Syria’s Civil War
Sep 15, 2012

As the Syrian civil war approaches its second year, the situation is becoming all the more dire – not only in terms of the increased violence, but also in the lack of a foreseeable ­resolution. The complexity of this conflict is becoming all too apparent. Already involving its neighbours, the situation has caused a regional humanitarian crisis and has more competing sides than western media cares to report. Indeed, until recently it was only called a “conflict” for fear of overstating what caused 20-30 thousand deaths. The media coverage often belies the realities of who is fighting, what their motives are and how chaotic the various Syrian allegiances are. The Syrian civil war is not a simple case of good versus evil, and it will not have a clean end. With the foreign bloodletting potential of the First World War, the competing factions of the Spanish Civil War, and the ethnic quagmire of Yugoslavia, lessons from past conflicts will direct the west’s involvement in the ­fratricidal conflict now engulfing the region: avoid Syria’s civil war at all costs.

The Turkish Province of Hatay is a window into the current and mounting complexities of the war. Formerly a part of French-occupied Syria, Hatay voted peacefully to join Turkey in 1939, and until 18 months ago it enjoyed a stable tourist industry. This slice of land has been thrust into a neighbouring war where one now finds Syrian refugees, rebel soldiers and wounded civilians among the local Turks.

Grey Conflict
Hatay’s hotels are now filled with Syrian occupants. Owners are pleased with the business boom, but not necessarily with the clientele. One needs look no further than hotel lobbies to see the competing factions of Syria all sipping tea around the same breakfast buffets.

Both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad supporters (typically the rich and middle class who can afford hotels rather than refugee camps) and affluent rebel supporters and leaders are here – willing to share the space if it spares them the horrors only kilometres away. Their conversations over breakfast are typically calls to back home, asking about relatives in Aleppo or Damascus. Their fears are the same; have loved ones been hurt or killed, have stores and houses been destroyed? But they lay the blame on different sides. Some say they are fleeing armed terrorists who steal, kidnap and kill and simply force the regime to retaliate, to protect innocent civilians. But they don’t flee the regime itself. Others rail against the draconian Assad regime, its rapist soldiers and the feared “Shabiha” paramilitary units they employ.

Despite the presence of Syrian rebels, one thing becomes clear while roaming the hotels of Hatay; it’s not hard to find supporters of the Assad regime. So many, in fact, that it belies the simple truth purported by the western media that the majority of Syrians want Assad to go. A large group want the regime to stay, and they support the government fighters they see as protectors, both of their families and their financial interests.
So Close, but So Far
Not far from the relative luxury of hotels playing host to wartime guests, are Hatay’s sprawling refugee camps. Here, in this home to over 65,000 Syrian refugees, one sees a different reality. Here, one is unlikely to hear any kind words for Bashar al Assad. The camps are relatively hygienic and well run – a testament to the Turkish Red Crescent and Turkish military. Nonetheless, they allow a very limited standard of living, even if they save lives from the onslaught back home.

But the camps do not host all of the Syrian refugees that fled to Turkey. An unknown number, estimated to be another 65,000, refuse to live inside the confines of tents and fences. They have simply occupied abandoned Turkish homes or arrive in rural Turkish border towns in such numbers that local communities are forced to put together their own forms of communal housing to accommodate them. These groups of refugees are scattered across the border, they have not registered with the government and are completely dependent on the hospitality of their Turkish hosts and foreign aid groups. But, how long can that support last? Their numbers are pushing the limits of the Turkish ability to absorb and provide for them, even with aid group assistance.

Syria’s poor seem to be bearing the brunt of the war. They did not prosper under Assad’s rule, and see little to gain from him staying. Alternatively, they see potential for a better future if his regime falls. So, it is from the ranks of the refugees and their lower-middle class or rural kin in Syria that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is getting most of their support and manpower. The old green and three star flag of Syria flies over many refugee tents, not Bashar’s black and red flag. The bodies of Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers killed in Syria are brought over the border to be buried in Turkish soil, near their refugee families.

Boiling Water
A hotel owner looks at his Syrian guests and says in basic English, “This is boiling water” as his fingers dance to mimic bubbles. He’s referring to the unique history between Hatay and Syria that also plays into the regional complexities. And he’s also warning of the great anger and distrust many local Turks feel after 18 months of spending their taxes on hosting over 65,000 (official) Syrian refugees. Some towns in Hatay now have more Syrians than Turks. The provincial capital of Antakya has traffic jams with cars bearing only Syrian license plates. Complicating matters is that many Syrians now here had grandparents who were born in Syrian Hatay, before Turkey annexed it in 1930.

In turn, many local Turks have Alawite blood (Alawite being the Islamic sect to which Bashar al Assad and his inner circle belong to); the descendants of those who never left after the Turkish annexation. They are staunch supporters of the Assad regime, and have no interest in Turkey playing host to rebel soldiers and their supporters. Other Turks, however, use the standard Turkish term of “dust” when referring to their Arab neighbours and guests. There is little love lost between the groups. So now in Hatay, some Syrians are returning to land many feel is rightly theirs (national maps in Syria still show Hatay as being Syrian). Meanwhile, some Alawite-Turks are pushing their army to expel Syrian rebels, while other Turks want all the Syrians gone, and Alawite-Turks are eyeing their Turkish brothers wearily, and vice-versa. The fires stoked in Syria do indeed have the water boiling in Hatay.

What Free Syrian Army?
The Free Syrian Army soldiers who use Hatay province to heal and stage their armed returns into Syria make one thing very clear; there is, in fact, no Free Syrian Army. That message, from the hodgepodge of Syrian civilians who now call themselves soldiers, is one of the few things they have in common. Students, teachers, lawyers, doctors and engineers – the men who make up what the western press calls the Free Syrian Army, are untied only in the goal to overthrow the Assad regime. Beyond that, they are divided along regional, ethnic and family lines. They mistrust each other as much as they mistrust former Syrian Army defectors who have joined their ranks (another source of internal strife and reluctant trust). There is no cohesive leadership and little cooperation between “units” – which are little more than armed groups of friends, family and neighbours.

Their conflicting visions of a new Syria is evident at a hospital (the lobby of an abandoned hotel) being run by international doctors. Sitting 500 metres from the Syrian border, injured rebel soldiers and civilians are rushed in, carried across border fences just down the street that the Turkish army keeps open. Their wounds show what tanks and mortars do to the human body, and are horrific. Recovering in the hotel-turned-wartime-hospital, rebel soldiers joke and smoke cigarettes, and are quick to boast to fellow patients about why their unit is superior. There is a certain sense of camaraderie between the men scarred by shrapnel, burns and amputations, but it comes between the hushed put-downs and warnings of what will come once Assad is gone.

This band of soldiers – united in name only – is symbolic of another problem. While there is no cohesive military leadership to the rebellion, there is also no cohesive political opposition to guide the rebel cause. Without a unified cause, the future of a post-Assad Syria is one of competing visions, each equally valid. The rebels need a singular guiding party or leader to emerge, but vying for that position may prove as bloody as bringing down Assad. These wounded rebels vow that their own particular vision is the future of Syria, be it secular, Islamic, democratic, or run by a military junta. Regardless of a new government, they are all vying for the best post-Assad option, and are certain the others will quickly hunt them down if they are not in a leadership position at that time, which means having the most men, weapons and land to their unit’s name.

One soldier from the “Al Farouk” regiment tells his fellow wounded that the real work of building a new and prosperous Syria will begin once Assad goes (his group advocates an Islamic state that is democratic and multi-ethnic). Privately, he fears that the real bloodletting will also come at that time too. He proudly states that Al Farouk has no defectors from the Syrian army in its ranks and never follows orders from units with defectors as commanders. It’s commonly-heard rhetoric in the hospital. He concedes that former generals are likely to be among the new power brokers after Assad, and groups that didn’t cooperate with them during the civil war are “surely to be hung” for not complying.

In downtown Antakya, an apartment with the curtains drawn tight houses a group of wounded “FSA” soldiers. Ten of them are nursing wounds after a recent ambush. They have come to Turkey for safe medical care and re-supply, staying locked inside for weeks while they heal, hiding from Turkish police who may evict them and, they claim, from Syrian agents hunting them down. This group too, the youngest of which is 16, refuses to take command from anyone but their own 26-year-old leader. They are all friends and family from the port-town of Latakia, and claim to have formed a group of nearly 50 soldiers. Their commander, a pensive maritime trade student turned freedom fighter insists that no outsider can take command of his men, and never will. They are fighting for their region and they will defend it from all intruders, government or rebel. The most ridiculous suggestion is that foreign militaries should command or guide his men. It is not so much insulting, as it is a fantasy.

No End Game
While there are myriad calls for foreign intervention, or at least a unified United Nations stance and sanctions, Syria’s civil war is simply too risky for western or middle eastern governments to step into.

While the future of Syria and Syrians in Turkey grows murkier with every Syrian death, one current reality seems to be ­solidi­­fying: there will be no outright foreign intervention. Turkey and other neighbours will continue to host Syrian refugees who are fleeing both of the warring parties. And with no true objective being stated by either the rebels or Assad, there can be no end in sight.

While it is true that Turkey is offering covert military aid and training to rebels, and the UK and Middle Eastern states are sending non-lethal technical supplies, that will be the foreseeable limit of outside involvement.

Western states, NATO and Syria’s neighbours know that – despite its simple optics of “united rebels” vs. “a draconian regime” – the civil war is too complex, and the stakes too great of a spreading conflict, to risk backing wrong sides or angering other governments.

Syria, if handled wrongly, could become the Sarajevo of the 21st century; a distant conflict that drags nations from around the world into war. The systems of international alliances connecting Syria with the world (be they economic, political or ethnic) are a dangerous web that mirrors those of 1900s Europe. Turkey’s tiny Hatay province itself is a symbol of regional tensions that need to be controlled, and shows how quickly neighbours are pulled in. Iran’s sabre-rattling to protect the Assad regime (let alone Russia and China stalemating the UN) is indicative of how America, NATO and even Israel are all potential unwilling players in a violent outcome if they overplay their hands.

And so, for better or worse, the world will do nothing, and will continue do to nothing – the risk is simply too great.

Check the following links for photos and videos from Syria.
Syrian Refugees
Rebel Funeral
Christopher Bobyn is a photo-journalist based in Germany.  
© FrontLine Defence 2012