So you’re sitting in a restaurant, probably in America, when you hear some yokel shout “People in Syria been killin’ one another since the Bible!” A chorus of hearty agreements follow from the nearby table.
Such a statement is patently false, and somehow in your gut you know it. How best to combat this level of ignorance? Beyond avoiding using the word “actually,” here’s a guide to best break down and have a civil chat with someone who clearly doesn’t know anything about Syria, geopolitics, or the civil war. (And for way, way more depth into Syrian history, read this.)
The cliff notes! For the lazy who won’t read any further!
1). Syria was peaceful, but now is not.
2). The war is not really over religion, but over power. Religion just helps people identify enemies faster.
3). The UN can’t end the war because none of the factions want the war to end.
4). Russia wants to be seen as a reliable ally, so it’ll stick with Assad.
5). The West had no incentive to cause the civil war or create the Islamic State (though it’s not impossible some people tried).
6). Letting Syrians kill one another won’t depopulate Syria and create peace, but will radicalize truly desperate and truly dangers groups that won’t be content to leave their madness at home.
7). We care because the war threatens our reliable oil supplies and our reliable allies.
8). If nothing changes, the war will eventually settle into a stalemate not unlike Lebanon’s. Nothing will be solved, but at least the fighting will stop.
Now, let’s get detailed. Mmm-mmmmm.
Have Syrians always been killin’ one another?
Syria historically has almost always been a relatively peaceful province of some empire. Until the 20th century, Syria was kept in order by an imperial power, most recently the French from 1920-46. Prior to that, Syria was under Turkish rule for five mostly quiet centuries. Compare that to the same time in Europe, which witnessed two world wars, Napoleon, and so many revolutions, rebellions, insurrections, massacres, etc. that you can be forgiven for losing count.
Besides the Arab-Israel wars and Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the 1970s and early 80s, Syria was overall a pretty quiet place until 2011. Even as late as 2010, visitors were often struck by how ridiculously safe the country was. Well, police states tend to be.
Is it a war over religion?
Not really, but you can’t give a 100% “no” to that, either. Under the Assad regime, Syria was officially secular with special emphasis given to Islam. Owing to Syria’s history as a borderland, it ended up with a mosaic of different religions and sects, including some stuff not found anywhere else. It was just good government policy not to pick a side.
When the uprising broke out in spring 2011, it did not, initially, have a religious bent. Syria’s government was a dictatorship that rewarded close friends for loyalty but left pretty much everyone else out of the spoils. This meant that the vast majority of Syrians didn’t particularly like the Assad regime. This dislike cut across religious lines. The uprising started with almost everyone but the regime’s closest friends calling for either reform or revolution.
It was the Assad regime that decided to play the religion card. They spread rumors of Alawites, Christians, and other minorities being killed by Sunni Muslim extremists while concurrently ordering their troops to shoot into crowds made up of very diverse people.
If you heard about strangers targeting people like you, you’d get paranoid. If you heard about a killing nearby, you’d close ranks with those most like you for safety. This is pretty much what the Assad regime counted on. When they ordered protestors to be shot, they created enemies who would in turn retaliate by shooting and bombing back. When that happened, it scared people into the regime’s arms. Because the vast majority of Syria’s people are Sunnis, the vast majority of the regime’s victims were also Sunni. To get even, these Sunnis targeted regime soldiers and supporters, who were often minorities. This scared the minorities into supporting the regime’s crackdown.
And on it went until religious identity became a prime way to spot an enemy.
Why can’t the UN end the war?
They’ve tried and failed. So has the Arab League and the United States. The problem is that too many outside powers still benefit from a civil war. The main issue is that the main factions in the civil war each have the strength to keep fighting and have outside supporters willing to keep arming them.
In the 1990s, the Balkan Wars were only ended when two of the main factions – the Croats and Bosnian-Muslims – were willing to sue for peace. That made it easy to go after the only faction that was still willing to fight, the Serbs.
But in Syria, none of the factions have shown much interest in peace. In the Balkans, everyone but Serbia was happy to accept the death of Yugoslavia. After a brief bombing campaign, Serbia also changed its mind. But no faction in Syria wants to accept just a slice of the country. They all want the whole thing. That means the defeat and destruction of all the other factions in the country.
Why is Russia helping Assad?
Two reasons: to prove Russia is still reliable and to prove Russia is still important in world affairs.
Russia has lost a lot of power since 1991, but under Putin seeks to reverse that trend. The first step is to show that Russia can still save its friends. It might make sense to abandon a decaying regime like Assad except that would send the signal to the world that Russia can’t be counted on. That makes creating new alliances much harder.
Additionally, Russia also gets a seat at a table it might otherwise be excluded from. This proves that Russia is still a great power to the world. Once more, this makes Russian diplomacy easier.
Russia doesn’t gain much strategically from Syria. Its navy is outclassed in the Mediterranean by NATO, so it doesn’t really need its base there as much as it used to. It also doesn’t earn enough money from Syrian arms sales to think of Syria as critical to Russian interests. But Russian efforts to rebuild a worldwide alliance on its terms hinge on being seen as a good partner. Russia already failed to protect both Saddam Hussein and Slobodon Milosevic from the West. It really can’t afford to lose yet another ally when its ranks are so thin.
Did the West cause the civil war and/or the Islamic State?
Ah, conspiracy! This one will gain a lot of traction as the news spreads that many of the Islamic State’s commanders were once imprisoned by the U.S. while it occupied Iraq.
With 100% honesty, it can’t be totally ruled out. The CIA has sparked civil wars and coups before; why not Syria?
The U.S. in 2001 might have thought a Syrian civil war was a good idea, but the U.S. of 2011 had learned the hard way that once chaos is unleashed, it cannot be easily contained. The political incentive to stir up more trouble wasn’t really there. Assad was a bastion of stability in a region where almost nobody could be counted on, and everyone knew where he stood. Hell, Assad even helped protect the U.S. embassy in Damascus from terrorist attack.
Even if the U.S. favored a civil war in 2011, the underlying circumstances that caused the uprising were not made by the West but by the geopolitics of Syria and the failure of the Assad regime to govern well. It may be shown one day that the CIA helped organize the Free Syrian Army, but the CIA didn’t have the power to create a Syria where a Free Syrian Army was needed. That was the result of Assad’s governing policies and the geopolitics of Syria itself.
As for the Islamic State, it would defy belief that after the experience of Afghanistan that the U.S. would ever ally with radicals again. There’s plenty of evidence that more immature powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar did provide some support for the rise of the Islamic State, but the U.S had been burned before by making such a devil’s bargain.
Why not just let them all kill one another?
The short answer: the Islamic State.
This is a notion popular with the “why not nuke Mecca and be done with it” folks found on so many comment threads regarding news from the Middle East. The logic is this: give Arabs and/or Muslims enough guns and they’ll wipe one another out, leaving grim but serenely empty countries behind them.
That fails to take into account demographics. Syrians aren’t killing one another at a rate where one day Syria will be a wilderness. But they are killing one another at a rate whereby truly dangerous and truly crazy groups like the Islamic State can gain supporters, take territory, and expand outwards.
Letting the civil war fester is much like letting the wound of your enemy fester. The danger is that the infection of that wound will spread to you or your friends long before it kills your enemy.
Why do we care at all?
Oil and alliances, in short.
Africa is rife with civil wars, but they don’t suck up headlines because the countries with civil wars either don’t have strategic resources or their resources aren’t yet integrated into the world economy. A great exception is Nigeria. Because Nigeria has oil and it’s a regular and expected part of the world market, we get stories about Boko Haram, as Boko Haram could theoretically cut oil exports off, throwing the world’s economy into chaos.
Beyond that, American allies in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and Kurdistan are all threatened by the rise of the Islamic State. Note it was not until IS invaded Iraq this summer that America actually got around to doing anything about the Syrian civil war.
Even then, America’s interests are limited. It doesn’t have the will to impose a settlement on Syria. It would rather have the civil war ended on the cheap without too much American blood and treasure spent.
So how will this whole thing end?
That’s genuinely impossible to tell since so many things could happen. But the current trajectory favors a stalemate after all sides have exhausted themselves.
From 1975-90, Lebanon fought a civil war not unlike Syria’s. The civil war only ended when most factions were exhausted and all outside powers had concluded they had no use for the civil war.
Lebanon’s civil war went underground. Bombs and assassinations rather than armies and militias were the ways the elites played war. It didn’t make Lebanon stable, and even today Lebanon’s army doesn’t do a great job of protecting the country or itself, but it did stop almost all of the fighting.
Should Syria’s civil war continue on, it’s likely it will end up like Lebanon, with a central “government” allowed to call a few shots but with the country carved up into fiefdoms of this group or that. Since no one side will be strong enough to overcome the other, this peace will be kept until either generational change causes Syrians to forget the civil war or until one faction gains enough power to triumph over the others.
FAQ means “Fun American-centered questions!”
Have you heard any other ignorant statements about Syria that need addressing? What about other geopolitical issues that you wish your cousin would stop misreading as proof of the Illuminati? Let us know in the comments!