What’s happening in Syria is really important, but it can also be confusing. Here are the most basic answers to your most basic questions.
Q: What is Syria?
A: The Middle East country is a little smaller than South Carolina 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.
Q: Why are they fighting?
A: The killing started in April 2011, when peaceful protests inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia rose up to challenge dictatorship. The government responded by quickly killing activists. Then it started kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing activists and their family members, including a lot of children. Then troops began simply opening fire on protests. Eventually, civilians started shooting back.
Q: How did it all go so wrong?
A: There’s no single, definitive answer. Broadly speaking, 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 harsh crackdown — methods President Bashar Assad learned this from his father.
In 1982, Assad’s father and then-dictator Hafez Assad responded to a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in Hama by leveling entire neighborhoods. He killed thousands of civilians. It looks like the younger Assad tried to reproduce it. His failure made the descent into chaos worse.
Now the theories for why Syria spiraled so wildly. The first is what you might call “sectarian rebalancing.” Syria has artificial borders that were created by European colonial powers, forcing together an amalgam of diverse religious and ethnic groups. Those powers also tended to promote a minority and rule through it, worsening pre-existing sectarian tensions. Analyst Fareed Zakaria argues that what we’re seeing is in some ways the rebalancing of power along ethnic and religious lines.
The second theory is a bit simpler: that the Assad regime was not a sustainable enterprise. 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 seized power in a coup in 1970 after two decades of political instability. 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 never bothered to update it.