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Syria Crisis – Everything Until Now (2011- 2017)

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What is going on in Syria? How did it start?

Syria became an independent republic in 1946 and since then witnessed numerous coups and uprisings until 1971 when Hafez al Assad, an Alawite declared himself president. Upon his death in 2000, his son Bashar al Assad took his place. The Alawites are a sect that follow Shia Islam, and comprise of 8 to 10% of the total population.

 

 

It all started in March 2011. As part of the Arab Spring Demonstrations, protesters marched to the capital city of Damascus demanding democratic reform, the release of political prisoners and for Assad to step down. The government cracked down strongly on protesters and clashes ensued. In merely 2 months, 1000 protesters and close to 200 soldiers had died. Numerous soldiers from the Syrian Army defected to join the protesters in their struggle, who now took up arms against the regime. They fought under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, the first organised opposition military force whose main aim was – to remove Bashar al Assad from power. Turkey initially sheltered the Free Syrian Army, offering the group a safe zone and a base of operations and along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar began providing the rebels with arms and other military equipment.

Since the start of the war, numerous groups from around the region and abroad joined the FSA in their struggle as time went on. One such group was the AL-Nusra front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian arm. It was established in January 2012 with the aim of overthrowing the Assad regime and creating an Islamic emirate under Sharia law. It gained strong popular support in Syria, and continued to grow in strength during the following months.

Another group that began sending its fighters to Syria was the ISI. The group was formed by Sunni militants after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Members experienced in guerilla warfare crossed the border into Syria in order to establish an organisation there.

Amid this, a Kurdish village was allegedly bombed by Government forces, now causing The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to secede and take up arms against the Assad regime in the North. Their main aim was to defend Kurdish territory from both the rebels and the government. Turkey and Kurdish groups have been in conflict since 1978.

With the rebellion gaining momentum, The Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist group and political party based in Lebanon sent their fighters to aid the government. The group is backed by Iran and have long been allies with the Assad Family. Their paramilitary force is believed to be more powerful than even the Lebanese Army.

Meanwhile, The United States of America, who opposed the Assad regime, directed the CIA to aid rebel forces on the ground. The CIA initially supplied them with non-lethal aid and soon began to arm, train and finance certain rebel groups fighting to overthrow the government. In turn Russia, a Syrian ally began supplying aid to the government.

The following year, internal disagreements between Al Qaeda backed al Nusra and ISI caused a divide amongst the rebels. Some members of the FSA and Al Nusra joined up with ISI and seceded to establish a group called ISIS. The group marched across Eastern Syria and Iraq, and captured territory from both government as well as rebel forces. The al Nusra Front joined up with other Sunni Islamist groups under the banner of the Army of Conquest and began operating in the North-western region of the country backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar while The FSA, now largely unorganised and divided began to collapse with many of its members having joined ISIS or Nusra and others having formed their own rebel groups that continued to operate under the FSA banner.

Tensions escalated when The Syrian Government allegedly used chemical weapons for the first time in 2013. The US and its allies strongly condemned the act and demanded that Assad step down. However, Russia, a Syrian ally and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, repeatedly vetoed western sponsored draft resolutions demanding his resignation. With rising international intervention, the scope was no longer limited to a civil war. The United States stepped up its Syrian program and established a military operations command in Jordan, designed for channeling western and gulf aid to moderate rebel forces. The center is believed to have directed nearly 50 moderate rebel groups to unite under an umbrella coalition. The Southern Front emerged in 2014 consisting of 53 groups, some which were earlier a part of the FSA. Around the same time, a US led coalition began executing air strikes against ISIS in Syria for the first time.

In 2015, after an official request by the Syrian Government, Russia intervened directly for the first time as well launching targeted airstrikes against ISIS, Nusra and other rebel groups, including those backed by the US leading to a proxy war between the nations.

8 groups including the YPG came together the same year and established a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance called the Syrian Democratic Front in the north. The group is backed by the United States and its allies, but opposed by Turkey. In August 2016, Turkish military and Turkish allied rebels united under the banner of the Turkish Free Syrian Army and began their offensive in Syria targeting ISIS and SDF strongholds along its borders. This drew criticism from the United States, a Turkish ally requesting a ceasefire against SDF forces.

On April 4th this year, an alleged chemical weapons strike on a rebel held town near Idlib resulted in over 80 casualties. Western and opposition powers have blamed the Syrian Government for the attack and in response; the United States launched 57 missiles targeting a government base for the first time in 6 years. Assad has denied the allegations.

During the past 6 years half a million individuals have lost their lives and over 7 million have been displaced in the war with seemingly no end in sight.

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Conflicts

History of Kurds and Iraqi Kurdistan

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Last month 93% of Iraqi Kurds voted in favour of independence from Iraq. The referendum has been rejected by the Iraqi government. The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group of the Middle East whose population is spread across 3 other nations as well namely – Syria, Iran and Turkey. These nations fear that a separatist movement in Iraq may trigger a similar rebellion on their soil and are opposed to the concept on an independent Kurdistan. Who are the Kurds? And why do they want independence? Let us take you back to the dawn of human civilization to help understand this tale.

 

The Mesopotamian tribes settled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and soon planted crop, invented the wheel, and even developed writing. North of these lands stood the mighty Mountains of Zagros and Taurus. The ancient Kurdish tribes are believed to have lived on their foothills, rearing domesticated animals.

In later years, these northern mountain folk would become part of a series of empires that fought hard battles for the control of these lands.

The Sassinids and Byzantines were two of the most powerful empires of their time. After years of fighting against the Byzantines, the Sassinids were growing weak. The stage was set for a new power to move in. Islam, with its origins in Medina was spreading rapidly and advancing Arab armies soon managed to defeat the Sassinids. For the next X years the region and along with it the Kurds became a part of successive Islamic Caliphates. During this time, the Arabs noticed that the mountainous tribal population spoke a dialect close to Persian and called them al-akards. They were even allowed to set up independent principalities under the sovereignty of the Caliph.  By 1055, the dynasty of Oghuz Turks known as the Seljuqs had managed to wrest political control from the hands of the Caliphate and put an end to Kurdish autonomy. Ahmad Sanjar, the last of the Seljuq monarchs, created a province out of these lands and called it Kurdistan.

Salah-ad-din, a Sunni Muslim of Kurdish ethnicity, was one of the fiercest warriors of his time. At the height of his power, his sultanate included all of Egypt, Syria and even parts of North Africa. He established the Ayyubid dynasty and the Kurds flourished under his rule.

During the early modern period the region was divided between the Sunni Ottoman and Shia Safavid empires. They were constantly at war with one another and the Kurdish population were divided between the two. The agrarian system here was soon replaced by a war economy.  Three centuries of deaths, destruction and suffering stimulated a political awakening and sowed the seed for the 20th century nationalism.

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the allies. The treaty of Serves was signed to restructure the Middle East from the ashes of the vast Ottoman Empire. The provisions of the treaty included an independent Kurdish state. However, this was not to be. An officer in the ranks of the Ottoman Army, Mustafa Kemal reorganized what was left of the defeated Ottoman troops and fought against the allies, demanding complete independence for his people. After 4 years of struggle, their independence was recognized and Turkey was created. Turkey refused to ratify the treaty of Sevres. In its place the treaty of Lausanne was signed. The Kurds now found themselves divided among 4 nations and the dream for an independent Kurdistan was getting tougher.

Meanwhile, the Kurds who were now a part of Iraq, revolted against the British demanding independence. The Barzani clan became vocal supporters of Kurdish rights in Iraq and formed the KDP. In 1970, regional autonomy was granted to Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdish Autonomous Region was formed. However a year later, there was an attempt by Iraqi agents to assassinate KDP’s head Mullah Mustafa Barzani and he now looked to the US for aid.  In 1973, the US made a secret agreement with the Shah of Iran to begin funding Kurdish rebels against the Iraqi government. Along with independence, the rebels also demanded the oil rich region of Kirkuk which the Iraqi government refused to cede. The funding and support to the Kurds died with in two years when Iran and Iraq reached a peace settlement known as the Algiers Pact.  With limited support the rebellion was crushed soon after and the Iraqi regime now took control of the Northern region after more than 15 years. The Kurds had lost their autonomy. Jalal Talabani, a leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), broke away from the KDP and formed a new party, the PUK. The Kurds were almost equally divided in their support of both parties, and rising differences soon led to clashes between the two and plunged the region into a civil war leaving many dead. Things started to get better in 1998 when the two leaders signed a peace agreement in Washington. Saddam Hussein ruled over Iraq during this time and the Kurds who had suffered numerous atrocities under his rule supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saddam was overthrown and Jalal Talabani was elected as Iraqi president.  KDP’s Massoud Barzani was elected president of the Kurdish autonomous region.

In 2014, a referendum for independence was being planned. However these plans were stopped in their tracks as a new threat began to emerge on these lands. ISIS was growing in popularity and taking over huge areas from government forces. Kurdish Peshmerga forces took up arms against ISIS and a battle raged across the country. During this time, the Kurds took control over Kirkuk, and are in control of the region to this day.

With ISIS just a shadow of its earlier strength, the Iraqi Kurds decided to finally go ahead with the referendum.  Kurds today want to form a democratic and a secular republic called Kurdistan, this region would contain 50% of Iraq’s oil reserves. Iraq has rejected the idea, calling it a second Isreal. Western countries have refused to support the Kurdish independence struggle saying that it will lead to instability in the volatile region. Turkey and Iran have rejected the movement strongly fearing rebellion in their own Kurdish territories and have increased their military presence.  What is next for Kurdistan?

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Catalonia Independence Referendum 2017 Explained

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Located in the North-Eastern part of the country, Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest and most developed regions with a majority of the population living in its capital city Barcelona. Catalans, as its inhabitants are called, recently voted in a referendum that asked its residents to decide whether to secede from, or continue to be a part of Spain. Why is this happening? This is the tale of Catalonia.

During the middle ages, the region what we know today as Catalonia was under Roman rule and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire passed on to the Christian Visigoths. They ruled over all of Iberia for the next 3 centuries  until they were defeated by Islamic invaders. The Franks, Another Christian Kingdom shared a border with modern day Catalonia. The Frankish King king wished to create a buffer zone between his kingdom and a rapidly growing Islamic empire and moved in to take control of the area. By 801 they pushed back the Islamic forces and seized control of the region. Several self-governing counties sprung up here. One such county was Barcelona. Over time, Barcelona acquired a dominant position in the area and during the 11th Century had control over the other counties as well. A long series of wars and battles were being fought between the various Christian Kingdoms and the Moors, as the Muslims were called for control of the Iberian Peninsula. These wars were known as the Reconquista. Castile, Aragon and other kingdoms were carving out their territories from the lands left behind by the retreating Islamic tribes.

During the 12th century, the County of Barcelona and the Kingdom of Aragon were unified under a single dynasty creating the Crown of Aragon. Due to differences in language traditions and parliament of the Catalan and Aragonese people, Catalonia was given recognition as a largely independent political entity.

In 1469 Ferdinand, prince of Aragon and Isabella, Queen of Castile were married now uniting two extremely powerful realms. The Spanish empire was born and soon began conquests both at home and overseas. The country was freed of Islamic rule in 1492 and soon began its overseas conquest of the Americas. At its height, The Spanish Empire included territory on every continent then known to Europeans. Economic activity now began to shift from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and Madrid a city in Castile was made the capital of this vast empire. Over time, Catalonia began to lose its economic and political significance. The Spanish war of succession during the 18th century saw the fall of the ruling house of Habsburg and now The House of Bourbon began to rule over Spain.  The Crown of Aragon and along with it Catalonia was placed under a centralised rule, losing much of its earlier autonomy. Under the bourbons, The Catalan language was banned in administrative use.

During the 19th century, Catalonia emerged as a major industrial hub in Spain and a fervent sense of nationalism began to grip the region. The people wished to revive the Catalan language and past traditions. In 1931, Spain became a republic and Catalonia received its autonomy, but not for long. Spanish Nationalists under Francisco Franco’s overthrew the republic merely 5 years after its inception and an era of dictatorship ensued. Thousands of Catalans suffered during this time. Many were killed, imprisoned and sent into exile. Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975. After his death, the new regime granted Catalonia certain autonomy and a regional government was established. Along with Spanish, Catalan became the joint official language. Over the years, Catalonia emerged as Spain’s most important industrial and tourist hub.

Following Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan political parties concentrated on autonomy rather than independence. The nationalistic pride, passion and identity of both Madrid and Barcelona are nowhere better expressed than on the football pitch when the two clubs face off.

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The modern independence movement began when the Spanish High Court of Justice ruled that some of the articles in the Catalan Statute of Autonomy were unconstitutional.  Catalans protested against the decision and wanted to preserve their existing autonomy. However, The movement soon escalated into demands for complete independence.  A referendum was held in Catalonia recently and preliminary results showed a 90% vote in favor of independence, with a turnout of 42%. The government stepped in to stop the vote by force injuring many Catalans. Madrid however has since apologized and both sides may be currently working towards diffusing tensions. Thousands of people took to the streets of both Madrid and Barcelona urging political dialogue, while thousands took part in a rally in Madrid demanding Spanish unity. Catalan leaders however plan to declare independence soon while the Spanish prime minister has vowed to block such as move. How will things go ahead from here?

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Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar Explained

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Termed as a classical example of ethnic cleansing, the Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar amidst a crackdown by the Army. Who are the Rohingya and why are they being persecuted?

The first Muslims to settle in Arakan or modern day Rakhine are believed to have come here during the 1400’s. Many served in the court of the Buddhist King Narameikhla (Min Saw Mun), who ruled Arakan during this time and welcomed Muslim advisers into his capital. The future Rakhine kings as well are believed to have had close relations with the Sultans of Bengal. In 1785, Burmese King Bodawpaya defeated the last Rakhine king and the Arakan kingdom was annexed.  The “Arakan Muhammadans” as the Muslims were called were initially imprisoned but later freed and allowed to settle in the area.

In 1824, territory disputes in the Northeast led to war between the British and Burmese empires. The Burmese were defeated 2 years later and forced to cede Arakan. By 1885, Britain had captured all of Burma. The British administered Burma as another province of British India. As a result there was no boundary between Bengal and Arakan and hence no restrictions on migration between the regions. During this time, a significant number of laborers migrated to Arakan from India and Bangladesh, then under British rule as well. Thousands of Bengalis mostly from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work. Most likely, the Chittagonians and the already settled Arakan Muslim population began to merge through intermarriage and similar religious beliefs. It was soon difficult to distinguish one from the other. After the Second World War, the community as a whole began to call itself “Rohingya.”

In his report on Indian Immigration released in 1940, the British Financial Secretary James Baxter said that there was indeed an indigenous Arakanese Muslim community that had settled here long ago however, the increasing number of Chittagonian immigrants entering Burma each year was a matter of concern.

During the Second World War, the Rohingya allied with British forces in their fight against the Japanese and their Buddhist allies. In return they were promised a Muslim state once the war ended. By 1947, some elements of the Rohingya approached M.A Jinnah Prime minister of newly-formed Pakistan to incorporate northern Arakan into a part of the country that would later form Bangladesh. The request was turned down. Burma gained its independence the following year. A new regime was elected and soon after, the Union Citizenship Act was passed. Under this Act the Rohingya were not considered an ethnic group of the nation. But could gain citizenship if a minimum of 2 generations of his/her ancestors had lived in the country. Some Rohingya received citizenship cards during this time and were even allowed to contest elections.

Things changed in 1962, a coup de etat saw the fall of democracy and marked the beginning of authoritarian rule of the army in Burma. Discrimination against the Rohingya was on the rise. The 1970s saw a resurgence of terrorism leading to a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya living in Rakhine State. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled to neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, and even Thailand. A humanitarian crisis gripped the region. Bangladesh struck a U.N.-brokered deal with Burma under which most Rohingya were allowed to return. In 1982, a citizenship law was passed which now required Rohingya to provide sufficient proof of their ancestry in order to fall under one of 3 types of citizenship being offered. The Rohingya were unable to provide such proof.

Over time, bad Socialist policies of the military junta had turned Burma into one of the world’s most impoverished countries. An Uprising was long overdue. In 1988, the protests began. Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon and went on to win the Burmese general election but was placed under house arrest and not allowed to assume the role of Prime Minister. She even won the Nobel peace prize. She remained under house arrest for almost 15 years, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners. She was released in 2010 and would go on to lead the country 5 years later. However many believe that the military still wields great power in Myanmar. All along the Rohingya continued to demand citizenship, the right to education and free movement within the country.

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In 2012, sectarian disputes led to clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine state. A total of 80 people lost their lives on both sides. A militant group called the ARSA is believed to have formed in its aftermath. 100,000 Rohingya are believed to have been displaced during this time.

The group has been fighting Myanmar government forces since October last year, when it attacked a border post killing 9 soldiers. Myanmar’s security forces responded by launching counter-terrorism operations. Civilians were forced to pay the price.

Recently, violence broke out in Rakhine in another attack against security guards near the Bangladesh border leading to widespread military operations in the area which has forced more than 350,000 people to flee. Human rights groups have claimed that there have been arbitrary killings, systematic rapes, burning of houses and forced expulsions. At least 1,000 people have died in the past few days in what the UN human rights chief has called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government however has denied the atrocities and has promised to conduct an investigation.

What would it take to solve this crisis?

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