What is Syria?
Syria is an Asian republic of 22,530,746 in the Middle East bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. It is primarily populated by Arab Sunnis although it is a place of historic significance to Christians. Kurds, Druze, Alawite Shias, Armenians and various other minorities have historic ties to the land as well. Syria’s borders as a modern state were drawn by European colonial powers after the First World War under the French Mandate for Syria and The Lebanon (ratified in 1923). 23 years later, Syria gained independence in April of 1946 and suffered a long period of turmoil and coups until the modern era. Syria is one of the oldest civilizations known in the world today. There is evidence of human activity in Damascus going as far back as 7000 BC.
What is actually going on there?
This is a tough question, and there is no simple answer. First, remove all notions of a black vs. white, good vs. bad conflict out of your head. Both the anti-government rebels and the pro-government regime forces have been recorded perpetrating war crimes, doling out arbitrary punishments, and torturing and killing hundreds of innocent civilians at a time.
The government has gone so far as to use helicopters and artillery to bomb bakeries in Aleppo to target the civilians waiting on bread lines there. This is not a conflict that can be understood simply. It is by nature ethnic, sectarian, and bitter. Centuries old-archaeological villages, mosques, marketplaces, tombs and monuments have been damaged and destroyed. There is nothing simple about this conflict, and there never has been. It can only be understood in nuance, and shades of grey.
To truly understand this conflict, I’d *STRONGLY* recommend to anyone who is genuinely curious and wants a firmer grasp on the situation in Syria today, and how it stems from the ancient past and not-too ancient past, to watch this BBC documentary, available in it’s entirety on YouTube:
As an aside, if you’re REALLY uninitiated, or feeling intimidated, simply watching the above video and calling it a day would be a good starting point for anyone. It glosses over a lot of stuff, but it’s extremely informative and really helps put the current situation in a historical context that makes it much easier to understand. Plus, it’s simply well made and a good watch.
When did all this start?
In early 2011, around March, Syrians took to the streets to peacefully protest, and clamor for democracy. Inspired by their neighbors in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, and sparked by a particularly overt example of government repression, throngs of people filled the streets:
Some of the protests looked like this:
And some of the protests inspired counter-rallies that looked like this:
The protesters wanted a lot of the things that their fellow protesters in nearby Arab countries wanted: the ability to express themselves freely without fear of repression, a vote that matters, and the ability for the average man to have upward mobility economically, socially, and politically. And for a while, it looked like they may actually get some of them. The Syrian government announced some things aimed to appease the protesters: releasing hundreds of political prisoners, dismissing the government, and lifting the 48-year-old state of emergency that suspended most constitutional protections for citizens.
The Syrian government at the time, led by this chap, Bashar al-Assad:
seemed like it may actually be cooperating with the protesters and possibly even abide by some of their demands. Then, the violent repression creeped in. A few protesters murdered by security forces here, a few hundred jailed and tortured there. Word of these abuses got out, and videos recorded. This only steeled the opposition protesters desire to protest, obtain true democracy, and unseat the powers that be. And the government, in turn, responded in kind with an even more forceful crackdown, killing and torturing more protesters, notably; many children and further deepening the divide between the protesters and the government they sought to remove.
This embittered an already deep divide running through Syrian culture and history. (covered further below)
Interestingly, Syria and Egypt actually formed a short-lived political union for a while in the late 1950s despite being separated by several hundred miles of geographic distance. Historically, the two countries’ fates have often mirrored each other and until recently, their politicians have been closely linked.
Where do things stand now?
The Syrian Civil War has been ongoing since late 2011, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, forcing millions of people out of their homes as refugees, depriving children of their educations, adults of their livelihoods, and mothers and fathers of their sons and daughters. Once fleeing the country, refugees continue to face difficulties, stigma and instability. As the conflict has gone on, more and more foreign powers have supplied their side of choice with aid, both tacit and direct. Whether it be Hizbollah joining the side of the Syrian regime via Lebanon, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran delivering the regime military, political and financial support, or Qatar and Saudi Arabia supplying the rebels with money and weapons, or the slow and steady flow of defections to the side of the rebels, also known as the Free Syrian Army, and defections of Free Syrian Army rebels to the Al-Qaeda associated Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian Civil War has in many ways become a proxy conflict for national powers to indirectly support their geopolitical goals for the region. All at the cost of Syrian lives and any sense of national stability, of course. Reporters aren’t allowed in, and if they are, or somehow get themselves smuggled in, they do so at extraordinary risk to themselves and for little pay, and no glory. A field report from PBS Frontline’s Olly Lambert provides one of the most visceral, human and real accounts of a journalist on the frontlines in Syria that I’ve ever seen:
He elaborates so articulately the roles, responsibilities and difficulties of being a journalist on the ground in such an insane scenario. A really powerful watch.
Why am I only just hearing about all this?
On the morning of August 21st, 2013, three hospitals in Damascus, Syria, were suddenly flooded with thousands of new patients. These patients had no visible wounds or injuries. Medecins Sans Frontieres, an NGO operating in the region, treated many of them. Hundreds died. The doctors treating the patients noted a common trend of disturbing symptoms: convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress. All symptoms would appear to indicate a neurotoxic gas to have been used, possibly deployed by missile. If you’d like to see for yourself, there is a video playlist of the aftermath/victims here, but they are all extremely difficult to watch and NOT WORK SAFE. Activists died in the process of recording these videos due to toxic gas inhalation. You have been warned. The excellent Brown Moses has been on the trail of the munitions used in the attack, and using that to identify possible responsible parties. Early reports would strongly suggest that the regime is responsible, especially considering the area targeted was a rebel stronghold, but there hasn’t been any publicly available information that has concretely tied the regime to the attacks just yet. A US spy report claims to have intercepted calls that prove the regime’s ties to the attack, but as these have not been made public, some healthy skepticism is recommended. Reporters from Le Monde claim to have had reporters on the ground at the time and place of the chemical attacks and have a well-recorded personal account of the events to contribute, and also points to a regime led-attack.
So why is the West getting involved now? Hundreds of thousands have died from various means already, what does the use of gas change?
I can’t speak to why the West is intervening now, I have neither the knowledge nor expertise to speak to that. However, gas is a severe and direct breach of the Geneva Protocols, and for good reason.
In general, gas is considered to be particularly inhumane and inconsiderate to the preservation of life. The effects can be absolutely catastrophic, undignified and unpredictable. Ideally, bombs, bullets and grenades are released only on a specific target, building, or threatening person. Gas released into an area can kill your own soldiers if the wind shifts, and is indiscriminate, it kills EVERYTHING it touches; soldiers, men, women, children, animals. EVERYTHING. Even minor exposure to these gases is all but certain to leave the victims incapacitated and with some form of neurological damage for life, damning them to an existence of pain and trauma. To be certain, the most reliable reports list the number of dead at around 350 people, a little less than 0.35 percent of the total number of dead from the Syrian war, now having claimed around 100,000 lives, at least half of which are civilians. Furthermore, the US provided Saddam Hussein’s military forces with military support in 1988 in the midst of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, knowing full well he intended to deploy Sarin gas on the battlefield.
Gas is exceptionally good at killing absolutely everyone, but not that good as a tactical tool apart from area denial. It’s much more effective to instill fear in the opposing side, and to massacre civilians indiscriminately, perhaps even one’s own. Both sides benefit from the assumption that neither will use chemical weapons. This becomes a fair bit more difficult if someone uses them and gets away with it, but the calculus changes if it can be demonstrated to everyone that deploying chemical weapons in 2013 warrants some cruise missiles being deployed at you in return. In a nutshell, this is the Obama administration’s reasoning for intervening now, and not earlier. Gas is a scary, torturous and needlessly painful and indiscriminate weapon, but you can only die once, so does the mechanism really matter all that much if it’s for a fundamentally unjust reason? This is another area in which there is no clear consensus.
Why did the Syrian government respond so violently to the protests?
Bashar al-Assad is a Ba’athist Alawite. Ba’athism is a secular (non-religious), largely socialist political philosophy that advocates for a pan-Arab nation based on Arab enlightenment, and social progress. Alawites are a sect of Shia Islam, who differ from Sunni Muslims in that they believe leadership of the Muslim nation can only be decided by God himself, and commonly disregard the authority of elected Muslim leaders, preferring to follow a line of Imams they believe descended directly from the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin/son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. Alawites also differ from most Muslims in that they do not believe that praying 5 times a day is mandatory, and by celebrating Christmas. Alawis also believe that the consumption of alcohol is permissible and even encouraged in some circumstances.
Many Sunnis see Assad’s Alawite views as blasphemous, and an insult to Islam. Although Christians, Jews and Muslims of all sects and backgrounds have co-existed in Syria in relative peace for thousands of years, this recent crisis has exacerbated underlying tensions to an extreme. All this would have been well and good under ordinary circumstances, but Syrian society was pushed to the brink in several ways apart from that. People of profound religious differences have peaceably coexisted in Syria for centuries, so why start fighting now?
It would be disingenuous to present this as a conflict based solely, or really, at all on religion, so allow me to elaborate. Although there are some profound religious differences between Alawites and the largely Sunni majority of Syria, they’d be more than willing to overcome that if not for the consolidation of power in the hands of the Alawite minority that quietly ascended to the upper levels of Syria’s power structure over the past few decades. This comes at the expense of Sunnis who have every right to a stake in their own government, I might add. Alawites are only about 13% of the population, yet they occupy almost every major position of government power within the state bureaucracy. “Of the 200,000 career soldiers in the Syrian army, roughly 70 percent are Alawites. Some 80 percent of officers in the army are also believed to be Alawites. The military’s most elite division, the Republican Guard, led by the president’s younger brother Maher al Assad, is an all-Alawite force.” - http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110504-making-sense-syrian-crisis (an excellent article everyone should read) To be certain, Alawites have suffered persecution as well, for ages, but their rise to power was not done without making enemies along the way. The Ba’ath political party is closely associated with the Alawite sect in Syrian history, as well, and as they’ve had a virtual monopoly on the political system for 40 years, it really helps put the protests in context to understand the history.
What does all this have to do with the current situation, you ask? Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.
The mysteriously large-headed gentleman in the above picture is Hafez al-Assad, the father of current Syrian president Bashar. Hafez al-Assad served as commander of air force in the Ba’ath-led government of 1963, until 1966 when he partook in a coup to overthrow the largely non-military leadership of the party. This coup led to a permanent division of the Ba’athist political movement into two distinct spheres, one led by Iraq, and one led by Syria. Internal power struggles continued within the highest levels of Syrian Ba’ath government leadership for years, until in 1970 Hafez al-Assad ordered troops still loyal to him to surround the Congress building wherein Salah Jadid, fellow party leader, had been criticizing him during an emergency session of congress. Shortly thereafter, the elder Assad ordered loyalists to arrest the leaders of Jadid’s regime. This ushered in Assad’s transition from high level party loyalist/air-force commander to full-on Prime Minister/President status in a largely bloodless coup. Salah Jadid, however, whom Assad had ruled alongside prior, remained Syria’s most prominent political prisoner for 23 years, until dying a day after being moved from prison. Shortly before arresting him, Assad offered Jadid a post in his government, but Jadid refused, saying: “If I ever take power you will be dragged through the streets until you die.”
Got all that? This brings us to the event that most closely links the two Assads, the past administration and the present civil war:
The 1982 Hama Massacre. Quite a complicated situation gave birth to the protests that lead to this disastrous massacre, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll try to be terse and efficient about it. In the early 1980s, Hama served as a center of resistance for the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely Sunni Islamic group, against Assad’s government. Throughout that time the Muslim Brotherhood, along with a handful of other Islamist factions orchestrated many hit-and-run bombing attacks against Ba’ath Party officials, even going so far as to make a brazen attempt on Hafez al-Assad’s life in June of 1980 during a reception for the president of Mali. In response to this, al-Assad ordered that around 1200 imprisoned Islamists be executed a mere hours later, in their cells, by the president’s brother Rifaat al-Assad, and army men loyal to him, respectfully. In February 1982, Hefez decided that enough was enough, and that he wished to make an example out of Hama. For 27 days, Syrian military forces under command of President Hafez al-Assad sieged Hama by tank, heavy artillery and infantry in a ruthless crusade to completely oust any force sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and leveling entire neighborhoods. After all was said and done, between 25,000 and 40,000 people were estimated to have been killed.
The massacre may be decades-old history at this point, but the lesson is clear: if you’re going to crush a revolution, do it with as much overwhelming, unnecessary force as possible, and make an example out of those who would dare defy you.
Why doesn’t Bashar al-Assad just step down? Why deploy gas now, of all times?
When he first came to power, Bashar al-Assad was looked to (editor’s note: that link is a very good read, click it) as a possible reformer. Educated as a doctor in London, England, and with little to no real attachment to his father, Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’ath party or brother Bassel al-Assad’s military experience, aside from a brief stint as an army physician after studying at the medical school Damascus University, Bashar was an unlikely heir to the Assad political dynasty. In 1988, Bassel said of his relationship to his father: “we saw father at home but he was so busy that three days could go by without us exchanging a word with him. We never had breakfast or dinner together, and I don’t remember ever having lunch together as a family, or maybe we only did once or twice when state affairs were involved. As a family, we used to spend a day or two in Lattakia in the summer, but then too he used to work in the office and we didn’t get to see much of him.”
While working on his postgraduate ophthalmology degree in London, Bashar’s older brother, Bassel, who was the assumed heir and the more experienced military man, suddenly died in a car crash in 1994. Bashar was rushed home to Syria and shuttled into military academy until his father, Hafez’s death, in 2000. The Syrian parliament decreased the minimum age for candidates to 40 from 34 and suddenly, Bashar al-Assad was eligible for the presidency! Bashar was claimed by the regime to have received 97.2% of the vote, an astounding feat considering there was no one else on the ballot. For a while, things actually seemed surprisingly okay. The death of Hafez and ascendance of Bashar lead to the so-called “Damascus Spring," nearly 600 political prisoners were freed, salons for open discussion of political and social issues sprung up in people’s homes, and observers were also encouraged by the fact that Bashar al-Assad married a Sunni woman whom he had met while studying ophthalmology in London, perhaps signaling a newer, more open, social order. But if you’ve been reading thus far, you know that such openness from an Assad was not meant to last. Activists were once again imprisoned, positions of power remained occupied by Alawites, perhaps even moreso than before, and the dream of a modern, free, open and truly democratic Syria were silenced once more.
At this point, the war has too deeply divided the country. Bashar and his government are fighting a war of survival. An unlikely alliance of Ba’athists, Alawites, Syrian Christians fearing further persecution, (perhaps for good reason) and others have fallen behind Bashar. Assad knows the only way he can leave the office of Syrian president behind at this point is either in jail or in a coffin, and so for him, it’s a zero sum game; he isn’t fighting to win or lose, he’s fighting simply to maintain power and avoid prosecution, or worse. He’s surrounded himself with loyalists, and appears to be following the Hama example of massacring those who would dare get in his way, and making an example of them. Assad has publicly stated his desire to remain president until at least the 2014 elections. The Syrian constitution, rewritten after the 2011-2012 protests, all but guarantees (editor’s note: excellent analysis of the Syrian constitution at that link) Assad will stay in power until his son is of age to take the reigns, or otherwise at least until 2028.
As far as the question of why use chemical weapons now, especially with UN investigators in the country at the time, it could be that Assad is trying to call the US’ bluff, or to demonstrate how far they’ll go to preserve their own government’s survival, or perhaps Assad simply doesn’t care anymore and knows that at this point any threat of reprisal is an empty one. Some have suggested that a rogue general may have been responsible for the attack, hinting at a breakdown in the chain of a command. Still others have suggested the rebels themselves have perpetrated the attack as a false flag, but I personally believe this to be a conspiracy theory in the face of the sheer lack of evidence (if you have information to support this theory, please share it). At any rate, Assad is fully gone. He is clearly willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power, no matter how many lives are ended in the process, and by whatever means. This is a question that may take years to answer, but if the evidence of the day and prevailing theories check out (a government led-attack), it would be one of the worst gas attacks in decades. As of right now, even a proper casualty count is hard to obtain, so a motive or individual culprit is even further off.
If you’d like further reading of Bashar al-Assad’s motivations, how he went from doctor to dictator, and the inner workings of the Ba’ath party under his rule, I strongly recommend this article. It’s an interview with the author of a book on Assad who has been following the man, his family, and the Ba’ath regime in Syria for years. A solid read.
What can we/I/anyone do?
Honestly, not much. Some Americans have joined the fighting for their preferred side themselves, but I would heavily, heavily advise against this. The easiest thing to do is to stay informed, and to keep others in your friend group informed. This should be easy enough in the coming days. I’ll also begin regularly updating this blog with news as it comes out, trying to keep it to Syria but overall news will be covered as well.
There are some non-direct-military responses that may be effective at both stemming the regime’s crackdown, and spurring the rebels’ advance, but apart from that, there’s not much else other than boots-on-the-ground, full on regime change that the US government and western powers could do, but the appetite for that is at an all time low in both the West and the Middle East. Before doing anything militaristic, Obama should seek approval from Congress, regardless of whether they’re likely to say yes or no.
No matter what happens in the coming days, US strike or intervention or not, peaceful resolution or not, or all the guns in Syria miraculously turning into history textbooks overnight, there is ALREADY a massive, imminent refugee crisis, growing bigger and more dire by the day, and many, many aid organizations are standing by to receive your aid.
I’d recommend using a site like http://www.charitynavigator.org/ to determine a charity you feel comfortable donating to, and following through with that. I’ve provided a list of Syria-specific suggestions below, however:
- UNICEF Save The Children Fund
I am by no means soliciting donations for these organizations, just politely suggesting them as options. As always, do your own homework.
What about all those refugees?
International aid to Syrian refugees has been described as "a drop in the sea" compared to the estimates of what is needed. Nearly 5 million have been displaced internally, and 2 million have gone in search of a better life abroad, bringing the total number of Syrians displaced by the conflict to about 7 million. Nearby countries, especially Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan have seen hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria come pouring over the border, stoking suspicion, anger and resentment at their presence. The sudden appearance of so many hundreds of thousands more people has stretched already thin resources even thinner. Tens of thousands more are stranded on the border as the neighboring countries seek to stem the flow of refugees. The Zaatari camp in Jordan is now Jordan’s 4th largest city, with around refugees calling it home. The sudden influx of such throngs of people looking for jobs, buying houses and buying bread has had dramatic effects on local economies, spurring inflation of crucial resources like bread and housing. The job and economic opportunities for Syrian refugees in these camps are scarce, the sociopolitical climates unwelcoming and the living arrangements are often squalid or temporary at best. The conditions outside the camps are usually no better. The refugees are disproportionately young, with around 52% being under the age of 17. The UNCHR, UNICEF and local governments are doing what they can, but the scale of this exodus was simply impossible to predict and funding is falling short. UN high commissioner for refugees António Guterres said “Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
So, Syria’s kinda fucked up, huh?
In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. Syria is a vibrant cultural center, with some of the richest historical and archeological sites on earth, it served as the cradle of civilization for a long time, and has produced some amazing music, artists, and food. Some of the worst things I’ve ever seen (NWS as it gets, truly horrifying/mindfucking stuff) have come out of the crisis, but also some of the most beautiful and inspiring, such as this dank Omar Souleyman song produced by Four Tet
Or Kibbeh, these little meat-and-pine-nut filled delightful orbs of flavor:
Or Kousa Mahshi, a sort of zucchini-stuffed meat thing that is just delectable:
Or gawk at the amazing talent of traditional and modern Syrian artists:
Also, it doesn’t hurt that Syria happens to produce a lot of gorgeous human beings:
There’s no big takeaway or solution here. Nobody knows what the future holds for Syria, and I certainly don’t, I just set out to answer some questions in the wake of renewed interest in the country and conflict recently. If there’s any information that you find to be wrong, inaccurate, offensive, or out of date, do not hesitate to contact me and I will change it as I can. I hope this post brought some new understanding or information of Syria to you, and helped you see the conflict, culture, and history in a new, and better-understood light.