My wife recently posed this question: “What’s going on in Syria?”
The answer is complex and involves the machinations and interests of many countries, some in the Middle East and some not.
Syria is a nation formed by Britain and France out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. France chose to have Syria and Lebanon as its mandated protectorate as formulated by the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations. Syria gained its independence in 1946, after the end of World War II. The nation has been ruled by a series of dictators including Hafez al-Assad who took power in 1971. He ruled until his death in 2000 when his son, Bashar al-Assad, took his place.
Understanding the Syrian conflict requires knowledge of the demographics, and the religious and political crises, of the country.
Demographics: 66 percent of Syria’s population is younger than 30 years of age. The median age (halfway between the lowest number and highest) is 22. This group is young, idealistic, restless and frustrated by the lack of freedom under their leader. They’re the ones who have taken to the streets, first to protest, and then to take up weapons against the government. This group is made up of those who believe in democracy as well as those who want to create an Islamic state with the imposition of Sharia (Muslim) law. About 10 percent of the population are Kurds who also reside in Turkey and Iran, and who have pushed for an independent Kurdish state since 1922.
Religious differences: Of a population of nearly 21 million, 74 percent of Syria is Sunni Muslim and 13 percent are Alawi, a Shia sect. Bashar, like his father before him, is Alawite. The Assad family has been able to maintain power because Alawites control key positions in the military and the government. Until this situation changes, Assad will remain in power. Ten to 12 percent are Christian and the rest are either Druze (another Shia sect) or Shia. The Sunni rebels are chafing under Alawite rule and want to take power for the Sunni majority.
Political differences: This war is in reality a proxy war between the Sunni states of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia versus Shia Iran and Hezbollah, its de facto army in Syria and Lebanon. The United States favors the Sunni side because by allying with these states, it is trying to prevent Iran from increasing its dominance in the region. Since this civil war began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, between 30,000 and 47,000 Syrians have died. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced or exiled to neighboring countries.
Lebanon, with its mixed Christian and Muslim population, could be sucked into the conflict. Turkey, a moderate Muslim democracy, is also being forced into the civil war as it spills over into that country. Israel is nervous because it shares a tense border with Syria to its north.
Russia, too, has a stake in the region because it has a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Additionally, Russia has an interest in bogging down the U.S. in the Middle East. Getting the U.S. involved in Syria helps drain U.S. resources and divert its attention away from areas of interest for the Russians in central Asia and elsewhere.
This conflict came in part because of youthful frustration with the lack of freedom in Assad’s Syria. It also occurred because when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it upset the balance of power that had held Iran’s ambitions in check. Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, Iran has expanded its influence in Shia dominated Iraq and hopes to expand that influence further to the Mediterranean through its Syrian ally, Assad. Keeping Assad in power is an extremely important priority for Iran.
As you can see, the issues in Syria are a complex and an explosive mix of demographics, religion and politics. We can be thankful that while there is strong political polarization in our country, we haven’t taken up weapons. This issue has, however, become a campaign issue in the U.S. presidential election.
My wife may regret she ever asked the question, but does admit she now has a better understanding of what’s going on in Syria. Hopefully now, so do you.