him to end the regime, and strongly opposes any foreign military intervention in the conflict.
In this regard, the most crucial significance of this issue may not be the brutality of Syrian government or the opposition groups, or the illegal use of chemicals, but the concern that it may lead to total foreign military intervention into the Syrian conflict. The immediate consequences of US military support for the rebel forces, may be the encouragement of further military intervention from Israel, UK, or EU and others, leading to more powerful and inhumane weapons being used, and further tragic incidents in the near future.
On the other hand, the casualties of Syrian children and certain abuses upon them refer to a more pure human rights issue. According to UN statistics, at least 6,561 minors were among the dead, a number which has kept increasing. Complicating the situation is the existence of "child soldiers", trained and pushed into the battle field by the opposition forces.
The Dismantlement of the Arab World
One of the concerns over this Syrian situation is its contribution to the further dissolution of Arab world. Many countries in the Middle East have seen their system, structure, or bond with others changed dramatically over the past decade, and there have been distinct civil wars within Arab nations in addition to the major wars involving foreign powers. Some countries’ systems have been devastated or confused, and the bond among Arab countries has been weakened. For instance, the former regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan were forcibly changed by foreign invasion.
Syria lost its seat in the Arab League in 2011, when its membership was suspended. Considering that, it is possible to say that the League's main goal, to "draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries", has been damaged by the Syrian conflict. The two heavy obstacles or troublesome facts which should be overcome in this situation will be explained below.
First, the misunderstanding of the concept and wrongful implementation of democracy should be ruled out. While Russia and China also have usually drawn the strategy of their foreign policies in relatively straightforward realist or realpolitik terms, at least in the Middle East, Western powers, especially the US, have waged and supported war in the name of "war on terror" or the "indispensable need for democracy". And consequently, they built pro-western regimes upon the miserable ruins after the war by putting someone who they prefer in power.
Obviously, autocratic or despotic regimes who have committed atrocities should be changed into a better form of government. This does not mean that creating democracy equals to establishing a pro-western regime, nor does “true democracy” necessarily mean encouraging anti-western regimes either. It is the story of supporting the regime where it and its people would like to create their own government and country. Every country has the right to choose its own preferable direction or type of government, and it would be one of very basic ideas in the concept of establishment of the nation. To build the country which citizens would like to have the most, the absence of foreign influence is needed so that the country may aim in a new direction or develop new political ideas within the country. For example, external actors could aid people in terms of medical, educational, or monetary contributions. Or sometimes, even military intervention could be employed to protect people and their human rights. However, again, this is not about involvement in the whole procedure of creating a new government and its ideology.
The world should understand the difference between humanitarian or international assistance on one hand and military intervention and nation building on the other. Given the tragic destabilization of Iraq and Libya and many other countries after foreign intervention, the risks posed to the Syrian people of further international involvement are clear and, as mentioned above, would have far reaching effects in the region.
However, it is too simplistic to say that external intervention alone is responsible for deteriorating the bond among Arab nations, infringing peace, or violating independency. The long-standing confrontation between Sunni and Shi'a, two Muslim denominations, is probably the most difficult and fundamental problem driving conflict in the Muslim world.
It equally has weight upon the conflict in Syria. Though it was not the original reason of chaotic situation, the fact that most of the oppositions (who are mostly Sunni Muslim) are generally against "Shi'a" government in Syria, and not against "dictatorship" per se is what most of the world understands. As stated above, the Sunni Muslim clerics in Mecca have directly cast their support of the rebel force fighting against the Shi'a government in Syria. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), at least sixty Shi'a Muslims were killed by the rebel force in Hatla on 11th June. This tragic incident is just one more killing in a cycle of violence between the two Muslim communities' everlasting conflict.
The significance of maintaining and defending religious identity is beyond question. Nonetheless, if the result is harsh or sometimes deadly conflict within a country or among countries, the ultimate victim is always innocent citizens around the conflict, which is hard to be justified. Eventually, it would be argued that the responsibility is thoroughly on the radicals who only can see the glory of their god without taking care of their neighbors. The enthusiasm for the country of people has been covered up again by the conflict between religions.
This section has argued that both external intervention and internal conflict are causing the Muslim world to lose its bond and peace. On the contrary, doubt and tension have escalated in the area and among the people living there. The current Syrian situation has taken a part of it, and as mentioned above, the external actors who ignore countries' sovereignty and the actors who would not like to admit the difference are obviously responsible for the result, which will ultimately harm the Middle East.
The Potential of the Conflict Spreading into Lebanon and Iraq
As covered hitherto, the conflict in Syria carries certain risks and implications. Likewise, other complicated issues may be triggered in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon or Iraq. Indeed, in Lebanon, the potential of the further conflict is definitely high, and serious recognition of its vulnerability is not an option, but urgent and necessary. The current situation which now Iraq faces also implies the possibility of another war, or a further complication of the conflict already ongoing.
In Lebanon, to begin with, the conflict between Sunni and Shi’a has exacerbated. For example, recently the fighting between Hezbollah and the Syrian opposition has occurred for the first time in Lebanon since the uprising in Syria began. The incident took place in Ain al-Jawzeh, southeast of Baalbek, on 3rd June. This confrontation would be explained in line with the religious power struggle rising in Syria, as noted above, and clearly shows the high possibility of potential war in Lebanon.
The evident potential of a total war between Hezbollah one of the parties in Lebanon and the Israel army is another aspect of the crisis. Aside from the more than sixty years of ill-fated relationship between the Lebanese government and Israel's, there is the specific conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, whose brutal retaliations against each other have been a very well-known topic around the globe. In the Syrian Civil War, Hezbollah has taken a position of absolute support for the Syrian government. In accordance with Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian conflict, Israel has already performed several bombings on Syrian military installations as stated above. Israel's open hostilities in media have included a comment on next war against Hezbollah, simply indicating that they are on the edge of the warfare.
Lebanon is also the country with the most Syrian refugees the world until now. More than 500,000 Syrians have moved into inside of Lebanon border to date. The influx of displaced Syrians has kept increasing as time goes by. This phenomenon continues to put pressure on the Lebanese coalition government (made up of Sunni, Shi'a Muslims, and Christians) which has been unstable for many years. Historically, Lebanon had experienced one big disturbance in 1958, and the tragic “Lebanese Civil War", from 1975 to 1990, a fundamental factor of those troubles being the conflict between "religions". The number of Syrian refugees' in Lebanon threatens to unbalance the coalition government again. If this scenario becomes true, a new war could break out similar to the current Syrian conflict containing many further dimensions and complications, including further external interventions.
Iraq is also vulnerable to further warfare. Here, the Kurdish people, the world's largest minority ethnic group without a nation state is the key concern. First of all, Kurds have been discriminated against in Syria, as in other countries, having been treated in an inhumane manner under Bashar al-Assad's regime. Kurds have been attacked and killed by both the Syrian government and the opposition. Under these circumstances, a tremendous amount of Kurdish people have had to move into other countries, such as Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.
Domiz refugee camp in Iraq has been the most popular shelter for Kurds searching a new home, and already bears around 50,000 Kurds. Even though Domiz camp would not be the best place to reach in light of the size and the distance, the existence of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and its kind support to Kurd refugees have been attracting the constant influx of Syrian Kurds to Domiz.
In spite of Domiz's positive reputation, unfortunately, there are notable problems. First, as time goes by, some Kurds in Domiz camp now complain about mismanagement, inequitable distribution of aid, or allegations that girls at the camp are being tricked or tempted into prostitution. Likewise, the dwellers from the city of Duhok near the camp are also suffering from the effects of steadily increasing numbers of Kurdish refugees.
"About 20,000 refugees are working in Duhok now. This has affected the economy in Duhok, and has led to an increase in unemployment,” said Khalid Hussein, camp director, adding that "prices, rents, crime, drugs and prostitution have increased as well." Both KRG and UNHCR, who have been the main supporters of Domiz camp, have had a harsh time due to a lack of fund and limited resources and the number of refugees is now almost overwhelming, which indicates that KRG and UNHCR are helpless to a degree. In this regard, overcoming the situation is crucial now in order to restrain the further problems.
However, more fatal and pressing matter is something else. According to a report recently released, Iraqi Kurdish youth have reportedly been fighting alongside jihadists in Syria. As Israel entered Lebanon in the name of elimination of Hezbollah in 2006, the Syrian government forces may partially attack some facilities or areas in Iraq. Given that possibility, and the different scenarios discussed above, two conflicts in Iraq could be expected: the belligerency between Syria and Iraq, which implies the probability of a total war, and the targeting of Iraqi Kurds by other forces within Iraq.
In the recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the US and Russia, as well as the other governments represented, discussed the current Syrian conflict, especially in the light of the employment of chemical weapons by Syrians. Since they have taken the evidently opposite position on the usage of chemical weaponries, hopefully the US and Russia listened to other member countries' opinions and suggestions in a very serious manner in order to bring about the impartial conclusion. The US's intention of creating a no-fly zone over Syria through the deployment of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and F-16 jets in Jordan, and of arming the rebel force has been still "open-ended", in the meantime the peaceful, political, and specific consensus and solution should be handled.
It is crystal clear that Bashar al-Assad's regime is autocratic and responsible for serious human rights abuses. Regarding that, the transformation of the regime is indeed necessary. However, arming the opposition forces, which means increasing the quantity and quality of the weapons in Syria may trigger more complex situation. Indeed, prominent personalities in international society have expressed their concerns that such a move "would not be helpful", including the UN secretary general and Nick Clegg, the UK deputy prime minister.
Simply stated, this situation falls into one of the basic concepts in international politics, the so-called "security dilemma". Rather than escalating tension and violence by introducing more weapons, emphasis should be put on the reduction of weapons and the resolution of the conflict be peaceful means. Although, of course, this is easy to understand, but hard to perform.
And as noted above, the overthrow of a regime assisted or completed by other external actors' direct intervention especially in terms of military must be prohibited. That only creates the catastrophic outcome as appearing in Iraq, 2003.
As the international society including Republic of Korea, the US, Japan, China, and Russia eagerly succeeded to hold the six-party talks for contemplating the peaceful solution upon Democratic People's Republic of Korea's nuclear weapons program in August 2003 (though the talks was failed eventually in 2007), external parties' ultimate objective and perhaps their "duty" should be the establishment of a place for creating peaceful solutions. Indeed, the Geneva Conference on Syria which was mainly prepared and launched by the US and Russia has been suspended on 5th June, owing to the opposition's rebuff of attendance. The UN hoped to hold it as soon as possible, perhaps within July, but this should be a priority.
The conference in Geneva should be held with the full attendance of two major parties both (the Syrian government and the opposition). And through the conference, from the instant implementation of a ceasefire to a specific discussion about the establishment of a coalition government or the process of electing a new regime, the goal should be to address grievances and injustices in a non-violent and constructive way.
Finally, there is a need for humanitarian aid for the refugees, who are usually the most easily ignored and maltreated by the host country and, at the same time, the home country. As one of the most representative organizations in terms of human right and refugee support, hearing the voice of UNHCR is a good way to perceive the reality around the aid upon human right in the Syrian conflict.
"The Domiz camp is currently housing 35,000 Syrian refugees and is critically overcrowded. Thousands of families are sharing tents with newly arrived refugees as almost 3,500 families do not have their own shelters." said UNHCR Spokesman Adrian Edwards in Geneva. "The number of children below five years of age suffering from diarrhea in the camp has doubled in recent weeks. Since February, on average nine children out of every 100 suffer from diarrhea per week," Edwards added. Clearly, the overwhelming number of Syrian refugees cannot be covered by UNHCR alone, but simultaneously other organizations or countries' active support is needed urgently.
Thus, foreign nations do not have to think of first of arming the combatants, but should think first of assisting normal citizens to rebuild the society or aiding them to stay alive in a better condition. This is not only about the refugees, but also the Syrians who are still living within the country. The idea that military intervention or support is necessary for saving more lives does not hold water. Although the end of the conflict may be hastened by some military intervention, the number of casualties would likely rise by the employment of more powerful and brutal weaponries, such as the chemical weapon used in Syria these days. Besides, the world knows the fact that the US finished the war against Japanese Empire by dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the World War II. So, today who could confidently say that the decision was perfectly wise or right? It is one of the most crucial lessons which should not be forgotten, as we continue to justify the atrocities of war in the name of peace.
Jehun Alexander Hong is a UPEACE student and an intern with the Peace and Conflict Monitor.