Several months ago, a movie was released called 15:17 to Paris, based on a real-life story of three men whose courageous act of stopping a terrorist turned them into heroes during a high-speed railway ride. During the men’s trip through Europe, they joined a bike tour through Berlin. As they rode through scenic spots they stopped at a sight where the tour guide claimed allied forces caught and captured Hitler. The men, puzzled by this statement, questioned his legitimacy, and the tour guide responded with “You Americans can’t take the credit every time evil is defeated!” The statement made by the tour guide may not always be true but it certainly applies to the Syrian Civil War.
The war-torn country of Syria, destroyed by decades of fighting, has reached a death count of over 400,000. With the U.S. supplying the Free Syrian Army—a moderate rebel group fighting for freedom from President Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive government—and the Russians bombing any progress made, the country is at its wit’s end.
Syrian Civil War Background
In January 2011, the Syrian regime was facing uprisings from groups that wanted a democratic government instead of an authoritarian one. During the time, an interview between Bashar al-Assad and the Wall Street Journal found that political and economic problems were pushing the country into instability. In the meantime, the government was handling the protests with brutal violence, surveillance, and censorship, which led to the birth of small militia groups to fight the oppression. The protests and groups continued growing through March when the regime began to conduct mass arrests and fire upon protesters.
As time progressed so did the protests, they grew stronger and so did the responses from the regime. Assad began implementing military action and private security force to deal with the problem. Attacks from the military included using tanks, artillery, attack helicopters, and cutting off utilities and communications in entire neighborhoods to isolate the militias. While the target of the regime were the militias, their attacks affected the people, forcing thousands to flee to neighboring countries as refugees. Eventually, peaceful protests moved into armed rebellions forged by the citizens yearning for freedom and ex Syrian army militants, together they formed the Free Syrian Army.
Russia plays one of the most important roles in this war, as both an ally to the regime and destroyer of its enemies, which is quite tricky in this case, mainly because of the United States. However, Russia’s advanced post-Soviet technology has allowed them to strategically attack the freedom fighters without causing extra casualties.
Andrew Parailiti, director of the Center for Global Risk and Security, tells of at least two goals that Russia has for the Syrian war: to protect Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to the challenge the United States’ role. First, Russia must protect Bashar al-Assad from the Free Syrian Army, who they consider to be a rogue terrorist group who is threatening the stability of the state. Secondly, they want to challenge the United States’ role, because they fear what happened in Libya will happen in Syria.
Iran has supported Assad since at least 2012 and reports have shown that Iran has given Assad extensive military and economic support over the course of the war. They also commissioned Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Shiite militia across the region. Iran gets two things from being allies with Assad. First, they get a supportive ally in the region who will help them against Israel. Secondly, they are granted the ability to transport weapons secretly throughout the region.
Opposition Forces: Free Syrian Army and the United States
Free Syrian Army
Unknowingly to the rest of the world, the Free Syrian Army was formed in 2011 by ex-military units in Turkey, led by Col. Riad al-Asaad. Protests for a democratic government erupted in January 2011 and soon took up the flag of the Free Syrian Army and became the resistance trademark. From then on the army would coordinate strategic attacks against the regime in hopes of making progress.
On December 7, 2012, the Supreme Joint Military Command Council, known as the Supreme Military Command (SMC), formed. This council hosted 30 newly elected delegates who would attempt to bring unification to the different and diverse rebel groups. The SMC hosts some of the greatest Syrian field commanders in the region. The SMC’s main function was to act as a central power for the rebel army in Syria. It was quickly backed by western and Arab support including the United States, European Union, Turkey, and the Gulf countries. The organization was led by military chief Salim Idris, who was in office for 2 years before the council found him unfit to continue to lead the group. He was replaced by Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir al-Noeimi. This new leader would bring great progress, and would effectively lead the council to negotiate with the US and EU, and would even negotiate with Iranian groups, who found common ground in overthrowing the Iranian government.
The United States became involved in the Syrian Civil war in early 2011 when the Obama administration ordered multiple sanctions for human rights violations. However, Assad continued his attacks which left thousands dead. From that time on the United States began to withdraw ambassadors and diplomats and let the protesters (now small militias) fight the government. In July 2012 the Assad regime threatened the US, that if a military invasion came they would use chemicals weapons on the people. However, in 2013, the Syrian government used chemical weapons on their citizens in a suburb of Damascus which left hundreds dead. In September 2013, the US requested a congressional vote to authorize a limited military strike, however, before this could occur the Syrian government said it would dissolve its chemical weapons by a disarmament agreement formed by the United States and Russia.
With the recent chemical weapons attacks Assad has launched on his people, the United States is considering more military intervention. On Friday, April 13, this year the United States, Britain, and France commissioned warships and B-1 bombers to Syria. The retaliation made by the 3 countries was meant to punish the regime for its reported chemical weapons attacks, said US intelligence. The retaliation against Syria was supported by the European Union, Germany, and other allies. However, Vladimir Putin called the strikes an “act of aggression,” and had the “destructive influence on the entire system of international relations and will exacerbate humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.”
Assad responded to the joint-military attack saying: “Good souls will not be humiliated,” and vowed his country would respond to the strikes. The attack was to target Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal, which was in violation of the disarmament agreement of 2013 between the United States and Russia.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. did not coordinate targets with or notify the Russian government of the strikes, beyond normal airspace “de-confliction” communications.
Dunford explained there were three targets, the first was a scientific research facility for chemical and biological weapons. The second target was a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and finally, the third target was a chemical weapons equipment storage facility, and command post, also west of Homs.
President Trump said Assad’s actions “are not the actions of a man,” but “are the crimes of a monster instead.” Trump also called out Russia by saying, “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends that they keep,” he continued. “Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or continue with civilized nations.”
We see whatever move the United States makes, Russia takes the opposite to supply and support its ally. While the United States continues to support human rights and those fighting for democracy, the tensions continue rising, and the United States must be careful fighting the war against Assad and avoid a war with Russia.
Previous Actions Taken by the US
The United States came into the Syrian Civil war in early 2011, when sanctions were ordered against Assad to try to force him out of the presidency. From onwards of 2011, the United States began to withdraw ambassadors and diplomats, and in 2012 the Obama administration told Assad that the use of chemical weapons was a red line, and may require immediate military intervention.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” President Obama said.
In August 2013, Assad ordered an assault against rebels in Damascus, which utilized chemical weapons and left hundreds dead—many of them children. US intelligence found the assault was assembled by high ranking officials of Assad’s government. After this attack, Obama wanted congressional approval to initiate a limited military intervention, but the proposal was met with great skepticism from both parties, mainly the house.
In early September, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave Obama the authority to take minimal military action, however, a full Senate vote passed, and Congress never gave a final authorization to give Obama the ability to use force. Instead, the United States and Russia created a disarmament agreement to dissolve Syria’s chemical weapons supply, which was to be completely dissolved by mid-2014. In June, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) told the world that the last of Syria’s “declared” chemical weapons had left the country, however, the OPCW announced that they could not confirm if Syria had any non-declared chemical weapons, and only time would tell.
Later, the Obama administration asked lawmakers if they could approve his plan to train and arm Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State of the region. Eventually, Congress approved the request with bipartisan support. During that time the United States also performed some military strikes against the state, which included support from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan.
In 2016, an investigation led by the United Nations and the OPCW found that Syria used banned chemical weapons—namely chlorine gas—in attacks in 2014 and 2015. The investigation concluded that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) used mustard gas—a banned substance—in multiple attacks.
In 2017, President Trump signed a controversial executive order that would put an indefinite travel ban for refugees from Syria. However, the media characterized Trump as racist and discriminatory against Muslims, and courts across the country halted the order.
In April, a report out of Syria found that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons once again, this time killing dozens of women and children. Officials in Turkey reported that tests on the victims found traces of sarin, a banned nerve gas.
President Trump and many other American officials condemned the attacks as horrifying, disturbing, inhumane, and a breach of the 2013 agreement. Trump described the incident as crossing “many lines” for him, “beyond a red line.” A couple days later the Trump administration announced they would be taking military action against the Syrian base from which the attacks were launched. The Pentagon announced that 59 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles were launched to Al Shayrat airfield in Syria, targeting Syrian fighter jets, hardened aircraft shelters, radar equipment, ammunition bunkers, sites for storing fuel, and air defense systems. This attack destroyed 20% of the Syria airforce, Secretary Mattis claimed, and dealt serious damage to Syria’s military forces.
Earlier this year, President Trump ordered a joint attack with France and Britain against Syria for using chemical weapons again. Trump gave a press release to justify and explain why the White House ordered such an attack.
“Last Saturday, the Assad regime again deployed chemical weapons to slaughter innocent civilians, this time in the town of Douma near the Syrian capital of Damascus. This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons used by that very terrible regime.” Trump said. “The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.”
“We pray that God will guide the whole region toward a future of dignity and of peace. And we pray that God will continue to watch over and bless the United States of America.” Trump concluded.
Can the United States end the Syrian Civil war?
Not if the United States continues to fight the way it is now, because every time the United States has punished Assad for his crimes, he has always come back, abusing people, using chemical weapons, and spreading propaganda. If we want to stop the Syrian Civil War, the United States needs to stop wasting resources on strategies that aren’t working and instead, determine how our intervention will solve the problem. The reason Libya fell apart was that the United States was so bent on solving the terrorist problem, it didn’t foresee how the state would be afterward. If the United States wants to “defeat evil,” it truly has to defeat it and use all of its resources to destroy, occupy, and rebuild a new Syria.
Only time will tell.