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10 Questions about the War in Syria that You Were too Embarrassed to Ask

How the war started, where it’s headed, and why Russia’s intervention has become the subject of the world media.

What is wrong with this country?

Like Israel, Syria was artificially created by the victors of World War I, uniting ethnicities and religions hostile to each other behind one border. In 1918, France and Great Britain drew the borders of a new country over the map of the defeated Ottoman Empire where Sunni Muslims (according to different calculations, 60 - 75% of the population) held an absolute majority over Alawites, Shiites, Kurds, Druze and Christians. At the same time, the French colonialists and the future Syrian dictators supported the minority in opposition to the Sunnis by using a strategy of “divide and conquer.”


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_11.jpg", "text":"Ethnic map of Syria. Photo: wikipedia.org"}

What has kept Syria together for nearly 100 years?

At first, it was patriotic enthusiasm in the fight for independence - French troops were withdrawn from the country’s territory only in 1946. Later, they rallied against a common enemy, Israel, and behind the idea of pan-Arabism, a political movement which sought to unite all Arabs under one state regardless of their adherence to particular sects of Islam. Another coup in 1970 saw Hafez al-Assad, then commander of the Air Force and Air Defense Corps and an Alawite, come to power. He took a path to build a secular state with the support of the army and security forces. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in 1982 during the government forces’ assault on the city of Hama, which was at the time held by the Muslim Brotherhood political party. Islamist elements didn’t seriously manifest themselves in society after that, right up to the beginning of the current crisis.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_02.jpg", "text":"A group photo of dictators: Hafez al-Assad, Syria; Idi Amin, Uganda; Anwar Sadat, Egypt; Muammar Gaddafi, Libya. 1972. None of them are alive today. Photo: AFP / EAST NEWS"}

Who are the Alawites and how did they get into power?

The Alawite branch is not recognized by all Muslims as one that belongs to Islam. Their faith combines beliefs of Shia Islam with elements of Christianity, Zoroastrian mysticism and the belief in the reincarnation of men. The Alawites keep many of their customs secret, and this is why most of what is known about them comes from detractors. It is believed that they pray two times a day, celebrate Christmas and Easter, allow alcohol, reject Sharia and the Hajj and pray in their native languages.

Accounting for about 12% of Syria’s population, the Alawites have long been the poorest and lowest caste. Having gained the favor of the French administration, many Alawite families looked to the military as a way for their sons to climb out of poverty. Eventually they formed the backbone of the officer corps which brought the Assad family to power.

Is Bashar Assad a dictator?

Bassel Assad, the oldest son of Hafez and the preeminent successor, died in a car accident in his Mercedes in 1994 while on the way to the airport. Young Bashar was quickly summoned from London, where he had been building a career as an ophthalmologist under a pseudonym. He was voted in as president in a referendum carried out after the death of his father in 2000, having received a total of 97.29% of all votes.

Assad was, out of the entire MIddle East, the most vocal pro-European voice. He wore jeans, often rode around in his Audi A6, ate out at fashionable restaurants in Damascus and married Asma Akhras, an employee of J.P. Morgan bank, who grew up in London and has since become one of the most elegant first ladies in the world. Changes were not made in appearance only. Under Bashar, the first civilian government of Syria in decades was formed, access to the Internet was liberalized, many political prisoners were released, private banks were allowed to open and the first independent newspaper in the country appeared - the illustrated humor booklet, “Lantern.”


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_03.jpg", "text":"Bashar and Asma Assad. Friends since childhood, married since 2000. The couple has two sons and a daughter. Photo: Abd Rabbo-Mousse/ABACAPRESS.COM / EAST NEWS"}

However, the very first manifestations of democracy proved to be dangerous to the president. After a series of speeches by the capital-city intelligentsia with the purpose of overturning a state of emergency in Syria (established in 1963!), new political prisoners appeared and the printing press at “Lantern” was closed. Syrians were denied access from visiting sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and news agencies in 2007. In the same year, Bashar Assad was re-elected to the presidency with 97.6% of the votes.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_04.jpg", "text":"One of “Lantern’s” caricatures, for which author Ali Ferzat’s hand was broken by secret service agents in 2011. Photo: Ali Ferzat"}

What was the cause of the uprising in 2011?

Syria suffered from a record drought from 2006 to 2011. Several consecutive years of crop failure led to the destruction of more than 800,000 farms, and almost 1.5 million people needed to move to cities to find odd jobs. This migration made the already overcrowded cities swell. The population of Syria grew from 3.5 million inhabitants in the 1950s to 23 million in 2011. There was a general lack of work, food and water. Thus, the implicit religious strife and the recruiting of strongmen upset with the regime were now exacerbated by the economic situation.

What sparked the uprising in 2011?

A mood of discontent among the impoverished Sunni population was fueled by successful demonstrations by opposition movements in neighboring countries. The “Arab Spring” in Syria started with the appearance of an abundance of political graffiti. Half a dozen schoolchildren aged 10 to 15 were arrested for spraying graffiti and beaten by police in the southern city of Daraa in February of that year. The children belonged to influential local families and hundreds of people hit the streets to get them released. The strongmen lit the flame.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_05.jpg", "text":"In 2011, the amount of political graffiti in Syria grew to such an extent that shopkeepers were required to ask for ID cards to sell aerosol spray cans. Photo: Polaris / EAST NEWS"}

There are still strong tribal ties and traditions in these places - the need to protect your own, taking blood revenge, etc. - and thousands gathered for the rally. The more often the protesters were shot at, the bigger and angrier the crowds became. 100,000 people came to a protest in Daraa on March 25th after Friday prayers, and 20 of those people were killed. The protests were instantly carried out in other cities, and the authorities responded with violence in each place.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_06.jpg", "text": "April, 2011. Protesters demand that government forces stop a mounted siege of the city of Daraa. Photo: AFP / EAST NEWS"}

How did the war in Syria begin?

More than a third of the population of Syria was comprised of youth aged 15-24, and the level of unemployment among this group was especially high. Hundreds of thousands of protesters hit the streets all over the country in the spring and summer of 2011 after each Friday prayer, which were used by Sunni imams for political and propaganda purposes. Police were soon unable to withstand them and the government began a military operation against the opposition. Cities were surrounded and cleansed with military equipment and air raids. In reaction to this, Sunnis deserted the army en masse and created an armed wing of the opposition - the Free Syrian Army. Protester clashes with the authorities were already turning into street fights in late 2011.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_08.jpg", "text":"After a hit by the national air force, smoke rises over the rebel-held city of Duma, south of Damascus. Photo: AFP / EAST NEWS"}

Which countries are playing a role in the conflict?

In a regional sense, the civil war in Syria is another episode in the conflict between Shia and Sunni. The main support comes from Sunni oil monarchies in the Persian Gulf (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and Turkey, whose main interests are the weakening of their neighbors and gaining the status of preeminent regional power. The local Shia superpower of Iran, recognizing the Alawites as their own, is attempting to maintain a contiguous sphere of influence up to the Mediterranean Sea via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iranian and Lebanese-backed troops have come to Assad’s aid in critical moments of the war.

Russia is continuing the strain of Soviet politics in supporting Arab regimes that are hostile to the USA. After the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, the government of Assad became the last of these still standing.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_07.jpg", "text":"A satellite image of Bassel Assad Airport in Latakia. According to recent figures, there are already four Russian Su-30 multipurpose fighters, twelve Su-25 bombers and seven Mi-24 attack helicopters based there. Photo: Airbus DS / Spot Image"}

Barack Obama’s administration has categorically opposed being drawn into another war in light of continuing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it seems to be hostage to its own role as the main defender of democracy in the world. However, American aid has not been enough to defeat Assad’s regime, and now that it has become the main force behind Islamist radicals, everything is called into question.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_10.jpg", "text":"In February, 2015, the opposition in Duma fired mortars on the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing at least 5 people. In response, government aircraft attacked Duma, which killed 8 people and wounded this girl. Photo: AFP PHOTO / EAST NEWS"}

What is happening in Syria at the moment?

At least 250,000 Syrians have died in the conflict and more than 4 million have been driven from their homes to this day. The situation is critically destabilizing neighboring Iraq, where the Islamic State has penetrated from Syria with an aggressive ideology and powerful military strength. In a situation where government forces and moderate opposition are extremely tired of war, ISIS is expanding its territory at the expense of both. They are fighting with Kurds in the north for the territory along the border with Turkey, and they’ve approached Damascus in the south. Aside from losing the capital, a critical threat to the Assad government is the encroachment of hostilities on the ancestral Alawite lands on the Mediterranean coast and the key port of Latakia. It is believed that the Russian contingent has arrived in Syria in defense of this land.


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_12.jpg", "text":"A map of military activity in Syria. The area in red marks the territory controlled by the Assad government, yellow - the Kurds, gray - IS, green - the moderate Sunni opposition, and white - Al Qaeda in Syria. Photo: AFP PHOTO / EAST NEWS"}

What’s next?

No one is considering a peaceful resolution, and no side has a visible advantage in the war. In a situation where the USA is avoiding a ground operation, the central common issue is ISIS. Assad and the Alawites could theoretically reach a compromise with Iranian Shias, Sunni partisans and Kurds, at least to avoid a complete partition of the country. But what can be done with a force whose sole purpose is an absolute victory by way of annihilating the opponents?


{"img":"/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Syria_09.jpg", "text":"Summer, 2015. The rebel-held city of Duma. Photo: AFP PHOTO / EAST NEWS"}

Cover Photo: AFP / EAST NEWS

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