September 3, 2013

Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

By Max Fisher / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — 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.

If you found the above sentence kind of confusing, or aren't exactly sure why Syria is fighting a civil war, or even where Syria is located, then this is the article for you. 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, written so that anyone can understand it.

1. What is Syria?

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.

2. 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, which is a big deal for reasons I'll address below. 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.

3. That's horrible. But there are protests in lots of places. How did it all go so wrong in Syria? And, please, just give me the short version.

That's a complicated question and there's no single, definitive answer. This is the shortest possible version - stay with me, it's worth it. 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.

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