While Syria has taken center stage in recent years as one of the many strongholds for Islamic Extremism, the prospect of a brighter future could be seen just a few short years ago. After citizens sought to peacefully protest and shape outcomes for a more inclusive partnership between modernizers and the local opposition, it seemed as though Syria was on the cusp of making way for Westernization in the Middle East. With a new leader in charge, Bashar Al-Assad was said to have created a lot of optimism among the people due to his ideas of modernizing Syria.
Perhaps some of the biggest challenges that faced Assad upon his coming into power was providing economic reform, stimulating growth, and combating the dwindling oil revenues seen in the early 2000’s. However, his short lived promises and influx of Arab investments stabilizing the region would soon dwindle down to nothing. Further, mismanagement of peaceful protest that shortly thereafter turned violent would cause a deadly civil war resulting in a failed State. This ultimately left a vacuum for extremism that would lead to yet another ISIS controlled region.
Bashar Al-Assad assumed power in 2000. With the Damascus Spring of 2000-2001 it was thought that a partnership could take place. Many exercising peacefully their protest of the current system, it wasn’t long before Assad shut down his idea of political reform. Claiming that social and economic reform needed to take place first before liberalization could happen. Assad attempted to keep the Middle Class under wraps by allowing for certain political decompressions. By encouraging an increased consciousness of abuse without allowing for proper institutionalized channels of retribution, Assad inadvertently paved the way for the 2011 Uprising.
Moving in conjunction with the peoples growing consciousness and disdain for current policy, another advancement made way that would forever alter the the destabilizing nature of the Middle East… smart phones and social media.
The Arab Uprising, stretching across various countries of the Middle East, started as peaceful protest documented via social media that quickly turned violent. It wasn’t until after the detaining of 15 young boys for graffiti as well as the torture and killing of one 13 year old that violent protests erupted. Despite the mobilizing nature of these mass protests, momentum wasn’t strong enough to successfully overthrow Assad due to the geographical nature and dispersions away from the Capital.
Conflict quickly broke out between the regime and opposition. However, as democracy activists that led the initial protest withdrew from Syria, the only thing remaining were Islamic hardliners. These remaining individuals had two things that proved momentous in times of an emerging war economy: money and guns. Between Assad’s polarizing nature and increased use of violence, Syria found itself on the precipice of a major Civil War. One that we’ve seen play out in recent years… One that has taken more than 465,000 lives, injured over 1 million, and left nearly 12 million displaced. The odd nature of Syria as a key actor in the Arab Uprising is that, despite conflict and civil war, the overthrow of power has still not yet been seen. Both the President and the regime are still at large, how?
Alongside the dispersive nature of the initial protests away from the capitol, we also see the conflict framed in sectarian terms, in a way so that the opposition could better appeal to the Sunni majority. Add a president with a backing army willing to defend against the opposition, all with ties to the Ba’ath party, and you have a force to be reckoned with that differs insurmoutnably from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya; all of which either led peaceful protests or successfully overthrew the current president.
Another intricate part to the system at play can be seen through external forces. One of which was the United States. By placing sanctions on the regimes source of oil , the U.S. by default rid the region of any sort of stability that could have benefited from its supply. Despite our efforts to sanction, the United States further failed to halt regime operations. What started as an internal conflict quickly found external forces that would use the sight of a failing State to regain momentum lost in the original Arab Uprising. Fast forward to three years after the initial Uprising, the State was divided between regime and opposition with much of the Northern and Eastern regions of Syria out of government control. The lack of structure created a domino effect that would result in extremist factions using the region in an attempt to set the tone for regional balances of power in the Middle East.
With the emergence of a war economy, extremist groups were given a stake in the continuance of conflict as a three way struggle for power between the regime, “moderate” opposition, and Jihadists.
Fast forward to today and we are still bearing witness to regions of Syria under attack i.e., Eastern Ghouta. Under Siege by the Syrian government since 2013, Turkey, Russia and Iran labeled it a “de-escalation zone,” in which a strict no fly zone had been enacted. However, on Sunday February 19th 2018, backed by Russian planes, relentless bombings killed hundreds by Syrian forces. With no end in sight, it’s hard to imagine an ending that doesn’t involve the entire Country self-imploding. Even if the constant state of war was to subside there’s still the rebuilding phase which, judging by arial views, could take anywhere from 15-20 years at least. Children have been deprived of any sort of education, which leaves yet another vacuum for radicalization.
It is to my belief that in order for the deescalation of the Middle East to happen three major factors must be present: a rebuild of infrastructure and education, distribution of wealth to create a strong Middle Class, and access to resources. We must also encourage modernization for Syria and surrounding regions, as striving for such is a key component in restoring structure to a destabilized region. Will this ever be possible, it’s hard to say.
I used to think we could change the world when I was younger. Perhaps it was flawed thinking then, or maybe the problem just wasn’t as bad. Either way, we’ve been in a constant state of war with an ideology for over twenty years. I’ve had conversation after conversation discussing the future of Islam and the Middle East. The question I continue to ask myself is “when will it ever stop?” I want to believe in our government, that we truly do look out for the better interest of the world. It’s hard however, to ignore a region such as the Middle East when each extremist group is more radical and militarily sophisticated than the last. Is it just a part of life? I hope not. I hope we can find common ground. I hope my kids can grow up in a world different than this one. Call it wishful thinking, call it being naive.. I call it hope for the greater good.