It all began when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself ablaze in the town square. The video went viral, catching the attention of millions of disenfranchised youth throughout the Middle East. During a tumultuous year, riots and protests rocked a half-dozen countries, which also saw the resignation or forcible removal of leaders, along with thousands of deaths and injuries as entrenched governments battled protesters in the streets.
Some of these regimes — Bahrain, Algeria, etc. — clung to power. Bahrain’s government rounded up and arrested hundreds of protesters sleeping in the center of the city, and shot any who resisted. Other regimes toppled. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down as violent protests continued outside his palace. He was subsequently put on trial for the murder and attempted murder of protesters, but was eventually acquitted.
However, for some countries, the Arab Spring led to even more significant political ramifications. In Syria, a concerted rebellion turned into the all-out war with the government, as entire cities exploded in the conflict. Millions of refugees fled — and continue to flee — the country, and for a time Syria was the headline of the world. Things have calmed down since the height of the conflict in 2016, but relations remain tense between Syria and the U.S. — as well as many of its neighbors and international counterparts.
Syria and the U.S.
As with many nations throughout the Middle East, the U.S. has divided and conflicting feelings on the current state of Syria. While initially in opposition of the Syrian government — particularly following the first allegations of a chemical weapons attack against its citizens — U.S. support for the Syrian rebels rarely progressed beyond weapons sales, training and monetary aid. And following the military intervention of Russia on the part of the Assad regime, this supportive role diminished even further.
In a sense, Russia has defined the relationship between the U.S. and Syria — a distinct throwback to the Cold War. Seeking to avoid a potentially apocalyptic conflict with Russia, the U.S. has avoided directly supporting the rebel coalition. Incidentally, the port of Tartus harbors Russia’s largest off-country naval base, representing a much more significant vested interest for Russia than the U.S. This dance, so familiar to anybody who remembers the Cold War years, stresses the importance of international relations.
It’s no secret the U.S. government has a track record of attempting to overthrow dictators throughout the world, and that the success rate is something to be examined. In recent memory, the U.S. military overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which in turn opened the door to the establishment of the enormous ISIS pseudo-state. The rise of ISIS is one of the vast historical events that changed America — the standing policy framework necessitates America opposes any terrorist movements at home or abroad, and an all-out war on ISIS became the order of the day.
To this day, Iraq is going through a long process of healing and rebuilding, and the U.S. is continually wary of the potential ramifications of overthrowing established power structures in the region. The Assad regime — which has been in power for more than four decades — grew from the same Baathist political movement as Saddam Hussein, and benefited from the momentum and U.S. support involved in putting Hussein in power in the first place.
Given all this — Russia’s military base, the bad taste in America’s mouth after the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and the subsequent rise of ISIS — it is not entirely surprising that the U.S. has avoided direct military action in Syria. And while secretive CIA programs were funneling resources to the rebel coalition within the country, and public support was clearly in favor of overthrowing the government, almost nothing could feasibly convince American politicians to contribute militarily.
Following the extended bombing campaign and eventual government reclamation of Aleppo, things have begun to settle down across Syria. However, as demonstrated last weekend, the Assad regime’s treatment of its citizens continues to be an international hot topic and one that could easily inspire future rebellions against the regime. PresidTent Trump now faces a difficult situation: He has steered U.S. policy toward more benevolent relations with Russia, but has also appealed to the hawkish right wing of the U.S. electorate.
Following the recent chemical attacks, the president demonstrated what could be the new norm for U.S. response to such situations. The U.S. military has launched several missiles at key targets — a Syrian air base in 2017, and a chemical weapons plant last weekend — following prior notice and evacuation by government and Russian troops. Given the parallels between the attacks and the subsequent U.S. responses, it is likely similar situations will emerge in the future.
Perhaps the single largest issue is the resettlement of several million refugees — many of whom have spent several years living in nearby refugee camps. Thousands of homes and apartment buildings lie in rubble throughout Syrian urban areas, and thousands of hours of rebuilding will be necessary before many of these individuals can find their way home.