Putting Together the Pieces of the Syrian Puzzle

For the last few years, all eyes in Canada and around the world have been on Syria. While most of the foreign press coverage of the region focuses on the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the refugee crisis, these are but a few pieces of the puzzle that is the Syrian conflict. These pieces are symptoms of a much greater problem, one which the international community has been trying to solve for years. This five-year civil war has peaked my interest for its humanitarian and political implications. I cannot understand how the international community continues to be incapable of preventing war crimes and atrocities from occurring. These repeated failures have inspired me to reach a greater understanding of how we got here in the first place.   What are the causes of the Syrian civil war? What led to upwards of 4.5 million people fleeing their homes? What circumstances created the need for a multi-country coalition, including Canada, to intervene in a humanitarian crisis to fight terrorism?

The first piece of the puzzle, and the party most to blame for the current civil war, is the Syrian government regime under Bashar al-Assad. The Assad family has had authoritarian rule over Syria since 1970 (Atlantic). The rise to power of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and a non-Muslim, was controversial in a majority-Sunni Muslim State, and led to uprising and civil war in the early 1980s. Despite consistent opposition by the Muslim Brotherhood, Assad maintained power, but the uprising taught both him and his son to immediately quash any challenge to their power.

To put this further into perspective, Syria has a history of religious conflict and foreign influence/occupation – not unlike much of the Middle East. From 1921 to 1941 France ruled Syria, implementing multiple regime changes and trying to promote Christianity and Western culture among the majority Muslim population (Atlantic). When Syria finally became independent, the nation spent decades enduring turbulent coups and military leaders – even spending time under the leadership of Egypt’s President and Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser (Atlantic).  Throughout the Assad regime, there have been reports of American and EU intervention on the side of the rebels and Israelis, Syria’s main state-enemy (Atlantic). At the same time, the Assad regime has been backed by Russia and Iran (BBC). The international community comprises the second piece of the Syrian puzzle with their oscillating intervention. In order to understand the current situation, it is important to understand the turbulent political past and the struggle Syria has undergone to define itself as a religious nation.

The current 5-year civil war ongoing in Syria has its roots in everything already mentioned – religious and civil unrest, lack of democratic political participation, and ongoing prodding by foreign powers. But the real spark that ignited this blaze occurred in the spring of 2011 after Syria endured a terrible 4 year drought that brought rampant starvation and poverty across the country (see info-graphic below). These desperate conditions brought protestors into the streets. The demonstrations quickly expanded, and the Assad regime moved to silence the protests with violence.

Info-graphic by Climate Central

Just like that, civil war erupted in Syria. The rebel groups fighting against their oppressive government, the third piece of the puzzle, at one point numbered over 1,000 (Atlantic). This gives you an indication of just how complex the situation is, as well as how difficult it is to fathom a political solution with all the parties at the table. The rebel groups did try to unite under the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, and are also connected to the Syrian Free Army (Atlantic). However it is very difficult to understand where one rebel group ends and another begins – another part of this very complex problem.

The fourth piece, and the one that most compelled me to understand this conflict, is the Syrian civilians. While neither the rebels nor the government forces refuse to stop fighting, the effect on Syrian civilian life has been devastating. As of August 2015 the UN states over 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict and 12 million have been displaced (UN).  The majority of the deaths are at the hands of the Syrian government and ‘alleged’ Russian planes dropping ‘barrel bombs’ designed for ultimate destruction  onto “rebel targets” (Wikipedia). In reality, the government is targeting hospitals, schools and any possible location that dissension could live.

Furthermore, the government is known to have besieged rebel strongholds such as Madaya and Daraya – not allowing any supplies or aid into the cities and essentially starving the people to death. This is in addition to the ‘alleged’ use of chemical weapons (Atlantic) and other war crimes that include “arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution” (Amnesty). Throughout all of this I use the word ‘alleged’ only because the crimes have not been proven in a court of law – however, to me there is no doubt that the Syrian government is bombing civilian targets and has committed war crimes against its own people.

The fifth and final piece of the puzzle is the so-called Islamic State (IS). In horrible war conditions such as those in Syria, many civilians are left with nothing: no money, no jobs, no food, no shelter. Terrorist groups such as IS offer all these things. Therefore it is no wonder that many moderate Muslims join IS if only for security and a better quality of life – understandably many are choosing a safe but fundamentalist life over uncertainty and death. Furthermore, the instability in the region creates ripe opportunity for these groups to establish land, business and their own power structure. The civil war allowed IS to capture and control many oil fields in Syria, reportedly contributing $50 million in income per month (Business Insider). In order to stop the terrorist threat at its root, the international community must stop the instability that creates opportunity for terrorism to grow.

So what are the solutions to the Syrian conflict? Circumstances have made it impossible for the conflict to be resolved internally. As a result, it becomes the responsibility of external players to stop the war crimes and murders of thousands of civilians.  Thus far, the international community has responded in two major ways:

1. The US-led Coalition against IS: In December 2014, over 60 nations agreed to take part in efforts to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State (Atlantic). The efforts include stopping foreign recruitment by IS, cutting off their financing, and above all, military intervention. This military intervention has mostly been in the form of bombing IS strongholds – this report by the Congressional Research Service in the US notes that as of March 15, 2016 the coalition has conducted 3,626 air strikes in Syria. Under the Harper government, Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets were involved in this bombing mission. But as we reported in February, the new Liberal government has since changed our coalition involvement to a training role.

This is a move I am supportive of.  I do not believe that we will accomplish change by bombing IS. What we need to do is resolve the root of the problem: the domestic environments that make people turn to horrific terrorist groups. While it would be great to simply rid the world of all those who seek to create terror, it is unrealistic to believe we will accomplish this through air strikes. As happened with al-Qaeda, the terrorist cells will either move underground only to come back with an even greater vengeance, or their martyrdom will inspire other like-minded groups to take up their cause. To truly rid the world of terrorism and groups like IS we need to end the hate, isolation, poverty and warfare that breed it.

2.Political Solution: The United Nations Security Council has consistently failed to pass resolutions that would bring action against the Assad government due to vetoes by Russia and China. This has rendered the Security Council essentially powerless to stop the atrocities. The international community did manage to pass Resolution 2254 back in December 2014, which set out a ‘roadmap to peace’ for Syria. Included in the resolution were commitments to “ensure a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition based on the Geneva Communiqué in its entirety; press for the end of any indiscriminate use of weapons; support and accelerate the agreement and implementation of a nationwide ceasefire; facilitate immediate humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas and the release of any arbitrarily detained persons; and fight terrorism” (UN). To facilitate the implementation of these commitments, the international community created the ‘International Syria Support Group’ (ISSG), which has recently been in the news as Canada received an invitation to join.

While this Resolution and the actions being taken as a result of it are an important step by the international community to help the conflict, the main criticism against it is that the Resolution does not address Assad’s role in a future peaceful Syria. The political solution cannot truly be successful without addressing how the main political player in the conflict is affected. Furthermore, the success of these actions depends heavily on the desire of the Assad regime to follow them – something which the international community has very little ability to change.

The failed ceasefire exemplifies this. When the international community passed the ‘Syria Cessation of Hostilities Accord’ at the Munich Security Conference, it was supposed to enable a ceasefire between the two sides of the civil war: the government and the rebels. Since February, the ceasefire has been broken multiple times. Over the last month alone, multiple hospitals and other civilian targets have been bombed by either the regime or Russian planes (Atlantic). Given that Russia, the Syrian government and the Coalition against IS are the only parties in the conflict with access to aircraft’s, it cannot be disputed that Russia and/or the Assad regime are behind these attacks.

What then, is the solution? I won’t pretend I have the answer – as I have tried to show, the conflict is incredibly complicated and the solution even more complicated. While Russia continues to stand by the Assad government, a political solution that properly deals with Assad within the United Nations is unreachable. The UN can however continue to provide aid to the people being bombed or besieged.

I cannot blame the rebel groups for their resilience throughout this conflict. They are willing to die for their right to democracy, justice and freedom of opportunity, and they are deserving of these universal human rights. Sanctions are likely to provide more harm to the civilians than the Syrian government. In the short term, the best we can hope for is a ceasefire that enables more lives to be saved and continued conversation between the many parties involved in this puzzle. In the long term, I doubt that anything other than a military solution, involving further international ‘boots on the ground’, will enact real change.

With respect to Canada’s role, we don’t currently sit on the Security Council, and, even if we did, our limited ability to influence Russia would not change the outcome of the vetoes. Our role in training Syrian and Iraqi forces to fight terrorist threats themselves is useful, but not an answer to the Syrian conflict. If the international community sent in military forces to oust Assad or contain the situation, it is hard to believe Canada would lead the charge. We might provide peacekeepers – but what good are peacekeepers when there is no peace to keep?

As individual Canadians, we can make a difference by continuing to urge the United Nations to provide aid to the Syrian people. I regularly sign petitions by the Syria Campaign to provide food or aid, or stop the barrel bombs. Of course these are only band aid solutions – to stop the killings and refugee exodus of thousands of Syrians, the international community must first stop Assad.

What do you think of Canada’s role so far in the Syrian conflict? Do you think we could be doing more? And if so, what could those actions look like? Let us know in the comments below!

Authored by: Candice White, Co-Founder & Editor mPolitics.co


A Syrian Protestor in March 2012, Source: Crethi Plethi on Flickr


  1. Overall a good overview, though I can’t help but sense a contradiction in the position you’re taking. You support the withdrawal of Canadian (and presumably other Western allies, unless you advocate free-riding) air support for moderate rebel groups and the Kurdish Pershmerga, yet you admit that you do not see a long term solution to the conflict without “boots on the ground”. Do the air strikes not play a decisive role in supporting what already is a local form of “boots on the ground” via rebels, Kurds, and special forces, while allowing for a limited involvement that fits with the domestic political sentiments of most Western nations, of which Canada is one?


    1. Thank you for your comments! To be clear, I am not against air strikes in general. I think they can play a role in a greater solution but by themselves are not a solution. And in particular, are not a solution to dealing with the Islamic State. I am supportive of the decision to remove Canada’s fighter jets because I agree that our resources are better spent in a training role and, in my opinion, a training role is more aligned to Canadian values. An international military solution to remove Assad has yet to be seen but could certainly include air strikes in addition to boots on the ground.


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