This piece originally appeared on Warscapes magazine here.
This past week, Al Jazeera Plus uploaded a video on Facebook featuring producers Sana Saeed and Tarek Abu-Esber entitled “Is the US at war with Syria?” Their conversation, taking place over the board game “RISK,” is representative of a larger American discourse that completely misses the point on the power dynamics happening in and over Syria. Syria is not a question of “which states are at war with each other,” but rather a question of “in a world where states have hegemonic power, can a revolution be successful without adequate international support?” In fact, no states have directly declared war on each other as a result of the current situation in Syria, despite many parties being involved in military operations.
Perhaps the most startling thing about the AJ+ video is how Sana and Tarek, as Western civilians, engage in a discussion that is completely out of sync with the conversation taking place between Syrian civilians about US involvement. Syrians know that the US is not at war with Syria just by looking up at the sky, which is filled with a criss-cross of Assad regime aircraft and US-led coalition aircraft that never skirmish. They see US support of the opposition forces as consistently inadequate, and indicative of a “bleeding out” policy. When Americans position the United States as a primary aggressor in the Syrian conflict and frame the conversation exclusively within the logic of US imperialism and the War on Terror, they’re proliferating a narrative that doesn’t apply to the Syrian civilian. This framing is dangerous, erasing the Syrian context by homogenizing its conflict with the illegal US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. This leaves little room to consider the popular anti-dictatorship movement that gave rise to the conflict.
To understand the structures of violence operating in Syria today, the conversation should place the Syrian civil society activist at its center and map out culpable parties based on their responsibility to safeguard the inherent dignity of the civilian. This “civilian-centered approach” immediately places the Syrian regime as the primary actor culpable in creating and perpetuating violence within the state. All other actors, therefore, commit violence in Syria in relation to the Syrian regime.
The Main Conflict: Regime vs. Citizens
In the international system of governance where states have hegemonic power, it is the state that has direct responsibility in ensuring the inherent dignity of its citizens is upheld. Therefore, to the Syrian citizen, it is the Syrian state that is directly responsible for its well-being. The Syrian state is governed by the Assad regime, which has a direct monopoly on state infrastructure.
Syria as a state is governed by the Assad regime under illegitimate State of Emergency Law, repressing public and private liberty for 40 years. While the Assad regime signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, they violate the legal guidelines for state of emergency law to blatant extremes. The regime didn’t just practice torture (prohibited in Article 7)—it was notorious for it. The regime didn’t just restrict freedom of speech (prohibited in Article 18)—it had a program designed to monitor a civilian in their public and private life. The regime didn’t just punish criminals without precise terms (prohibited in Article 15)—it punished civilians indefinitely without charge of crimes.
The most visible example of Syrian regime brutality can be seen in the 1982 Hama Massacre, where the military cracked down on political organizers and killed between 10,000-40,000 people in the span of a month. While the exact casualty number is unknown, Syrians describe the event as “an entire generation of young people wiped out.”
Systemic brutality can also be seen in the Syrian policing and prison system. Despite being branded as a socialist state, all political groups, including leftist groups, were outlawed in Syria and suspected members were picked up and imprisoned. People were routinely imprisoned without charge and incarcerated for years to decades. Syrian state prison torture cannot be underscored enough for its brutality—documents, reports, testimonies, and an entire genre of “prison literature” all detail “unique” and “innovative” torture techniques inflicted on civilians. So infamous are these techniques that the CIA torture report released last December revealed the United States sent detainees to Syria for torture via rendition. In thewords of former CIA agent Robert Baer: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria.”
Outside of prison, government agents repressed freedom of speech through the mukhabarat program, an insidious method of secret policing aimed at bending public and private behavior of the civilian to conform to the regime’s will. The goal of the Syrian regime wasn’t to wholeheartedly brainwash citizens, but rather to coerce them into behaving “as if” they believed in the regime, making them aware of their submission through regurgitated illusions.
These attributes of the regime lead Syrians to join the anti-dictatorship protests that swept parts of the MENA region in 2011, actions that initially appeared to garner international support. When civilians came together and, from their coalescence, the popular anti-dictatorship protests emerged in 2011, the regime declared war on them. Marchers and protestors were met with military police, neighborhoods were destroyed by tanks and others later placed under siege, and finally in 2012, the regime began dropping bombs on predominantly civilian areas. These bombs are commonly filled with TNT, shrapnel, or chemical weapons. Syrian and international monitoring groups agree that the Syrian regime isn’t just attacking armed militias—the regime deliberately targets civilians and civilian infrastructure. Pertinent examples are barrel bombs, which have a 95-97% civilian casualty rate and have claimed well over 12,000 lives so far, the “starve and siege” policies entrapping 600,000 civilians, the deliberate attack on medical workers and hospitals by the Syrian government, as documented by Physicians for Human Rights, and the Syrian torture photos released by a military defector which document 11,000 people tortured to death in Syrian prisons during the war. As scholar Kheder Khaddour writes, the regime targets civilians and civilian infrastructure to strengthen its monopoly on state infrastructure and destroy all other options where self-governance can emerge.
Iran and the United States: States complicit with the Syrian Regime
After establishing that the Syrian regime is at war with Syrian civilians, how do we understand the actions of other states? Are any of them, as Sana and Tarek asked in the beginning of their conversation, at war with Syria?
The answer is, no. No international state has directly challenged the Syrian regime militarily, except Turkey on minor occasions in self-defense. This is because the original conflict is between the Syrian regime and Syrian civilians—all other state and non-state actors are fighting in Syria to protect their own political interests, and commit violence within the country in relation to the Syrian regime.
Iran is directly complicit with the actions of the Syrian regime, providing financial and military support that is responsible for propping up Assad. According to a report by the Iranian monitoring group Naame Shaam, Iran became involved in the Syrian uprising in 2011 to protect its ally Bashar al-Assad and secure their arms shipment route to Hezbollah. Iran established the National Defense Force in Syria, which was responsible for repressing civilian protests throughout 2011, and is still active in policing civilians. The Iranian regime is operating as an occupying power in Syria today—General Qassem Soleimani, the commander-in-chief of Sepah Qods (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign operations arm), is the military head of Iran in Syria. Iranian flags are commonly seen flying over regime-occupied areas of Syria, and last week Ahrar al Sham, a group loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was negotiating with Iran to end the regime and Hezbollah’s joint assault on Zabadani. Negotiations fell apart because Iran insisted on a full evacuation of Zabadani, but residents refused to leave.
Though it appears the United States is in direct opposition to the Syrian regime, this is not true. The Obama Administration has been consistent in publicly condemning the regime and avoiding any action to check their power. America avoided military confrontation with the Assad regime despite their history of direct violence against civilians. This history includes the deployment of chemical weapons, outlawed by multiple UNSC resolutions on Syria. Some of these resolutions even allow for the use of military measures against the regime if violated, but no effort has been made to pursue that route from the United States on the Security Council. After ISIS swept across Iraq, executing scores of citizens, religious minorities, journalists, and proliferating videos of the carnage across global media, the Obama Administration was pressured to respond and created the US air coalition to halt their advance. The coalition included assets from Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This force entered Syrian airspace in September 2014, with tacit understanding between the Syrian regime and coalition governments that the latter would not interfere with regime air operations. This commitment to non-confrontation from the United States is further seen in recent headlines concerning a Turkey-US safe zone in northern Syria. In an awkward dance, Turkey declared that the safe zone would include protections from regime bombs, but this declaration was immediately followed by the United States denying such protections. Bearing this in mind, the US air coalition has killed hundreds of civilians in their operations against ISIS, according to a report by independent monitoring group Airwars.
A big question concerning Americans, which Sana Saeed brought up in the AJ+ video, is how US action in Syria fits in with our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria is not an extension of our legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but involvement over the country is an indication of a clear shift in how the US assigns culpability towards states harboring terrorist groups. Pre-9/11, states were deemed to be terror supporters by the US if they condoned attacks by non-state actors and clearly expressed that such attacks aligned with state interests. In the post-9/11 era, the Bush Administration lowered the standard for culpability by erasing the distinction between state and privately armed terrorist groups. This interpretation was used to justify the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama Administration, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to not confront states that harbor terrorists. This interpretative shift can be seen as a largely good thing, except in an extreme case like Syria, where the Assad regime can continue waging war on civilians alongside the US air coalition’s anti-terrorism mission against ISIS.
Mainstream Discussions on Syria Must Center the Civilian
While there is still much left to be discussed about the role of other states and privately armed group’s military operations in Syria, it’s important to center our conversations around civilian needs, realities, and requests. The repercussions of failing to do so can already be seen in mainstream conversations on Syria: confusion about how Syria fits in with America’s legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan led to the “Hands off Syria” movement, refugees fleeing to Europe are simply labeled as “migrants,” and daily casualties from regime bombings have yet to stoke mass public outrage. Centering our understanding of Syria from the viewpoint of civil society activists recognizes them as the most valuable actors in the conflict and builds a narrative that represents and reaffirms their struggle. Most people, for example, are unaware that the Syrian Civil Defense, a neutral, non-partisan first responder group, has worked tirelessly for over two years to save lives and advocate for the end to bombs within their country. Through a civilian lens, we can make sense of power dynamics and structures of violence “from the ground up,” and position our discourse and advocacy around their needs.