The Arab Spring
On the seventeenth day of December, 2010, in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself aflame after a lifetime of struggle with oppressive police conditions and poverty. Mohamed’s final act of life came outside the municipality building of Sidi Bouzid in protest to the confiscation of his street vending wares as well as his inability to talk with anyone about his grievance. His body was revived to stable condition but his consciousness did not return. He died in a coma on January 4th.
The martyrdom of Bouazizi ignited an historic wave of protests in Tunisia that radiated across the Middle East, between January and March of 2011. Most nations of The Levant observed civil unrest: Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Coincidentally, if not inspired by it, the American “Occupy Movement” had also developed into a national movement by fall of 2011.
Arab governments were overtaken, replaced or reformed, and a new dialogue began among citizens. Numerous civilian disputes were met with governmental reform prior to widespread martyrdom, as in Tunisia itself, whose government fell merely ten days after the death of Bouazizi. Tunisia continues developing its new moderate democratic government and struggled to keep peace in the aftermath.
Other movements are ongoing, such as the problematic western intervention in Libya during the civil war of 2011. Al-Qaida now holds a serious presence there, disturbing the transition to a new democratic government after the removal of Muammar Gaddafi, whose leadership rejected al-Qaida. Connections have been made between arms and fighters participating in the Syrian Civil War that has raged on against Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the beginning of what was dubbed “The Arab Spring.”
Syria is a nation long-time on the regime-change bucket list in America. Syria was deemed an “Outpost of Tyranny” by the Bush Administration, and the political ties with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq made Syria a rather inevitable problem (both leaders were members of the Ba’ath Party for example). By the end of 2011, a bloody civil war had begun, and it continues to make waves of international crises today.
Rise of The Free Syrian Army
Moderate protests began in Syria around January and February of 2011. Demonstrations ramped up in March so that by April 18 of that year, 100,000 Syrians were gathered in Homs, demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and all of his colluding figureheads. This gathering posed a serious threat to the Assad family, whose rule had surpassed generations, but he might not have guessed how far the people would go to stop him, nor did he predict the spiral into hell that he continues on to this day.
Military forces stamped out protesters by force, consequently, the people organized further protests and were met with further brutality. Two terrible days of protest on July 31st and August 5th witnessed the killing of 147 civilians. In one audacious act, armed police officers stationed themselves and opened fire from inside of ambulance vehicles. In response, there was a fast transition from peaceful to armed resistance.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the first formal militia operating on behalf of the protest movement, led by a small group of defected Syrian military officers. Other military personnel followed them in defection, but fled with their families abroad instead of joining the resistance. Civilian volunteers picked up the fight and the FSA became a formidable enemy to the regime. Meanwhile, politicians were convening in Turkey and Qatar to develop a new interim government to develop international support for the inevitable collapse of Bashar al-Assad.
A notable rebel from Homs linked to the FSA is Abdel Basset Sarout. He joined the movement as a government employed defector; he was Goalkeeper for the Syrian national soccer team, and his career trajectory was sky high. Basset’s celebrity gave power to the protest movement, singing songs of peace and unity with dense protest crowds who would dance in religious ceremony to his voice over the beat of a drum. This was prior to taking up arms, and since the massacres of summer 2011, he has been fighting, still operating missions against regime forces in Homs.
There was hope after the capture of Homs by the resistance in December 2011. FSA built their offensive momentum in those first months of fighting. Territorial gains came quickly as the people’s army grew and Assad’s shrunk. Pretty soon, the people’s army was closing on Damascus.
Hezbollah versus al-Nusra Front
The Free Syrian Army had a narrow strategy to weaken the regime military and tire them out with costly prolonged operations that could only collapse Assad’s economic position and lead to further military losses. The first wave of defections left Assad scrambling, but his lack of ethics could not be overestimated. The Syrian regime aligned with Hezbollah, a thirty-year operating Shia muslim political party in neighboring Lebanon that includes a military arm and has been declared a terrorist network by The West. Together, they pushed back against the FSA offensive, launching air strikes backed by fighters on the ground. The new influence of Hezbollah and their strategies made for a unique challenge against the FSA, whose fighters are a strenuous combination of civilians and former regime officers.
Syria regained most rebel-held territory by February, but Homs’ rebel fighters narrowly withstood the siege of 2012. It was not until 2013 that Hezbollah acknowledged its role in the regime’s rebound, but they continue to openly provide military support for Assad.
Summer of 2011, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was under the leadership of Sunni religious scholar Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi, whom ultimately aligned to al-Qaida, at least by appearances. In response to violence erupting between protesters and the regime, they wanted to establish a network in Syria. A swarm of guerilla fighters were sent from Iraq, Egypt, and beyond, to be led by a Syrian militant, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. This new partnership became known as Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl as-Sham (al-Nusra Front).
Taking advantage of the chaos, unemployed refugees and stragglers residing in war-torn cities, al-Nusra Front was able to operate directly from rebel-held territories. They supported homegrown rebels by making aggressive, successful moves against the Assad regime. FSA troops benefited from al-Nusra’s experienced fighters, received training and accepted help on the battlefield. Ideologically they stood apart but shared the fight against the regime.
Al-Nusra, operating with a well-funded infrastructure, launched hundreds of successful attacks against the Assad regime throughout 2012, but their interest was not to hand over their successes to the FSA or gain position in the new government. They captured key infrastructure in energy and transportation and profited from the civil war. Al-nusra did help the FSA on occasion, as the enemy of their enemy, sometimes tilting the balance in battles with regime forces, but they were also competing. It’s a faction of al-Qaida composed of outside fighters whose goal was not to install a representative democracy or to distribute resources to Syrians. For many fighters, it is simply their job, their income source sanctified by religious duty.
Al-Qaida also has their own war going with Hezbollah. It is partially ideological, the latter being Shia and the prior Sunni, but it is also political and territorial. Ultimately, it would be necessary for FSA to side with al-Qaida linked jihadists to compete with Hezbollah jihadists. If it were a traditional civil war, there would only be this emerging nation-state organizing in safe zones, such as Turkey and Qatar, with armies on the ground (FSA) battling the government forces of their State (Syria). But the new face of war is simply not traditional, in fact, the rise of terrorism and proxy war-making has utterly changed the old traditional game.
The Libya Connection and Proxy Wars
Mid-2012, the FSA was meeting with western and Arab powers for security discussions, but al-Nusra was not invited. The American CIA had overtly provided non-lethal supplies and covertly armed the FSA via Saudia Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, with a two-pronged goal of squelching the growing al-Qaida faction, and to pressure Assad in to resignation.
Weapons managed to find their way from America to al-Nusra, despite the supposed intentions of the CIA. As Republicans in Congress grill the issue of who is to blame for the September 11, 2012 occupation of the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, not very much discussion is going into the affect that military intervention had in contributing to that event, in the first place. It is likely that weapons from the overrun embassy were transferred to Syria, but that would only explain some of it. Anytime there is geopolitical instability and western weapons are floating around the troubled region, there is a near guarantee of those weapons falling in to the wrong hands.
Anti-Gaddafi forces were armed in Libya following the March 2011 United Nations Security Council Resolution, with the US leading the way militarily, backing their chosen ground fighters with air strikes. A wide coalition followed and eventually NATO maintained the mission. But some of those anti-Gaddafi fighters, just as in Syria, were al-Qaida fighters. It is well known that al-Qaida continues to operate in Libya, thwarting democratic reforms, although some reports suggest that influence is waning.
While Syria does business with Hezbollah and Hezbollah is labeled a terrorist network by The West, Iran is the primary ally of Assad’s Syria and they also work with Hezbollah. They overtly sell arms to the Syrian regime and covertly operate via Hezbollah to achieve certain military objectives, alongside their own (western-labelled-terrorist) militia. Further alliance between Syria and Iran with Russia and China ensures that Assad can withstand almost any pressure. It also ensures that The West will not seek a UN Resolution to intervene like they did for Libya, for lack of political will combined with fears of, basically, a third world war.
The image that is beginning to emerge by late 2012 is the mosaic of a complicated proxy war between East and West; Syria is the battleground and Syrians are the unfortunate bystanders of a nation with numerous strategic allies and powerful enemies. The West overtly backs rebels like the FSA (among others) while the east overtly backs Hezbollah (among others).
A Civil War Divided Gives Rise to ISIL
The Free Syrian Army saw their presence and muscle begin to wane as members defected to al-Nusra. By spring 2013, due to a lack of funding and the inability to maintain sufficient arms, they could not dig in with the kind of offensive momentum that marked their first several months. Frustrated fighters followed the promise of abundance and success with al-Nusra, and some fighters aligned ideologically with the Islamist mission. In short time, FSA lost thousands of men.
Rebel fighters revolting against their oppressive, violent government, are now torn among themselves while fending off outside terrorist networks. Al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army were not the only militant groups operating in Syria, indeed, with communication and infrastructure broken, dozens of fronts popped up everywhere, out of necessity. Some fighters defecting from the FSA moved over to outrightly Islamist fronts that also rejected outside influences. A notable example is The Islamic Front (IF). They started as a coalition to unite homegrown Syrian Islamists.
Until late 2013, they did work with al-Nusra and FSA with the mutual aim of taking down the regime, but that changed when an IF-sponsored siege against FSA further weakened their numbers, slipping weapons out of CIA-backed rebel hands in to other factions. Nonetheless, they also competed against al-Nusra, ultimately keeping the goal of toppling Assad, which furthers CIA goals, in theory. However, battles between less-experienced militants and al-Nusra typically meant that American arms just continued falling in to the hands of al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Iraq.
During spring and summer of 2013, the Syria Civil War demanded serious international attention for humanitarian reasons with evidence of war crimes going every which way in the conflict. Internal disputes and poor capability in the fight caused more defections from FSA, paralyzing the group, especially after that incursion by the Islamic Front, leaving them without a headquarters in northern Syria.
Internal dissent had begun to drive a wedge between leaders in the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Nusra Front, and its umbrella, al-Qaida. Tactics and goals were disputed between the leadership whose armory and assets were growing rapidly, therefore raising pressure for one faction or the other to enjoy the spoils of war the most. By early 2014, there would be a permanent rift, spawning The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Islamic Front also split from their cooperation with al-Nusra and its foreign fighters. Now they are isolated in Aleppo, cut off from financial contributions, where every interested party has clashed and ruined the city. Regime forces continue their siege against competing militants there.
The Politics Outside of Syria
The involvement of the Free Syrian Army in more traditional diplomatic chambers has given them long-lasting legitimacy and their ranks have not yet collapsed entirely. In 2011, the Syrian National Council, based in Turkey, formed with the aim of representing rebels like the FSA. In 2012, a different political body came to favor. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, based in Doha, Qatar. They became the legitimate representative of Syrian people under international eyes. Western military powers agree to this and The Arab League provided membership to the group most recently.
The FSA continues to organize with The National Coalition for Syrian [Forces] and will be among moderate fighters receiving American arms and training. They will be working with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, whose involvement becomes pivotal in 2014. There is also a group of Christian fighters organized by the Syriac Military Council. The objective is now being pursued to regain territory from ISIL without losing ground against Assad, and to eventually topple Assad. The National Coalition will step in to form a new constitution and democratic government.
An important development for international intervention came in August of 2013. An event known as the Ghouta Chemical Attack would put Obama on the edge of full-fledged war against the Assad regime. A year of dramatic events would lead to the splintering of al-Qaida, the extraordinary growth of ISIL, and a coalition of nations to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”