Alice Fordham is a journalist who regularly reports on the Syrian war. She lives in Beirut and works for National Public Radio in America. She has been reading your comments and posts and has replied to some of your thoughts.
Dear Burnet News Club members,
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments on the situation in Syria. You’ve obviously been reading and thinking a lot. And you raise a lot of questions that politicians, diplomats and military people haven’t found any easy answers to.
Before we get to your thoughts, let me tell you very quickly the history of the situation in Syria as I see it. Lots of people have
different views, of course, but I’ll give you mine.
Until 2011, Syria was a medium-sized and very beautiful country in the Middle East. It was famous for its ancient history, and you could go and visit a lot of ruins. It was famous for its delicious food. And it was famous for its very polite and friendly people, so lots of young students used to travel there to learn Arabic.
But, it had been ruled by the same family - the Assads - for about 40 years. First by the father, Hafez al-Assad, and then by his son Bashar who is still president now. It was not a country where people could speak freely. Many people were held in jails, and even tortured, and in the 1980s there was a rebellion which was crushed quite brutally.
So that’s part of the reason that in 2011, people started demonstrating in the streets against the president. Many people who were in those demonstrations told me that although the protestors did not have guns, the security forces shot and killed some of them. After that happened, the protesters armed themselves, and a big rebellion began.
In the six years since then, the country has broken up into lots of areas controlled by different groups fighting in that civil war. The fighting has meant millions of people had to leave their homes.
And other countries have got involved in the war. For example, Russia and Iran are now supporting president Assad. And Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States, have supported the rebel fighters. Britain also supported some of the rebels, and British officials said that president Assad was killing Syrians and that he should leave Syria and not be president any more.
But now, it looks like president Assad, with support from Russia and Iran, is winning the war. The rebel fighters had to leave their biggest base in the city of Aleppo at the end of last year.
So, some people think that the best way to help Syria is to try to persuade president Assad to let people come back to Syria in safety, and not punish them even if they lived in an area where there was a lot of opposition to him. This is called reconciliation. And there are some areas where there were a lot of rebel fighters, where there has been a kind of reconciliation - although there have been some problems along the way. Reconciliation is hard.
But then, some people say they could never accept life under the rule of president Assad, even if it was safe for them. Many Syrians blame him for destruction and death on a huge scale. So Ravenclaw Reporter from Malcolm Arnold asks “is it possible to have a leader that all sides support?”
Well, that’s a hard one to answer. Probably Syria now is so divided that it’s unlikely that there’s a leader that everyone could support. But during the war some groups have suggested possible leaders which might be a compromise - not everyone would love them, but most people might be able to accept them. Over the years of this civil war, there have been a lot of peace talks and people, including the international group the United Nations, have made some suggestions about Bashar al-Assad leaving his job as president and having elections for a new president. But president Assad and his allies - especially his allies in Iran - have been very clear that they do not want to do that. And inside Syria there are a lot of people who do support Assad, some of them even love him.
And then several of your other comments were about whether it is ever right to intervene in another country’s war. Ultimate feather09 from Hanwell Fields Primary said Britain should make a no fly zone in Syria to protect the people. A no fly zone, in that case, would mean that Britain’s army and war planes would attack any planes that tried to fly over that part of Syria. This would mean that president Assad’s forces would not be able to drop bombs on people. So they could stay in their homes and not become refugees.
But it would also mean that Britain was interfering in somebody’s else’s war. It would probably make the rebel forces stronger in the no fly zone area, and some of the rebels are quite extreme and very violent, against ordinary people as well as against soldiers fighting the war. And it could make problems for us with president Assad’s powerful friends in Russia and Iran.
So that’s probably why Britain and other countries didn’t make a no fly zone up until now. Tabby cat 0.5 from Crampton Primary School had the same view of a lot of experts: “I think that NOBODY should get involved in another country’s war. It might make things worse for the country that interferes with the problems that is nothing, ABSOULTELY nothing to do with you. That’s just being silly.”
Now, all this is already very complicated. I know, I’ve been trying to understand it for years! But I’m going to explain one more thing to you. And that’s where Britain did get directly involved in the Syrian war, and why.
The reason was the group usually called ISIS. Remember, I said that in Syria there aren’t just the rebels and the government fighting, there are lots of different armed groups. And the one that many people are most afraid of is ISIS because they are very extreme and because they say they want to attack countries like Britain as well as Syria.
A few years ago, ISIS had got more and more powerful in Syria and also in Iraq which is just next door, until they declared a state of their own. They took over several whole, big cities. So America and Britain and some other countries decided to take action against them, and they started to attack them, mainly with bombs dropped from planes. They’re still doing that now, and ISIS is much weaker than it was.
And the final comment I’ll get to is from LazyLion68 from St Peters Primary School, who asks, “Why can’t Russia join forces with us and stay out of the conflict altogether?”
And to answer that we have to look at why Russia got involved in the conflict in the first place. One reason is that the Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted to stop the Syrian civil war from being a place where extreme and violent groups like ISIS could get strong. He thinks the best way of doing that is to help president Assad get control over
the country again.
So, Russia probably won’t join forces with Britain. But what Russia is doing now is talking to the country of Turkey. As we know, Turkey supports the rebel forces and Russia supports president Assad. So that means that president Assad’s allies and the rebel forces’ allies are trying to find a compromise. And at some peace talks last month, Syrian rebels and representatives of the president sat at the same table for the first time. It wasn’t an easy or a happy meeting. But some people hope it could be the beginning of the end of a war that has caused so much suffering.