Syria: Assad’s Forgotten Reign of Terror

“No solution can be reached with terror except by striking it with an iron fist” – Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria

Syrian Army and Hezbollah forces capture a border town from rebels. REUTERS/Rami Bleible
Syrian Army and Hezbollah forces capture a border town from rebels. REUTERS/Rami Bleible

On August 23rd, 2013, the Syrian Civil War crossed a new moral threshold. Security forces escalated their use of force against rebel groups when, during the early hours of the day, rockets were launched at rebel-held areas surrounding the capital city of Damascus. The warheads were filled with Sarin Gas, a chemical weapon, that landed amongst civilian population centres to devastating effect. 281 deaths were confirmed, but with estimates ranging up to 1,800,  the attack was the deadliest use of a chemical weapons since the Iran-Iraq war.

A special UN team of investigators were granted access to the aftermath, finding “clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets” were used. A follow-up report in 2014 found that the strike was ” a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas”. The team stopped short of blaming the Syrian Army though noted that the chemicals used and the sophistication of the attack could only have been carried out by the government’s own forces. This would not be the last chemical attack carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with at least thirteen other attacks known against rebels and civilians. It was, however, continuing the growing trend of the government carrying out attacks to terrorize and punish civilians it viewed as having aided rebel forces.

Despite renewed interest in recent months, international attention has been focussed on Islamic State (IS) and the US-led Coalition’s forces attempts to “contain and degrade” the increasingly powerful islamist group. What is surprising is the fact that little focus is given to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime was both the catalyst fort he war that has killed hundreds of thousands, and whose forces are responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties and war crimes as they clung to power.

Photo: REUTERS
Residents look at a a fire at a gasoline and oil shop in Bustan Al-Qasr, inside the rebel stronghold of Aleppo Photo: REUTERS

The use of chemical weapons was an important moment in the civil war which is now more than four years old. US President Barrack Obama had at the time promised a swift intervention if al-Assad’s forces crossed this “line in the sand”, however a splintered congress and a war-weary public refused to back yet another military entanglement in a collapsing Middle-East. As the world grappled with the financial crisis, Mr. Obama backed down, though was able to secure a deal with Mr. Assad to destroy all of his chemical weapon stores under the supervision of the United Nations, Mr. al-Assad has continued his campaign of terror that dwarfs the Islamic States’ in terms of scale.

A coalition air-strike hits targets during the seige of Kobane, in defence of Kurdish forces
A coalition air-strike hits targets during the seige of Kobane, in defence of Kurdish forces

As of April there have been more than 310,000 deaths, the vast majority of which are civilians. The United Nations now places the number of internally displaced people at 7.6 million, and when this figure is paired with the estimated 3.8 million fleeing overseas as refugees more than half the population is accounted for as having been forcefully displaced. 

For those who have remained, the conditions are miserable – sanitation has collapsed across the country with measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery and many other diseases ravaging the population. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 35% of the country’s hospitals are no longer functioning, but, crucially, 70% of the health care workers have fled in spite of overwhelming demand. The UN estimates that the total economic damage from the war will surpass $237 billion by the end of 2015, and the bill to repair the economy is only climbing.

People demonstrate against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011
People demonstrate against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, 2011

An Arab Spring

The roots of the conflict lie within the democratic movement that swept across the Middle East in 2010. During December, waves of anti-establishment protests began in Tunisia, spreading to Egypt, Libya and finally Syria. What tied these protests together was a desire for an end to the authoritarian governments which had ruled these countries with an iron fist, relying on the heavy hand of their armed forces to institute law rather than through democratic institutions. The movement took the world by surprise as revolutions overthrew governments in Egypt and Tunisia, and sending Libya into a civil-war. 

Protesters burn images of President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring
Protesters burn images of President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring

On March 15th, 2011, the movement took hold in Damascus. Protesters marched through the streets demanding reforms and the release of political prisoners. Nationwide protests morphed into revolution after Assad’s security forces cracked down on the demonstrations by firing on civilians. Instead of quelling the unrest, the fires of discontent swelled and with each brutal suppression of protesters, popular support for the revolutionary movement grew. In response to the killings, political headquarters and government buildings were fire bombed.

A man reacts amid debris after what activists said were explosive barrels thrown by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo April 27, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3MTUG
A man reacts amid debris after what activists said were explosive barrels thrown by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo April 27, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan (SYRIA – Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) – RTR3MTUG

By April 22nd, the Syrian Army had been partially mobilized. It began military operations to institute martial law and the use of tanks, infantry assault-carriers and artillery began against civilians and has continued ever since.

By the end of May, 100 civilians had been killed and thousands of people detained. At the time, the popular movement contained mostly students, liberal activists and human rights advocates. As the conflict spiralled out of control however, populist Sunni militias and rebel groups began to form and grow in strength, eventually eclipsing the largely secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) that was composed of Syrian Army defectors and students.

Syrian territorial control as of May, 2015. Source: Institute for the Study of War
Syrian territorial control as of May, 2015. Source: Institute for the Study of War

“Up until 2013, Assad’s government has from the beginning of the conflict been unable to mobilize all of its forces without risking large-scale defections. The single greatest liability that the Assad regime has faced in employing its forces has been the challenge of relying on units to carry out orders to brutalize the opposition” Joseph Holliday, Political Analyst, the Institute for the Study of War

As of July, the Syrian government only retains control of 30-40% of its territory and 60% of the population. After years of war, the attrition is showing, with the government having lost control over large swathes of the east to Islamic State and other rebel factions. Now, regime control is centred around Damascus and the major cities along the coast.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inspecting officers and soldiers of the National Defence Forces Source: Syria's Arab News Agency (SANA).
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inspecting officers and soldiers of the National Defence Forces Source: Syria’s Arab News Agency (SANA).

This is not to say that the Syrian armed forces have given up those territories. The air force continues to conduct air-strikes against rebel groups across the country and the army continues to indiscriminately bombard rebel territory with heavy artillery. Little by little however, rebel forces are eating away at the network of army and air force bases that have previously allowed them to strike with impunity, causing a slow retreat towards the coast that has signalled to some that the regime is on the brink of collapse.

A UN report in 2012 described the conflict as “overtly Sectarian in nature”. At its heart, the population remaining loyal to the regime is composed primarily of the Alawite sect from which Assad’s family originates, or are Shia Muslims who are opposed to the primarily Sunni rebels. Christian militias have also been fighting alongside Assad’s forces as they see their future as linked to the secular government rather than under a Sunni regime. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, has similarly deployed to reinforce Assad. Its forces confirming that they would be defending Lebanese communities across the country in 2013, however it is widely reported that their units have been integrating into the exhausted Syrian Army and fight across government territory.

Aside from Islamic State and Islamist groups such as Al-Nusra front, the government has also opposed Kurdish forces such as the YPG who have sought to capitalize on the conflict by carving out an autonomous territory.

Syrian rebels take position during clashes with Syrian Army forces in Idlib, northern Syria. (photo credit: AP/Rodrigo Abd)
Syrian rebels take position during clashes with Syrian Army forces in Idlib, northern Syria. (photo credit: AP/Rodrigo Abd)

“Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapons, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs” – Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch 

The army is worn out after four years of conflict. To compensate for its low troop numbers it has relied upon its edge in terms of equipment and weapons.The army has resorted to attaching regular army units to more reliable forces such as Special Forces, Republican Guard, or the elite 4th Armoured battalion. The army now suffers from people no longer willing to serve out the compulsory conscription due to the high rate of attrition. It is estimated that a third of the 150,000 Alawite men of fighting age have been killed or wounded. There is now an Increasing reliance on the National Defence Force (NDF) to make up the numbers and who are viewed as more reliable and with higher morale since they are volunteers. The move is not without controversy however, with NDF commanders often engaging in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting and organized crime. It has been widely reported that NDF members have been complicit in waves of murders, robberies, thefts, kidnappings, and extortions throughout regime territory. Powerful Scud missiles have also been fired at civilian centres as well, the large surface-to-surface weapons having the ability to destroy entire housing blocks. On March 29th, a missile landed in Hretan, Aleppo, killing 20 and injuring 50.

A Syrian fighter drops its payload on Rebel positions. Photo: REUTERS
A Syrian fighter drops its payload on Rebel positions. Photo: REUTERS

Death from Above

The air-force has repeatedly engaged in war crimes against its own people. Since September 2012, it has used cluster munitions against the various rebel territories, a weapon that has been banned by most countries across the globe. The weapon is a large bomb dropped at high altitude which splits into hundreds of smaller munitions that cover a vast area and kills indiscriminately.

An infographic showing the construction of a barrel bomb. Source: Stratfor
An infographic showing the construction of a barrel bomb. Source: Stratfor

The most common weapon used is the “barrel bomb”, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that is cheap to manufacture and an effective terror tool that has killed thousands. The weapon is dropped at high altitude by helicopters, usually composing a barrel filled with C4 and shrapnel that has a devastating explosion once it detonates. Its relatively low-cost and the scarcity of munitions has made the weapon excessively popular as the stockpiles dwindle. Barrel bombs have now killed more than 20,000 people since the start of the conflict and as of March 2014, between 5-6 thousands had been dropped, around Aleppo. Disturbingly, the regime has adapted its tactics to inflict maximum casualties on civilians by timing the dropping a second barrel bomb 10-30 minutes after the initial attack, to catch first responders in a second blast.

The air-force has also been documented to have used thermobaric weapons: fuel-air bombs which are the most powerful conventional explosive deployable short of a nuke.

As of February 2014, a UN security council resolution demanded all parties to end the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas. Since then, activists say more 6000 civilians have been killed by barrel bombs dropped from government aircraft in rebel-held areas.

M_Id_428563_SyriaKeeping them in line

Whatever the result of the conflict, government officials could face war crimes due to verified evidence of systemic killing of 11,000 detainees. Most of the victims were young men who bore signs of torture, some  had no eyes, others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution. On 30 January, human rights watch released a report detailing government forces razing the anti-government districts of Damascus and Hama, destroying an area equivalent to 200 football fields. The move is believed to have been in response to the populations supporting various rebel groups in spite of harsh government reprisals.

The regime has similarly shown no heed to inflicting suffering on its own people. Yarmouk, a refugee camp of 20,000 people faced starvation due to Syrian Army blockades during 2013 as well as army and air-force attacks against suspected militants.

A Syrian army soldier walks on a street in  Damascus, Syria, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013.  (AP Photo)
A Syrian army soldier walks on a street in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. (AP Photo)

No end in sight

President al-Assad’s regime shows no sign of conceding defeat in spite of its exhausted forces. In 2014, it held elections that were widely seen internationally as a farce, with no independent monitors and state employees forced to vote for the regime. 11.65 million Syrians voted despite fewer than 6 million eligible voters remaining in the country. It is only thanks to the continued sponsorship from neighbouring Shia governments and the work of Russia to supply weapons and funding that his forces have been able to maintain an uneasy status-quo.

The conflict has now been re-framed as a fight against Islamic militancy, a concious change by Western governments to avoid confrontation with Russia and Iran. This leaves the awkward question of what to do with moderate rebel groups who have been receiving funding from the US, UK and Gulf states as the US Coalition continues its attacks on IS in spite of little progress being made to degrade its territorial strength.

If the war in Syria is to end, then a united strategic plan is needed. Without addressing Assad’s role in the war, there is little hope for a peaceful end to the conflict that has killed so many.

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