33 Words to Explain Syria

A glossary to explain Syria.

By Tom StreithorstDecember 7, 2015

33 Words to Explain Syria

MORE THAN 200,000 DEAD. A fifth of the population in exile. Half of its people driven from their homes. The country, once the stable heart of the Middle East, divided by a slew of militias, the most powerful a barbaric Islamic cult willing to behead unbelievers, its main enemy a tyrannical dictatorship that has ruled Syria for the past 50 years. It is hard to find good guys. Below, 33 words to begin to explain the Syrian Civil War.


For hundreds of years, the Middle East was unified and peaceful. Under the Ottoman Empire, Greeks, Turks and Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all lived together, mostly harmoniously. The Levant was multicultural, much like London and New York are today. Families moved from Constantinople to Beirut, from Jerusalem to Cairo without a passport, without needing to discard any of their identity.

World War I destroyed this cosmopolitan world. The Greeks and Italians and Turks departed, and after 1948, Jewish communities, which had been an integral part of the Arab world for millennia, abandoned their ancient homes. The French and the British divided the Middle East into artificial countries. Mosul was separated from Homs, Damascus from Alexandretta, Cairo from Jerusalem. The current crisis proves we have not yet solved the problem created by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.


Arab Nationalism is barely 100 years old, invented mostly by Christians yearning to prove they could be proudly Arab without being Muslim. Throughout the middle years of the 20th century, Pan-Arabism was the dominant ideology in the Arab world. Urban, secular, and socialist, Pan-Arabists dreamed of a unified Arab nation strong enough to withstand the domination of colonialist powers. Their hero was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military ruler of Egypt. During the Cold War, they linked their fortunes to the USSR.

The Ba’ath Party, born in the 1930s, combined Hegelian mysticism with a bizarre blend of fascism, socialism, and Arab nationalism. It came to power in Iraq and Syria in the 1960s. Both were repressive police states — Saddam’s Iraq considerably crueller than Assad’s Syria. Despite their similarities, the rival Ba’ath Parties in each country despised the other. In both nations, minority groups ruled. Ba’ath secularism helped legitimize their domination.


Most Syrians are Sunni, the largest sect in Islam. Around five percent are Christian, one percent Druze, and 12 percent are Alawite — a mysterious religion that broke away from Islam sometime in the 10th century. Nominally Shia, the Alawite religion combines Christian, Gnostic, and Neoplatonic beliefs with those of traditional Islam. Many Sunni consider them apostates. The Alawites’ home is the Syrian coastal mountains near Latakia.

Historically poor and backward, despised by their Sunni betters, they began to dominate the Syrian military in the 1950s and ’60s. The joke was that affluent Sunni merchants would not dream of sending their own sons to the military academy but figured it was good enough for the sons of their Alawite maids. Then the sons of Alawite maids became generals, and took over the country.


An Air Force General, an Alawite, a Ba’athist, Hafez al-Assad staged a coup in 1970 and took power in Damascus. He ruled ruthlessly but efficiently for 30 years. He is most remembered for the brutal slaughter of 30,000 in the city of Hama back in 1982. The Muslim Brotherhood rose up against him and he crushed them mercilessly. For three weeks, his forces shelled the city, killing insurgents and innocents alike. There was no internet in 1982, no mobile phones, and at the time the story was barely documented.

Henry Kissinger thought Hafez one of the most ruthless and brilliant leaders he ever met. He died in power of a heart attack in 2000; statues of him are everywhere in Syria. His second son Bashar took his place.

An ophthalmologist by training, Bashar was not raised to be his father’s heir. His brother Basil had been groomed to take power but died in a car crash in 1994, so Bashar came home to take his place. When he became president upon his father’s death, many in Syria hoped he would liberalize his country. Although he did open the economy somewhat, and his stylish British-born wife was featured in Vogue, when push came to shove, he was as brutal, if not as skilled, as his father.


The failure of the Arab nations in their conflicts with Israel, combined with the corruption of the Pan-Arabist regimes and the success of the Iranian Revolution, meant that by the 1980s, the Pan-Arabists lost their mojo. A more traditional Islamic ideology took their place in the hearts of most Muslim Arabs.

Islamicists would argue that Arab nationalism without Islam is an aberration; that Islam is fundamental to Arab identity. This ignores the vital role non-Muslims have always played in the Arab world, but it is undeniable that Islam has a central role in Arab history.

During the Cold War, since the Pan-Arabists were linked to the Soviet Union, the West funded conservative Islamic parties, seeing them as a counterweight to the more left-wing Pan-Arabists.

Religious fundamentalism is a growing force all over the world, in Hyderabad and Houston as well as in Homs. My own sense is that the urban and secular Pan-Arabists made a bad bet linking to the USSR and, for that matter, the West made a bad bet supporting conservative Islamicists.


The men that led the United States into Iraq didn’t think it through. They overthrew Saddam Hussein, dismantled the Ba’ath Party, and disbanded the Iraqi military, but forgot to replace it with anything better.

Many of the neocons were the children of Trotskyites; despite their turn to the right, they maintained their parents idealistic desire for a perfect world and their willingness to reach it through violence. Their optimism and naïveté proved a terrible combination.

Iraq proves the one thing worse than tyranny is anarchy.


In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire to protest mistreatment by a minor police official. His death sparked demonstrations throughout the country calling for the downfall of the regime. Within a month, the protests were so vast that President Ben Ali fled the country he had ruled for 23 years.

The Arab Spring

Emboldened by the success of their Tunisian brethren, protests spread throughout the Arab world. In Cairo, millions gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of President Mubarak. For years, the Arab people had resigned themselves to tyrannical, incompetent, and corrupt rule. The triumph of demonstrators in one country encouraged others to believe the people united could oust the rulers who had oppressed them for so long.


In a small town in southern Syria, 15 school children spray-painted the slogan popularized in Tahrir Square: “The people demand the overthrow of the regime.” They were caught, imprisoned, and tortured. This had happened before and the people generally acquiesced, fearing the wrath of the secret police. Not this time. Thinking history, and the world, was on their side, Syrians took to the street.

“Peaceful, peaceful,” chanted the demonstrators who carried olive branches and opened their shirts to show they were not armed. Thinking they could cow the people into submission, security forces opened fire on the nonviolent protestors. The government miscalculated. Killing unarmed demonstrators did not squash the protests. Instead it enraged the Syrian people. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets throughout the country.

Free Syrian Army

Revolutions don’t happen because demonstrators march against the regime. Revolutions happen when the Army is ordered to fire on the protestors and the soldiers refuse. The Syrian military was mostly Sunni. Ordered to kill their coreligionists, many disobeyed. Some were shot, others deserted.

In July 2011, four months after the first peaceful demonstrations against the regime, a number of Syrian officers defected to form the Free Syrian Army. At first they were a minor adjunct to peaceful protest, then they became the military wing of the uprising. Today, they are a trivial group, outgunned and outnumbered by Islamic militants. The West placed its hopes in the Free Syrian Army, hoping that they could overthrow Assad without replacing him with an Islamic state. These hopes now seem naïve.


Alawite gangster groups loyal to the regime. Originally smugglers and criminals, now the term is used to describe civilian gunmen fighting for Assad.

Early in the rebellion, they used excessive force against their neighbors, who they began to view as ethnic enemies. In March 2011, they shot and beat demonstrators in Latakia. By May, they were slitting the throats of Sunni men in villages near the Alawite coastal homeland. By slaughtering Sunni and so provoking reciprocal hatred of Alawites, the Shabiha turned what might have been a fight between the regime and its people into a sectarian war.

With the regime unable to be confident in the loyalty of their mostly Sunni army, the Shabiha became more and more vital for the defense of the regime. Their purely sectarian make-up and their rampant brutality have caused groups that lived together from time immemorial to fear and despise each other.


Just like Syrians, the people of Libya were inspired by the Arab Spring. In Benghazi, they overthrew the regime. Muammar Gaddafi sent his army to take back the city. He proclaimed his opponents would be killed like rats. The West, led by Great Britain and France, declared a no fly zone and began to bomb Gaddafi’s forces, protecting the rebels.

The West was much more circumspect about intervening in Syria. Gaddafi fell less than six months later. Assad is still in power. Of course, in retrospect the Western intervention has not turned out as its architects might have wished. After the fall of the tyrant, Libya tumbled into its own civil war.


Before the American invasion of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was an undistinguished Islamic scholar who lived in a small room next to a mosque. Today, he claims to be the caliph of the entire Muslim world, the successor to Muhammad, Abu Bakr, and the Ottoman Sultans. He rules the great city of Mosul and large swaths of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq and he commands the loyalty of trained and dedicated soldiers who seem not to fear death.

After the fall of Saddam, al-Baghdadi joined the Sunni insurgency against the Americans. Captured in 2005, he spent the next four years imprisoned in a US brig near the Kuwaiti border. Camp Bucca was the birthplace of ISIS. There, jailed former Ba’athist met imprisoned Islamists and an alliance was born.

Mostly because they did not understand the country they conquered, Americans managed to garner the antipathy of countless Iraqis who were not necessarily predisposed to oppose the occupation. An American officer told me he figured 95 percent of the Iraqis we imprisoned probably had not done anything wrong. But once arrested, they naturally began to hate the United States.

Disbanding the military and firing all members of the Ba’ath Party alienated the Sunni elite used to running the country. The United States combined profligacy in arresting military-aged Iraqi males with laxity once they were imprisoned. It was easier to let the prisoners run the jail. Camp Bucca became a university for jihad.

The Ba’athists had the military skills, but their ideology was out of date. The Islamists gave them a new belief system. Under Saddam, the Ba’athists and the Islamicists had been enemies, but after the American invasion they realized they needed each other in order to restore Sunni rule. Islamic passion and Ba’athist organization proved a potent combination.


Depending on your perspective, either the most frightening terrorist organization of our time or the harbinger of a caliphate that will rule the Muslim world. ISIS controls close to 80 percent of Syrian territory, although most of it is uninhabited desert. They also control large parts of Northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul. Ten million people live in the territories ISIS rules.

One of the only groups in the world that unabashedly advocates slavery, ISIS combines medieval ideology with savvy use of social media and propaganda. Sunni extremists, they hate the Shia, the Yazidis, the Alawites, and other groups they label apostates. They use brutality as a recruitment tool. Thousands of foreign fighters from all over the world have flocked to its black banner.

Barrel Bombs

Although the beheadings of ISIS seem more barbaric, the Ba’athist regime has killed considerably more Syrians. In rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus, on the front lines dividing Aleppo, the Syrian army drops barrel bombs, metal containers filled with shrapnel and high explosives. Cheap to produce, indiscriminate in their killing power, they slaughter civilians and soldiers alike. Since the rebels don’t have air power, barrel bombs are a favored tool of the regime.


A photograph moves us more than any statistic. You can see it in your mind’s eye now, that picture of the little Syrian boy washed up on the beach in Turkey, his body so fragile and delicate. His family fled the fighting in Syria twice. Driven out of their home in Damascus, they escaped to their ancestral village outside Kobani. When fighting erupted there, they felt their only hope was to emigrate to Europe and then Canada. Alan Kurdi is now buried, with his mother and brother in Kobani.

At least four million Syrians have fled their country, and that number will continue to grow. The most educated and the most affluent are able to escape; their talents will be missed when peace returns.

Not many Syrians have made it to Europe. Most languish in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.


Thirty million people who share a language, religion, and culture, divided between four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. So far, they may be the biggest winners of the Syrian Civil War. In the entire world, the Kurds are the most numerous nationality without their own state. This may be changing. In Iraq and Syria they have largely ousted the official government and rule their own areas.

Their soldiers, the YPG, are the only group that has had any success against ISIS. Some American officials see them as our most reliable ally in Syria. However, any incursion into Sunni Arab regions could backfire, as Arabs fear Kurdish rule. And the Kurds themselves are more interested in consolidating their own lands rather than liberating Arab territory.


A nationalist and a proud Muslim, President Recep Erdoğan is the most powerful man in Turkey. Until the uprising, Turkey had close political and economic relations with the Syrian regime. When Bashar al-Assad’s forces started murdering Sunnis, Erdoğan turned against him. It is not clear whom Erdoğan views as Turkey’s biggest enemy in the Syrian Civil War. A relatively open border with Turkey allowed foreign fighters to join ISIS.

His biggest nightmare is that a Kurdish state in Iraq and Syria could cause Turkey to splinter, with its Kurdish east tempted to secede and join an independent Kurdish state. Turkey has been fighting Kurdish nationalists for generations.

Saudi Arabia

A family-owned state that controls much of the world’s oil. Since the 1700s, the ibn Saud family has been tied to Wahhabi clerics — a reactionary form of Islam that seeks to eliminate all impurities from their religion and return it to its fiercely monotheistic roots. Using their money to export Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia has done more than anyone else to radicalize Islam. Wahhabism can be seen as a way that the ibn Saud family justifies their often sybaritic existence in the West to their own people.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia supports jihadist Sunni groups, although they oppose ISIS. Their biggest enemy is Iran.


The world’s largest Shia state. Iran has long been allied with the Syrian Ba’athist regime. During the long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Syria supported Iran, mostly because both despised Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Ba’athist regime. If we see the Syrian Civil War as part of a larger Sunni-Shia struggle, the Assad regime with its Alawite roots is part of the Shia side. Iran supplies arms and soldiers to the Ba’athist regime. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and one of the toughest armies in the Middle East, has provided considerable military support to shore up Assad’s regime.

Iran is the biggest winner from George W. Bush’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq. By destroying the Ba’athist regime, the Americans eliminated Iran’s greatest rival. Today, Shia politicians with long-standing ties to Iran rule Baghdad. Iran’s increased influence terrifies the Gulf States.


During the Cold War, Syria was a client of the Soviet Union. Even today, the only Russian port outside the old Soviet Union is in Tartus, on the Syrian coast. Fearing Muslim extremists in its own land, Russia has supported the Assad regime with guns and money throughout the Civil War. Noting the anarchy that overwhelmed Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi, Russia has opposed any Western intervention in Syria.

In September 2015, with Assad’s forces weakening and ISIS growing in strength, Vladimir Putin sent Russian planes (and perhaps even soldiers) to defend the regime. Their airstrikes have been effective and helped Assad take back some territory, but Russian firepower has been used mostly against non-ISIS rebels.


Barack Obama has little desire to embroil the United States in the maelstrom that is Syria. Providing air cover for the rebels, as the West did in Libya, might have toppled the regime way back in 2011. When the Assad regime crossed the “red line” and used chemical weapons, it seemed as though Obama would be forced to intervene. He backed off after gauging a lack of interest both in Congress and by the American people. Russian military support for the regime is now forcing Americans to again consider whether doing nothing might be more costly than getting involved.

The Thirty Years War

From 1618 to 1648, the most brutal war in German history devastated the heart of Europe. The war began as a dispute between the Holy Roman Empire and its fractious barons. It soon turned into a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants and drew in the militaries of France, Sweden, and other European nations.

The war lasted so long because no one power, even in combination, was strong enough to impose its rule on the rest. Sadly, that is the situation in Syria today. The Assad regime, although embattled, will not be dislodged. It will continue to hold the area around Damascus and the coastal Alawite homeland, but it will probably not be able to win back much territory lost to the rebels.

Too many armies have conflicting interests for us to find an easy peace. ISIS fights the government, but also the other, less militant Islamic rebels. The Russians bomb moderate rebels and leave ISIS alone. The Turks have mixed feelings. While supporting the majority Sunni rebels and despising the Assad regime, they fear ISIS, but most of all they dread any Kurdish move toward independence. The Kurds are happy to control their own territory but have little interest in expanding south, fighting either ISIS or the government in majority Arab areas.

There is no easy answer. Many friends of mine, with a deep knowledge of Syria, say overthrowing Assad should be the first priority. I’m not convinced. Yes, Assad has behaved horrifically against his own people and could well be classed a war criminal, but with sectarian feelings so heightened, his fall could provoke a pogrom against the Alawites and maybe even against the Christians.

Syria is a humanitarian disaster. Many in the United States call on Obama to “do something.” I’m not sure what he can do. So far this century, American meddling in the Middle East has not been particularly productive. The situation in Syria is deeply complicated. There are no easy answers.


Tom Streithorst has been a union member, an entrepreneur, a war cameraman, a commercials director, a journalist. He is an American in London and has been writing for magazines on both sides of the pond since 2008.

LARB Contributor

Tom Streithorst has been a union member, an entrepreneur, a war cameraman, a commercials director, a journalist. These days, he mostly does voiceovers and thinks about economic history. An American in London, he’s been writing for magazines on both sides of the pond since 2008. He is currently working on a book on how the incredible productive power of capitalism and technology have the potential to bring us all prosperity and happiness but so far, we keep screwing it up. He also writes a regular column about economics at pieria.co.uk.


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