The Arab Spring and Islamism: Stories from the Syrian frontline

Since March 2011, Syria has been the site of a growing conflict between rebel and loyalist factions. More than 60,000 are believed dead from this clash, with the status of many more unknown. Upwards of 500,000 Syrian refugees have fled to other countries. Despite the scale of this fight, most Americans remain largely unaware of events in Syria or their significance. National Public Radio’s Foreign Correspondent, Deborah Amos, spent some time Thursday evening giving a much closer and more direct perspective on the fighting and its ramifications for the rest of the world.

Amos began by describing the border city of Antakya, Turkey, where over 100,000 Syrian refugees and most journalists and reporters position themselves to get the most information on the goings-on in Syria. It has become a place where the rebels can take some time to relax. It is where they leave their families and loved ones to keep them safe. It has also become highly populated by the Syrian middle class. Since Syrians do not need a visa to travel into Turkey, they can “drive into Turkey… and… wait out the war.” There are now four crossings open along the border between Turkey and Syria, with the nearest one so close to the city that one can actually take a short cab ride to the crossing and quickly step out of Turkey into “a lawless land run mostly by armed, bearded men.” The Syrian government no longer has much control over these crossings. One has even been taken over by a former cigarette smuggler who saw a chance for greater profit in this gateway between lands. In regards to the situation on the ground, Amos summed up the situation by saying that “a lot of it is just plain odd.”

Though this conflict has been compared to the recent rebellion in Egypt, Amos argues that there are some major distinctions between the two. The Syrian uprising began as a response to intelligence officials torturing and refusing to release a group of teenagers who had been tagging buildings with anti-government graffiti. Activists who had helped organize the protests in Egypt took what they had learned and applied it to Syria spreading the word through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.
Satellite news channels also helped spread the news, which helped to counter the news blackout the government initiated soon after the combat began. The loyalist government actually threw all of the international media out of the country and began issuing propaganda that the rebellion was “a revolt of foreigners,” started and run by people outside the country and not by actual Syrians. The rebels countered with their own propaganda on Youtube, using whatever means they could to document what was actually happening in the country. It quickly turned into a “battle of the narratives,” with both the government and rebels working hard to convince fellow Syrians and the rest of the world to believe their version of events. Despite the continued fighting on the ground, Amos points out that through the rampant propaganda and cyber warfare used by both sides, “The conflict in Syria has morphed into a media war.”

However, one of the main things that separates this conflict from the one in Egypt is the loyalty of the various institutions. In Egypt, when the rebellion began to gain traction, most members of the Army found themselves with the same gripes and issues as the rebels. As such, they joined forces and helped the Egyptian rebels in many ways. In Syria, the Assad family has ruled for so long that there are essentially no government institutions that are separate from the family. As such, rebels can expect no help from any Syrian armed forces, as they are largely tied to the ruling family and other loyalists.

Another factor in this conflict is the “youth bulge” in Syria’s population. More than 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old and a large majority of the youth is well educated. They have taken up the responsibility to free their country from what they see as an oppressive regime and became a sort of “vanguard of young people leading the rebellion.” Many had to sneak out to protest and fight against the wishes of their parents and then later helped to educate their parents on how to aid the rebellion.
One of the worst casualties in this war seems to be the country of Syria itself. The number of refugees fleeing the country is expected to continue to grow, despite the fact that neighboring countries do not have the space or the financial means to sustain such a growth in population. Allegations that the Syrian government is attacking civilians continue to be made.

The conflict shows no obvious signs of ending soon and the Syrians who began the rebellion sit back in forced despair as their war starts to become influenced by outside sources. The rebels are willing to take help from any source that will supply it and as a result, have found themselves allying with extremist groups and foreign governments alike. There are so many groups involved in the conflict now that even if Assad falls, there will likely be some sort of power struggle to determine who gets to be in charge of the war-torn country. As Amos pointed out, “Syria has the potential to re-shape the geopolitical landscape,” and there is currently no plan for who will assume command if the conflict ends with a rebel victory. “Syria has fundamentally changed [and]… no one in the opposition knows how the country should look afterward.”

As Amos impressed upon the audience the gravity of the situation and the dire need for solutions in both areas of humanitarian aid for the refugees and planning for the future of the country in general, she remarked of the United States’ policy of trying not to act without understanding the ramifications, “inaction also has consequences.”

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