A chronological examination of developments during the seven years of the Syrian uprising denotes several turning points. Each of them has crucial role in the unfolding Syrian drama, and more importantly each one of them seems to lead to the other and henceforth direct the conflict.
As we all know, the Syrian uprising has its roots in a peaceful movement that demanded social justice, and yet, it rapidly morphed into armed struggle for power between various actors. The uprising is characterized by deep divisions between all anti-Assad factions such as: rural / urban, secular / Islamist, and new generation / old generation. More importantly, there are deep divisions among regional and international powers which seem to overlap all turning points and add complexity to an already complicated picture.
In this context, there are six turning points that can be counted as critical in defining todays’ Syria:
The first one is the militarization of the uprising by late July 2011, which turned a civil movement into an armed struggle for power between various actors. This was mainly due to the regime rhetoric in utilizing hard power (al-hal al-‘amny ; al-hal al ‘askary—security and military solutions) to eliminate its opponents. However, unsurprisingly, state and non-state actors found a golden opportunity in supplying funds and arms to different militias that eventually would serve their interests. Saudi Arabia and Qatar were among the first states which funded militias. Turkey and the United States were to follow.
This indeed has led to the second turning point, which is the sectarianization of the uprising. The Syrian regime played with sectarian fire by pitting Alawite-dominated forces against Sunni-dominated rebels, and thus, portrayed the conflict as sectarian fight, and sectarian actions by the regime forces and the security dilemma certainly played vital roles in this. Moreover, non-state actors, Shi‘a militias on the ground, and the Sunni political entrepreneurs in some Gulf States manipulated sectarian identities for their ends.
Consequently, this polarization of sectarian identities triggered the third turning point which is the radicalization of the conflict with the establishment of Jabhaet al-Nusra—al-Nusra Front (NF) in January 2012. Since NF is a paramilitary organization with links to al-Qa‘ida, it forced the West and some Syrians to perceive the uprising as a fight against “terrorism.” In the truth, there are myriads of actors and factors responsible for the creation of NF: violence, sectarian manipulation by state and non-state actors, and the hesitant policies by the West in how to address the uprising–which had now turned into a bloody conflict. In addition, Turkey, while aiming to contain the Kurdish threat, empowered NF by turning a blind eye to jihadists infiltrating through its southern borders.
The strategy of no strategy by Western officials added chaos to an already chaotic conflict leading to the forth turning point, which is the chemical attack on eastern Ghouta. On 21 August 2013 Syrian forces launched sarin gas—a deadly chemical weapon—into the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta killing more than 1400 including civilians. Since the early days of the uprising, President Barak Obama declared chemical weapons as a “red line” and warned of a military retaliation if they were used by the Syrian regime. Well, the retaliation was limited to condemnation in a press release. No military response took place. The red line was crossed, and the rules of the game were tested. Several chemical attacks were reported later.
As a result, many rebels were provoked to join radical groups and, furthermore, it created a lethal vacuum which President Vladimir Putin has happily filled, and has been able to draw the rules of the game. This is the fifth turning point. In late September 2015 Russian forces intervened on the ground in Syrian changing the political and military equation as it radically swung the pendulum towards the Assad regime. Throughout the three years of his intervention, President Putin proved himself as de facto most powerful actor in today’s Syria, and moreover, in the future Syria.
The sixth and last turning point—for the meantime—is the Sochi Deal that prevented a looming deadly assault on Idlib—the last standing haven for rebels. On 17 September 2018 President Erdogan and his new good friend President Putin signed an agreement to create a fifteen-to-twenty-kilometer demilitarized zone in the province of Idlib which would see the removal of heavy weapons and the Jihadists of Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as NF). The deal prevented a military hegemony by the Assad regime and more importantly guaranteed the deployment of Turkish forces in northern Syria. The Sochi deal demonstrated that Russian interests do not parallel those of Assad, and that alliances shift with the structure of power. The Sochi deal draws the borders of the so-called zones of influence, and empowers the actors who will draw the road to a post-conflict Syria. Whether this deal is going to catalyze a seventh turning point is yet to be seen.
As explained in the above account, these six turning points played critical role in the fate of the uprising. Each one seems to catalyze another. Nevertheless, the most critical turning point in Syria and the life of Syrians was on 15 March 2011, when dozens of brave youth protested in the heart of Damascus chanting for freedom. It might take too many turning points in order to get back to this very first one.
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