Back in mid March 2011 the Syrian people began demonstrating peacefully, asking for their basic human rights. There weren’t asking for Bashar al Assad to leave power, only that he treat the people with respect. What really started the revolution was the murder of Hamza al Khatib, a young boy who had written graffiti on a wall that it was time for Bashar al Assad to step down. His mutilated body was handed back to his parents, the regime thought this would send a strong enough message to the people, enough to keep them quiet. The total opposite happened.
Several times I met Sheikh Haroun al Zoubi, who was Hamza’s teacher, Haroun was also the leader of the Omari mosque in Daraa, the city where the Syrian revolution started, he told me first hand about those first days of protest. After the death of Hamza, he told the people of Daraa that they had a choice to make, to be with the government that kills children or to be with the revolution. In the beginning, in fact for the first six months, the people protested peacefully, without force. Despite this, the government used Hezbollah and Iranian militia to attack the protestors and would then leave boxes of ammunition at the scene as ‘evidence’ to say that the protestors had fired on government troops. I know this for a fact, I interviewed Zaid Tlass who was a general in the Syrian army until his defection and he knew Bashar al Assad personally, in fact his family was very close to the regime, Mustafa Tlass was defense minister to Hafez, the father of Bashar. I also interviewed Firas Tlass, his son.
The government used Hezbollah and Iranian militia as well as the infamous ‘Shabiha’ to try to put down the protestors because it knew it could not count on the ordinary Syrian soldiers to do the job,. The normal military saw no reason to fire upon its own people. In fact the first officer to defect from the Syrian army was Abdul Razzak Tlass, he was morally outraged at the fact he was asked to kill his own people who were protesting peacefully. The shock of this to the government was considerable, it was inconceivable that anyone of the Tlass family would be disloyal to Bashar al Assad. I was privileged to have the opportunity to get to know Abdul’s fiancee Asmaa, who herself had been tortured by the government, she spoke very clearly about the actions of the Syrian government.
At the beginning of the revolution there was no religious ideology, or the idea to fight a religious war. Before the Assad regime came to power in the 70′s, all the religious groups, Sunni, Shia, Druze, Jew and Christian had been getting along. I saw an example of this when I was in Aleppo, I was in a small square, on three sides there was a mosque, a synagogue and a church. The Syrian people know how to get along with one another. However the regime developed the idea of religious division to strengthen its position. First it forced the Jews out and then it made the remaining groups fear each other, that if it ever lost power then there would be bloodshed along religious lines.
As time went on in the revolution, the Syrian government permitted religious extremist groups to develop strength in Syria, directly aiding them, in order to give substance to the idea that only the regime gives stability. But when you look at who the extremists are, they are 90% foreigner. For example the ex ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) leader in Membij, Syria was a Jordanian who worked at the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan. It has become clear that there are the genuine Al Qaeda groups in Syria and those who are using Qaeda as a front for other means. When the rebels got organized and decided to fight back, many ISIS fighters ran for cover in government controlled areas
Then we have to look at external influences in the Syrian conflict. When Bashar al Assad came to power he permitted Iran to have influence in Syria in ways his father Hafez never permitted. Politically, economically and militarily. When the revolution began, many of the conscripted Syrian soldiers deserted as soon as they could, in fact it is militia of Iran and Hezbollah who are doing most of the fighting on the ground. Assad has become little more than a puppet on a string who is controlled by Iran. Iran is paying many poor Iraqis to fight in Syria, it can’t afford to lose its huge investment of time and money, it has a large expansionist ambition that has Syria at its center.
On the other hand there is the USA. They prefer that Assad stays in power because it is better to deal with what you know rather than what you don’t. However they are also using the development of religious extremists in Syria. There is an old strategy of getting your two enemies to fight each other. The USA wants to restrict Iran’s expansionist plans, so it has permitted Qaeda and associated groups to develop, turning a blind eye to the import of heavy weapons through Turkey, a fellow NATO member.
They are hoping to allow the Sunni religious extremist groups to get strong enough to be able to fight against Iran which is Shia. The recent nuclear deal with Iran was simply a way to allow Iran to be able to sell more oil so that it would have the money to put into supporting Assad in Syria. Allow your enemies to get strong enough so they can have a real fight. This also suits the Sunni and Shia extremists who believe there needs to be a war between them to decide who has the one true faith.
In the meantime the ordinary Syrian people, the vast majority of whom have no interest in religious conflict, who are suffering tremendous hardship, either in their own country or as refugees in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It appears that the international community has very little interest in helping them.