September 11, 2013

Remembering 9/11, and 5 Things You Should Know About the Syrian Revolution

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We take a break from art, design, and music to remember the victims and survivors of 9/11 and their families. May they find peace, strength, and healing. 

When I was a child, I used to think that the United States was the greatest country on Earth. In many respects, it is, and sometimes I think that we don't give the US the credit it sometimes deserves. We mock them occasionally for considering themselves "the world's sheriff" but when a major disaster happens internationally, we look to the US for first steps, expecting them to be the first to offer aid, to broker agreements, and to be a moral compass for us all.

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I'd also like to focus on a current major crisis - the Syrian Revolution. From where I write and where most of my readers are (Hong Kong and Malaysia presumably), the events unfolding in Syria may seem very distant, a blip in our daily radar. Besides that, given the wars and proxy wars that have taken place since 9/11, there is a distinct sense of lethargy, of antipathy, and of cynicism. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and then the constant threat of Iran and its ideas of nuclear enrichment. 

Why is the Syrian uprising important? Events in Syria will very likely beget spillover effects in the Middle East and maybe the wider world. We will see more Syrian refugees - from those who are affluent or quick enough to escape the carnage in their country; we may see fiefdoms and a rearrangement of powers in the Middle East, and change in policies in countries near Syria such as Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq - countries that possess some importance on the agenda of the United States. We are all connected, and we should stay informed.

5. Why are people in Syria killing each other?
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Moderate protests began in Syria in April 2011 as a response to the regional Arab Spring (during which protests took place in Tunisia and Egypt) and government corruption. The protests gained momentum nationwide, to which the government under President Bashar al-Assad responded with large arrests, torture, censorship of events, and police brutality. Despite the initial crackdown, protests grew all the same. The Assad government then ordered large-scale military strikes, using artillery, infantry carriers, and tanks, which led to a high number of civilian deaths. The military has deployed all over the country, with Homs, Daraa, and Latakia being some of the heavy-hit cities.

Then the civilians started firing back, organising themselves into rebel groups. Furthermore, because of the undue usage of lethal force against civilians, many soldiers and lower-level officers began to desert from the Syrian Army. 

Currently, the status is all-out civil war, with no end in sight.

4. What makes the Syrian uprising complicated?
The Syrian uprising has a strong element of sectarianism. Sectarianism may be defined as a form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from perceived differences between subdivisions in a group. The sharpest split between communities in Syria is between the country's Sunni Muslim majority and the Alawite ruling minority, of which President al-Assad is a part of. The Alawites possess certain special privileges, a fact resented by the Sunni majority. This makes the Alawites fearful of being purged en masse should Assad lose power.

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A map of Syria's sectarian lines

Other communities in Syria include the Christians, the Assyrians/Syriac in the north, Armenians, Kurds, the Druze in the south, Shi'ites, Turkmen, Palestinians, and Circassians. Each community has different levels of support for the government. 

3. What are the current numbers in the uprising?
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  • Two million refugees have flooded out of Syria to neighbouring countries.
  • More than five population centres have been destroyed, compared to Beirut in the Lebanese civil war.
  • The United Nations stated in June 2013 that it is likely that the death toll has exceeded 100,000, with 6,500 being minors. 

2. So this has been going on for 2 years - why is the US considering getting involved now?
Given that the United States has engaged in 3 wars in the last 10 years in the Middle East, it is somewhat understandable that it decided not to be actively involved in the crisis. However, on August 21, 2013, it was reported that Assad had unleashed chemical weapons in the Eastern Ghouta region (read the Violation Documentation Centre report here - so disturbing and upsetting). The usage of "chemical weapons" was deemed a red line, and the Syrian government had crossed it. 

Now, this is a bit tricky to explain. After all, you might ask: approx. 100,000 people have been killed by gunfire, rape, and torture among others, so why are we freaking out about 1,000 or so people being killed by chemical weapons?

War has been an ugly business over thousands of years. Often we like to think there are gallant soldiers, honourable agreements between opposing forces, etc. The idea of regulating war practices is relatively new; however, the Geneva Protocol attempts to prohibit the first use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflict. Why chemical weapons specifically? Because in battle, the general idea is to defeat the other side. Chemical weapons however do not specifically target combatants; they are more of a tool of terror than a battlefield weapon. 

1. This is bleak. What happens next?
President Barack Obama is considering launching a military strike against Assad. He has yet to obtain assent from Congress. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been a vocal advocate of military action. (Read more here.)

The latest as of this article's conception: Syria has acknowledged that it has chemical weapons and will give them up to win a reprieve from US military strikes. This seems quite wishy-washy - I honestly doubt that Assad will make significant concessions. These few days and the next week will probably see some turning point in the path of the uprising, hopefully for the better.

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