It’s the land where the Arab Spring collided with a dictatorship determined to stay in power. For most of the last four decades, Syria had stability imposed over a mix of religious and ethnic groups living among ancient Roman cities, hilltop Crusader castles and ornate mosques. Then the country erupted into a civil war fought by an array of participants. Secular Syrians, Islamist radicals and foreign Sunni Jihadists battle forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia, and — at times — each other.
After two years of sectarian violence that has leveled cities and led to massacres of women and children, there’s at least one major development: UN inspectors are working with the government to tally and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. That happened because the U.S. and Russia got together after the U.S. threatened to bomb Syrian government positions after a poison gas attack in August. Seeking to maintain the momentum, the U.S. and Russia invited moderate armed opposition groups to Geneva for talks aimed at ending the fighting, which the UN estimates has killed more than 100,000 people. So far, the plan for talks has been thwarted by opposition groups that aren’t ready to form a delegation to participate, according to the UN. Meanwhile the slaughter continues and the groups involved grow more intractable. The U.S. and its European allies back moderate rebel groups and have split with Saudi Arabia, which has started to support more radical Islamist fighters. Assad is being armed by Iran and Russia, which has used its UN Security Council veto three times to protect the regime. Russia maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus.
Once a French-run mandate, Syria got independence after the end of World War II. By 1963, the Arab nationalist Baath party was ruling the country after a coup. A party member, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970. (His son Bashar took over after Hafez’s death in 2000.) That placed the Alawite minority, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in power in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Syria, which has 22 million people in total, also has sizable Christian, Druze and Kurdish communities. In 1982, Hafez used tanks and artillery against residential neighborhoods to crush a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, which killed an estimated 25,000 people. Bashar turned to his father’s playbook to end the latest threat to his family’s rule, crushing peaceful protests and then unleashing attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks against lightly armed rebels. The conflict has created more than 2 million refugees and displaced more than 5 million people within Syria. The rebels hold some cities and large swaths of the countryside, though neither side appears close to a decisive military victory.
With no sign that Assad is willing to loosen his grip, there’s not a lot of optimism that substantive peace talks will go ahead anytime soon. Rebel groups are vying for power and the opposition isn’t unified, raising the question of who, exactly, even has the power to strike an agreement. The UN’s deployment of unarmed observers to the country last year didn’t halt the violence, and Lebanon and Somalia serve as reminders of states where peacekeepers weren’t able to stabilize a country in a civil war. Efforts to arm and train moderate Syrian rebel groups may be rendered useless by sudden power shifts on the ground. There’s also concern that if foreign governments supply more-advanced weapons to the rebels, they might fall into the hands of al-Qaeda linked groups that could turn them against the U.S. and its allies. A negotiated settlement may be the only way to end the fighting, yet none of the parties seem ready for that. Russia, for its part, says its goal isn’t to keep Assad in power, but rather to keep Syria secular, independent and, most importantly, intact.
The Reference Shelf
- A Bloomberg Markets article on the threat to the Syrian regime as the country’s economy collapses from sanctions.
- Facts & Figures from Bloomberg News on the combatants and politicians participating in the Syrian civil war.
- The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to dismantle Syria’s stockpile, has a special section on the country on its website.
- The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group, reports casualties on both sides of the conflict.
- Patrick Seale’s 1989 book “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” provides insight into the regime and its role in the region.