The Demon Babies of Syria: How The Levant’s Neglected War Has Swallowed Its Neighbors

This article was also published in The Water Tower.

Exactly two years ago I was in Cook Dining Hall, scouring the Internet over a bowl of honey mustard breakfast cereal, looking for answers. The plan, to not totally butcher my first article as The Water Tower’s News Editor, which meant a few good hours of pure, factual research. Eventually, I spat out a passing-grade article about what back then was everyone’s favorite topic: the Syrian Civil War.

Things are different now. The news is not as new as it used to be, and I trust it less. I have a moustache, and a sense of decency (yes, they’re compatible). And I’m not interested in reading what everyone has to say about the big stories, unless its Wolf Blitzer with some holographic chart of his own personal Ebola outbreak. It’s only right that I set this year’s tone early, with a few words on what nobody’s talking about: the Syrian Civil War.

Yes, in fact, that is still a thing, a major thing, if we’re going to get technical about it. September 15th will mark the war’s three-and-a-half year anniversary; over 190,000 people killed, 130,000 captured or missing, 4.5 million internally displaced inhabitants, and 3 million refugees, according to UN estimates. For a country of 22 million people, the numbers are chilling. Both sides wage on, with the ever looser and hungrier coalition of rebel groups caught in stalemate with Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president and top advocate for the Limp-Dicked Nerds Born Into Wealthy Political Dynasties Society.

Perhaps calling the war forgotten is too extreme, but considering the Middle Eastern conflicts that get the most airtime, Syria deserves a lot more media attention. Why? Because the Syrian army and rebels are those conflicts’ dysfunctional parents, still screaming in the trailer park even with the kids gone.

Want to meet the kids?

First, let’s introduce Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism. To be honest here, these guys have never exactly been best friends, they got off on the wrong foot in the 7th century. But they haven’t always fought so much. If you look at the grand scheme, then the level of sectarian violence sparked by the Syrian Civil War is unprecedented. Seriously, most civil and political violence in the modern Middle East has been over territory, or a global war against Islam, or ethnic conflict (not that I’m condoning any of those). The violent sectarianism is fairly new.

Bashar al-Assad, in bad faith, is an Allowite, a smaller sect of Shi’ism and a minority in Syria. And although Syria’s Arab Spring Revolution wasn’t sparked with sectarian motives, most of Assad’s opposition was Sunni. The early, mumbled fears of a sectarian war were confirmed when it poured out of Syria’s borders, in Iraq and Lebanon.

To be fair, Iraq’s sectarian track record preceded the Syrian Civil War, when the country erupted in all-out sectarian civil war during the American occupation, to Bush’s drooling surprise. Since the American troop withdrawal from Iraq, Sunni-Shi’ite bombings and skirmishes have caused over 100 deaths every week, and many more militants have taken their fight to the Syrian battleground. Lebanon, though, had become a hopeful example of interfaith coexistence, but intersect resentment seeped from Syria like a venom.

It seeped into Syria, too: fighters from Iraq and from around the Muslim world flocked to Syria to defend their faith. The largely Sunni rebel coalition attracted foreign Sunni fighters (even Americans) to defend innocent civilians against Assad’s arsenal, chemical or otherwise. The rebels also attracted billion of dollars in military aid from Sunni Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Shi’ites fighters and dollars came from Lebanon and Iran to protect their fellows against what Assad had framed as an extremist terrorist uprising.

Assad, though a huge asshole, was cunning: he saw how he could control the sectarian conflict and make himself the more modern martyr. At Assad’s command, the Syrian Army focused its attacks more on the non-fundamentalist rebel groups, so that the extremists could make strides and Assad’s efforts could gain global legitimacy as a war on terror.

If you were alive and cognizant this summer with at least partially functioning eyes and some small access to the media, you should realize that Assad kind of succeeded.

Yes, I’m entirely referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, our second child, which showed its true colors (black and white) this summer by sweeping south from Syria far into Iraq, claiming many territories: towns less than a hundred miles from Baghdad; large populations all around the northern Kurdistan region; and hard fought-for battle sites in the Iraq War like Mosul and Fallujah. Last month, footage of ISIS beheading an American journalist circulated the media. It has imposed Sharia law so harshly that its former ally Al Qaeda has cut ties with the group.

But ISIS started out like many Syrian rebel groups, a small and disorganized bunch of angry civilians. It found its goals more aligned with other radical fundamentalist groups like the Al-Nusra Front, which saved it from Syrian shelling. As infighting between rebel groups increased, their ultimate goals were skewed; in ISIS’s case, the large influx of Iraqi fighters turned their sights from Damascus to Bagdad. The ISIS crisis, apart from being a great rhyme, is ongoing. Obama and Assad share a common enemy.

Our third child is, well, of less certain parentage, but we just go with it anyway. This most recent chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated in large part due to the Syrian Civil War.

Recent Syrian rebel attacks have spilled into Lebanon, as rebel groups (not ISIS) have attacked Hermel, a Lebanese town holding many Syrian refugees, and Arsal, home of a Lebanese army base. Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite political faction and paramilitary force Hezbollah suffered casualties while defending Lebanon, and Assad has stepped up his support of Hezbollah against the Syrian rebel spillover.

Hamas, the main political party in Palestine’s Gaza Strip and a longtime ally of Hezbollah, was emboldened by Hezbollah’s territorialism in Lebanon and more willing than usual to demand rights from Israel and break ceasefires. And Israel, pressed on all sides with conflict and already able to hear the bombs in Syria from its Golan Heights, was more anxious than usual to secure its borders.

Given all this, why does the Syrian Civil War itself come up so rarely these days? Be there conspiracy here? Ay, perhaps so, that window of possibility ought never be closed. Governments sway the press everywhere, even in the Land of the Free. The administration wants silence about Syria. America’s failure to arm less-radical rebel groups against Assad allowed the Syrian Civil War to slip into a transnational sectarian conflict and for ungoverned Syria to become a hotbed for Islamic extremist groups. The Obama administration may have pointed the media more towards Iraq and the allegedly freestanding Gaza conflict to distract from our past failures in Syria that perpetuated these crises.

Or maybe these other conflicts have become and will remain more relevant and deadly. Regardless, if global powers fail to interfere humanely and just leave these conflict zones to fester in their own hatred, then Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Syria will never stop drinking each other’s poison.

Kerry Martin Denver Colorado UVM


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