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 Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.
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.
What about Syria’s history, its people?
Syria is a country in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a little smaller than South Carolina and with a population about five 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 refugees, half of them children.
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 family members, including a lot of children, dumping their mutilated bodies by the sides of roads. Then military 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. 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.
How did it all go so wrong in Syria?
That’s a complicated question and there’s no single, definitive answer. 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 burst 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 much worse.
OK, now the theories for why Syria spiraled so wildly. The first is what you might call "sectarian re-balancing" or "the (CNN’s foreign affairs show host) 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.
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.)
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 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 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 people.
What about Russia and Iran?
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 U.S. has to go around the U.N. 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 who you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s last foreign military base outside of 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.
Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options. 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 1980s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in the 1990s). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching air strikes 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. Nope.
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.
So why would Obama bother with strikes that no one expects to actually solve anything?
OK, you’re asking here about the Obama administration’s not-so-subtle signals that it wants to launch some cruise missiles at Syria, maybe with the United Kingdom, which it says would be punishment for Assad’s strongly suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.
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.
So what could happen next?
Short-term maybe the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.