In 2010 the Arab Spring brought mass protests for reform throughout the Middle East. A series of violent and nonviolent demonstrations by civilians were met with hardline responses from the regimes of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, as well as many others in the region. The chaos and violence that has erupted as a result of the Arab Spring has highlighted the political instability of the Middle East, particularly in Syria.
Bashar al-Assad is the current President of Syria. His father, who was President before him, rose up the chain of the military and eventually the Presidency through a series of coups. The Assad regime is politically aligned to the Ba'ath Party, but when Hafez al-Assad seized control in 1970 he exploited the power of his party for personal gain, which would cement his family's control over Syria. Religiously, the regime is affiliated to the Alawites, a sect within the Shi'ite denomination of Islam. The Alawite sect makes up an estimated 12 percent of the population, while members of Sunni Islam comprise 70 percent. By promoting himself and others who are aligned politically and religiously, Bashar al-Assad has largely followed in his fathers' footsteps.
The catalyst for the Syrian Civil War took place in Deraa in March 2011. While writing anti-regime slogans on their school, fifteen children were arrested, some of which were allegedly tortured. In effort to have the children released, a protest that reached 3,000 members ensued. It was during this protest that the Syrian security forces reportedly opened fire on protesters, killing 4 of them.
Outrage permeated the country resulting in more demonstrations for reform. Through a series of bombardments on Deraa, Assad deployed tanks and other military equipment to quell the resentment towards his regime. Protesters transformed into rebels, and civil war followed.
The protesters started out with a largely unified voice for reform. However, as they shifted from being protesters to the opposition of the regime, they became fragmented into various political and religious groups. These groups range from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which contains many defectors from the Assad regime, to the Al-Qaeda backed jihadi group Al-Nusra. Since these groups at least share the common goal of wanting to remove Assad, The Syrian National Council are trying to unify the anti-Assad forces, but have failed due to the political and religious divides among these groups. This fragmentation is not only complicating the arrival of foreign aid, crucial for civilians, but also prolonging the conflict, ultimately adding to civilian casualties.
In May 2012, eyewitness reports stated that the Syrian army bombarded a small village near the town of Houla. Immediately following the bombardment, uniformed Alawites, allegedly affiliated with the regime, attacked and killed 108 people, of which 49 were children. Attacks like these are becoming a regular occurrence. The chemical weapon attacks on August 21, 2013, propelled the conflict to the forefront of international debate. Even though evidence suggests Syrian security forces backed by the government organized it, each side vehemently blames the other for the massacre of hundreds of civilians. The controversy partly stems from the lack of journalistic reporting in Syria. The Committee to Protect Journalists has labeled Syria the most dangerous place for journalists, and Bashar al-Assad has banned international press, so fact finding is severely limited. Most of the information that comes out of the war torn area is through social media. This lack of concrete information and evidence is affecting how international organizations approach the conflict.
The complications in Syria have created a situation that has led to an international affair. The United States and the United Kingdom have tried numerous times to push through a series of UN resolutions that would allow military action against the Assad regime. However, all of them have been vetoed by Russia and China, partly due to the uncertainty of who was behind the chemical weapon attacks. The UN peace envoy for Syria, consisting of Lakhdar Brahimi and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have proposed a peace talk conference, called the Geneva II, to take place before the year's end. This conference would consist of a sit-down of representatives from the UN, US, and Russia, as well as representatives from both the Syrian National Council and the Assad regime. The goal of this conference is to find a political and diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
While the diplomatic resolution process moves at a snail's pace, the death toll has exceeded over 100,000 in Syria. Most of these casualties are civilians. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, the current leader's father, quelled a Sunni Islamist rebellion in the town of Hamas. Over a three-week period of bombing and razing the town, the rebellion was broken and over 20,000 people died. Sadly, a majority of the casualties were civilians.
The same tactics are being applied to the current Syrian conflict, but the sieges on the cities deemed rebel infested are lasting months. Food and medical supplies are blocked from entering these cities, and civilian movement in and out is heavily restricted. To make matters worse within these cities, there are numerous reports that the regime is specifically targeting farms, water resources, and hospitals to flush out the rebels. Reuters sources have quoted Assad security officials as saying that this is their "Starvation Until Submission Campaign." The UN estimates that there are around 2 million people trapped in besieged cities and many of them are literally starving to death. These blockades prevent any foreign aid from getting to civilians, and with the recent outbreak of polio, the conditions are becoming drastically worse for the Syrian people. Furthermore, estimates calculate that 2 million Syrians have fled their country, while over 4 million are internally displaced from their homes.
The atrocities that are taking place every day have prompted Pope Francis to enter the fold. Last September, he sent a letter to the world leaders at the G20 conference in St. Petersburg urging them to seek a peaceful resolution for Syria. He wrote, "lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution", and continued, "Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community." A few days after he sent the letter, the Pope appealed to the leaders again at a prayer service by asking them to do everything in their power to help pull humanity from a "spiral of sorrow and death."
While most Americans will be overindulging in the jollity of Thanksgiving, the plight of the Syrians will continue. Russian President Vladimir Putin is to meet with Pope Francis regarding the situation in Syria. This meeting may be a godsend for the Syrian people, but still it is too little too late for the over 100,000 killed in this conflict. While people are coupon cutting and holiday shopping on Black Friday, the struggle for basic survival continues for many Syrians. Let us hope and pray that they can have better words than "Black Friday" to describe the events in their homeland.