The United States and allies are preparing for a possibly imminent series of
limited military strikes against Syria, the first direct U.S. intervention in
the two-year civil war, in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s
suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.
If you found the above
sentence kind of confusing, or aren’t exactly sure why Syria is fighting a
civil war, or even where Syria is located, then this is the article for you.
What’s happening in Syria is really important, but it can also be confusing
and difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it.
Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First,
a disclaimer: Syria and its history are really complicated; this is not an
exhaustive or definitive account of that entire story, just some background,
written so that anyone can understand it.
1. What is Syria?
Syria is a country in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the
Mediterranean Sea. It’s about the same size as Washington state with a
population a little over three times as large – 22 million. Syria is very
diverse, ethnically and religiously, but most Syrians are ethnic Arab and
follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Civilization in Syria goes back thousands of
years, but the country as it exists today is very young. Its borders were
drawn by European colonial powers in the 1920s.
Syria is in the middle of an extremely violent civil war. Fighting between
government forces and rebels has killed more 100,000 and created 2 million
half of them children.
2. Why are people in Syria killing each other?
The killing started in April 2011, when peaceful protests inspired by
earlier revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia rose up to challenge the dictatorship
running the country. The government responded — there is no getting around
this — like monsters. First, security forces quietly killed activists. Then
they started kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing activists and their
including a lot of children, dumping their mutilated bodies by the sides
of roads. Then troops began simply opening fire on protests. Eventually,
civilians started shooting back.
Fighting escalated from there until it was a civil war. Armed civilians
organized into rebel groups. The army deployed across the country, shelling
and bombing whole neighborhoods and towns, trying to terrorize people into
submission. They’ve also allegedly used chemical weapons, which is a big deal
for reasons I’ll address below. Volunteers from other countries joined the
rebels, either because they wanted freedom and democracy for Syria or, more
likely, because they are jihadists who hate Syria’s secular government. The
rebels were gaining ground for a while and now it looks like Assad is coming
back. There is no end in sight.
3. That’s horrible. But there are protests lots of places. How did
it all go so wrong in Syria? And, please, just give me the short version.
That’s a complicated question, and there’s no single, definitive answer.
This is the shortest possible version — stay with me, it’s worth it. You might
say, broadly speaking, that there are two general theories. Both start with
the idea that Syria has been a powder keg waiting to explode for decades and
that it was set off, maybe inevitably, by the 2011 protests and especially by
the government’s overly harsh crackdown.
Before we dive into the theories, you have to understand that the Syrian
government really overreacted when peaceful protests started in mid-2011,
slaughtering civilians unapologetically, which was a big part of how things
escalated as quickly as they did. Assad learned this from his father. In 1982,
Assad’s father and then-dictator Hafez al-Assad responded to a Muslim
Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama by
leveling entire neighborhoods. He killed thousands of civilians, many of
whom had nothing to do with the uprising. But it worked, and it looks like the
younger Assad tried to reproduce it. His failure made the descent into chaos
Okay, now the theories for why Syria spiraled so wildly. The first is what
you might call “sectarian re-balancing” or “the
Fareed Zakaria case” for why Syria is imploding (he didn’t invent this
argument but is a major proponent). Syria has artificial borders that were
created by European colonial powers, forcing together an amalgam of diverse
religious and ethnic groups. Those powers also tended to promote a minority
and rule through it, worsening preexisting sectarian tensions.
Zakaria’s argument is that what we’re seeing in Syria is in some ways the
inevitable re-balancing of power along ethnic and religious lines. He compares
it to the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq after the United States toppled Saddam
Hussein, after which a long-oppressed majority retook power from, and
violently punished, the former minority rulers. Most Syrians are Sunni Arabs,
but the country is run by members of a minority sect known as Alawites
(they’re ethnic Arab but follow a smaller branch of Islam). The Alawite
government rules through a repressive dictatorship and
gives Alawites special privileges, which makes some Sunnis and other
groups hate Alawites in general, which in turn makes Alawites fear that
they’ll be slaughtered en masse if Assad loses the war. (There are other
minorities as well, such as ethnic Kurds and Christian Arabs; too much to
cover in one explainer.) Also, lots of Syrian communities are already
organized into ethnic or religious enclaves, which means that community
militias are also sectarian militias. That would explain why so much of the
killing in Syria has developed along sectarian lines. It would also suggest
that there’s not much anyone can do to end the killing because, in Zakaria’s
view, this is a painful but unstoppable process of re-balancing power.
The second big theory is a bit simpler: that the Assad regime was not a
sustainable enterprise and it’s clawing desperately on its way down. Most
countries have some kind of self-sustaining political order, and it looked for
a long time like Syria was held together by a cruel and repressive but
basically stable dictatorship. But maybe it wasn’t stable; maybe it was built
on quicksand. Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez seized power in a coup in 1970
after two decades of extreme political instability. His government was a
product of Cold War meddling and a kind of Arab political identity crisis that
was sweeping the region. But he picked the losing sides of both: the Soviet
Union was his patron, and he followed a hard-line anti-Western nationalist
ideology that’s now mostly defunct. The Cold War is long over, and most of the
region long ago made peace with Israel and the United States; the Assad
regime’s once-solid ideological and geopolitical identity is hopelessly
outdated. But Bashar al-Assad, who took power in 2000 when his father died,
never bothered to update it. So when things started going belly-up two years
ago, he didn’t have much to fall back on except for his ability to kill
4. I hear a lot about how Russia still loves Syria, though. And
Iran, too. What’s their deal?
Yeah, Russia is Syria’s most important ally. Moscow blocks the United
Nations Security Council from passing anything that might hurt the Assad
regime, which is why the United States has to go around the United Nations if
it wants to do anything. Russia sends lots of weapons to Syria that make it
easier for Assad to keep killing civilians and will make it much harder if the
outside world ever wants to intervene.
The four big reasons that Russia wants to protect Assad, the importance of
which vary depending on whom you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation
in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s
last foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union; (2) Russia
still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national
insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last
military alliances; (3) Russia also hates the idea of “international
intervention” against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold
War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia; (4) Syria
buys a lot of Russian military exports, and Russia needs the money.
Iran’s thinking in supporting Assad is more straightforward. It perceives
Israel and the United States as existential threats and uses Syria to protect
itself, shipping arms through Syria to the Lebanon-based militant group
Hezbollah and the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. Iran is already feeling
isolated and insecure; it worries that if Assad falls it will lose a major
ally and be cut off from its militant proxies, leaving it very vulnerable. So
far, it looks like
Iran is actually coming out ahead: Assad is even more reliant on Tehran
than he was before the war started.
5. Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options. Sorry.
The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps
them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel
in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war
(the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil
war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow
would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching
airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and
probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground
invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot
of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and
nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose
order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other.
The one political option, which the Obama administration has been pushing
for, would be for the Assad regime and the rebels to strike a peace deal. But
there’s no indication that either side is interested in that, or that there’s
even a viable unified rebel movement with which to negotiate.
It’s possible that there was a brief window for a Libya-style military
intervention early on in the conflict. But we’ll never really know.
6. So why would Obama bother with strikes that no one expects to
actually solve anything?
Okay, you’re asking here about the Obama administration’s not-so-subtle
signals that it wants to launch some cruise missiles at Syria, which would be
punishment for what it says is Assad’s use of chemical weapons against
It’s true that basically no one believes that this will turn the tide of
the Syrian war. But this is important:
it’s not supposed to. The strikes wouldn’t be meant to shape the course of
the war or to topple Assad, which Obama thinks would just make things worse
anyway. They would be meant to punish Assad for (allegedly) using chemical
weapons and to deter him, or any future military leader in any future war,
from using them again.
7. Come on, what’s the big deal with chemical weapons? Assad kills
100,000 people with bullets and bombs but we’re freaked out over 1,000 who
maybe died from poisonous gas? That seems silly.
You’re definitely not the only one who thinks the distinction is arbitrary
and artificial. But there’s a good case to be made that this is a rare
opportunity, at least in theory, for the United States to make the war a
little bit less terrible — and to make future wars less terrible.
The whole idea that there are rules of war is a pretty new one: the
practice of war is thousands of years old, but the idea that we can regulate
war to make it less terrible has been around for less than a century. The
institutions that do this are weak and inconsistent; the rules are frail and
not very well observed. But one of the world’s few quasi-successes is the
“norm” (a fancy way of saying a rule we all agree to follow) against chemical
weapons. This norm is frail enough that Syria could drastically weaken it if
we ignore Assad’s use of them, but it’s also strong enough that it’s worth
protecting. So it’s sort of a low-hanging fruit: firing a few cruise missiles
doesn’t cost us much and can maybe help preserve this really hard-won and
valuable norm against chemical weapons.
You didn’t answer my question. That just tells me that we can maybe
preserve the norm against chemical weapons, not why we should.
Fair point. Here’s the deal: war is going to happen. It just is. But the
reason that the world got together in 1925 for the Geneva Convention to ban
chemical weapons is because this stuff is really, really good at killing
civilians but not actually very good at the conventional aim of warfare, which
is to defeat the other side. You might say that they’re maybe 30 percent a
battlefield weapon and 70 percent a tool of terror. In a world without that
norm against chemical weapons, a military might fire off some sarin gas
because it wants that battlefield advantage, even if it ends up causing
unintended and massive suffering among civilians, maybe including its own. And
if a military believes its adversary is probably going to use chemical
weapons, it has a strong incentive to use them itself. After all, they’re
fighting to the death.
So both sides of any conflict, not to mention civilians everywhere, are
better off if neither of them uses chemical weapons. But that requires
believing that your opponent will never use them, no matter what. And the only
way to do that, short of removing them from the planet entirely, is for
everyone to just agree in advance to never use them and to really mean it.
That becomes much harder if the norm is weakened because someone like Assad
got away with it. It becomes a bit easier if everyone believes using chemical
weapons will cost you a few inbound U.S. cruise missiles.
That’s why the Obama administration apparently wants to fire cruise
missiles at Syria, even though it won’t end the suffering, end the war or even
really hurt Assad that much.
8. Hi, there was too much text so I skipped to the bottom to find
the big take-away. What’s going to happen?
Short-term maybe the United States and some allies will launch some
limited, brief strikes against Syria and maybe they won’t. Either way, these
things seem pretty certain in the long-term:
• The killing will continue, probably for years. There’s no one to sign a
peace treaty on the rebel side, even if the regime side were interested, and
there’s no foreseeable victory for either. Refugees will continue fleeing into
neighboring countries, causing instability and an entire other humanitarian
crisis as conditions in the camps worsen.
• Syria as we know it, an ancient place with a rich and celebrated culture
and history, will be a broken, failed society, probably for a generation or
more. It’s very hard to see how you rebuild a functioning state after this.
Maybe worse, it’s hard to see how you get back to a working social contract
where everyone agrees to get along.
• Russia will continue to block international action, the window for which
has maybe closed anyway. The United States might try to pressure, cajole or
even horse-trade Moscow into changing its mind, but there’s not much we can
offer them that they care about as much as Syria.
• At some point the conflict will cool, either from a partial victory or
from exhaustion. The world could maybe send in some peacekeepers or even
broker a fragile peace between the various ethnic, religious and political
factions. Probably the best model is Lebanon, which fought a brutal civil war
that lasted 15 years from 1975 to 1990 and has been slowly, slowly recovering
ever since. It had some bombings
just last week. (By Max Fisher, 8/29/13)
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