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Visiting Speaker - Dilip Hiro, Author and Journalist

"The Syrian War"

The root cause of the civil war is the rule by the minority Alawis, a sub-sect within Shia Islam, since 1970. To understand how and why Alawis got into the driving seat one has to look at the French Mandate in 1920. I will do that briefly.

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The conflict is best viewed in three concentric circles: Local; Regional, and International. The historic pattern of all major civil wars is that it sucks in foreign powers, but as it drags on, these powers lose interest or patience, and violence lessens and then ends. 

At the local level, power has rested with Hafiz Assad (Nov 1970-June 2000) and his son Bashar Assad.  Bashar suspended the emergency law that had been in force since 1963, but did not terminate it.  He released 600 political prisoners while leaving 1,500 behind bars. When demands were made that the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on power be ended, he refused, and stopped political liberalization.

The 2011 Arab Spring protest started with demands for the release of political prisoners and the lifting of the emergency. His harsh response led to the killing of three protestors in the southern town of Deraa on 18 March: that would escalate into a civil war. However, he lifted emergency laws in April. The anti-regime resistance in the Sunni-dominated Homs and Hama intensified with calls for his removal from office. Unlike what had happened in 2000, governmental violence was met by armed Sunni opposition.

The earlier Islamist opposition, brutally suppressed, became active, and was aided by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Among these groups the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al Qaida, emerged as the strongest. On the other side, Iran officially backed Assad’s internationally recognized government. Thus the war acquired a regional dimension.

In the international arena, it is worth noting that unlike any other Arab state (except South Yemen, 1967-1990), Syria never came into the orbit of America. Unsurprisingly therefore the US closed its embassy in Damascus in February 2012. By contrast, Syria’s friendly relations with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, go back to the early 1950s.

Having lost its naval facility in the Libyan port of Benghazi in March 2011, the Kremlin was keen to retain its naval facilities in the Syrian post of Tartus, dating back to the Cold War, in order to maintain naval presence in the Mediterranean. Also Russian President Vladimir Putin was 100 per cent with Assad who argued that whosoever uses violence against the established government is a terrorist. He has also condemned Washington’s drive for regime change. Thus Syrian-Russian alliance is based on a solid foundation. When the threat to Assad’s regime became severe in August 2015, the Kremlin intervened by setting up a forward base at Khmeimim near Latakia for its air force while Iran raised its manpower contribution through “volunteers”, and Lebanon’s Hizbollah increased its involvement in fighting the opposition. By taking up a 49-year lease for the Khmeimim military base, Russia has shown its resolve to stay put in Syria.

The peak of opposition forces was achieved in December 2014 when all except the Nusra Font attended anti-Assad conference convened by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. A further push came when Prince Muhammad bin Salman became the Crown Prince in March 2015. The subsequent gains made by the opposition induced Moscow’s direct military intervention six months later.

The retaking of the opposition’s stronghold of East Aleppo by the Assad regime in April 2017 was a turning point. A few months later Saudi Arabia stopped aiding the opposition while Turkey had earlier stopped calling on Assad to step down, and joined Russia and Iran to bring about a ceasefire.

By now the northern Idlib province has become the last stand of the opposition where the Nusra Front, renamed Hayat Tahrir al Sham, is the dominant actor. A big fight is to be expected later this year-early 2018.

Overall, though, the civil war is likely to wind down during the next few years – before the term of President Assad ends in July 2021.

Of the 31 non-fiction books authored by Dilip Hiro, a London-based author and journalist, 18 are on the Middle East and Islamic affairs. These include Inside the Middle East, Iran under the Ayatollahs, Holy Wars: The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict, Lebanon, Fire and Embers: A History of the Lebanese Civil War, Sharing the Promised Land, Secrets and Lies: The True Story of the Iraqi War, and A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East. His other areas of specialization are South Asia and Central Asia. His articles have appeared in most of the leading British and American newspapers. He is a frequent contributor to, the online magazine of The Nation, the oldest American magazine, and YaleGlobal online magazine of Yale University.

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