Syria: The very, very basics

August 29, 2013

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. (AP)

Wednesday's news conference by Secretary of State John Kerry was, as colleague Max Fisher said, basically an announcement that we're going to war with Syria. It would be the fourth Muslim country we've attacked since 9/11 (seventh if you include drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that didn't target those countries' governments). In the off chance you haven't been following the country's civil war closely, here are the basics to get you up to speed.

What are the basic facts about Syria?

See Max for more on this, but Syria (formally the "Syrian Arab Republic") is a country in the Middle East. It borders Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. It also has a coastline on the Mediterranean sea. It looks like this:

Around 22.5 million people live there, according to the most recent CIA estimate. Syria has been independent since 1946. It's currently run by President Bashar al-Assad, who's been in office since 2000, when he succeeded his father, Hafez, who'd been in power since 1970.

Who ran it before the Assads?


Georges Clemenceau, under whose premiership France took over Syria. (Bundesarchiv)

Until 1918, Syria was a part of the Ottoman Empire. Upon that regime's collapse in the wake of World War I, the French began to occupy present-day Syria, in accordance with a deal they had made with Britain in 1916 to divvy up the Middle East after the Ottomans' defeat.  The French governed Syria through the 1920s and 30s, despite nationalist uprisings, and in 1944, France recognized Syria's independence.

In the 24 years between independence and Hafez al-Assad's takeover in 1970, there were seven military coups (including Assad's), and a three-year period (1958 to 1961) in which Syria merged with Egypt to form the "United Arab Republic," before that union dissolved in yet another coup.

What are Syrians like, demographically?

Syria's population is 74 percent Sunni Muslim and 10 percent Christian, with the other 16 percent split among various other kinds of Islam, in particular Alawite (around 12 percent of the population) and Druze (around three percent). The Assads are Alawites (an offshoot of Shi'i Islam), and derive much of their support from the Alawaite minority.

It's a very young country, with a median age of 22.7. This population pyramid drives the point home:


Source: CIA World Factbook

For comparison, this is what the U.S.'s looks like:


Source: CIA World Factbook

Ethnically, it's 90.3 percent Arab, but there's a significant Kurdish minority that's been heavily involved in the conflict.

How developed a country is it?

Per capita GDP growth (measured in 2005 dollars and adjusted for purchasing power) has been pretty steady for the past decade, but the figure ($3,792) is still very low:

Life expectancy is better than in neighboring countries:

Data from World Bank

As is infant mortality:

Data from World Bank

And literacy too - 77.7 percent of women and 90.3 percent of men were literate in 2011, the CIA estimates. Men can expect to get 12 years of schooling, women 11.

It has a much smaller share of its population working than most other low-income countries do:

Data from World Bank

A fact that appears to mainly be attributable to very low — even for the Middle East — labor force participation among women. By contrast, the U.S. rate is a little less than 60 percent:

Data from World Bank

In any case, unemployment rose a bit during the global downturn, but fell back to around 8 percent shortly thereafter:

Data from World Bank

What are the main economic sectors?


LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - A vendor waits for tourists in the old souk of the capital Damascus on April 30, 2011.

Syria's GDP in 2012 was 60.7 percent services, 22.8 percent industry, and 16.5 percent agriculture. The labor force's occupational breakdown is very similar: 67 percent services, 16 percent industry, and 17 percent agriculture. The economy has been shrinking (and unemployment rising) since sanctions hit in late 2011, and the country has large trade and budget deficits: government revenue is 8.1 percent of GDP and spending is 19.5 percent.

Does Syria have oil?


(Juan Forero / The Washington Post)

Only a little bit. Syria does not produce nearly as much crude oil as say, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Before sanctions destroyed its oil market, it was producing about 0.4 percent of the world's crude, and exporting less than half of that. Syria isn't itself particularly involved in transporting oil, but it is geographically close to a number of major sea and pipeline routes, which could be disrupted if the conflict spreads.

How did the civil war break out?

In March 2011, protests broke out as part of the broader Arab Spring wave of demonstrations throughout the Middle East. Almost immediately, the protests were met with violent response from government officials. Initially the government denied culpability, blaming the deaths at protests on "instigators" unrelated to security forces. On April 1, weekly mass protests across the country began, and on April 8, the Syrian government began massacring protesters, killing 27 people that day. Those who were arrested instead were beaten and subjected to "electro-shock devices, cables, and whips."

Despite government assurances that they would protect the right to peaceful protest, the massacres only increased in severity. At sites of heavy protest, the Syrian government deployed tanks and rooftop snipers, and established checkpoints to control movements.

By June, protesters were beginning to take lethal action against government troops. The final straw came in late July, when a group of Syrian army officers defected and formed the Free Syrian Army, which has come to be the largest armed resistance group:

Over late 2011, the conflict degenerated into full-scale civil war.

Who's running the rebel side?

In addition to the Free Syrian Army — which is largely secular and nonsectarian — there are the moderate Islamists of the Syrian Liberation Front, the Salafist Islamists of the Syrian Islamic Front, and the al-Qaeda affiliates of Jabhat al-Nusra. There are also a number of Kurdish resistance groups involved. This Center for American Progress graphic provides a good outline:

In theory, the various rebel groups are coordinating operations through the Supreme Joint Military Command, but in practice the degree of coordination varies greatly. There's also a civilian arm of the coalitions, known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (Syrian Opposition Coalition) that is recognized by the U.S. and the international community as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

What's a quick rundown of what's happened so far?

For a full timeline, see here. A truncated version is below:

Who are Syria's allies?


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (right). (Sergei Chirikov / AP)

Russia is probably the Syrian government's most powerful ally, and has been providing the country with arms throughout the conflict, a behavior that has brought the widespread condemnation of human rights watchdogs. There have also been reports of Russian military advisers being present in Syria, helping the military man its air defenses. The government of Iran has also provided the regime with arms and military advisers. Hezbollah, the Iran-aligned militant group in Lebanon, is also aligned with Assad.

North Korea is widely suspected to be providing the regime with weapons. Late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez openly backed Assad, and shipped the country oil to aid the regime's efforts. Iraq has been more muted in its support after being openly pro-Assad in 2011, but still allows Iran to use its airspace to supply the regime, and provides Syria with diesel fuel.

China professes neutrality in the conflict but has, along with Russia, vetoed UN resolutions condemning the regime. Algeria has been working with Iran to support Assad, with some reports saying that Algerian aircraft are regularly landing in Syria. Along with Iraq and Lebanon, it opposed the Arab League's decision to support states who supply the rebels.

Who's backing the rebels?


Secretary of State John Kerry lays out the case for striking Syria. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

The United States, the U.K., and France have been ramping up their aid to rebel forces in recent months. As recently as April, the United States was only providing non-lethal aid to the rebels but that policy was reversed in June. The U.K. and France successfully pushed for an end to the arms embargo the E.U. had placed on the country, so as to make aiding the rebels legal, but both have since hesitated about following through with the plan.

More explicit in their support have been the Gulf Arab states, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have been sending billions in lethal weapons for months. Turkey — which has a long border with Syria, has faced large refugee inflows, and which has functioned as a launching base for many Syrian rebels — has allegedly set up a secret base with Qatar and Saudi Arabia for the purpose of aiding the rebels, and has brokered negotiations between Western governments and the rebels.

Various Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda, support the rebels, reflecting both frustration with Assad and support for the Islamist elements of the opposition.

What war crimes has Assad committed?

The Assad regime has conducted deliberate air strikes against civilian targets, such as bakeries and hospitals, and used weapons such as incendiaries (which  often cause severe burns on their targets) and cluster weapons (which are banned under an international convention that most countries, but not Syria, are party to). Deliberate air strikes against civilians are, of course, war crimes.

On the ground, the regime has targeted students, interrogating and beating ones suspected of anti-government activity and assaulting peaceful protests. Arbitrary arrests — often followed by torture and forced disappearance — have become common. Detention facilities often feature severe overcrowding of detainees:

Hundreds of people have been summarily executed since the civil war began. Human Rights Watch has documented that higher commands bear responsibility for these incidents, and they are not just the work of rogue troops.

This is not to mention the assaults on peaceful protesters that preceded the civil war (see above) or the use of chemical weapons on civilians (see below).

What war crimes have the rebels committed?


A screenshot of the YouTube video uploaded by “AKsabbagh” shows Syrian opposition groups committing summary executions. (Human Rights Watch)

The rebel forces haven't committed atrocities on the scale of the Assad regime's work, but they hardly have clean hands. Amnesty International has documented the frequent use of summary killing, hostage-taking and torture, as well as inadequate measures to avoid civilian casualties, among the rebel forces. Human Rights Watch has found the same. Both the rebels and the Assad regime have killed and kidnapped journalists covering the conflict. The U.N. has launched an investigation into possible war crimes committed by the opposition.

How many people have died?

The U.N. has estimated that more than 100,000 people have died to date, a total matching ones given by opposition groups. About 1.7 million people have been displaced. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that around 45,000 government and allied troops have been killed, and around 20,000 opposition troops have died (though it's also said that casualties have been evenly divided, so the opposition number could be higher). It counts 38,660 civilian deaths to date.

What's this about chemical weapons?

Human Rights Watch has reported that at least three towns had civilians report symptoms consistent with a nerve agent attack. Syria is not party to the international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons, but that treaty is reflective of a broad international norm against their use, largely because they're impossible to use without mass civilian casualties. The U.S. government says it is certain the regime used chemical weapons, and U.S. intelligence sources say that blood tests have shown it used sarin. Doctors Without Borders has reported treating victims of neurotoxin attacks. The most deadly attack so far allegedly took place last week, killing, by some estimates, more than 1,000 people.

A U.N. investigator has said there's some evidence that the rebels have used sarin too. The Russian government has made this allegation as well, while the U.K. and U.S. governments deny there's any evidence for it.

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