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An Assessment of the Syrian Crisis
By: Becca Shipler
“Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?” Current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expressed his shocking lack of respect for the United Nations in a recent interview with Barbara Walters. His disrespect for the U.N. is plausible since this Institution has estimated that over 4,000 people have been killed in the Syrian crisis. Syrian forces have been accused of crimes against humanity. The current crisis is due to the government’s failure to resolve conflicts with many opposition groups, and many international actors are concerned it will soon escalate into a complete civil war.
Protests began in January 2011, but it was not until March that the violence escalated when security forces fired on unarmed protesters in the city of Deraa. Eventually the protests spread to other towns and cities. A few towns in the south such as Homs and Douma were besieged, as tanks and snipers killed hundreds of unarmed protesters. The protests then spread to the north and the town of Jisr al-Shughour was besieged. Over 10,000 people fled to Turkey, fearing violence from the troops. Since then, Syrian forces have also stormed the cities of Baniyas, Hama, Talkalakh, Rastan, Deir ez-Zor, and Latakia, and they have occupied parts of Damascus. The protests and the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters by the government continues.
In order to understand the current problems within Syria, it is important to know the basic history, ethnic composition and political structure of the country.
Modern Syria was established in 1946, when it gained independence from France. In 1958 it was united with Nasser’s Egypt, but in 1961 an army coup restored independence. However, in 1963 the Alawite Ba’ath party took control and has been in power ever since. This is not the first time the government has seen opposition. In 1982, there was a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in which thousands were killed.
Syria’s predominant religion is Sunni Islam and the majority of Syrians are Arabs. The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria and have been heavily discriminated against throughout Syrian history. The government went as far as to strip many Kurds of their citizenship. Syria also has a significant Christian population (mainly composed of Assyrians and Armenians), and a significant population of Shi’a Muslims (including the Alawites, a sect of Shi’a Islam to which the al-Assad family belongs). The majority of the power and money in Syria is held by the Alawites, leaving the Sunni majority at a social and economic disadvantage. Since the elite class largely composed of Alawites, the majority of protesters are middle and lower class Sunni Muslims (including Arabs and Kurds).
The Ba’ath party slogan is “Unity, Freedom, and Socialism.” The party favors secularism and in recent years has deemphasized socialism, while emphasizing pan-Arab unity.
Syria has had two Presidents: Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad. The government is an authoritarian government disguised as a parliamentary republic. Although Syria’s government is secular, its president must be Muslim. The president is selected by the Ba’ath party and is approved through a referendum every 7 years. The president has the right to appoint ministers, to declare war and states of emergency, issue laws (requires ratification by the People’s Council except in cases of emergency: this was the case in Syria until April 21), to declare amnesty, amend the constitution, and to appoint civil servants and military personnel. The People’s Council is elected every 4 years and has no independent authority.
The protesters’ primary goals are freedom and democracy. While current President Bashar al-Assad has made some concessions, he has given no indication he will allow democracy in Syria. Assad said there will be national dialogue to review a new law that would allow parties that are not members of the National Progressive Front (a coalition of six small parties loyal to the Ba’ath party) to run in elections. However, this law would not change anything because the constitution guarantees the National Progressive Front at least 167 out of the 250 seats in the People’s Council (Syria’s version of a parliament).
Protesters also want an end to the emergency law, which gives the president and the security forces the right to arrest Syrians for anything deemed threatening to the regime, and although Assad revoked it on April 21, Syrian forces later killed over 1,000 people and arrested 10,000 more. Additionally, they want the release of political prisoners and people arrested during the protests. Assad has granted amnesty twice on May 31 and June 21, but thousands are still jailed and hundreds more have been arrested.
The major groups within the opposition are the Syrian National Council, the National Co-ordination Committee, and the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian National Council was formed in Turkey in the latter half of 2011. It includes the Muslim Brotherhood, various Kurdish parties, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change (a group calling for democracy that began during the July 2000-February 2001 “Damascus Spring” and was later repressed), and the Syrian Revolution General Commission (coalition of over 40 grassroots movements). The council wants a complete overthrow of the current regime; democracy and human rights are among its main principles. The National Co-ordination Committee was formed in September from opposition blocs inside Syria. They want democratic change, but believe members of the current government can play a role in the transition. The Free Syrian Army is led by former Syrian air force Colonel Riyad al-Asad. When it was founded, al-Asad stated their goal was to “work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity, topple the regime, protect the revolution and the country’s resources and stand up to the irresponsible military machine which is protecting the regime.”
It is not just the United Nations and the West that view president Assad’s response to the protests as incorrect. On November 16, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and imposed economic sanctions on Syria in response to the violence incited by the government. Many people believe this should be a wake up call to Bashar al-Assad to either make legitimate reforms to the Syrian constitution or simply step down as president and allow his country the freedom it is demanding.
For more information go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-13855203
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