I do not know much about Syria, or the war there. I am writing this for two reasons: to educate myself; and in the hopes it will reach someone who will be inspired to donate to help the people there. Any inaccuracies are accidental, and my fault alone. I hope we can remember our shared humanity, with decent Syrians of all colors, and religions.
Syria (سوريا) is a Middle Eastern country, with a population of more than 18 million people. It borders five countries: Iraq; Jordan; Israel; Lebanon; and Turkey, and has an almost 200 km coast on the Mediterranean. It’s capital is Damascus (مُحافظة دمشق), which itself had population estimates of between 1.7 and 2.6 million, before the war. The war in the country has caused vast shifts in population in the last several years. The name Damascus is a given name from the Bible. It is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Evidence has shown that the area may have been inhabited since around 9,000 B.C. Evidence of a more substantial settlement, goes back as far as 1350 B.C. Damascus was a beautiful city, with monuments from many historic periods. The largest city in Syria, before the civil war, was Aleppo (حلب), with 4.6 million people.
The country is divided into fourteen provinces, known as governorates, the biggest of which is Homs (مُحافظة حمص). Homs has an area of just over 40,000 km². Damascus is situated in the governorate of the same name, Damascus, and is comprised of the city alone. It is the smallest governorate by size, with an area of only 1,599 km². Each governorate is further divided into districts (up to eight each), for a total of 65 districts. Districts and their 281 sub-districts (nawahi) are run by those appointed by the governor of the governorate in which they are located.
Modern Pre-War Politics
The French were in control in Syria from 1920 – 1946. On April, 17, 1946 the last French troop left the country. April 17 is Syria’s national holiday. Twelve years of instability followed until Egypt’s leader, President Gamal Abdul Nassar, merged the two countries. By 1961, they were independent again. In 1971, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, came into power. He was a member of the secular Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which held a majority of seats in the People’s Council [government]. He was Alawi, a subset of Shiite Muslims, who number only one in eight of the Syrian population. When the constitution was being rewritten in 1973, he dropped the requirement that the president be a Muslim. Orthodox Muslims saw Alawi as heretics.
In June, 1967, The Golan Heights (هضبة الجولان) was captured by Israel from Syria. The area was officially annexed by Israel in 1981.
The Muslim Brotherhood were furious, and violence erupted especially in Hama (حماة). Violence periodically continued there until 1982. In the early hours of February, 3 that year, The Muslim Brotherhood called for jihad against The Ba’ath Party. Seventy members were killed overnight. Assad fought back in a huge offensive against the city over the following three weeks. Estimates for the number of those killed run between 20,000 and 40,000 depending on the source. Hama had been reduced to rubble. In an attempt at good will, Assad rebuilt Hama, with roads, factories, hospitals, and even many mosques. He did the hindmost, as a gesture of peace to those supports of who he had been at war with.
The Ba’ath Party had wings in many Arab countries. Syria and Iraq were the largest, and as such were closely tied politically. This all changed when Saddam Husain seized power in 1979, murdering most of the Syria-Iraq relations supporters. Assad’s regime held great disdain for Husain. When Iraq and Iran went to war the following year, Assad sided with Iran. When it was proved that the U.S. had aided Iraq, Assad felt more determined to distance Syria from the latter. Ten years later, in 1990, Syria sided with the U.S. when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, allowing his son, Basra, to take over at the helm. He made reconciliatory moves initially, must quickly revealed himself to be authoritarian. In the following few years, things appeared to improve dramatically, with the U.N. noting that Syria was doing very well financially, educationally, with literacy, and healthcare. The new Assad still did not offer rivals political participation, which led to continued foreign disdain for his leadership.
In 2002, a short while after the infamous events of September 11, 2001, U.S. president, George W. Bush, announced an offensive of several countries in the Middle East. He coined the term, “The Axis of Evil” to describe them, and Syria was on his list. In 2004, Bush enforced sanctions against Syria, for alleged support for terrorism, and providing militants to assist with insurgence in Iraq. Syria and Iraq finally reestablished relations in 2006, after a twenty four year break.
In 2007, Israel led an aerial bombing of an alleged Nuclear Reactor in Deir ez-Zor (مُحافظة دير الزور), in the center of the country. The U.S. had provided intelligence for the mission. In 2009, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stated that the site was likely a nuclear reactor. They accused Syria of failing to cooperate, which they denied. In 2011, the IAEA confirmed the site was indeed a nuclear reactor. Israel only acknowledged the attack in 2018.
Also in 2007, French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, invited Assad to Paris to work on diplomatic relations. It amounted to nothing, and in the civil war that started a few years later, France lent support to the opposition, initially in the form of non-military aid: medical supplies; and communication equipment. Once things escalated, France began supplying arms to militants, and later carried out air-strikes.
From 2006 – 2010, Syria suffered a devastating drought. Between 2 – 3 million people, out of a rural population of 10 million, were reduced to “extreme poverty.” Hundreds of thousands fled to the cities, inundating them. They were competing for resources between themselves, with 1 million Palestinian refugees, and 100,000 Iraqi refugees. Things were far past breaking point, and hostilities arose. In November 2008, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, prophetically and frighteningly, declared that Syria was currently in a “perfect storm,” and that it faced “social destruction.” The Syrian Minister of Agriculture, declared, the situation was “beyond our [their] capacity to deal with.” The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) failed to realize the severity of the problem, declining help to Syria. In 2006, Syria had sold wheat reserves abroad, due to the high price of wheat at the time. Not two years later, in 2008, they had to import wheat to stop their people from starving.
The Syrian War
On March 15, 2011, a small protest broke out in the city of Daraa (درعا), in the very south of the country. People were protesting the detention of fifteen teenagers, that had been detained on March 6, for graffitiing anti-Assad slogans on a school wall. An overreaction by Assad’s army, led to a violent crackdown against protestors. This led to riots all over the country. What followed were further crackdowns, and two years of political, and religious strife. There is believed to be around 100,000 insurgents, but not all with the same cause. There are those who want a democratic, free Syria, and those who want an Global Muslim caliphate (land, ruled by an Islamic leader). This makes it very difficult to reconcile, or negotiate, when there is no clear opposition to Assad. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims worldwide, flocked to Syria, feeling a religious obligation. The came to fight against Assad, both on the secular, and religious sides.
The al-Nusra (جبهة النصرة), also known as al-Qaeda, was the main jihadi rebel group, fighting against Assad’s forces. They control much of the northwest of Syria. They control huge areas with wheat fields, factories, oil and gas fields, government cars, and a huge arsenal of weapons. They ensure that locals always have bread (they make themselves from their wheat), electricity, water, healthcare for all, and order & justice, which comes in the form of Sharia Law. Sharia Law is derived directly from the Quran, which by most modern standards is considered barbaric: public stonings; hand and foot amputations; public lashings; no education and minimal rights for women and girl as, etc. It should be noted that The Torah (Judaism’s Holy Book) also mentions stoning, however there is no equivalent to Sharia Law in Judaism. In 2012, there was a marked increase in instability, bombings, crackdowns, and fighting. This led, in November 2012, to the forming of The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (الائتلاف الوطني لقوى الثورة والمعارضة السورية). They were a coalition of many groups fighting against Assad, but not what the West would consider, Islamic Extremists. In December of that year, the U.S, U.K, France, Turkey, and most Gulf States, recognized The National Coalition, as they are commonly known.
In September 2013, The United Nations, asserted that chemical weapons had been used in Damascus, the previous month. Indeed chemical attacks had been more widespread than initially thought. Of course, the government denied possession, or use of any chemical weapons. However, an agreement was reached in September 2013, that all such weapons would be destroyed by the end of June 2014. Many were destroyed, but Assad is suspected of having kept many more.
A year later, in September 2014, with no let-up in the fighting, The U.S. and five Arab countries, carried out air strikes against Islamic State (IS) strongholds, near Aleppo (ﺣﻠﺐ), and Raqqa (الرقة), which was under order of caliphate since June that year. This marked The U.S.s first direct operation in the war. Up to this point it had offered weapons and other supplies, to anti-Assad forces.
In May 2015, The Islamic State, seized Palmyra (تدمر), in central Syria. They destroyed many beautiful pre-Islamic monuments.
In December 2015, in Homs, now the third biggest city, the rebels were driven out by Assad’s troops on the ground, backed by Russian air strikes. Homs had been the main rebel stronghold, and had been in rebels’ hands for four years. In December 2016, government troops, Russian air strikes, and Iranian-sponsored militia, drove out the last of the rebel forces in Aleppo. This was their final urban stronghold. In January, 2017, Russian, Iranian, and Turkish forces, enforced a ceasefire between government forces and Islamic rebels. In April, 2017, the U.S. launched a missile strike against a Syrian government airbase, that had staged a chemical weapons attack on rebels. In October, 2017, the Islamic State, were driven from its de-facto capital, Raqqa. In December, 2017, Putin declared “mission accomplished” against the Islamic State. Government troops continued reclaiming areas held by rebels.
The pre-war population of Syria was 22 million people. It is believed that over 13.5 million refugees are a result of the war to date. 7 million are believed to be displaced within the country, and 6 million are refugees in other countries. The refugees have been displaced far and wide, with the largest number, 3 million, having fled to Turkey.
Syria was once the apple of the Middle East’s eye. It was rich compared to neighboring countries, had great education, services, culture, and harmony. It was a huge tourist destination until just before the civil war. It was rich with monuments, and beautiful buildings. Of course the human losses are of utmost importance, but the cultural cost is far from insignificant. Many buildings and monuments have been destroyed, both as a side effect of simply existing where war broke out, but many have been destroyed intentionally by religious fanatics, bent on removing anything non-Muslim from the world.
Although things may have calmed somewhat, the humanitarian disaster is just as critical as ever. The children of Syria have been disproportionately effected by the war. Seven year old children, born and living in Syria, have never existed knowing peace. In the first two months of this year, 1,000 children are estimated to have been killed or injured in the war. It just keeps coming, over and over again. We all remember Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, after he drowned when the migrant boat he was on capsized. He died on September 2, 2015. Alan was three years old, and my daughter was also three years old at the time. Whenever we see pictures of children, hurt, or killed, we automatically think of our own. We think of the gut-wrenching pain his parents are going through. And we are thankful, and then feel guilty about being thankful, that it is not our child. With tears running down our faces, we donate $100 or $200. Of course it is better than nothing, but it is a mere drop in a Pacific-sized ocean. Flights of fancy occur – I am going to go to Syria, to help in some meaningful way. We don’t think of how farcical that is. People are already there, and it is not enough. You have your own family here. You could not get your medications there. And on and on. In the end of course, even if it were feasible, we would be too scared, which makes perfect sense. And still we watch, as more and more Alans appear.
It is 2018, and the war is not over in Syria. The image below shows how things stand as of late February. It is obvious, that Syria is far from a peaceful solution. Even when one comes, if one comes, the country lies in ruins. The roads and homes are destroyed, medical services non-existent, schools all gone, and employment is rampant. How does a country come back from something like this. Such a beautiful country, will never be the same. I hope somehow, Syria can build itself up to a level, in which people can do what most of us in the Western World take for granted: go to work, live in a safe home, play with our kids, have access to healthcare, go to school, drive places, go on vacation, go on a date, and on and on. For many Syrians, all they can think of is: Will I die today? Will I have enough to eat? Will my children die? Will they starve? Are we safe?
There are many flags, all disputed by someone, that represent Syria. The first flag is used by Assad’s government, and has been used from 1980 – present. It was also used from 1958 – 1961 by The United Arab Republic. The second flag, is used by The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It has been used by them since 2010 – present. It was also used from 1961 – 1963 by The Syrian Arab Republic.
How Can I Help?
The US, France, and the UK, launched air strikes in Syria today. The strikes were in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons last weekend. It is so worrying to have someone like Trump, at the head of the US military. It is actually a relief, to see that The UK and France are also involved. Maybe their more cool heads will prevail. Who knows where this will take Syria? How many innocent lives will once again be extinguished? How many lives will be saved? Will it plunge Syria into a bigger hole, with Assad lashing back all over the country? Or will it damage his regime, enough to make a difference to everyday folk of Syria?
Trump is quoted as saying “The US will be a partner and a friend. But the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.”
I would love to know, how a people who are decimated, have any chance against Assad’s regime. There are numerous sides all fighting each other, and the people are the ones who suffer. They have not the power to win this battle. They just want to live. Only time will tell what will happen.
In the meantime, more babies die.