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Published on June 23rd, 2012 | by Lucy Bailey
Image © [caption id="attachment_10494" align="alignnone" width="566"] ©sipazigaltumu Palmyra Reflection[/caption]

As efforts from the international community to stop the escalating violence in Syria fail to make any positive impact, many now fear that the country has descended into civil war. When queried on the emergence of civil war, Hervé Ladsous, UN under-secretary for peacekeeping operations, became the first UN official to formally take this stance. Ladsous last week informed reporters “Yes, I think we can say that. Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control.”

However, others think it is unjust to term the situation in Syria a ‘civil war’. Calls now suggest that this definition detracts from the fact that the Syrian government is carrying out disproportionate attacks of excessive violence against its own people. Enraged by recent comments and speaking on behalf of the rebels the Syrian Revolution General Commission said, “[Ladsous’] announcement makes the killer and the victim equal and ignores all the massacres committed by the Assad regime”. The Syrian government also denies that it is facing civil war. The Syrian foreign ministry said that talk of a civil war was “not consistent with reality” and claimed instead to be fighting a “war against armed terrorist groups plotting against the future of the Syrian people”.

Whilst there has undoubtedly been violence and fighting from both sides, evidence does not categorically point to civil war. The anti-government protests began in March 2011 with non-violent demonstrations calling for the release of political prisoners; it was only after continued brutal crackdowns by the Syrian government that the opposition organised itself into a unified rebel movement, prepared to use violence in order to fight back against the oppressive Assad regime. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 14,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the last 15 months. Thus what we are seeing in Syria is a massacre of innocent civilians by a despot determined not to relinquish power.

However, there are indications that as the situation develops further, it could rapidly descend into civil war. As diplomatic attempts to stop the fighting fail, the threat of violent intervention from the international community is increasing, and international power politics are acting as accession towards the risk of civil war. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, last week accused Russia of supplying the Syrian government with attack helicopters, a move which she said would greatly escalate state violence against its civilians. In an equivalent response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of providing arms to the Syrian opposition which were “being used against the Syrian government”.

As matters stand, The White House has been reluctant to implement the kind of military intervention that was induced in Libya last year; instead US officials have so far supported tougher non-violent UN sanctions against the Syrian government. For Russia however, Syria remain a 'Cold War’ ally, a longtime arms customer, and a very important strategic and national interest. Russia has a large naval base in Syria, which is its only naval strategic foundation in the Mediterranean. Therefore Russia has been unwilling to abandon its final foothold in the Middle East and has continually blocked the UN actions. With Russia’s position unlikely to change, this polarisation of global powers looks set to increase the violence and division within Syria.

With fears of a sectarian war between the Sunni majority and the ruling Alawite minority, strong ethnic divisions within the country are also adding to the recent threat of civil war. Currently, the fighting has remained largely between the authorities and the Syrian people, with Sunni members making up the majority of the army on the government side, and a few Alawites fighting on the side of the rebels. However, the Alawites make up just 12% of the population and have only enjoyed their elite political status because it was given to them by former president Hafez al-Assad, who was himself an Alawite. They have a long history of persecution and prejudice, and fear what will happen to them if the Assad regime collapses. Therefore, they are fighting to keep President Assad in power and to put down the rebellion. Some argue that if the Alawites could be persuaded to stop supporting the regime, it would quickly lead to the fall of Damascus. But despite diplomatic attempts to persuade them to do so, there is currently sparse indication that the Alawites will abandon the regime. As a British diplomat in Beirut said, “They fear they have far too much to lose.” The Sunni sect makes up 75% of the Syrian population, and so if it is armed to match the military might of the Syrian regime, it will have a clear advantage in terms of numbers. So as the fighting in Syria continues intensifies, the threat of civil war is slowly becoming very real indeed.

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Is Syria facing Civil War? Reflections of a hazy future

©sipazigaltumu Palmyra Reflection

As efforts from the international community to stop the escalating violence in Syria fail to make any positive impact, many now fear that the country has descended into civil war. When queried on the emergence of civil war, Hervé Ladsous, UN under-secretary for peacekeeping operations, became the first UN official to formally take this stance. Ladsous last week informed reporters “Yes, I think we can say that. Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control.”

However, others think it is unjust to term the situation in Syria a ‘civil war’. Calls now suggest that this definition detracts from the fact that the Syrian government is carrying out disproportionate attacks of excessive violence against its own people. Enraged by recent comments and speaking on behalf of the rebels the Syrian Revolution General Commission said, “[Ladsous’] announcement makes the killer and the victim equal and ignores all the massacres committed by the Assad regime”. The Syrian government also denies that it is facing civil war. The Syrian foreign ministry said that talk of a civil war was “not consistent with reality” and claimed instead to be fighting a “war against armed terrorist groups plotting against the future of the Syrian people”.

Whilst there has undoubtedly been violence and fighting from both sides, evidence does not categorically point to civil war. The anti-government protests began in March 2011 with non-violent demonstrations calling for the release of political prisoners; it was only after continued brutal crackdowns by the Syrian government that the opposition organised itself into a unified rebel movement, prepared to use violence in order to fight back against the oppressive Assad regime. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 14,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the last 15 months. Thus what we are seeing in Syria is a massacre of innocent civilians by a despot determined not to relinquish power.

However, there are indications that as the situation develops further, it could rapidly descend into civil war. As diplomatic attempts to stop the fighting fail, the threat of violent intervention from the international community is increasing, and international power politics are acting as accession towards the risk of civil war. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, last week accused Russia of supplying the Syrian government with attack helicopters, a move which she said would greatly escalate state violence against its civilians. In an equivalent response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of providing arms to the Syrian opposition which were “being used against the Syrian government”.

As matters stand, The White House has been reluctant to implement the kind of military intervention that was induced in Libya last year; instead US officials have so far supported tougher non-violent UN sanctions against the Syrian government. For Russia however, Syria remain a ‘Cold War’ ally, a longtime arms customer, and a very important strategic and national interest. Russia has a large naval base in Syria, which is its only naval strategic foundation in the Mediterranean. Therefore Russia has been unwilling to abandon its final foothold in the Middle East and has continually blocked the UN actions. With Russia’s position unlikely to change, this polarisation of global powers looks set to increase the violence and division within Syria.

With fears of a sectarian war between the Sunni majority and the ruling Alawite minority, strong ethnic divisions within the country are also adding to the recent threat of civil war. Currently, the fighting has remained largely between the authorities and the Syrian people, with Sunni members making up the majority of the army on the government side, and a few Alawites fighting on the side of the rebels. However, the Alawites make up just 12% of the population and have only enjoyed their elite political status because it was given to them by former president Hafez al-Assad, who was himself an Alawite. They have a long history of persecution and prejudice, and fear what will happen to them if the Assad regime collapses. Therefore, they are fighting to keep President Assad in power and to put down the rebellion. Some argue that if the Alawites could be persuaded to stop supporting the regime, it would quickly lead to the fall of Damascus. But despite diplomatic attempts to persuade them to do so, there is currently sparse indication that the Alawites will abandon the regime. As a British diplomat in Beirut said, “They fear they have far too much to lose.” The Sunni sect makes up 75% of the Syrian population, and so if it is armed to match the military might of the Syrian regime, it will have a clear advantage in terms of numbers. So as the fighting in Syria continues intensifies, the threat of civil war is slowly becoming very real indeed.

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