About a year ago, I wrote a post attempting to explain the Syrian Civil War; in it, I wrote that “the UN has put in place a cease-fire. For the most part, violence has stalled.” Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Since that post was written, estimates (just about every number in this conflict is an estimate) of the overall death toll have ballooned from 10,000 to 70,000, with March being the deadliest month in the two-years of fighting. The war has become a destructive stalemate, with neither side really making much progress. Bashar Al-Assad is still in power, and as long as that is the case, lives will continue to be lost. That’s the most important thing anyone can say about this conflict. But, since it is so multifaceted an issue, what, if anything, have we learned in the past year?
Refugees are expensive
While the violence has mostly stayed within the borders of Syria, the conflict’s effects are felt throughout the region. Over a million Syrians have fled the country since the conflict began, a figure which has more than doubled since just December. And of course, those people aren’t just leaving one country: they’re entering another, which might not be able to shoulder that burden. Water supplies are running low in Jordan. As of early March, Turkey alone had spent $600 million on the 300,000 refugees within its borders. If you’ve ever wondered where the money the US spends on foreign aid goes, this is one of the answers. Close to $800 million was given by the US last year to the UNHCR, which is the UN’s refugee agency.
But refugees aren’t always benevolent guests, to say nothing of their monetary cost. A violent protest took place at a camp last month in Turkey, after which, Turkey had to deny that those involved had been deported, which would go against UN convention. A riot at a camp in Jordan this month resulted in injuries for 10 security officers and outrage among Jordanians. Refugees who don’t live in camps compete with locals for jobs and housing, pushing rent prices higher and worsening the existing unemployment problem in these countries. The estimated 400,000 refugees in Lebanon represent nearly 10 percent of that country’s population. It would be as if 31 million refugees showed up in America.
Nothing is black and white
Since the conflict began, the US has been ideologically behind the rebels in their fight to overthrow the rule of a dictator. Ostensibly, we’re quite fond of democracy. But unlike the similar circumstances two years ago in Libya, US support for the rebels has been limited to talk and aid in the form of food and medicine. The US and EU so far have flatly refused to give the rebels arms, let alone further intervention. Syria’s ties to both Iran and Russia make arming the rebels a tricky prospect politically, but this is a matter that gets more convoluted still.
While not killing his own citizens, Bashar Al-Assad seeks international support for his side of the war. This might seem like a farcical proposition; a dictator violating human rights is beyond the help of any PR firm. Even Russia has stopped supplying his forces with arms. Since he can’t win favor on his own merits, he’s followed the footsteps of countless presidential candidates in trying to discredit his opposition. The US isn’t going to side with him, but if he can persuade Western countries to stop aiding the people trying to overthrow him, he’ll take it.
The formerly private regime has become all too happy to tell American reporters how Syria is “the last real secular state in the Arab world.” That quote comes from their intelligence minister, in a New York Times story that focuses on prisoners of war whom Western journalists were allowed to interview. The prisoners—coerced or otherwise—gave an image of the rebels that Assad would like to broadcast to the world; they admitted to raping civilians, holding radical Islamist beliefs, and hating America. And to a certain extent, it’s not an inaccurate image. The US has already labeled one group among the rebels as terrorists, allied with Al Qaeda, and the UN has acknowledged the humanitarian failings of the rebels. Maybe the hesitance to arm the rebels stems from a memory of how the US funded the Taliban to fight off the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
However, the Assad regime’s attempts to win over the West may have lost whatever slim chance they had at success after last week, when the US State Department publicly stated, albeit not convincingly, long-held allegations that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons against the rebels. President Obama and his administration have said multiple times in the past that the use of chemical weapons marks a “red line,” and to cross it would be “unacceptable.” But the administration has never clarified how the US would respond to the threshold being crossed. I guess we’ll find out soon.
Update: In the time between writing and publication, the UN determined that chemical weapons were indeed used in Syria…by the rebels. The situation isn’t going to become less complicated any time soon.