What the heck is happening in Syria?

A young Syrian in Deraa, at a protest commemorating the massacre at Al-Houla last May, where over 100 women and children were allegedly killed by pro-government militias. (Photo by  Syrian Revolution Memory Project)After more than 2 years and tens of thousands of people killed, the civil war in Syria keeps dragging on. Is there any end in sight?

Last month marked the two year anniversary of a devastating war in Syria that the UN estimates has claimed the lives of 70,000 people and has driven 1.2 million refugees to neighboring countries.

Not only has the conflict been incredibly drawn out and violent, it’s also very confusing.

With global powers wringing their hands on intervention, the Syrian regime attempting to blackout foreign media and a fractured opposition movement that seems to lose and gain ground by the week, it’s very difficult get a clear picture of where the war is going and when it will ever end.

So we scoured the news reports and interviewed local experts to give you a simple summary of what the heck is happening in Syria.

What Happened?

It all started two years ago, in March 2011, when Syrians in the southern border city of Deraa took to the streets in protests against the arrest and mistreatment of youth caught posting anti-government graffiti at their school.

The government responded to the protests with what has been described as a brutal crackdown. When video of the crackdown spread, so did the protests.

“You have something that started as a rebellion against an oppressive regime, but turned into something that looks and is presented more as a civil war,” said Denis Bašić a historian and International Studies professor at UW.

Destruction from the civil war in the Bab Amro neighborhood of the central Syrian city of Homs. (Photo from  Freedom House Syria)
Destruction from the civil war in the Bab Amro neighborhood of the central Syrian city of Homs. (Photo from Freedom House Syria)

Although inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in 2011, the situation in Syria has taken a different trajectory.

Despite President Obama’s assertion last month that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will go, “it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when,” the second-generation dictator of a 42 year regime still stands.

Rita Zawaideh, a well-known philanthropist connected with Salaam Cultural Museum in Seattle, has been working on aid to Syrian refugees from the beginning. I caught up with her over Skype the day after she landed in Jordan with twenty doctors, with over forty boxes of medicines they were planning to distribute to clinics in Amman for Syrian refugees.

“You have no electricity, no water, you’re afraid to go out in the daytime, [you] don’t know if you’ll be coming back. You can’t leave, roads are bad, and checkpoints are everywhere,” Zawaideh said. “The road from Aleppo to Turkey is like Seattle to Vancouver and it takes 8-10 hours or days to cross. People in Jordan that left from Hama spent 23 days walking. Snipers are shooting at children.”

Aid from Seattle-based Salaam Cultural Museum arrives at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo from  Salaam Cultural Museum)
Aid from Seattle-based Salaam Cultural Museum arrives at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo from Salaam Cultural Museum)

Zawaideh, like others, has wondered why the US hasn’t done more to help, and thinks that part of the problem is the international uncertainty about what new leadership in Syria looks like post-Assad.

On the other hand, Bašić believes that we already have intervened, in what he described as a “proxy war,” with rich US allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia heavily financing the Anti-Assad opposition, and Russia and Iran supporting the Assad regime.

What’s happening now?

Robert Fisk, award-winning British journalist who has spent three decades in Syria, put the complex issue succinctly in a recent interview with Steve Paikin on TV Ontario:

“Rich Arab states which are Sunni [are] supporting a Sunni rebellion against an effectively Shi’a minority government,” Fisk explained. “This is a sectarian war and the sectarian wars are very ferocious, everyone gets involved including the mafia and the rich arab monarchs and of course the West.”

For his part, Fisk doesn’t think that the US is going to use our military power in Syria.

When asked about the US plan for “putting an end to bloodshed” in Syria at the press conference in Jordan, President Obama pointed to the US’s effort to spearhead a “credible” and “coherent” political opposition.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a state visit to Paris in 2008. Since the civil war broke out, Assad has become an international pariah. (Photo by  Amar Abd Rabbo)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a state visit to Paris in 2008. Since the civil war broke out, Assad has become an international pariah. (Photo by Amar Abd Rabbo)

He was talking about the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), a Western-backed interim government created last November as a possible alternative to the Assad regime.

But the SOC is having a difficult time establishing its chain of command with disagreements over leadership. On March 18th Ghassan Hitto, a Kurd who has lived in Texas for the last 30 years, was elected Prime Minister of the SOC. But the General of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the opposition’s military, has refused to recognize the new PM.

Although, SOC President Moaz Al-Khatib took Syria’s seat at the March 26 annual Arab League Summit meeting, it remains to be seen if the interim government has real support from other rebels and civilians.

Last month, both the Syrian government and rebels started accusing one another of launching chemical attacks in northern Aleppo. According to The Associated Press, a senior U.S. official said “additional intelligence gathering” hasn’t provided strong evidence to support the allegation.

Zawaideh, who also has family in Aleppo, disagrees: “There is evidence from doctors from a month ago of chemical warfare, you see it in some of the wounds people have.”

Will it ever end?

(Map via Wikipedia.org)
(Map via Wikipedia.org. Click to enlarge.)

Obama has called the use of chemical weapons a “game-changer,” presumably meaning if the Assad regime was found to be using them, it would prompt more aggressive US intervention.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA has begun feeding intelligence to certain rebel units in an effort to bolster the Western-backed FSA.

Assad has called the FSA an umbrella for hundreds of different “gangs” working for different things. Indeed, the regime’s long standing argument that they are fighting an islamic terrorist insurgency rings at least partially true: There are increasing concerns over the traction that the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group operating in Syria, has gained among the opposition, and last week Al-Nusra leadership openly declared their allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, there is a global and regional impasse as the conflict continues. Obama plans to host talks with leaders from allied countries in the coming weeks. Assad’s request for dialogues with the opposition are generally disregarded. The EU is still deciding how it wants to get involved, starting with lifting its arms embargo on Syria, to allow them to start arming the rebels directly.

A food vendor in Aleppo feeds a feline friend. Despite violence that has killed more than 70,000 people, life continues. (Photo by Omar Faez Asfari)
A food vendor in Aleppo feeds a feline friend. Despite violence that has killed more than 70,000 people, life continues. (Photo by Omar Faez Asfari)

But overall, the outlook is bleak.

Bašić expressed grave concerns over life post-Assad: “I would never say that Assad is fighting for the cause of his minority. Assad is fighting for his own political position and survival.”

“Regardless of what happens in Syria, I am worried about what will happen in the country after the revolution,” he added. “I think we may have a horrible sectarian struggle that may lead to the genocide of a Shi’a minority; something similar to what happened in Iraq after the war.”

To contribute to aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan via Salaam Cultural Muesum donate here.


  1. The U.S. does not need to get in the middle of this conflict. Let them do what they are going to do.
    I we suddenly find ourselves in a civil war are any or these countries going to come to the rescue of the poor people?
    I don’
    t think so…..

    1. ones say why us not do more??people have been destroying good us decades,,inside out and wars going on here…as many interconnected…many of us need help here,,,who right people govt protectors ??out of church groups and others all colors sides who take from us give to enemies,,destroy,,not let got in all right projects decades,,who put with with teorror crime people violence for own gain,,,charity frauds,,needed got with right investigators, helpers, many projects,,,involvements,, help with health,,,,where ones who to helped for positive new good out of groups who organized old villians decades, took us low, ………a lot gone on here………as imp all intl….some who organized got funds,,to get people to their nest,,took took took ………when needed help got with right intl community people cultures,,project or helpers,,esp as used to be real behalf…ones behind horrid sit here,,take aways,,needed help got with right ones??refuge,,as lot imp matters decades,,,

  2. Assad still wants to be in power. The Zionist in another hand wants to infiltrate the gvnt. be it FSA or SOC, both when are in state , becomes puppet gvnt. In the mean time, the process, Divide and Conquer which the pro Zionist countries are good at doing is taking place. Cant u see, this tactic ha been similar, be it in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon,Lybia and Saudi Arabia? when people gets united, that’s when the Zionist objective will not be met.

  3. i think that the us should stop taking care of everyone and start looking after their own people. america is getting weaker and their enemies are getting stronger. stay in the dark for a while and regain strength.

    1. Hi Richard,

      I agree that the US should do a better job of looking after its own people. However, I disagree that pulling out of foreign affairs is the best way to accomplish this mission. In the increasingly globalized world that this publication is intending to highlight, what is happening in Syria has a direct effect on the way that the US can take care of its citizens. Considering the use of chemical weapons, let alone the vast humanitarian crisis and moral obligation to fellow human beings, we can hardly ignore the effect that has on the entire world.

      We no longer have the ‘luxury’ of using isolationist tactics to manage our affairs. An ethical, collaborative, and peace-seeking foreign intervention strategy is necessary to protect and foster growth for Syrians, other actors in the region, as well as US citizens.

      1. With the illegal alien/border crisis the United States has, among other things, I don’t know of any such isolationism in regards to the United States. Not in my lifetime. As far as Syria, what sort of “an ethical, collaborative, and peace-seeking foreign intervention strategy” do you suggest?

      2. you “agree that the US should do a better job of looking after its own people”? Does that include the over 8 million illegal aliens in the United States as well?

  4. “America should take care of our own well being before helping other countries,” is a common statement. Who ever points out that by aiding in efforts to stabilize conflicting populations, we’re contributing to America’s wellbeing. Nothing breeds discontent more than oppression and poverty. In helping people who share common goals with America, to combat these problems, we gain allies. The more allies we have, especially in stabilized Middle Eastern countries, the stronger America becomes. The more we let them essentially duke it out, the more we miss valuable opportunities to somewhat lessen anti-American sentiment in the region.

  5. first i will say that what has happened AGAIN is unbelievable bad news but i would also like to take this opportunity to make the PUBLIC think with there head not with there eyes and ears so what i mean is
    question : was it really syria that did this ?? are there facts proven
    question : who again is promoting another excuse for a war ??
    question : who will benefit from a war ?? also financially
    question : who just clicks there fingers and the next day we are at WAR without NO approval of the complete UN VOTE ???
    question : how did you hear about it and who owns and runs that ???
    question : what is the intelligence saying about the enemy ???
    question : have we heard this all before ???
    question : does this sound once again familiar ????

    question : if its true they should make a example of the particular people or gov/ organisation ect, NOT KILL another 5 million to make a point .


  6. Who are you people with no heart with no humanity .. our own ? Many inocent people are dieing and all you can talk about are the illegal immigrants! Really you jim .christina people like you make me sick it just goes to show what humanity is becoming .. the government should do everything in its power to stop this evil bloodshed that is takeing lives of innocent children .babies! Babies that are scared that dont have a clue what going on . I hope that you read this and it makes you realize how ugly hearted you people really are.. look at your children . Now thank god that you and your children are so lucky and blessed. This should break your heart as it does mine . I dont know how people could be so crual. All my thoughts my prayers and my heart goes out to the families affected in this ugly war.

    1. It is not what humanity is becoming. Realize this: back when we were all cavemen or whatever, “moral obligations” was a joke. Illegal immigrants are a big problem that should be deported back to sender. WE do not lose anything when a couple of idiot countries fight it out on the other side of the world. America does have a past of intervening in wars. Nobody likes the nosy neighbor who is always minding other peoples business. On the other hand, this would increase America’s national debt. And think about the power players in this fight. America is not the only superpower in this war. If we intervene, we could get Syria, China, and Russia drilling holes America. Syria has a HUGE chemical weapon arsenal. China has a HUGE amount of people in the army and a pretty aggressive navy. They also control the global economy due to their large amount of mass production. Russia has a huge amount of planes and firepower. To sum it up, if they combined powers, they would have superior guns, superior chemical weapons, superior planes, superior navy, superior army, and they could cut off a lot of imported goods, so basically screw us with economy. Every time we poke our army in someone else’s war, we could be risking the country. We just haven’t intervened with other superpowers a lot, so we are lucky so far. Do you really want to risk your whole country so you can act on your “moral obligations”? Not me. It is unfortunate about what’s happening in Syria, but sometimes life can be harsh and unforgiving. We just have to sit back and fix our internal problems first. You want good allies? Trade with them or something. Don’t go off and risk yourself and millions of other people. Think about the consequences.

  7. If only we had intervened back when this article was first published instead of sitting on our collective hands and allowed Aleppo to be destroyed and reduced to rubble. This continues to be horrifying. Action should be taken as more civilian deaths occur every moment we hesitate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.