The Syrian Civil War MassArt Undergraduate Thesis Project 2013
Even before the use of chemical weapons brought the Syrian conflict under international scrutiny, government forces were committing atrocities. At the center of this conflict has been bloody close quarters urban warfare. This familiar landscape was advantageous to the rebel forces, and was the main cause of their initial victories. While the Syrian army was not prepared or trained for this environment, they were eventually able to halt the rebel advance. However, when they were unable to recover ground against the rebels, the front lines turned into a stalemate that divides large swaths of the country's urban centers. Desperate to gain an edge, the Syrian government began deploying their heavy munitions in the hopes of breaking rebel defenses. Despite entire city blocks being reduced to rubble, the lines have held. It was hard at first to fathom the level of destruction. Over time I realized that the ruined buildings I was seeing in my research had once been apartment high rises, often reaching dozens of floors tall.
When news broke worldwide of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, public attention to the conflict increased dramatically. Imagery of floors covered in rows of bodies wrapped in white linen, all without a speck of blood, was broadcast across the world. Death by sarin gas is violent, agonizing, and slow, but not bloody. It is also indiscriminate. Many of those killed by these attacks were men, women, and children resting inside their homes. The desperate use of these weapons, disregarding the possibility of uncontrollable collateral damage crosses a line, bringing into question the sanity of those responsible for ordering the strikes. This is warfare unique among all our modern conflicts. These events and images are as shocking and surreal and as they are disturbing.
The battlefields of The Syrian Civil War have evolved a landscape unique to the conflict. Despite the erosion caused by years of fighting, the inhabitants of these cities work against the forces of destruction to survive. In this drawing, the streets are empty as the inhabitants of this neighborhood hide, perhaps from nearby fighting, but this block is not lifeless. Surrounded by devastation stands an intact apartment building, defiant, highlighted by the setting sun, home to dozens of families displaced from other parts of the city. To protect themselves from snipers as they come and go from their home, the residents created a tall wall by stacking abandoned buses, and filling any gaps with rubble and sandbags. This is a common defensive structure, most notably used at a bustling crossing in Aleppo, a city that has seen some of the most brutal urban fighting in the country. Fortifications like these buses have been erected to protect civilians moving in between government and rebel controlled territories. Unfortunately, despite these structures the threat of death is always present. There are still daily casualties among the civilians forced to use this passageway to run errands, visit family, and even attend university.
This is my idealized rebel fighter. At the beginning of the revolution it was easier to side with the rebel forces, the underdog fighting for the removal of the violent dictator Bashar Al Assad. As the war dragged on, Assad and his forces were implicated in indiscriminate bombing of densely populated urban centers, brutal executions of civilians, targeting the food supply in rebel held territories, abducting or killing unaligned young man to prevent them from potentially becoming an enemy. International onlookers, myself included, saw these violent injustices and hoped for a swift rebel victory. Now, over two years later, there is no clear ending to hope for. The rebel forces have splintered into various factions based on political or religious beliefs, rendering them unable to effectively install a new government even if they prevailed. At the same time all sides of this conflict have committed gruesome and unforgivable war crimes. My Rebel is a young man looking to bring political freedom to his country, forced to take up arms after the government brutally attempted to put down his movement. He does not want to create a theocratic Islamic state from the ashes of this endless war, nor does he want Assad to escape unpunished for his crimes. All he wants is fair representation in the governance of his country.
This is my idealized government soldier. Often misunderstood or vilified, the Syrian army has faced defeat and hardship since the beginning of the conflict. For the vast majority of soldiers, all they want is what is best for their country. Deciphering what that requires of them is an impossible question that only time will answer. Many soldiers of all ranks defected to join the rebels, sympathizing with the movement to depose Al Assad. Their experience provided the rebels with much of their early command structure. However, many stayed despite their disapproval of Al Assad. Defecting was dangerous, and would put a soldier’s family and loved ones in danger of being abducted and interrogated. Other rebel sympathizers stayed in the army because they doubted the ability of the rebels to win. Still more feared that even if the rebels were victorious, the country would fall into a chaos which the fragmented rebel leaders would not have the power to prevent. My Soldier is a middle aged man with the wisdom to weigh the actions of his superiors with the actions of the rebels. He is afraid of the fractured leadership and growing extremism of the rebels, he is afraid of the war crimes and fear mongering of his leaders, and most of all he is afraid that the longer this war continues the fewer good options will be left for his country.
In my research I pored over thousands of photographs and writings from embedded photojournalists. I revisited these stories many times throughout my project, each time concentrating on specific ideas so I would not get lost in the overwhelming complexity of the conflict. In this piece I studied the evolution of the landscape separate of the political and religious views of the fighters. This was an important basis for understanding that what I was looking at was more than just the destruction of war, it had qualities specific to the circumstances of the Syrian Civil War. This destruction is brutal, absolutely devastating, very focused, and tragically indiscriminate. Individual neighborhoods will be reduced to rubble as government forces attempt to stomp out rebel forces, however these strikes are too few and far between and the rebels hold their ground. This created a cycle that has shaped the conflict, with urban centers subjected to a slow and painful erosion. This realization was an important foundation for understanding why the cities are still populated with civilians, the day to day struggles and constant fear of the cities’ inhabitants, and how the rebels have managed to survive against the better equipped government. The intact
When I started this project in the spring of 2013 The Syrian Civil War was reaching the one year mark. At that time the rebel forces were still achieving victories and gaining ground inside of Syria’s three major cities. In Aleppo and Homs fighting had penetrated deep into the urban landscape. For the inhabitants of these cities life as they knew it was shattered. Meanwhile, in Syria’s capital city of Damascus daily life was just starting to feel the strain of the conflict quickly advancing toward the city. First came the increased presence of armed forces. Armoured vehicles travelled the roads, while overhead the sound of fighter jets increased. The Syrian Civil War approached Damascus like a rolling thunder cloud, each day the sounds of fighting and airstrikes growing louder. Checkpoints were set up along the city’s roads, and a curfew established. By the time the fighting entered the suburbs, the smoke from explosions was visible in the sky, and the noise constant. Important roads into and out of the city were now contested. Large amounts of the population were being displaced, and the remaining inhabitants of Damascus have lived under the shadow of the Civil War ever since. At the time this was happening, this theme of distance and fast approaching danger was what defined the conflict. In my depiction of Damascus I show “the government stronghold” with a vantage point looking out over the approaching destruction from the top of the city’s walls.