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Syria is in the news a lot lately due to the current uprising, but it's not a country that many people know much about. It can trace its history back to the origins of civilization, and as a result its wikipedia page is far too dense to be quickly comprehensible.

Give me the "elevator pitch" about Syria's history as it pertains to the 2011-2012 uprising. What are the main factors in its history that are going to most influence what is likely to happen in this current struggle? Why does its current government appear to be taking its cues from the 19th century? Are the uprisings a pure "peoples' revolt" or are there any ethnic or religious angles that might lead to some sort of border redrawing (ala the breakups of Yugoslavia and Soviet Union)? What other must-know facts are there, that would impress my friends?

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You need to understand more than just Syria to understand the uprising, as it is being financed from abroad. –  john Jun 27 '12 at 17:05
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@HermannIngjaldsson - If you have good support for this assersion, make an answer of it. Otherwise, I would ask further commenters to try to refrain from making unsupported contraversial assertions outside of chat. This isn't a political discussion board. –  T.E.D. Jun 27 '12 at 18:14
    
@T.E.D. - If Saudis are NOT financing it, the entire Royal family of Saud needs to be taken out and shot for criminal incompetence and idiocy. We are talking about Sunni uprising against Iranian-allied Alawite regime here. –  DVK Jul 3 '12 at 22:06
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@DVK - Tweak your statement to "trying to finance it", and I'd agree with that actually. But it could be argued the other way too. At some point they want the tide of this thing stopped before the uprisings move into their country. Again, this isn't a political discussion board, and such debatable statements should be in answers with supporting evidence, or not made at all. –  T.E.D. Jul 4 '12 at 0:21
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3 Answers 3

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The most important thing for an outsider to understand is that Syria, while ethnically nearly 90% Arab, is made up of a rather large amount of religous minorities. Like most middle-east states, its borders were set up by Europeans during the colonial era, and really paid no heed to any actual cultural boundries.

Only about half the population is Suni Muslim, with most of the rest being Shi'a, and about 12% Christian.

Probably the most important religous group to take note of is the Alawites. This group is important because the country's current leadership is Alawite. This has a couple of important implications. First off, this particular minority is (perhaps rightly) afraid of what the rest will do to them if they lose power, and thus Alawites have not been very quick to join the uprising. There were efforts early on to recruit them into what has otherwise been a pan-Syrian uprising, but it doesn't seem to have borne much fruit. Some of the worst atrocities against the protesters have been caried out by "government-backed" militias, which I highly suspect are mostly Alawite.

The second important implication of this is that the current leadership, being Shi'a in a majority Suni country, has traditionally had the benifit of strong support (really an alliance) from Shi'a-run Iran. If the current government falls, no matter what else happens, Iran loses. Fortunately, Syria doesn't share a border with Iran, or you'd likely see Iranian military units in the country "restoring peace". As it is, one can still expect Iran to do what they can to prop up their ally.

Another important player to keep an eye on is Hezbollah. This is a Shia (yes, often terrorist) milita in neighboring Lebanon. They are a big player in Lebanon, but are generally seen as a Syrian and Iranian puppet. They've more or less kept out of things so far, but they can't be happy at the thought of losing one of their patrons.

Another very important player here is Turkey. All of the middle east used to be ruled from Istanbul, and the Turks still like to think of themselves as the protector of their nearby Muslim neighbors. As a democracy (and Suni) themselves, they are very sympathetic to what the uprising is trying to achieve, and they share almost all of Syria's northern border. So casus-belli incidents like Turkish planes getting shot down are very serious developments that the Syrian government should be trying very hard to avoid. Oh yeah, Turkey is also a full-fleged member of NATO, so if they engage in military action, they have the implicit (and likely explicit) backing of the USA.

Yet another important party is Russia. They have been sort of a minor ally to the current Syrian regieme, and have a very important (to them) naval base agreement with them. They've already taken the step of sending in some marines to secure that base. Probably, that's all they are doing. However, if they wanted to intervene to support their ally, this is precisely how it would start. 

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I'd like to give credit here to Iyad El-Baghdadi. The analysis in mine, but most of the facts written above I was initially made aware of thanks to him. If you are interested in following Arab Spring events, he's the guy to follow on twitter @iyad_elbaghdadi . Sadly his non-Arab Spring tweets I generally have to ignore. He's a bit obsesive, but that's part of what makes is AS stuff so valuable. –  T.E.D. Jun 25 '12 at 14:16
    
I upvoted this and also made an addition. –  Anixx Jun 25 '12 at 16:00
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While other posters have addressed the issue in regards to the wider region, none have addressed the issue in regards to the Syrian citizens. They have mentioned the different Syrian religions so I won't go back over that.

The current Syrian ruling family (I am referring to the Assads, not the Baath) is known to be a brutal torturer. Early in the uprising we heard of anti-Assad poets being found floating in a river after having their larynx torn out, and of people being returned home in boxes. That is, multiple boxes per person. We don't hear that anymore, but I assume that it is still happening. Israeli citizens on the northern border have feared the Syrians for decades.

This means that the Syrian population is in fear of the ruling family, and by extension the ruling Baath party. Every military conscript knows that his family members will be tortured if he defects. The fact that they do anyway is amazing. As an Israeli soldier I have learned to respect the Syrian soldiers as they are probably the most professional army in the middle east other than our own. There are many stories of Syrian soldier "heros" from various wars with them, and in fact even today they loose on average 1 soldier per month in chemical-warfare training alone. So we are talking about an extremely well-trained and well-disciplined army, in fear of their families' lives, who are deserting anyway. That says a lot.

Note also that the civilians are also well armed, or at least were in the beginning of the uprising. The Syrian defence ministry arms the citizens with rifles and anti-tank weaponry in case of Israeli attack. They never thought that the citizens would turn those arms against them, due to the reasons mentioned above (fear of torture).

If I might add my own speculation in addition to the fact, I dare speculate that most Syrians don't care what religion, party, or family rules so long as they rule justly. I say this from conversations with Lebanese and Palestinians who know that their lives are better under Hezbollah and Israeli rule, even though in a perfect world they would be ruled by their own kin. People in the middle east aren't fed "democracy and freedom" from a young age, and they don't care about either democracy or freedom. They do care about having secure work and a safe home for their families. The Palestinians see that their quality of life is better than the "free" Jordanians, and Jordan is widely regarded to have a very wise and just king. Likewise, the Lebanese feel safer under Hezbollah rule and a puppet prime minister than they did when the sides were fair but fighting. I therefore speculate that the Syrians do not oppose Alawite rule, but do oppose being ruled by fear.

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Wow. Great answer. I felt rather bad about neglecting to mention how oppressive Syria's current Regime has been. Its a supremely important factor. But as I metioned elsewhere my answer was already way long. I will note that everything in here, at least up until the speculation paragraph, jibes with what I've heard from my English-speaking Arab twitter sources. If anything, the treatment of suspected protest sympathisers and their families is even worse. –  T.E.D. Jun 27 '12 at 15:40
    
Another good resource for getting insight about how Arabs actually view their "rulers" during Arab Spring uprisings is the tounge-in-cheek Arab Tyrant's Manual - el-baghdadi.com/projects/the-arab-tyrants-manual/… –  T.E.D. Jun 27 '12 at 15:51
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I like the other answer by TED and I upvoted it. But there are things that can be added.

First, Syria is the last country in the Muslim world that nominally declares itself "socialist". The other two, Libya and Iraq has been already invaded by the United States and their governments overthrown, so currently only Syria is remaining on the list.

In addition to what TED said I want to mention other players in the region.

  • Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both are absolute monarchies and strong allies of the USA. They also strong proponents of Wahhabi fundamentalism and sponsors of Islamist insurrection in many countries, including Russia, Libya and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia and Qatar openly support the rebels with weapons.

  • The USA. The main sponsor and inspirator behind the insurrection. As admits Voice of America (citing The New York Times) the CIA is supplying weapons to the rebels as well.

http://www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/us-arms-syria/1216767.html

  • Israel. Syria has a territorial dispute with Israel over Golan Heights. Israel took them during the last Israeli-Syrian war in 1982. Syria has an armistice signed with Israel which is in force for 30 years by now.

In addition to that I want to mention is that Turkey already formed a shadow Syrian cabinet on its territory which is a classic prelude for a war. Russia supports Syria not only because of the naval base but also because they believe that they will be invaded by the USA or Saudi-sponsored rebels right after Syria and Iran. Russia wants to postpone its place in the queue.

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A lot of good points. I will venture that you would benefit quite a bit from acquiring news sources outside your home country though. –  T.E.D. Jun 25 '12 at 16:07
    
TED, I am not exposed to any sources except those in the Internet. If I missed something feel free to add or comment. –  Anixx Jun 25 '12 at 16:10
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One additional point about the Golan heights (I didn't get into this myself because my answer was already way long). Not only does Syria have a territorial dispute with Israel over this territory, but also they have a dispute with Lebanon over this same land. The whole Arab-Isreali thing has been papering over this disupute for decades, but it is lurking making any resoultion of the area's situation almost impossible. –  T.E.D. Jun 25 '12 at 16:11
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Actually, everyday Israelis regard the Golan Heights as Israeli in every regard. It comes as a surprise to Israelis when they hear for the first time that the Golan Heights is considered by some to still be Syrian. In the early 80's Israel annexed the Golan and extended Israeli law to it, and a sizeable portion of the Druze there now hold Israeli citizenship. Of course, we do know that Syria still considers the Golan Heights to be Syrian, and we know that one day the Golan may be returned much as Sinai and Gaza were. Travelling to the Golan is like travelling to any other part of Israel. –  dotancohen Jun 27 '12 at 14:18
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I have a hard time imagining a NATO or US invasion of Syria. First, Turkey wouldn't stand for a US attack, and Iran would happily open a second front. Secondly, NATO cannot field ground troops, and airstrikes against the very land that Russia tests its most advanced anti-aircraft systems in would be a mess. Syria has probably the most effective AA in the world after Pyongyang. The most likely US/NATO interference would be transfer of arms and intelligence to indigenous Syrian opposition. It would be another proxy war and there is no oil in Syria to fight for. So I don't envision interference. –  dotancohen Jun 27 '12 at 16:41
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