Tag Archives: Syrian Civil War

Who are the Kurds? (Part I of II)

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Kurdish Flag, Kurdistan, Iraq

(Part I of II)

The Kurdish people are a distinct ethnic group primarily concentrated in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and northern Syria. They have their own language, culture, and customs, and they have been persecuted to varying degrees by host countries for decades. They are frequently referred to as “the largest ethnic group without a homeland” and number around 40 million. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but there are also large portions that are Shi’a Muslim and many Kurds follow smaller sects as well.

In Turkey, Kurds account for roughly one-fifth of the population. Recent democratic reforms have allowed Kurds to teach their language in schools and Kurdish towns and villages may officially be recognized by their Kurdish rather than Turkish names for the first time. Reflective of the contentious status of Kurds in Turkey, the reforms were criticized by Turkish ultranationalists for granting too many rights to Kurds while Kurdish groups have contended that the reforms were insufficient. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist group by the US, EU, NATO, and many other countries, reached a cease-fire with the Turkish government in March of this year ending 30 years of war in which over 40,000 were killed. Tensions are still high, but there is optimism towards negotiations progressing.

The Kurds in Iraq live in three northeastern provinces which together form the autonomous Kurdistan region. Massoud Barzani is the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Jalal Talabani is currently the President of Iraq. The KRG has had disputes with Baghdad over their sovereignty, especially in regards to oil development and exportation. Nonetheless, the Kurdistan region in Iraq is one of the safest in the country and its citizens enjoy higher standards of living and better infrastructure than the average Iraqi.

Within Syria, Kurdish militias fighting under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have consolidated territory in hopes of creating an autonomous area within the new country or a separate and independent country altogether. Kurds account for about 10% of Syria’s population. The KRG’s Barzani in Iraq has threatened to intervene in the Syrian Civil War in order to defend Syrian Kurds if necessary. The role of the Kurds in the Syrian Civil War is closely tied to the future of Kurds in the region in general.

(Part II analyzes the future of Kurds in the region and may be found here)

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Lebanon’s Growing Refugee Crisis

Lebanon1In early September, the number of external refugees from the Syrian Civil War topped two million and a little over a month later the number continues to steadily rise. The number of internally displaced civilians is also alarmingly high at over 5 million. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres declared that the conflict had devolved into, “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”  Lebanon has been received the most refugees out of Syria and is now facing its own internal crisis in in trying to aid the hundreds of thousands fleeing into its territory.

At the onset of the Syrian Civil War, Lebanon had two major positions in regards to the crisis. First, it would not become involved directly in the conflict and secondly, they would not deny entry to any refugees entering into Lebanon from Syria. Lebanon is a country of only around 4 million to begin with, and the UN tally reports that over one in three of all Syrian external refugees are in Lebanon. Thus the nearly 800,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon account for over one-fifth of the country’s population.

The majority of refugees both in Lebanon and in neighboring countries are women and children. Over one-fourth of the housing for refugees within Lebanon is substandard and housing prices in Lebanon are much higher than in Syria. More than 70% of families have at least one child out of school, and the language differences play a major role. (Syrian children are more often taught Arabic in school, Lebanese students primarily take lessons in French or English). Lebanese have opened their homes for many refugees, but such assistance is expected to last only temporarily as there is already such a great strain on the country. Furthermore, there is discrimination and conflict within the refugee community in Lebanon between Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees.

(Much of the above information in the above paragraph was taken from an American Near East Refugee Aid presentation)

Concerns over the situation in Lebanon are growing and some analysts have already referred to the situation as nearing a breaking point. Infrastructure and food shortage fears have risen, but so far Lebanon has been able to marginally cope thanks to international assistance. A World Bank Report estimated that the effects of the Syrian Civil War will double Lebanon’s unemployment and cost it $7.5 billion dollars in cumulative losses by the end of 2013. Statistics are one thing, but what will be more telling is how Lebanon is able to withstand supporting such an incredibly large refugee population in the long run. While it is unlikely that the situation will completely break down in the near future, the strain of millions of Syrian refugees will test the stability of Lebanon over time. The longer that the civil war remains unresolved, the more and more Lebanon will have to rely on the international community in supporting its Syrian guests.

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Syrian Civil War 101

Syria2For more recent articles with updated information on the Syrian Civil War, check out this post or my latest piece on Syria.

Who is fighting?

While it began as a native opposition against its government foreign fighters have come all over the world to fight for both sides in growing numbers and regional and international powers also became involved both directly and indirectly. Today, it is no longer simply one side against the other as within the opposition there are factional battles and internal conflicts.

Bashar al-Assad is a Ba’athist politically and religiously a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. Fighting on his side is the regular Syrian Armed Forces and the less formal pro-regime militia Shabiha. Christians, Alawites and other minority groups have primarily sided with the Syrian state over fears they would be targeted by Islamic militants or be marginalized by the opposition.

The Kurds are arguably the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Kurdish groups officially fight under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in either Popular Protection Units (YPG) or smaller Kurdish militias. They seek further autonomy and possibly independence within Syria and have strong ties to the Kurdish Autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The opposition groups are under the very wide and very loosely organized banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There are numerous militias and smaller groups with a wide range of political and religious affiliations but when discussed in the media, the FSA typically refers to moderate anti-Assad Sunni groups who wish to see Assad deposed.

Controversially regarded as the most effective rebel groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, both Islamic militant al-Qaida affiliates. They have successfully recruited foreign fighters from dozens of countries around the region and the world and seek to establish a new Syrian state under Islamic law.

The United States and other Western powers have sought to support the rebels but increasingly found it difficult because of the influx of hard-line extremists. Other Sunni majority countries such as Saudi Arabia have provided funds and support to a wider variety of rebel groups.

Iran and Hezbollah (the Lebanese paramilitary group) have directly and indirectly supported the Assad regime. Hezbollah has sent their own fighters to the battle lines and there is evidence to suggest that Iran has done the same. Russia indirectly supports the Assad regime because of their longstanding alliance and the strategic importance of the only Russian port directly on the Mediterranean Sea, which is located in Latakia.

What about chemical weapons?

A UN report confirmed that the sarin nerve agent (gas) was used in an attack on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 21 where over a thousand were killed. While the report does not explicitly assign blame, the substantial evidence and analysis in the report all but condemns Assad and the Armed Forces in name. Russia still maintains that they hold evidence pointing to the rebels as the perpetrators, but outside of Assad and his allies few else believe this after the extensive UN report and investigation. President Obama in August of 2012 stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line”, but recent diplomatic efforts successfully sidestepped a proposed military intervention.

When did it start?

The commonly accepted start date for the Syrian conflict  is March 15th, 2011 when youth organized “Day of Rage” popular demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive government sparked additional protests similar to other “Arab Spring” countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The Syrian Armed Forces first used deadly force against protesters on March 18th, where five were killed in Daraa.

The conflict escalated to being called a civil war in June/July of 2012, when Herve Ladsous, the first senior UN official declared the conflict a civil war in response to Assad’s use of attack helicopters against opposition forces. The Red Cross declared the conflict as a civil war about a month later in July.

Where is the fighting taking place?

The fighting has split up the country heavily upon sectarian and ethnic lines.

Pro-Assad territory is mainly in the Alawite heavy western coastal provinces centered around Latakia, Tartus and Hama but also in the southwest by Damascus. Regime forces have made up ground recently in the south and in the major cities.

The Kurdish groups near the Turkish border and the northeast have recently been making overtures towards establishing an independent or autonomous Kurdish region in the northern areas of Raqqa and Hassakeh Provinces and pockets in all directions north of Aleppo.

Opposition groups including FSA and ISIL and al-Nusra have a strong presence in Aleppo Province and the eastern areas sans the Kurdish areas to the far north. The majority of the fighting is in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs between rebels and regime forces, though the opposition has been gaining in the north near the Alawite region.

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Major changes in the above photo since August 22 include the rebel takeover of Azaz in the northwest and increased clashes in Hassakeh in the northeast.

Why are they fighting?

Assad and his allies have since the beginning claimed that they were fighting against foreign terrorists and foreign agents seeking to subvert the legitimate authority of the state. While at the onset of the war this was patently false, as the war has continued foreign fighters have played more and more of a crucial role.

ISIL and al-Nusra wish to create an Islamic state governed under Sharia law. Recently al-Nusra and many other groups rejected authority of the newly selected FSA leadership because of their goal of a democratic state.

The Kurdish groups as mentioned earlier seek regional autonomy or their own independent state.

The FSA and associated moderate rebel groups want Assad out of power and a new democratic, secular, civil government to take his place. Having Assad out of power is perhaps the most important factor that the rebels will not let up on while Assad refuses to step down.

Perhaps the most destabilizing force of all is the infighting that has intermittently occurred between opposition groups. ISIL and al-Nusra have fought Kurdish militias, FSA groups and against each other at one point or another. A unified opposition has become less feasible as the fighting has worn on due to the complexity of the groups involved. The result has been a war that at least from the situation on the battle lines seems to have no end in sight.

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The New War in Iraq

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For a more recent update on the situation in Iraq and additional information on ISIL check out this post.

Even before the last US troops left in December 2011, American interest in Iraq was fading sharply. The political turmoil in Egypt, the Syrian Civil War and the wider Arab Spring events have all overshadowed a growing terrorist insurgency within Iraq. It is all too common to see 30 people killed a day by car bombs and targeted shootings, and with a death toll of over 1,000 July 2013 was the deadliest since the tail end of the 2006-2008 civil war according to the UN. The recent surge of violence and the increasingly coordinated nature of such attacks has prompted the Iraqi Interior Ministry to declare the country has entered into an “open war“. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has acknowledged the severity of the situation and he has recently called for security assistance in response to the growing sectarian crisis. Security forces are unable to effectively curb the increasing threat from extremists and recent events have further deepened the conflict.

The siege that freed hundreds of prisoners on July 22nd, including al-Qaida senior leaders, from the infamous Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons has further highlighted the fact that the perpetrators, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has consolidated and redoubled their efforts against the Iraqi State. ISIL is an al-Qaida affiliate which has claimed the lion’s share of responsibility for the coordinated bombings and killings that frequently target security forces and Iraqi Shi’a across the country. ISIL is also active in Syria and together with al-Nusra, another al-Qaida linked Islamist militant group, they have been growing in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, they have been cited as more effective in fighting the army in comparison to more moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army due to their more extensive past military experience in the region.

The effects of the Syrian War coupled with the instability in Iraq have not often been analyzed as a singular problem, but perhaps that perspective should be more seriously considered as such. The Syrian Civil War surpassed the scope of the Libyan Civil War in number of people killed months ago but Iraq is an even larger and arguably more divisive state than even Syria. Additionally, the unique situation in Syria has attracted more international jihadists and militants than perhaps any conflict before, from Iran and Hezbollah to North Africa and the Caucasus.

If the extremists were to be shut out of a future political stake in Syria, then what is to stop them from either carrying out a similar insurgency in Syria or intensifying their campaign against the Shi’a-led government state in Iraq? How many more attacks can the mainstream Iraqi Shi’a community withstand before more militants rise up to take action into their own hands?

At this rate, Iraq is slowly approaching another sectarian war that could be bloodier, more devastating to the region and much more difficult to end than the last.

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