History of Syria Essential to Understanding the War

web_kaltuma_noorow_lightSyria has been the center of many discussions and has been weighing on the hearts of thousands of people for the past few weeks, and for good reason. Many people have questioned the need for military intervention by the United States in a country that has been in civil unrest for over a period of almost three years. Personally, I don’t favor this approach endorsed by President Obama and his European allies, but like a lot of you, I do not have a solution to the plight faced by the Syrian people. I will not go into much detail as to why military intervention is not the best course of action. I just hope to give you a better understanding of Syria because history has been a huge factor in the situation the region is facing. The history of conflict in Syria makes the notion of coming to a peaceful solution unrealistic. Before you can form educated opinions about the current conflict in Syria, as well as a hypothesis about the best course of action, one must understand the whole picture.

Those fighting for control over Syria nurse grievances dating back 1,300 years. This civil war is not a new phenomena; events in the past have paved the way for this revolution. Why? History forms the backdrop to peoples’ everyday life in Syria. It has shaped their very existence and perceptions. For centuries the Middle East has been the most strategically important region in the world when it comes to religion, agriculture, empires, trade routes and even wars. It is considered by many to be the heart of civilization. So in order to understand the on-going civil war in Syria, whose fate and future is being carefully deliberated by world leaders, you need to understand the ancient conflict between the Sunni and Shia Muslims dating back to the times of the Umayyad Dynasty. Sunni Arabs make up most of the population in Syria. They believe they are being oppressed by the current ruling Alawite minority, a sect of the Shia Muslims that make up 12 percent of the population. Therefore the present day revolution is primarily a Sunni Muslim revolution, a revolution of people who believe that if they seize power, natural order will be restored.

So what makes this seemingly simple conflict complex? Syria is bordered by Lebanon, Israel and Palestinian states, Iraq, and Turkey. Thus, to a certain extent it became the melting pot for various ethnic and religious groups like the Kurds, Armenians, Jews, the Arab Sunnis and the Alawites, to mention a few. In late 2010, a wind

of change in the form of Arab Spring swept through the Arab countries, and Syria was not immune. Hundreds of thousands mobilized in the streets of Hama demonstrating against the Assad regime. Hundreds of thousands have since been killed by conventional means. Lethal chemical weapons have killed more than 1,400 people. The divide between the ethnic and religious sectors grew wider and other radical groups from the region got involved in this war either in support or against the Assad regime like Al-Qaeda, the Muslim brotherhood from Egypt, Hezbollah from Lebanon, and Hamas from Palestine. In addition, hundreds of rebel groups joined forces under the loose umbrella of an alliance called the Free Syrian Army to fight against Assad’s forces.

There is also another echo from Syria’s long history that is prolonging the current conflict. Syria is once again at the center of a struggle involving global and regional powers for control over its future. Russia and Shia Iran support Assad’s regime, while Sunni Arab states (Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) and the West are increasingly backing elements of the opposition as it will be a blow to the Iranian forces. Syria has become a proxy battleground between the Sunni and Shia dominated states. The great forces of Syrian history are fueling a bitter war: West versus East, Sunni versus Alawites, secular versus religious, and democratic versus authoritarian. There is no simple solution. Military intervention may lead to the further fragmentation of Syria creating further divide in the region. Having this image of Syria in mind, what is the way forward? Who will take over after Assad is over thrown? What happens to the Syrian people after the chemical weapons are destroyed? What does the future hold for Syria and the Middle East? One thing is sure — Syria should not become a pawn in the chess match between the United States and Russia, because in the end, the only people who have anything to lose are the Syrians.

-Kaltuma Noorow, Contributing Writer


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