Origins of the protests
A combination of causes ought to be considered in order to understand the Syrian revolution, starting with a flawed nation-and state‐building process imposed by the French colonial power that would determine the future political scene of Syria. The post-colonial state and its sectarian politics were maintained and entrenched during the post-colonial period in 1946. This led to the gradual enhancement of a security-police state, which was expanded during Hafez Al Assad’s takeover to notably prevent more coups from occurring. This model built by Hafez al Assad cracked during the Syrian revolution, leading to a brutal civil war to ensure its survival.
Syria is a multicultural, multi-confessional, multilingual and multi‐ethnic country. Its composition is believed to be the following: Sunni Arabs (70%); Kurds (8%) Turkmen; non-Sunni Arabs: Christians (10%); Alawi (13%); Druze (3%).
The colonial divide and rule policy was maintained by Hafez Al Assad’s regime in 1970. He used the Arab nationalist ideology to garner support from Syria’s ethnic and religious communities, such the poorer Sunni workers and peasants, resorting to a generous redistribution policy (employment and subsidies), to the detriment of the former Sunni Arab elite – landowners and merchants. The Kurds were continuously marginalized.
However, when Bashar Al Assad rose to power at the turn of the millennium he began a policy of economic liberalization that severely impacted the Syrian Sunni Arab peasantry and workers population, whereas the ruling clique increased its wealth thanks to patronage and corny capitalist systems of governance. The state reduced its social and welfare role vis-à‐vis its population-subsidies were cut and unemployment rose – increasing the frustration of the youth and the population in general.
Divide and rule and crush the Syrian revolution
The protests against Bashar Assad’s regime weren’t sectarian at the onset. Alawites and Christians did protest against the regime. These were protests for ‘bread, dignity and social justice’ everywhere. Nonetheless, Assad’s push for a sectarian counter-revolutionary policy and narrative resulted in hijacking the voice of the minorities. Only the Sunni Arab protests were met with extreme brutality, unlike minorities-based protests. The Alawites were not a cohesive and wealthy community naturally backing the regime. Indeed, prior to the revolution many amongst the sect lived in poverty and alienation. However, by portraying the opposition as a Sunni terrorist insurrection that would seek revenge against the minorities, Assad created a wall of fear which is still in place. Nonetheless, one has to bear in mind that throughout Syria’s modern history, the state has used sectarian politics to its own benefit.
Towards the fragmentation of Syria
The decision of the government to shoot protestors in Daraa foreboded the deadly and vicious turn of the revolution. The government deliberately resorted to violence in Sunni-majority areas by using the feared and brutal Shabeeha militias.
By the summer 2011 it was clear that the regime would not bulk at peaceful protests. The population began to take up arms, set up checkpoints and ultimately building a military force. The Free Syrian Army was created in Turkey in July of that same year.
In 2012, the regime’s disengagement from the north led the way for a Kurdish takeover of the region. In March 2016, after succeeding in creating a contiguous zone under their control in the north of the country, the PYD, PKK’s Syrian branch, announced a federal system after meeting with representatives of Arab, Assyrian and other ethnic groups in Rmeilan, a town in Hassakeh province. The newly declared region, consists of three distinct enclaves under Kurdish control in northern Syria: Jazira, Kobani and Afrin.
A regional and global power game
The confessional tactics have worked in holding Assad’s power. The regime forces had significant support from foreign powers, notably Iran, Russia as well as Hezbollah. Syria has become a proxy battlefield where regional and global actors wish to concomitantly secure their own interests and expand them. Russia’s decision to intervene in September 2015 was meant to weaken the rebel opposition, such as the Free Syrian Army, and have a political effect whereby Russia would have a privileged position on the table of negotiations while securing its access to the Mediterranean. On the other hand, the US-led coalition, the Gulf and Turkey have been supporting, albeit limitedly, the rebel forces.
Following the revolution, Turkey swiftly turned against Assad by favouring regime change and supporting the opposition rebels. However, as the conflict further deteriorated and Assad’s hold on power remained strong, the priority shifted towards Syria’s Kurdish‐controlled northern territory. The PYD, PKK’s Syrian branch, began controlling significant territory in Syria’s north as from summer 2012. Turkey’s response has been scathing and often military with the support of Iraqi Kurds (KRG). The latter is a close ally of Turkey since AKP’s rise to power. Both are engaging in a policy of containment of the PKK in the region and its offshoots, such as in Syria.
Radicalism in Syria
Many rebel groups consist of more moderate and robust radical forces, such as Ahrar Al sham or Jaish al Islam. However, Syria is also facing Salafi/Jihadi/Takfiri groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra and Daesh. Although the moderate opposition has struggled to build state‐like institutions in areas it controls, the East Ghouta experience appears as a limited success story of a rebel-held, Islamist, region with relative stability and administrative and institutional presence.
Following Bashar’s sectarian strategy, he liberated hundreds of extremist takfiri Islamists from Syrian prisons (e.g. Sednaya prison) in order to delegitimize and radicalize the opposition. The leader of Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Muhammad al Jolani, was one of the prisoners set free alongside with others that would form Jabhat al Nusra and join IS in Syria. This radicalization of the opposition strategy was a tactic used by the Algerian military regime during the civil war in the 1990s, following the suspension of the 1991 democratic parliamentary elections. The rise of Daesh in Syria followed the sweeping conquest of the Iraqi city Mosul in June 2014.
It might be argued that taken together the dispute between regional and global powers; proxy wars; radical groups designated as opposition and strengthening of bodies such as Daesh paved the way for a civil war in Syria. On the other hand, the competition between the USA and Russia over Middle East deteriorates the situation in Syria.
In the regional context, cooperation between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran is an important factor in terms of resolution of the conflict. Regarding the global context, one may contend that consensus between the USA and Russia seems inevitable. All in all, the future of the Syrian conflict is directly related to the termination of the power struggle between regional and global actors involved in rather than the persistence of the Assad regime.