The Middle East is known to be and unfortunately, continues to be an extremely volatile area even till date. From the extremely strained Israel-Palestine conflict to the politics and tense dynamics involved in the trade of oil in the region- the vast region has seen it all. The region of the Middle East extends across the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterrenean sea. 1 Even though the term is exceedingly used nowadays, the evolution of this term hasn’t been a straight and simple journey. In some parts of the world, the region continues to be referred to as ‘Near East’ rather than Middle East, while some scholars continue to use the term ‘West Asia’ to refer to this part of the world. Today, the region includes various countries, which are: Cyprus, the Asian part of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, the countries of the Arabian peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait), and Egypt and Libya.
Of the existing conflicts in the region, one that is most widely known and that has led to catastrophic loss of life and property over the years, is the crisis in Syria. The civil war in Syria has been continuing for so long, has caused so much devastation, has led to loss of countless lives- that it is practically known to the majority of the world population today. For an issue that has been prolonged for so long and has caused so much loss, it is only fair for us to dive deep into the history of this civil war, the reasons for it and how it stands in the present times.
Located nearly in the heart of the Middle East, on the eastern side of the Mediterrenean sea, the lands of Syria expand over an area of 185,180 sq. kilometers. 2 The country is surrounded by Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and shares different borders with these countries.
The country goes long back in time, having deep historical connections- since it has been a part of the great empires of Rome, Persia and Macedon. Dating back to the 7th century, the country has been a major centre of Islam and thus, holds strong ethnic and religious connections. This can also be understood from the official name of the country, which is: ‘Al Jumhuriyah al Arabiyah’. However, in the present day, the country has a diversity in terms of ethnicity and culture and religion- which also has been one of the contributing factors to the current crisis. It is or rather, was a home to people from diverse ethnic groups and backgrounds- Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians.
The vast ethnic and cultural roots of the country can also be understood from the deep historical roots it has. The country has also been referred to in the Holy Bible 3 , where apostle Paul cited the ‘road to Damascus;, which is the largest city in the country.
Syria, as a country, has hardly witnessed an era of peace and stability. After decades under different empires, the country also went on to become major parts of both the World Wars. Even after gaining independence in 1946 from the British and French, the country was marked by repeated government coups.
However, this is not all. The country joined Egypt in 1958 , to form the ‘United Arab Republic’- which turned out to be an unsuccessful decision, following which there was a breakout in 1961 between the two, once united countries.. This was followed by Syria existing as an independent country but becoming prone to repeated tensions in the governments. This also went on to become one of the country’s worst nightmare ever.
The Bashar al-Assad years: Where it all started
Given the repeated history of the country where coups were becoming a common sight, it was only a matter of time, when in 1970 the Minister of Defence, Hafez al- Assad overtook and overthrew the leader of the Government- Salah Jadid.
Following this overturn, previously the minister of defence, Hafez Assad now became the President of the country and continues to remain so for the next thirty years, till his death in the year 2000. Hafez Assad’s presidency years were marked by what can be termed as dictatorial governance measures; wherein citizens were not given much freedoms and dissent was not tolerated. His initial Presidency years were also marked by wars with Lebanon and Israel. In the last few years of his rule, attempts were made at establishing peace and good relations with Israel, initially which had started with sternness and wars.
Hafez Assad’s passing away set up the throne of Presidency to be taken over by his younger son, Bashar al-Assad. Assad Junior, aged 34 years, started off his rule by reducing the minimum age required for president from 40 years to 34 years- this he did by amending the Constitution.
Within a year of him being in office, Assad initiated a strong crackdown on the citizens demanding for reforms in their country and hoping for greater freedoms, which were not present under Hafez Assad’s regime. The junior Assad’s rule proved to be even more devastating and dangerous for the Syrians than his father’s. With no opposition present and virtually no freedom to voice out their opinions against the government, the citizens were left in a serious loop of misery.
To protest the constant imposition of the martial law in the county, and to demand for greater freedom and rights, in September of 2000- hundred intellectuals from the country called for a lift on thee restrictions and more freedom. This subsequently came to be known as the ‘Damascus Spring’. 4
However, as stated above any hopes for a period of freedom, more political pluralism and competitiveness were only short lived as the Bashar- al Assad government started an equally serious crackdown on the protestors. Dissent was not promoted at all in the country under the new Assad regime. In July 2001, the government arrested 10 such opposers and outspoken challengers of the Governments.
Assad years in Syria and the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring refers to a series of socio-political uprisings in different countries of the Arab region. These were largely pro-democracy protests which demanded for the removal of many dictatorial leaders, who did not allow for freedom for their citizens, did not allow for basic rights to them.
The Arab Spring saw its beginning in the year 2011 and lasted till about 2012. The term is so collated because of the geographical location of the protests, that is, in the Arab region and they took place during the spring of 2011.
[Dark shaded portion signifies the areas where leadership change took place]
The incident that sparked off this whole range of demonstrations in the Arab countries was when a street vendor, named Mohammed Bouazizi in the Tunasian town of Sidi Bouzid-set himself to fire in front of a Government office.5 This major incident in a rather small town of Tunisia sparked off a range of anti-government protests across different countries of the Arab and Middle East region.
If analysed, the uprisings under the wave of the Arab Spring led to major changes in leadership in different countries, while led to more and wider set of rights in others. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Oman were among the countries that not only saw mass protests but also ended up seeing a change in the leadership of the country.
However, the bloom of spring is only restricted to the name of the movement and unfortunately, does not apply to the situation on the ground. The period was also marked by wide-scale arrests by authoritarian regimes, deteriorating freedom of speech and press and large killings so as to permanently shut down the opposing voices.
In a study by the Centre on Foreign Relations, 2020, which went on to understand the current status of democracy, freedom, and corruption in these very countries, after 10 years following the Arab Spring- the results were not satisfactory. Of all the countries that underwent pro-democracy movements, only Tunisia has continued to maintain the democractic framework. The standard of living has actually fallen off since the Arab Spring in countries like Libya, Syria and Yemen- which is significant in terms of rising prices, rampant corruption and unemployment.
Syria, which was still under the rule of Bashar al-Assad during the time of the Arab Spring uprisings, couldn’t stay remote from all that was happening in the neighbouring countries. The protest demonstrations in the neighbouring countries prompted the Syrian citizens, who had been living under a rather authoritarian regime for decades now, to similarly organise themselves and make long standing demands from their government.
The spark of the Arab Spring uprisings reached Syria in 2011 March, when what started from small scale protests, escalated into a major ongoing civil war. The protests were triggered in the Syrian town of Darra, when the government resorted to torturing of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. 6
Protests in Syria during the Arab Spring wave
It was only a matter of time that the protests from the town of Dara, spread to other parts of the country as well. Thousands emerged on the streets to demand for urgent reforms in the government’s function, demanding for greater freedoms, insisting on the ousting and removal of President Bashar al-Assad, many calling for the equal treatment of the minority community of Kurds and ensuring freedom of press and speech.
To temporarily disable the wide-scale protests, the government attempted at making several concessions, which however, were mostly insignificant. Then on April 21, the Assad government declared a repeal of the Emergency law- which had been in place in the country since 1963. This law endowed the Government with exceeding powers- which let it suspend constitutional rights.
However, as one of the strongest waves of Arab Spring protests was noticed in Syria, the country was also the one to witness the most stringent crackdowns by the Syrian government. The repeal of the emergency law was just a small distraction for the crackdown that was to follow. In just a few days, the government sent multiple troops of the security forces, with tanks into towns. The security forces went on to open fire on the protesters and made use of tanks and snipers to remove the protestors from the streets and end their demonstrations.
The Arab Spring wave in Syria resulted in the longest and bloodiest conflict in Syria. In the next section- attention will be paid to specifically understanding the nature of the conflict in Syria.
The Civil War
As the government continued with its crackdown on the protesting citizens, violence in the country went on to increase on a daily basis. 7 It was not long before that ever escalating conflict turned into a full fledged civil war, which continues to exist, without any solution. The country then saw government rebel groups being formed that tried to take control of different cities, they organised themselves in groups and designated different cities for each group.
This was escalated when the organisation reached the stage of rebel groups organising themselves under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) 8 . This rebel group advocated for the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad, who they took to be an absolutely authoritarian leader and advocated for better standards of living in the country.
While the FSA, which essentially came up as a rebel group against the Government, formed one pillar in contributing to the nation’s civil war, the other one was a factor that contributed due to the ethnic differences. Majority of the Syrians belong to Sunni sect of Islam. However, Bashar Assad was had allegiance to the Shiat Alwaite sect of Islam- and he gave undue preference to people belonging to the same sect. Serious tensions between the two sects was one of the major contributing factors to the civil war and continues to persist as a major problem to date. 9 While the protests were largely marked by slogans like, “No Sunni, no Allawi, no Kurd and no Arab, we all want freedom’- however, they subsequently developed into a majority Sunni-dominated opposition to an Sh’it Alawite-heavy regime. 10
However, with time- in front of the massive man-power of the Syrian government, the FSA fell short of both resources and man-power. Meanwhile, another group came into being- Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which was mainly stationed in Istanbul and claimed to Syria’s ‘government-in-exile’.11 It even received recognition by the United States, Turkey and Gulf Cooperation countries as having the status of the true and legitimate representative of the Syrian people. However, the National Council could hardly be of any effect. In turn, the FSA was able to put a better opposition- when it went on relate to Islamist brigades and therefore, received support from the Gulf countries.
The problem only increased with terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda making use of the ongoing crisis in the country, to declare one of its units, called Jabhat al-Nusra12 , to be operational in Syria. This was not all. The following month, Al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for all Sunnis in the country to unite in a ‘jihad’ 13 against the regime.
The irreplaceable losses
The Syrian Civil war has resulted in an immense loss of lives and property. Lots of precious lives have been lost, many families have lost their loved ones. As per the latest statistic available- the war has resulted in the loss of 207,000 lives. Of which, 25,000 are children. 14 So, about two million lives have been lost during the course of the now 10 year prolonged civil war, and even now there is no end to it. Thus, only indicating the possibility of more loss of lives.
In addition to the loss of human lives, there is a serious and persisting refugee crisis in the country, with many Syrians having to flee the country to protect their lives from the dangers of the war. While, others have undergone internal displacement. More than 6.6 million15 Syrian citizens have been forced to flee from their home country, since 2011- often taking refuge in neighbouring countries, mostly like Turkey, even there they don’t have a permanent refuge or settlement. And around 6.7 million people have been internally displaced, who are forced to move out of their original city or part of residence in the country.
As per the data provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, even after 10 years since the onset of the civil war in Syria, lives of people continue to remain unstable, there is hardly any standard of living. 13 million Syrians continue to be in need of support from external authorities, without being able to support themselves. Of these 13 million, 6 million Syrians are in dire support for their survival and well-being.16
Further, giving a glimpse of the grave form of crisis persisting in the country, the data presented by UNICEF, revealed that a massive 90% of the Syrian children are in an urgent need of assistance and humanitarian aid.17 there has been an increase in this percentage of children in need of assistance, by 20% in the matter of just year from 2019 to 2020.
The organisation’s data further comes with revealing data which has found out that nearly half a million Syrian children suffer from stunting18, which originates as a result of chronic and persistent malnutrition during the childhood years- thus, indicating that children are not getting basic nutrition.
Physical health is an evident loss that citizens in Syria are witnessing. But, there is another major problem that is not as evident, that is the effect on the mental and emotional well-being of the people residing in Syria, especially children-who have to witness so much trauma and loss at an extremely young age. The UNICEF data provides us with the statistics for this facto as well, where it has found that almost 50% of the children are undergoing a serious psychological duress. 19
There has been an evident loss in the economic growth of the country in the last decade of civil war. As found by the studies of the World Bank, the Syrian economy has undergone a shrinkage of nearly 60% since the civil war started in 2010. 20 There has been a shocking 300% increase in the inflation in the country, which indicates that the prices of goods and services in the country have increased multitudes.
Navigating India’s response to the Syrian Civil War
India is the largest democracy in the world21 and has been successfully continuing to exist under the democratic framework since its independence in 1947. Its successful implementation of the ideals of democracy and democractic governance, surely make for a case to be studied in terms of its response to the Syrian civil war.
Not only does the democractic framework serve as a grounds for this analysis, but its relations with other countries in the Middle East, most of which have supported the Assad regime, while others have supported the Sunni rebel groups- also serves as a basis for this analysis. Point also to be kept in mind is that a considerable amount of the country’s oil demands and needs are met through imports from the Middle East, with Iraq being the number one importer.22
Many scholars and observers have pointed out that India’s response to the Syrian crisis has never been expressive or out in the loud and has been subtle. During the initial years of the civil war (2011-2015),23 Indian governments voiced out an opposition to the involvement of any external party or of any other external forces to the Syrian conflict. The then Indian government also demanded for a stop to the violence and strongly advocated for a political solution to be arrived at through dialogue and deliberation.
India also extended support to the proposition of an ‘International Conference on Syria’ under the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, that could serve as the platform for the discussion of the political solution. 24 India also called for a total stop on the use of chemical weapons. And it went ahead to assert that India wishes for and advocates for a complete ‘destruction and elimination’ of chemical weapons not just in the Syrian war, but across the world.
In the Geneva II convention, convened by Russia, to discuss the solution to the persisting crisis in Syria, India was a participating member as well. Country’s then Foriegn Minister Salman Kurshid presented India’s stance on the issue, wherein he stated, “Excellencies, I extend India’s full backing to this important peace initiative and wish all participants successful conclusion of the deliberations, resulting in meaningful resolution of the conflict. Sustained peace and stability in the region is in our common interest. It is expected that all regional and international partners will demonstrate their meaningful support for constructive negotiations, in alignment with the UNSC Resolution 2118 (2013).”25
So, India for a long time didn’t vouch for a change in the regime and just pushed for an end to the violence through a political solution- mediated by international actors and other countries. This policy adopted by the Indian government was also acknowledged and welcomed by the Syrian government in 2015, as is understood from the statements of the then Syrian ambassador to India, Riad Kamal Abbas.
These views were reflected in a 2015 interview with The Hindu 26, where Ambassador Abbas stated that Syria was satisfied with India’s policy towards Syria and if every country would have gone ahead with a similar policy, there won’t be a prevailing crisis in the country. He also appreciated and agreed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s view of absolutely no dichotomy existing as ‘good and bad terrorism’- there’s simply terrorism. And asserted the need for a collective response to terrorism, referring to the groups of terrprist organisations like Al-Qaeda operating in Syria.
India has over the years gone from the subtle support to a slightly open support of the Syrian government in the course of the Civil war. India also maintained a diplomatic presence in the country through the years of the civil war, in the capital ity of Damascus by operating an embassy under the chargé d’affaires. 27 India has also delivered humanitarian aid to the country over the years. In 2018, the country delivered aid to the country worth US $6million worth of pharmaceutical products and food supplies. Under Indian Government’s initiative of ‘Study in India’, 393 Syrian students enrolled in different levels of higher studies during the academic year of 2018-2019.28
New Delhi’s response to the Syrian crisis can also be understood from India’s preference of stability over instability- so, India has been advocating for peace and stability in the region through a political solution. Further, and more important, as rightly pointed out by Ketan Mehta in his paper, ‘Understanding India’s response to the Syrian civil war’ (Mehta, 2017) 29 that India’s domestic problem of Kashmir- also plays a role in India’s response to the crisis in Syria. How India responds to the crisis in Syria at the international forum, will also affect the response of the international community to India’s problem of Kashmir.
New Delhi has maintained its opposition to foreign intervention and has asserted a state;s claim and right to sovereignty- taking this position helps the country not only with its view on the Syrian crisis but also in terms of the existing issues in Kashmir. In addition to this, New Delhi wouldn’t want an escalation in the Syrian crisis because that would lead to a disturbance in the Middle East and thus, affect India’s oil supplies. Further, India also has a concern for its apprxomately 7 million Indians working and staying in different countries of the Middle East. Any crisis in the Middle East will also unduly affect them and thus, their families back in India. 30
India and Syrian relations in the recent years
In recent years, even when India has undergone a change of government from the earlier UPA coalition to the present day NDA coalition government- India’s stance on the Syrian civil war largely remains the same. This can largely be understood from the principles of non-violence, avoiding military confrontation, peace- that have been majorly the guiding lights of the Indian state.
India has reiterated its position of arriving at a political solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria time and again. As India gained a non-permanent member seat in the United Nations Security Council this year, 2021- it has stated its commitment to playing a ‘constructive and meaningful’ role in the UNSC to help ending the civil war. 31
Along with arriving at a solution to the persisting crisis, India has also simultaneously urged the international community to come along and help the crisis-driven country on humanitarian grounds. This was reflected in the statement by TS Tirumurti,32 Indian Permanent Representative to the United Nations- who stated that the situation in Syria was disheartening and called for efforts from all countries to help the rebuilding of infrastructure in the country.
TS Tirumati’s statements also reflected the Indian government’s commitment to fight terrorsm at all costs. In his statement he further regretted the presence of foreign terrorist groups in the country, whose presence has only worsened the situation on the ground. Therefore, New Delhi has given out calls to the international actors to fight this terrorism at all costs.
True to its principles which go back in history, India has on a frequent basis and at various platforms stated its commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. Even when it has undergone a change in the political party in power- the policy towards Syria remains the same. India has stressed a political solution throughout the crisis years and continues to stick to it. Further, New Delhi has shown its commitment to establishing peace in the region by also providing humanitarian aid worth US $12 million shows India’s commitment to peace in the country goes down the road, is a matter yet to be seen.
The current status of the Civil war
While the fighting and the civil war per say cannot be declared to be over as yet, the intensity of the war has surely declined over the time, especially in the past few years. However, it is feared that any small event might also blow up into a major escalation. This was recently experienced when attempts were made by the Syrian military backed by Russia, to re-capture the Idlib region of the country, from one of the last few remaining armed opposition.33
Further, even on the north-east frontier of the country- the situation continues to remain tense since the time the US withdrew its forces. So, there now exists a direct confrontation between the Syrian and Russian forces with the military opposition groups. 34
The overall situation continues to remain in the worse state that it previously was. As per the World Report 2021 of the Human Rights Watch35, the country saw another year of economic hardships, as the currency depreciated and inflation continued to increase. The further imposition of international sanctions has added to further burden to an already burdened economy. In the same report it was highlighted that about 9.3 million Syrians were food insecure in 2020 and about 80% of the total citizens continue to live under the poverty line.
Human Rights Watch also documented, with evidence, 18 abuses and unlawful attacks in Idlib that took place between the period of January to March 2020. These attacks resulted in112 deaths and destruction of schools and medical facilities. As per the research conducted by Save the Children, it was revealed that 217 schools were either damaged or were left abandoned as result of the gruesome conflict in Iblid, in a matter of just four months (December 2019-March 2020).
As is evident from the above paragraphs, the problem in the country still persists, opposing groups continue to exist and the government crackdown continues. The situation continues to be volatile, while the situation at the level of citizens is miserable. It is important to note, that the Syrian problem is not simply an ‘internal’ problem anymore, many big players have a stake in it and therefore what course it takes will also be decided in terms of whether it benefits the major global players to benefit from it or lose the stake.
The Syrian Civil War in the present day has been ongoing for 11 years now. While the parties on both sides of the conflict have been involved in continuous warfare- the common citizens continue to suffer at the hands of those in positions of power and clout. The ongoing crisis and instability in the region has also allowed well-known terrorist organisations to enter in the already tense and heightened dynamics to make it even worse. As different players in this crisis try to make space for their own groups and try to retain control over the territory- there is a serious humanitarian problem in the country. Millions continue to flee to neighbouring countries- without any security and guarantee for a secure life. Children are born, only to see chronic hunger and malnutrition.
With such a devastating crisis existing in the country for more than a decade- the only feasible solution now can come from the international community. With India fast emerging at the world stage, it’s views, policies and stands regarding such issues become all the more critical. As pointed out throughout the paper, India’s emphasis has always been on arriving at a solution through political measures, rather than a military solution- which would lead to a further escalation in the unprecedented crisis. India’s consideration of the situation in Syria is surely driven by different factors that will structure it’s position on the world forum, as was pointed out above.
As an emerging and one of the topmost developing countries, India has an important role to play in the happenings at the global level. With it being a UNSC non-permanent member this year, it will definitely have a lot of say and stake in the global affairs. Its commitment to the quick resolution of the issue only proves New Delhi’s continuous commitment to world peace and stability, no matter which party is in power. With the history in place and new emerging opportunities and changes in the international community, it is only a matter of time that we see major decisions being taken and hopefully, a resolution to the unfortunate crisis in Syria.