An Explanation of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

In order to even begin to grasp at the complex nature of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, it is important to analyze the state of Syria to understand the situation in which the refugees are fleeing. It is especially important to understand the religious and political tensions arising from the country. Some of these tensions include outside forces, like ISIS trying to take Syrian land. Domestic tensions have arisen over the political landscape- the Assad Regime- which itself arose out of internal religious tensions.

Syria has a very diverse religious and ethnic background. The following image looks at only the largest make ups for ethnic and religious groups. Within the smaller “other sections” are a multitude of groups. The majority of Syrians are Arab Sunni Muslims. Over a quarter of the Syrian population is not Sunni Muslim. 10% of the minority population is Christian. The remaining 16% is made of Shia Muslims, Druze, and Alawis.

Religious Make Up of Syria

The religious tensions in Syria mainly stem from the majority Muslim and their belief that Alawis are heretics, whereas the Alawis see themselves as another sect of Islam. Another tension arises from the Sunni-Shia split that most Islamic-majority countries experience.

The Alawite-Muslim schism is especially problematic because of how the political regime is set up. Though Alawis are a fraction of the population, members of the religion have ruled Syria sense 1971. This has created serious religious tensions as the majority Islamic population does not see it as a legitimate representation of their religion, and thus the country, even though the regime has technically been elected in since its founding in 1971.

ISIS, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is a religious group that is attempting to create a worldwide Sunni Muslim order. ISIS’s main goals involves creating a caliphate and bringing about the end of the world. These two goals are often viewed as conflicting with each other, because why would this organization want to build up a caliphate to only have it destroyed in the end of the world? Commentary from other Muslim and religious communities stress that it is important to not associate ISIS as the perfect representation of Islam. The Quran forbids murder and “senseless violence” many times, yet ISIS continues to hunt not only non-Muslims, but Shia Muslims as well for being apostates. ISIS believes that the eradication of the Shia sect will result in a purer Islam.

Not much is actually known of ISIS, as they are a new terrorist group that sprouted and gained popularity at an incredible pace. What is known of them comes mainly from their online presence, which they seem to take pride in. It is known that ISIS is fighting to take land they claim belongs to the new caliphate they are trying to raise. Syria and Iraq are important to ISIS, since it is in the center of the Middle East. it also has historical and resource important to the terror group. ISIS sees the power of the new caliphate as resting in Syria and Iraq; if they lose these two countries, they will lose their power and any chance of creating their caliphate. This varies from other terror groups like al-Qaeda who can go underground for a long time and easily resurface. The vacuum of power- more the like disillusion of who holds the power- in Syria has allowed the terror group to gain a significant foothold in Syria.

Map of the Middle East

The religious diversity reflects sources of internal conflict, while the growth of ISIS represents a source of external conflict. They binding force that has created the perfect storm that is the Syrian Refugee Crisis is the Assad Regime.

Hafez al-Assad was the first of the Assad Regime. Growing up in the midst of Western intervention in the Middle East (such as the CIA-sponsored coup of the Prime Minister of Iran), Hafez al-Assad was skeptical of foreign influence and modern technology. He even feared the use of fax machines and the internet, because he thought they would help undermine his government. Hafez wanted to see Syria independent from foreign and modernized.

He joined the Baath (“Resurrection”) Party in the hopes of helping Syria overcome its disunity through modified socialism and a modified conceptualization of Islam. The modified socialism was meant to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, while the re-conceptualization of Islam would promote understanding of the different religions and ethnicities. Hafez wanted a modern Syria to rival that of the Western world, though with an broad “Arabism” emphasis of unity.

Hafez was an unlikely candidate to lead the country, as he was part of the minority religious group Alawis, a group persecuted and unprotected by law from majority groups, such as those following Sunni Islam. He was elected president in 1970, bringing the first modern schools, roads, and hospitals to Syria. In 2000, he died, and elections were held for a new leader.

Bashar al-Assad was elected the new leader of Syria, following his father’s footsteps for an authoritarian state. The elections held were legitimate, providing power and compliance to the Assad Regime. Bashar also followed in his father’s footsteps in providing for the citizens what was necessary for the growth of Syria, though wouldn’t tolerate opposition or reluctance to his policies.

In a move to get quick cash for the economy, the government sold all its wheat supplies at the high world price. Unfortunately, this was during a massive drought, whereby citizens were not able to make money or afford food. This is the origin of the civil war. When citizens in the rural areas could not make profit on their farms because the drought was killing the crops, they moved to more urban areas in the hopes of finding cheaper housing, food, and jobs. When they arrived, the farmers found themselves to be in competition for these resources not only with other farmers, but with refugees. Before the Syrian Refugee Crisis, Syria actually hosted a lot of Palestinians and Iraqi who were fleeing persecution and occupation.

The Arab Spring that influenced revolutions, coups, and uprisings in the Middle East appeared to have inspired rebel fighters in Syria. There are hundreds of rebel groups, so many there is no complete list of them. ISIS supports some of the rebel fighters, as the terror group is attempting to “reclaim” Syria. The United States is backing the more moderate rebel groups that oppose Assad, while remaining separate from ISIS. There is also the government forces that support Assad. Russian and Iran are supporting the Assad Regime. Both sides have been accused of war crimes and acts of genocide, including the chemical gassing of the civilian population.

Many in the U.S. are scared of a massive influx of a people they have never heard of that practice a religion that has little history in the U.S. The reasons the genocide and civil war of Syria sparked attention in the U.S. is mostly because the government agreed to take in a great number of refugees, but also has to do with our allies and enemies being involved in the war. This paper is meant to provide the background for why so many Syrians are fleeing their homeland. The religious divisions in the country was a powder keg waiting to explode, which slowly occurred with the minority-believing Assad regime ruling over a group of people who saw the Assads as heretics. ISIS compounded these tensions by striking at the power tensions. The drought and famine finally pushed the civilian population over the edge, and so the Syrian Civil War was born. With the air strikes and relentless persecution from all sides, many are seeking refugee status and protection from foreign countries.