The Arab Spring Extremism In Syria

The Arab Spring was a series of uprisings against authoritarian regimes that spread from Tunisia across the Middle East and Northern Africa in 2011. The protests were an expression of resentment towards the aging oppressive, and often corrupt, dictatorships which had led to high levels of unemployment, brutality of security forces and rising prices across the region. The rebellions were met with violent opposition from ruling powers, and where the regime was not immediately toppled, extensive social violence occurred. After the initial uprisings, extremists groups joined the fight against the regimes and foreign intervention occurred, aiding, and fuelling violence on both sides of the contest. The Arab Spring did not occur in isolation. The divides and conflicts it exposed had been established and exploited by British and French colonialists at the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. These divides prompted the extremism of the Arab Spring, which became the predominant legacy of the protests. This extremism led to changes in the international arena as to the relationship between state and non-state actors in conflict. The Arab Spring occurred across many countries, most notably Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. However, this essay will focus on Syria, the nation which best captures the experience of the region, as the most documented and of greatest international focus. The Arab Spring’s dominant legacy is extremism, which reveals the religious divides constructed by previous colonial powers. This extremism has led to the changing of offensive interactions between state and non-state actors in the international arena.

French colonists sought to establish intra-religious divides, which created the conditions for the extremism and radicalisation of the Arab Spring. After World War I, much of the Ottoman Empire’s territory was transferred as mandates to the French and British. Combined with the territory these powers already controlled as protectorates, this meant during the 20th century all countries that were to become major players in the Arab Spring were in effect being colonised by the Allied powers. French and British authorities acted under the pretense of Divide ut impera, or divide and conquer. This strategy supported minority groups within countries that would then depend on them to maintain power, creating a symbiotic relationship. Colonists had created 'a minority based regime, allied with other minorities along with privileged elements from the majority population, ruling over a poor and often dysfunctional state that did not tolerate dissenters'. After France took control of Syria in 1920, the Alawite Shia Muslims, a minority to Sunni Muslims in the country, joined the new Syrian army and united with the French colonial power. In 1963, the French had left Syria and the military took power, placing the Alawites in control. 'When Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, virtually all the top power brokers in Syria were Alawites”. Thus, the Sunni majority were denied real political power in what they saw as their own country. This disenfranchisement would lead to the extremism of Sunni muslims, and eventually ISIL. Colonial support for the Alawite Shia minority and disempowerment of the Sunni majority formed the foundational divisions for extremism in Syria in the Arab Spring.

The abruptly violent and divisive political environment of the Arab Spring, built and empowered extremist groups. When protests began against the authoritarian Assad regime in 2011, the regime immediately responded with military action. This grew violence on both sides, and rapidly increased opportunity and influence for extremist groups. Many of the extremist movements in Syria stemmed from pre-existing divides and disillusionment with the state from colonial influence. Extremism in Syria grew into groups such as Jabhat al-Nursa and Jaish al-Fatah but notably, al-Qaeda. The violence in Syria inspired al-Qaeda to spread from Iraq to Syria to merge with, and rally, Syrian extremists, forming al-Nusra Front. Alaa Abd El Fattah reflects on this time as when, “we started to lose the battle for narrative to poisonous polarisation” (2016). The violent polarisation in Syria between the Assad regime and extremist groups challenged compromise, and further perpetuated extremist action. Following the Arab Spring, these patterns of violence and division persisted in Syria. Deputy to President George W. Bush, Juan Zarate, theorised in his 2011 analysis, “the chaos and disappointment that follow revolutions will inevitably provide many opportunities for al-Qaeda to spread its influence.” Not only did al-Qaeda spread its influence over the following 2 years, but eventually split to form the more extremist group, ISIL. Extremist groups were empowered to form and gain influence by the violence and instability of the Arab Spring.

Extremism was the most influential legacy of the Arab Spring in the international arena, through its changing of the treatment of threatening non state actors by state actors. Extremism arising from the Arab Spring, particularly ISIL, has changed international law to allow the attack of non-state actors in foreign countries who ‘pose a threat’ to be defined as self-defense. The United States began carrying out attacks against ISIL targets in Syria in August 2014. This was despite Russia, as a permanent member on the UN Security Council, blocking the Council from using force in Syria against ISIL. To justify these attacks, the United States made a number of legal claims. They argued the attacks constituted humanitarian intervention and intervention in a failed state, both contentious without resolution from the UN Security Council,. Without any real legal basis in international law, the United States began to argue these attacks constituted self-defense. The argument of self-defense could not be used to attack Afghanistan after 9/11, when the International Court of Justice ruled it allowed an attack on a nation only if that nation effectively controlled the terrorist organisation posing a threat. The United States, however, now argued that self-defense may justify force if the nation was unwilling, or unable, to quash the terrorist organization acting within its own borders. While not initially accepted by many countries, including the United Kingdom, after the 2015 Paris stadium and Russian plane attacks, for which ISIL claimed responsibility, there was a shift in this position. This led to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2249, allowing country’s to “use all necessary measures” in fighting ISIL in Syria. While the resolution did not specifically cite a legal pretext, it effectively allowed self-defense as a legal claim for attacks on non-state actors. This particularly affected terrorists when the nation from which the actor was based was “unable to suppress the threat that they pose”. As such, both the United Kingdom and Russia began carrying out attacks against ISIL in Syria. While initially introduced for targeting ISIL, the significance of this change to international law means it is able to be used against a broader range of threats. For example, the United States Departments of State’s terrorist watchlist, a list of organisations posing a threat to the United States and its allies, names over 60 groups, based in 35 countries for which this resolution could feasibly be used against. The Arab Spring’s legacy of extremism has influenced law in the international arena, changing the way state and non-state actors interact in conflict.

The Arab Spring was undoubtedly one of the most influential uprisings of the twenty-first century. Its legacy endures today in the form of extremism. The divides which formed the basis of this extremism were established by colonialism that occurred at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. During the uprisings of the Arab Spring, these divides were exacerbated, and thus built and empowered extremist organisations. These organisations continue to impact international relations, notably the ability for state actors to attack threatening non state actors on foreign territory. In today’s turbulent geopolitical climate, it is crucial to reflect on the narrative of legacy, in order to respond to future conditions. 

09 March 2021
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