A Very Brief History of Syria and Its War by Angela Bennett

I feel a brief overview of Syria’s recent history is needed for those of us, including myself, who never learned about Syria or much about the Middle East in school.  I keep up on the news.  In fact, I’ve been pretty obsessed with politics for the past couple years.  Trying to keep up with everything that is going on in this country is difficult enough.  But then trying to not only know what events are occurring worldwide but to really understand all the complexities of other nations or cultures is impossible for someone who is not a scholar specializing in such things. But if we want to know the truth, we have to try to gain a basic understanding at least and learn to question overly simplistic versions of what is happening.

In researching this book, I started out reading about the recent chemical attack in Syria and our retaliatory missile strike.  But I realized how much I did not know about Syria and the ongoing war.  So I decided to read a book that details the recent history of Syria and the war.  I am still far from an expert and still have many questions, but reading Christopher Phillips’ book, The Battle for Syria, was quite informative.  I recommend it to anyone looking to get a more in-depth understanding of Syria’s history, the current war, and the role outside countries have played in the war.  But for now, here is a much-condensed summary.

Syria was created in the 1920’s after World War I and ruled by France.  When deciding where to draw the boundaries, not enough consideration was given to the area’s history or the people living there, as is often the case when outsiders take control.  Syria did not gain their independence until 1945.  And for some time it was not a stable independence.  There were eight successful coups in the following 25 years.

Then, in 1970, Bashar Al-Assad’s father, Hafez, took over and he and his son have been the only rulers since.  Apparently, Hafez was able to win over many different segments of the society to stabilize his power.  He built up the infrastructure and provided jobs and subsidies for the poorer people.  The leader did away with some of the more drastic socialist programs to gain support from the merchant class.  Hafez was part of the Alawis division of Shiites, and he appointed many Alawis to his security forces.  But to ensure more stability for his power, he also appointed Sunnis to important positions, such as Prime Minister.  (For those of you wondering, Shiites and Sunnis are followers of different divisions of Islam, namely the Shia and Sunni divisions.  They split apart based on various ideas of who Muhammad’s true successor should have been.  Syria is a majority Sunni country.)  

In 1991 Hafez backed the US and its allies in their efforts to expel Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.  Syria had been aligned with the USSR during the Cold War, but since the USSR had dissolved and Syria’s economy was suffering, they were looking for new alliances.  The US rewarded the Syrian government by helping to increase their power and support in the region and to improve their international reputation.

Bashar al-Assad was chosen by his father to succeed him and was elected president in an unopposed referendum in 2015.  According to Phyllis Bennis of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, Bashar allowed the US to outsource torture to Syria in 2002.3  This Assad did not back the 2003 Iraq invasion, worried it would create a pro-Western state on his border and strengthen Israel.  Consequently, Bush’s administration added Syria to the second tier of the “axis of evil.”  Assad helped Jihadists into Iraq to fight against the US.  The US retaliated by forcing Syria out of Lebanon where it had much control. Syria strengthened its ties to Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Qatar during this time.  

In 2008, Western nations and their allies were tentatively re-engaging with Syria after several years of sanctions and having previously withdrawn their ambassadors.  President Obama reinstituted relations with Assad, hoping to help stabilize the region so he could withdraw American troops from Iraq.  A new representative was sent to Damascus but did not arrive until shortly before the Arab Spring protests began in Syria.  

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire after suffering prolonged abuse by the authorities. This act sparked the Arab Spring that spread from Tunisia to the entire Middle East.  About three months later, in March, a group of teenagers scrawled anti-government graffiti on their school wall in the town of Deraa in Syria, and they were arrested and tortured.  Their families, joined by hundreds of others, protested their children’s imprisonment and four people were shot and killed by regime forces.  Larger protests followed, and the government forces surrounded Deraa, cutting off electricity, water, and cell phone networks.  News of these protests had already spread which triggered protests in other Syrian towns and cities, including parts of Damascus and Idlib.  While the protests all were against the regime, they had differing complaints particular to the local areas.  The protesters voted online to name each Friday protest.  At first, the names were focused on sections of Syrian society the protesters wanted to persuade to join them.  By the autumn of 2011, the appeals turned to other countries, at times requesting military intervention.

There was also a large contingent that did not protest.  Composed of middle-class Syrians and Sunni merchants living in the cities, they had received more economic benefits from Assad, including infrastructure improvements, more trade, and new private schools and universities.  Government workers received a 1% pay raise to dampen any desire they might have had to join the protests.  And then there were those who feared a Sunni government might replace Assad’s.  These included the Alawis, Christians (8% of the population), Druze (3%), Ismailis (1%) and other Shia derivatives (1%).  These minorities, along with some secular Sunnis, supported Assad because of his secularism and their religious freedom, relative to surrounding areas.  Older Syrians had experienced the instability before Hafez’s takeover so were less likely to want Bashar ousted.

Assad had other tactics to suppress protest that were more brutal.  Not only were the soldiers ordered to shoot protestors, but there was also a security force, the Mukhabarat, that would kill any soldiers who refused.  The Violations Documentation Center in Syria, the opposition body-count website, claims hundreds of Syrian soldiers were killed this way.  Members of the Mukhabarat were decentralized to prevent any coup attempts and spied on each other.  Assad labeled the peaceful protesters as “armed gangs” to justify the violence.    

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed early on.  It was made up of various local militias, called Katibas, that set up to protect protesters.  But they were not a unified force with a common goal.  They were also not very well funded compared to the more extreme rebels, so they didn’t have much success fighting Assad.  According to Phillips, there are three different strands of Islamist: moderate, Salafist and Jihadist.  The moderates range from social conservatives that want separation of religion from government to some who want religious rule governed by civilians and are protective of minorities.  Some of these groups either eventually lost popularity or were radicalized.  Salafists wished to form a religious state, but unlike Jihadists, were not interested in expanding beyond Syrian borders.  The two groups that are Jihadist in Syria are al-Nusra and ISIS.  They seek to spread their ideology to other countries and are associated with al-Qaeda.  Then there are also the Kurds which are split into two groups that clash with each other and the Jihadists.  Unfortunately, the Jihadists are not only better armed than the moderates, they are also better organized.

This is an excerpt from the book Behind the Conflict in Syria: A Not So Civil War.


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