(By Max Fisher, Washington Post, 29 August 2013)
The United States and allies are preparing for a possibly imminent series of limited military strikes against Syria, the first direct U.S. intervention in the two-year civil war, in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians. If you found the above sentence kind of confusing, or aren’t exactly sure why Syria is fighting a civil war, or even where Syria is located, then this is the article for you. What’s happening in Syria is really important, but it can also be confusing and difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it. Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: Syria and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.
Fighting escalated from there until it was a civil war. Armed civilians organized into rebel groups. The army deployed across the country, shelling and bombing whole neighborhoods and towns, trying to terrorize people into submission. They’ve also allegedly used chemical weapons, which is a big deal for reasons I’ll address below. Volunteers from other countries joined the rebels, either because they wanted freedom and democracy for Syria or, more likely, because they are jihadists who hate Syria’s secular government. The rebels were gaining ground for a while and now it looks like Assad is coming back. There is no end in sight.
Before we dive into the theories, you have to understand that the Syrian government really overreacted when peaceful protests started in mid-2011, slaughtering civilians unapologetically, which was a big part of how things escalated as quickly as they did. Assad learned this from his father. In 1982, Assad’s father and then-dictator Hafez al-Assad responded to a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama by leveling entire neighborhoods. He killed thousands of civilians, many of whom had nothing to do with the uprising. But it worked, and it looks like the younger Assad tried to reproduce it. His failure made the descent into chaos much worse.
The four big reasons that Russia wants to protect Assad, the importance of which vary depending on whom you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s last foreign military base outside the former Soviet Union; (2) Russia still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last military alliances; (3) Russia also hates the idea of “international intervention” against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia; (4) Syria buys a lot of Russian military exports, and Russia needs the money.
The one political option, which the Obama administration has been pushing for, would be for the Assad regime and the rebels to strike a peace deal. But there’s no indication that either side is interested in that, or that there’s even a viable unified rebel movement with which to negotiate. It’s possible that there was a brief window for a Libya-style military intervention early on in the conflict. But we’ll never really know.
8. Come on, what’s the big deal with chemical weapons? Assad kills 100,000 people with bullets and bombs but we’re freaked out over 1,000 who maybe died from poisonous gas? That seems silly.
• The killing will continue, probably for years. There’s no one to sign a peace treaty on the rebel side, even if the regime side were interested, and there’s no foreseeable victory for either. Refugees will continue fleeing into neighboring countries, causing instability and an entire other humanitarian crisis as conditions in the camps worsen.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that sending Congress to Syria—or, at the very least, sending the major congressional leaders in both parties—is the correct course of action,” survey respondent and Iraq war veteran Maj. Gen. John Mill said, noting that his opinion was informed by four tours of duty in which he saw dozens of close friends sustain physical as well as emotional injury and post-traumatic stress. “There is a clear solution to our problems staring us right in the face here, and we need to take action.” “Sooner rather than later, too,” Mill added. “This war isn’t going to last forever.”