One of the many reasons that the conflict in Syria was unable to be resolved quickly was due to the complexities in the country when it started. Of course, the increased presence of sectarian groups (like ISIS) broadened and extended the war a great deal, and the political dealings of the US and Russia prevented any international (and arguably, national) force from putting a stop to the violence, but these factors won’t be discussed here. Instead, only the determining factors of the start of the war will be discussed. While the world may be far more focused on ISIS or chemical weapons, if the initial grievances that led to war breaking out in the first place are not adequately addressed, there can be little chance for a lasting peace in the region.
First of all, ISIS had nothing at all to do with war breaking out in Syria. While it is true that as soon as war broke out in Syria, the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was quick to establish a presence in the country, there is no reason to think that they contributed to violence breaking out initially (History of ISIS/ISIL). Again, the strong presence of ISIS in Syria, especially in and around the “capital” of its operations, Al-Raqqa, makes the situation far more complicated, but has nothing to do with the war itself, and must be considered a separate issue.
At first glance, it appears that there was no “tipping point” for conflict in Syria to begin. The stated claim for starting a civil war from the rebels was freedom from the brutal dictatorship being conducted by Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez Al-Assad before him. However, the regime of Hafez Al-Assad, which lasted for thirty years, had equal cause to begin a rebellion. Hafez rose to power in Syria in the mid and late 60’s by eliminating his rivals until he was alone at the top (Leverett). From 1970 onward, Hafez conducted a brutal regime, hindering democracy and disregarding human rights in general. The country was put under a one-party system in favor of Hafez’s own religious sect, the Alawites, and at the expense of the largest sect, Sunni Arabs (Lawson). This means that Hafez, and then his son Bashar, were leaders of the military, political and religious sectors (Carpenter) If fighting the dictatorship of the Assad family were the true cause of the war, it would have started much earlier than it did, instead of waiting over four decades to get started.
The Syrian uprising also started around the same time as similar uprising in Arab nations, uprisings that generally finished rather quickly or with the help of NATO forces. When considering whether one should start a civil war, it certainly doesn’t hurt to see that people in similar situations are having great success and with the help of powerful allies. While this probably had some influence on whether war would begin in Syria, I’m sure that it couldn’t have been a huge factor. I mean, did you think about rising up against your government just because they did in Tunisia?
In his book, The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier suggests that the most important determining factor in whether a civil war will break out in a country is whether a war can break out in a country. Imagine a house, and inside that house is a safe with an amount of money in it. What sort of conditions need to be established before that safe will be stolen? Of course, the security of the house is the first factor. If the house has tight security or armed guards, then the chances of that safe being stolen are pretty low. If instead the only security obstacle is a little old lady and a rusty screen door, then the chances of the safe being stolen are considerably raised. The abilities of the thief are also important, as a certain class of burglar might be dissuaded by the presence of solid lock on the door, but a world-class thief wouldn’t be bothered by that too long. The amount of money in the safe also determines the chances of people trying to steal it. If the safe has five dollars, it’s probably not worth getting arrested or shot over, but if there’s a billion dollars there, you might be able to tolerate getting shot a few times. How much money the thief has is also important. If the amount of money capable of being stolen is, let’s say $100,000, regular schmucks like you and I might consider that a lot of money, but Bill Gates wouldn’t even rub his dick on that pitiful amount. On the flip side, if the safe contained $10, most people wouldn’t bother robbing it, but someone living on the street with less to worry about in terms of getting arrested and getting a felony record, may try to steal it.
What I’m getting it is that Syria in 2011 was a house with a big ole’ safe full of crude oil in it, and outside was an entire army of hungry, broke thieves.
Hafez certainly kept his own sect, the Alawites, well taken care of, but the majority of the population, Arab Sunnis were suffering due to a drought that damaged the agricultural sector, in addition to the damage the entire country was receiving due to lack of oil flowing into the country after the Iraq War and UN sanctions (Ajami, Lawson, US State Dept.). The Sunni Arabs that would start the uprising also represented 50% of the country’s military (Carpenter). So, these people are poor, hungry and broke, and if they start a war, they know that 50% of the country’s military will immediately switch sides based on the group loyalty fostered by Hafez’s creation of a preferred sect.
If, somehow, ISIS as an organization and an idea were to vanish from this earth tomorrow, the underlying problems that caused such instability in Syria would still remain. Since this is the case, if we are to even consider fighting ISIS, we must first fight the poverty and intergroup hatred that provided a space for it to rise.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: The History of ISIS/ISIL. Etd. By Charles Rivers Editors
Leverett, Flynt L. Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.
US State Department, and CIA. Country Notes: Syria. 2012.
Lawson, Fred H. Global Security Watch-Syria. 2013.
Carpenter, Ted G. "Tangled Web: the Syrian Civil War and Its Implications." Mediterranean Quarterly. 24 January, 2013. Print.
Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Ce Done About It. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Ajami, Fouad. The Syrian Rebellion. Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2012.