Renowned French archaeologist Andre Parrot used to say that all human beings have two motherlands. Parrot, who was the first director of The Louvre, insisted that one homeland is where you were born and the other is Syria (in the broader sense, Mesopotamia), because of its cultural heritage and the role the region has played in human history. Indeed, Syria belongs with a handful of Middle Eastern countries regarded as the cradle of civilization because they gave birth to many crucial discoveries – from the emergence of arable farming and cattle breeding to the invention of wheeled vehicles and the modern alphabetic writing system, which critically facilitated registration and the dissemination of information.
Today the Syrian Arab Republic is a state entity artificially created in 1920 by Britain and France – the winners of the First World War – on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire with just two simple tools: a pencil and a ruler. Thus, Syria emerged without considering the ethnic, cultural, and historical realities of this region. Yet it would be wrong to say that the paradigm of the Syrian state system contained insoluble contradictions that unavoidably brought about the collapse of the state.
This article is an attempt to examine the present-day Syrian crisis through the eyes of a historian with vast work experience in that country. Relying on an analysis of Syria’s historical path and the ethnic and religious background of modern Syrian society, this article provides an overview of the outward and in-depth causes that predetermined the dramatic events of the last four years.
AN ETHNNIC MOSAIC
From the emergence of a sedentary or partially sedentary population and up to the present day, the territory of what is today Syria experienced huge migration flows. Today about 90% of Syrians are ethnic Arabs; Kurds account for about 9%; and the other ethnic minorities include Turks, Circassians, Armenians, Assyrians, and Jews.
Most of the Syrians whose native language is Arabic are Sunni Muslims. However, a certain part of Syrian Arabs profess other religions (Muslims and Christians), such as the Druze, Alawites, Jacobites, and Maronites. With the exception of Syrian Arabs, in 2011, when the civil war began, Syria had also accommodated more than 250,000 Palestinian Arabs and no fewer than 100,000 Arabs from other countries in the region.
Before the start of the civil war in 2011 almost half of all Syrians resided in cities, while the rest lived in rural areas. Rural Syrian Arabs had different economic systems, which predetermined a wide variety of lifestyles within this segment of Syrian society. Alongside sedentary farmers, Syria has a large community of 40 cattle-breeding Bedouin tribes and tribal groups. Most of them follow a nomadic lifestyle, moving with their herds, mostly small cattle, between seasonal pastures inside Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Some members of those tribes have settled in rural communities and urban areas.
About 300,000-350,000 Syrians follow the nomadic habits of their ancestors. In combination with those tribesmen who agreed to settle down (sedentarization was an official government policy during Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s rule), the number of Arabs in Syria who identify themselves as tribesmen may prove twice as large or even greater. The largest Bedouin tribes of Syria – the Ruwallah – populate southern areas, while the biggest ones in the eastern part of Syria’s Jazira (Shammar and Jubur) number tens of thousands.
It is noteworthy that almost all tribesmen (both Bedouins and sedentary) carry weapons. Even before the civil war practically every family had firearms (very often Kalashnikov automatic rifles). Blood feuds are common, for intra-tribal law is considered supreme over federal law.
Kurds are Syria’s largest ethnic minority. Although objective statistics are not available, one may assume that at present they number two million. In Syria, Kurds live in the northern plain of Jazira, in all the northern provinces along the Syrian-Turkish border, and in the zone of stable-yield, non-irrigated farming, where they have raised grain and bred cattle for centuries. Also, before 2011 many Kurds lived in large cities, mainly Damascus, Haleb, Homs, and Hama.
A feeling of dignity and a sense of duty are distinguishing features of the Kurdish people. The motives behind their actions usually rely on principles that are far more important than timeserving mercantile interests. Kurds are the sole people in the Middle East whose women do not hesitate to take up weapons and sacrifice their lives for the sake of protecting their homeland from any military aggression. Kurdish society is highly politicized. Left-of-center parties professing ideologies from democratic to communist enjoy clear public sympathy.
Armenians, one of Syria’s major communities, have lived in Syria for several hundred years. After the 1915 genocide many Armenians – refugees from the Turkish part of Armenia – resettled mostly in Damascus and cities in northern Syria. At the beginning of the civil war, Syria’s Armenian community was estimated at 200,000-300,000. Most Armenians are urban dwellers and are employed in retail trade and handicrafts; some are civil servants and professionals (medical doctors and lawyers).
Another major community in Syria is made up of people of North Caucasian descent, who in the Middle East are collectively known as Circassians. Their ancestors migrated to the Ottoman Empire after the end of the Caucasian War in the second half of the 19th century. Circassians in Syria number 150,000-200,000. This group incorporates representatives of almost all North Caucasian ethnic groups from Abkhazians and other Adyg peoples to Dagestanis. Before the Syrian-Israeli war of 1967, most of Syria’s Circassians lived in the country’s southeast. Another large group of Circassians is found in the northern city of Membidj.
The Circassians are engaged in arable farming and, to a certain extent, cattle breeding. Many are in the civil service. Quite a few serve in the Syrian army and police force. Syria’s Circassians, just as all peoples with a North Caucasus background, possess a keen sense of ethnic pride and dignity. The community painstakingly preserves its ethnic features: customs, culture, etc.
The descendants of the great Assyrian people are another important ethnic group in Syria. The northeastern part of the country and the adjoining territories of Iraq in the second and first millennia B.C. were the heartland of their ethnic and state territory. Respectively, in modern Syria the Assyrians reside mostly in Jazira, in the upper reaches of the Khabur River and in the cities of Hasakah and Qamishli. Today they speak a dialect of Aramaic. In 2011 there were tens of thousands of Assyrians.
The Jewish community has been invariably present in Syria at least for the past 2,500 years. At the beginning of the 20th century the community of Syrian Jews numbered some 50,000, most of whom lived in large cities.
A KALEIDOSCOPE OF RELIGIONS AND FAITHS
For Syrian society, the development of Islamic civilization was the most important event that determined the entire course of its history and cultural peculiarity. In 661, Damascus became the capital of a large state called the Arab Caliphate. At the time, Damascus was the cultural and economic center of the entire Islamic world (In 750, the Abbasid dynasty took over and moved the capital of the Caliphate to Baghdad).
Today Islam is Syria’s state religion, but at the same time the constitution guarantees freedom of belief to those professing other religions. In 2000, more than 90 percent of Syria’s population practiced Islam: 85 percent of Muslims identified as Sunnis, and 15 percent said they were Shiites. Sunnis prevail in such provinces as Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqah, Deir ez-Zor, Homs, Hama, and Hasakah. Only in two provinces – Latakia (with its mostly Alawite population) and Suwayda (populated chiefly by the Druze) – Sunni Muslims are in the minority. Alongside Arabs, Syria’s Sunni Muslims incorporate Kurds, Circassians, and other ethnic minorities.
In Syria there are two confessional Arab groups – the Druze and Alawites – who by virtue of their origin are connected with Islam, but over time have turned into closed-type communities and have become self-isolated to such a degree that the question was raised of their compatibility with Islam.
Syria’s 850,000 Druze reside compactly in the Jabal Druze (Jabal Arab) district in the south.
The Druze consider themselves Muslims. However, in contrast to Muslims, the Druze are monogamists; prayer is not mandatory and can be replaced with meditation. During Lent the Druze take a vow of silence instead of fasting. Like Syria’s Christians, the Druze are excellent winemakers. They speak Arabic and regard themselves as Arabs. Possibly, this confessional group emerged from the Arabized population of mountain areas, which by the time the Arabs moved in spoke Aramaic.
The Alawites’ ethnic territory lies in the northwestern, mostly mountainous and remote part of Syria and on the coast near Latakia. It is hard to say how many Alawites live in Syria because none of the population censuses identified them as a separate group. But according to some estimates they number about three million.
Alawiism is related to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, but due to more than one thousand years of isolation this religious group has acquired many unique features, which make some theologians think that Alawiism has turned into a religion in its own right – a blend of Islam, Christianity, and local pre-Islamic beliefs. On the face of it, Alawi rituals look like a simpler version of Islamic ones: Alawites fast during the holy month of Ramadan, but it lasts only for half of the month; they pray twice a day instead of five times. Alawites do not go on the mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca; nor do they perform the ritual ablutions obligatory in Islam. The Alawites ignore many Islamic taboos, for instance, the ban on alcohol.
According to Christian missionaries in the past, Alawites revered Prophet Isa (Jesus), the Christian Apostles, celebrated Christmas and Easter, read the Gospel at religious ceremonies, performed rituals resembling the Eucharist, and had Christian names.
At present, gradual rapprochement between the Alawites and Shiites is underway. Initiated by Hafez al-Assad, this process is continuing along with a general trend towards closer relations with Iran. Mosques are being built in Alawite villages and Muslim rituals are being revived. Today’s Alawites fast throughout the month of Ramadan.
Christians in Syria accounted for some 10 percent of the population at the beginning of the civil war. But before the seventh century, when Islam came to this territory, Christianity was the main monotheistic religion of the local population. In Damascus and other large Syrian cities there are still many Christian churches where services are held each Sunday. It is noteworthy that the official days off in Syria are Friday and Saturday, but federal civil servants who practice Christianity work shorter hours on Sundays. Syria’s Christians have their own courts to deal with civil cases, including divorce.
Syria’s number one Christian confession is the Orthodox Church of Antioch, while the Armenian Apostolic Church (Gregorian Church) is number two. Also, there are several other Christian faiths – Maronites, Jacobites, Greco-Catholics, Syro-Catholics, Armenian Catholics, and Melkites.
Remarkably, several communities remain north of Damascus (Maaloula, Bacha and Jubbadin) where people still speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Most of Maaloula’s people are Christians, while Bacha and Jubbadin are mostly Muslim.
So, different religions have co-existed in Syria for centuries and a very special, understanding type of relations has emerged between diversified confessional groups. In the years preceding the civil war I saw for myself that tolerance and mutual respect of different religions in Syria was genuine. One graphic example is that local clerics of different faiths strictly observed the custom of congratulating each other on the days of religious holidays.
From 1571 to 1918 Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. On September 30, 1918 a British expeditionary force entered Damascus to end the Ottoman Empire’s 400-year rule. On April 25, 1920 the Entente’s council partitioned the Ottoman Empire under the Sykes-Picot agreement, making Mesopotamia and Palestine a British protectorate, and putting Syria and Lebanon under French control.
It should be acknowledged that the French administration of the mandated territory was prudent and pragmatic. General Henri Gouraud was appointed the French government’s representative in the Middle East and commander of the French army of the Levant based in Syria. He was perfectly aware that the territory under French control was populated by poorly connected communities, with some of them cherishing the heritage of old-time ethnic and religious conflicts. For example, the Druze and Maronite Christians had been fighting for a long time. That is why Gouraud considered his number one task to create a system that would rule out armed collisions in the territory committed to his trust. With this in mind he divided France’s mandated territory into five provinces or states: the state of Damascus (southern Syria), the state of Aleppo in northern Syria, the state of the Alawites on the Syrian coast, the Jabal al-Druze state in southern Syria, populated by the Druze, and Greater Lebanon, where Levantine Christians constituted a majority.
Remarkably, back at the end of the 16th and throughout the 17th century the Druze had autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Their vast territory stretched from the coast of Lebanon and North Palestine to the oasis city of Palmyra in the East. Later, fearing that Druze autonomy might grow too powerful, the Turks abolished it.
Once they found themselves under French administration after the Ottoman Empire was abolished under the Sykes-Picot treaty in 1920, the Druze, in contrast to the France-leaning greater part of Syria, preferred to rely on Britain, which at that moment administered territories south of Jabal al-Druze. Animosity and sporadic armed clashes between the Druze and Damascus continued after Syria gained independence in 1943.
During Hafez al-Assad’s rule the Druze were given more rights and some ministerial posts, although in other respects they faced discrimination. For instance, Druze officers had fewer career opportunities in the army. Druze communities in southern Syria had and still have unsettled land disputes with nearby Bedouin tribes. The Syrian government ordered the army several times to intervene to disengage the conflicting parties.
During the French mandate for Syria, the country acquired certain external features and domestic traits that brought its system close to the secular European model of federal administration. Although under the constitution Islamic law is the basis of Syrian legislation, in reality the country’s legal system, just like France’s, is based on the Napoleonic Code.
It is worth mentioning that the ideas of religious tolerance, which have very deep roots in traditional Syrian society, are consistently declared and promoted by the Syrian state at the official and everyday level. One of the most noticeable traits that make life in Syria look European was the urban renewal of Damascus, whose modern layout strongly resembles Paris after Baron Haussmann’s renovation. In addition to reforming the financial system, public healthcare, and education, the Syrian administration opened museums in the main cities and established a special service for the protection and study of antiquities. French administration made Syria one of the most Europeanized Muslim states in the Middle East.
The invigoration of public life, including the emergence of various secular parties and organizations, was another important feature of the final period of French administration. The Arab Socialist Resurrection (Baath) Party was one such organization. Its ideology was a combination of the idea of social justice and that of building a united Arab state called Greater Syria, which, its founders maintained, was upset by the European colonialists in 1920. The party’s ideology was formulated by Syrian philosopher and sociologist Michel Aflyak, an Orthodox Christian and ethnic Greek by birth.
Formally, modern Syria has been independent since 1943 when the French mandate was terminated, but in reality the country became truly independent when French troops left in April 1946. The Syrian parliament (majlis) emerged in 1947.
Later Syria experienced a string of military coups. One staged in 1963 brought the Baath party to power. Amin al-Hafez, the country’s new leader, launched fundamental socialist reforms, including nationalizing much of the economy. In 1966, Syria saw a fifth government coup in just four years carried out by senior officers Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad. Although power changed hands again, the Baath party remained at the helm and Syria’s proclaimed socialist way of development remained largely unchanged. In the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, Syria lost the Golan Heights. Salah Jadid’s group was blamed for the military defeat and inability to restore the country’s economy. He was eventually dismissed from all posts in 1970 and Hafez al-Assad assumed full power for the next 30 years.
SYRIA UNDER THE ASSADS
Hafez al-Assad was a professional military pilot who underwent advanced training in the Soviet Union. In 1966 he became Syrian Defense Minister. From 1970 until his death in 2000 he remained Syria’s authoritarian leader. Syria became one of the most influential countries in the region because of the special relationship with the Soviet Union and the latter’s guidance. Hafez al-Assad consistently pushed ahead with socialist-style reforms, which in some respects replicated the practices of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. Yet at the same time Assad preserved the long Syrian tradition of a free market economy.
Over the 30 years of Assad’s rule, electric power was supplied to the entire country, including remote communities in the southeast. In contrast to Iraq, Syria is not very rich in oil resources, but under Assad Sr. the country conducted active oil exploration and development. In fact, in 2011 the provinces of Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqah were producing about 380,000 barrels of oil per day.
Road construction was a high priority. By the time the civil war began Syria had built a ramified network of good roads linking all parts of the country.
Under the Assads Syria eliminated illiteracy. All middle-aged and young Syrians can read and write. Secondary education was available to every Syrian citizen.
In healthcare, Syria has free state-run and financed clinics all over the country along with private medical practices. The professional skills of Syrian doctors, trained both at home and abroad, deserve high marks. And in some areas of medical science, such as ophthalmology, Syria enjoys international recognition.
When Hafez al-Assad was in power about 40,000 Syrians received higher education in the Soviet Union. By 2011, the Russian-speaking community in Syria was one of the largest in the Middle East and exceeded 100,000 people; the Russian language became one of the most popular foreign languages spoken in Syria.
The authorities paid a great deal of attention to building museums and preserving monuments. A government program envisaged the creation of archaeological museums in all of Syria’s thirteen provinces.
The Assads’ social programs included subsidies for Syrians in the low-income bracket to buy essential foodstuffs, which were distributed in exchange for food stamps through state-run stores. Nearly all Syrian-made household goods were widely available.
These social policies guaranteed a stable, safe, and inexpensive life, so a demographic boom was the natural outcome. When Hafez al-Assad rose to power in Syria in 1970, the country’s population was under seven million. In 2011, more than 20 million people lived in Syria; in other words, the country’s population had tripled in just over 40 years! Syria’s Arab Muslim families are the largest in Syria. Many of them have five to seven children and some even more. They are the fastest growing section of Syrian society compared to other ethnic and religious groups.
Syria is a country that has traditionally had a free market. Market relations in Syria have developed without interruptions for 6,000 years. Along with the public “socialist” sector, the free market segment of the Syrian economy remained large throughout the Assad era. The economic activity of a group of retail vendors and small and mid-sized businessmen, who were not largely dependent on the state, helped predetermine life in Syria, its image, and customs. Syria’s private retailers and industrialists ran thousands of outlets and manufacturing operations in Damascus, Aleppo, and other cities that produced and provide everyday consumer goods. By a number of parameters Syrian manufactures were quite competitive on the world market. The government pursued a policy of protectionism and supported domestic production of consumer goods, including high value-added and technologically complex goods, such as pharmaceutical products. Many items were manufactured at Syrian industrial plants under license. Most of the foreign goods on the local market were high-tech equipment made outside Syria.
Construction boomed all over the country. Both public and private building firms and individual developers were involved in new projects. Even in the context of high economic activity in the pre-war period, in terms of foreign currencies Syria was the cheapest place to live when contrasted to such neighboring states as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.
In reviewing the specific features of Hafez al-Assad’s Syrian socialism one should point out that the country has never banned trade in foreign currencies. Foreign currency could be acquired from state-run banks, from private exchange booths, and at the outlets of wealthy retailers. The exchange rate of the Syrian pound against other foreign currencies remained quite stable and changed little over long periods of time. The authorities maintained no control over Syrians’ freedom to travel abroad. Everyone who could afford and was eager to travel, to go to other countries to study or to emigrate was free to do so.
Overall, my more than 20 years of personal observations of daily life in the Syrian provinces have provided ample evidence to profess that Syrian society’s wealth grew noticeably over that period of time. True, this is more characteristic of the Syrians who had their own business or private practice (legal or medical), of which there are many in Syria. At the same time it has to be admitted that those employed in the civil service always had problems making enough money. Many people worked two jobs and some provincial government employees also had financial support from hereditary family plots on which they relied.
Syria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-confessional country, so the government’s ethnic policy implied reserving certain positions for representatives of specific social groups. In the civil service, among top officials and mid-level functionaries, Sunni Muslims were an overwhelming majority, while in areas where special knowledge was required (the health service, engineering, and cultural administration), Christians and representatives of other communities were represented heavily. At the same time, since the Assads are an Alawite family, this community has been and still is very influential in Syrian society, and in running the nation and the economy, albeit keeping a rather low profile. Importantly, the Alawite community controlled commercially the most lucrative fields of activity requiring support from the state.
The Syrian leadership also pushed ahead with efforts to reform traditional zoning; for instance, a program to resettle excess population from arid regions to territories climatically more favorable for traditional farming. What made the situation so special was that arid regions are populated mostly by Sunni Arabs, to a large extent those who had settled only recently, while the areas of traditional arable farming in Jazira Province have been traditionally Kurdish. Under that program a large number of settlers were moved from Raqqah Province to the area around the city of Darbasiya, on the Syrian-Turkish border, which considerably increased the population of that city. The new arrivals settled east of the city’s Kurdish part. That policy had multiple aims. On the one hand, it eased tensions among the Arabs, and on the other gave the authorities extra leverage to keep ethnic minorities under control.
The Syrian army is an exceptionally important institution in Syrian society. Practically all men have to serve in the armed forces. Syrians with higher education were drafted into the army in the capacity of junior officers. The caste of career military officers includes men from different walks of life. Most of them are Sunni Arabs. Additionally, there are quite a few Druze and Circassians, and fewer Kurds. Throughout the Assads’ rule, Alawites enjoyed the greatest influence in the Syrian army. At this point it should be noted that during the years of independence before the civil war, the Syrian army lost all its foreign military campaigns (in 1948, 1967, and 1973), so society might have the impression that the army’s functions were not so much external (Syria’s extended presence in Lebanon excluded) as internal ones: those of consolidating Syrian society.
THE REBOUND EFFECTS OF THE ASSADS’ POLICIES
How is it that Syria’s current president, who by Middle Eastern standards came to power fairly recently as a liberal reformer, has begun to be regarded by the West as a cruel tyrant who is entirely to blame for the innumerable misfortunes that have afflicted long-suffering Syria?
The reverse side of Hafez al-Assad’s rule included authoritarianism, the window-dressing roles of parliament and the entire vertical of representative power agencies, moderate political repression, and control of the press. Indeed, there were six secret services in Syria responsible for internal security matters. Personal loyalty and allegiance to the president were the official cult; numerous monuments, posters, and portraits in public places and at government offices were the outward manifestations.
Not all Syrians supported Hafez al-Assad’s domestic policies. The Baath party’s secular ideology contradicted the ideas of religious fundamentalism. This confrontation developed in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s, eventually erupting in an armed uprising in the city of Hama. The Syrian chapter of religious fundamentalists known as the Muslim Brotherhood staged this uprising, four months after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in Cairo.
The uprising resulted in heavy causalities. All the Alawite cadets at the artillery academy in Hama were killed. The revolt was suppressed brutally during which several thousand people, including local civilians, were killed in the operation.
Also, during the Assad dynasty Syrian society developed economic and ecological problems, which, strange as it might seem, were an effect of the favorable social climate in Syrian society, above all the baby boom. From the material standpoint, Syria was one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East, at least in the 20th century. In many other, poorer countries Syria was seen as a lucrative place to earn a living. In the 1980s-1990s Syria saw a flood of migrants, mostly from Arab countries in Africa, who found employment in construction or doing other unskilled jobs. However, quick demographic growth and lean years at the beginning of the 21st century bred a variety of social and economic problems for Syria. Starting in the early 2000s, many Syrians, mostly rural residents, left for other countries (many of them to Lebanon) in search of seasonal or low-paying jobs (street cleaners, utility service employees, etc.).
Towards the end of Hafez al-Assad’s rule the crisis of Syria’s bureaucratic state machinery was already very visible – an authoritarian state was governed by people well advanced in years. By the 1990s the system of governance started falling behind the rapidly changing realities of life. Starting a new business in Syria, particularly in cooperation with foreign partners, was much harder than in neighboring Jordan, where the government bureaucracy was extremely friendly towards foreign investment.
When Bashar al-Assad became president at the age of 34 in 2000, Syria started moving towards change and innovation. Importantly, the new head of state released a number of political prisoners. The Syrian press gained some freedoms and a new generation of creatively minded intellectuals were invited to take managerial posts in the government. Syrians associate Bashar al-Assad with the development of the Internet, the boom in mobile communications currently available to almost all citizens, and Syria’s greater openness to foreign goods (motor vehicles in particular), the expansion of transport networks and the emergence of many private bus companies providing inter-city services.
Thus, over the decade under Bashar al-Assad the country was systematically evolving towards greater openness of its market and liberalism. The reform policy was an imperative and in harmony with the expectations of Syrian society. Unfortunately, the process of renewal and liberalization of economic and political affairs coincided with a severe international crisis. Starting at the end of 2010, nearly the entire Arab world plunged into protest demonstrations and coups that were promptly dubbed the Arab Spring.
The wave of turmoil reached Syria in March 2011. The fuse that sparked the civil war was an incident in the city of Daraa, in the south of the country – the secret services killed a thirteen year-old. The Syrian government under the president’s brother Maher al-Assad quashed the unrest. From that moment on events followed a landslide scenario.
Since September 30, 2015, when Russia launched an air operation to save the Syrian state, the Syrian economy has been in collapse. All oil fields are now beyond the government’s reach. Kurdish militias control the Rumeilan oil fields in the east, and the Islamic State has all the others in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqah provinces, such as Jbeisa and Omar. Although the government has doubled the wholesale prices of grain, a centralized procurement system does not work. Most industries are idle. A quarter of the country’s population are internally displaced persons or have left Syria entirely. Young people account for a large share of refugees. They fled the country to avoid being drafted into the paramilitary groups of religious fanatics. The exchange rate of the Syrian pound has plummeted 70 percent during the conflict (It should be acknowledged that amid the total economic collapse, the slump could have been far worse. Apparently, Syria’s Central Bank props up the national currency with financial interventions).
At the same time both public and market economic structures remain in place. In the territories under the control of the government or Kurdish forces civil servants continue to receive salaries. State-run institutions and infrastructures remain open, such as hospitals and higher educational establishments (including those in Hasakah Province, which is cut off from the federal center). Antiquities and museums are still protected only in areas under the control of the central authorities or Kurdish self-governments. By contrast, well-organized deliberate and malicious pillaging of archeological sites is widespread in all territories controlled by the armed opposition, which is aimed at deriving the maximum profit.
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This article is by no means a detailed analysis of all the causes and features of Syria’s current crisis. That theme deserves a special and fundamental survey. At this point the emphasis should be placed on several key aspects.
- Even if Syria’s conflict started as an internal problem, very soon it acquired an international dimension as a result of external financial and military support. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey play the key role in that process as both financiers and propagandists. The motives and reasons why these countries keep fueling the Syrian crisis are varied, but it may be formulated as global confrontation between the Sunni and Shiite factions in Islam. As soon as the conflict in Syria acquired traits of a religious standoff, Iran and various paramilitary Shiite organizations naturally hurried to provide support (both financial and military) to the Syrian leadership.
- When religious radicals became the most active party to the confrontation, the civil war in Syria began to look not so much political as an ethnic and religious conflict.
- A large share of the Syrian people, mainly Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities, seeks protection in a legitimate state, whoever is at the head of it. The motivation of these groups involved in the military standoff is far stronger than that of religious extremists, because they are not fighting for ideas or economic priorities, but for their lives. This is true of a large share of Sunni Muslims, who might have reconciled themselves to the new religion-dominated rules of life, but are accustomed to Syria’s traditional secular way of life. In the clash with the armed opposition, this part of Syrian society relies on the armed forces in the first place.
- The Syrian army, which before the civil war had an overall strength of about 325,000, has shrunk to 150,000 over the more than four years of fighting. There have been no drafts during the war. In fact, Syria has a completely professional army. But it is not financial incentives that make the officers and men continue to fight. Every officer or private is well aware that if Syria is defeated, they and their families will be killed or forced to flee the country. The same is true of the paramilitary militias, which, according to some sources, number 80,000.
- The Kurds, waging their own war against the religious extremists, are a force in their own right within Syrian society. In contrast to all other ethnic and religious minorities centered around the state, the Kurds have their own exceptionally effective paramilitary units which, according to some estimates, have a total strength of 50,000-70,000 (The Kurds are exceptional for a number of reasons, including remoteness from the federal center, compact mono-ethnic enclaves, and special features of their identity and mentality). In 2014, Kurdish units mounted a counter-offensive, went beyond the bounds of their indigenous territory, and cleared almost the entire province of Islamic State militants – all before the Russian Air Force began bombing raids and the Syrian army stepped up operations on the ground.
- In 2015 the city of Hasakah remained under the control of Kurdish units, the Shammar tribe’s militia and government troops. It is quite possible that by now all of Syria’s Bedouin tribes have formed their own militias. As far as Jazira is concerned, the Shammar tribe has a force of at least 2,000 combatants. The Jubur tribe’s armed group is just as strong. Presumably, all of Syria’s tribes have a combined military force of 40,000-50,000. At the same time their political preferences may be fundamentally different. For instance, in Jazira the Shamar tribe is allied with the Kurds, while the Jubur tribe prefers neutrality and invariably refrains from taking sides.
- Within Syria’s armed opposition, largely made up of Sunni Arabs, in addition to the members of fragmented and assorted military-religious communities, there are some Syrians who joined the hostilities after they or their families had suffered at the hands of government troops. Such incidents are practically unavoidable in any civilian conflicts, and their chief motive is revenge. The total strength of those at war with the government and the Kurdish militias is hard to estimate, but there may be 150,000-200,000 of them.
- It has to be acknowledged that the Islamic State’s appalling public executions, destruction of cultural heritage sites, and propaganda through the mass media have had a considerable effect and attracted four thousand volunteers from various countries. Their motivations vary, but it is clear that there are moral outcasts among them with a sick mentality and who are obsessed with the legitimation of violence.
As far as the composition of that horde is concerned, it should be noted that practically none of its warlords is Syrian. About 10,000 are foreign volunteers, while another 15,000-20,000 are Syrians – mostly young men from the families of Arab farmers, mobilized mostly in Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqah, and Aleppo provinces.
In conclusion it should be noted that ever since Russia’s Air Force intervened in the conflict in Syria on September 30, 2015, the situation has begun to change rapidly in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s government. One must be aware, though, that if we want to see Syria within the borders that existed before the war, it will be crucial – indeed, as soon as the fighting ends – to create conditions for building a new, harmonious state system that will accommodate the interests of all groups in Syria to a greater extent than the previous rigid authoritarian model of government could.