While we were watching the television news the other night, one of my friends said to me "Andy, what is going on in Syria?", and in response a collection of words and phrases flickered across my mind without me being able to form any coherent prose out of them: death, chaos, threat, unpredictability. This is how history appears to us in the modern media spectacle: disparate events and even more disparate and only vaguely-sensed concepts accumulate in our minds like layers of sediment, only to be drilled into and analysed later when we stop to breathe and to consider what has happened so far (and only ever so far: these things never truly end). My mind boggles at the fact that the Syrian civil war has been ongoing for nearly two years now, but here is an attempt at consideration of what has happened so far.
Syria has been ruled by the Ba'ath Party since 1964, which is a very long time. The Ba'ath were vaguely socialist and rather less vaguely secular, which was especially convenient in Syria because since 1970 the party has been dominated by the Assad family, who come from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'a Islam which makes up only about 12% of the Syrian population - this, of course, means it suited the rulers to pretend that their religion didn't have much to do with what they did, lest it offend the majority Sunni population. The Assad family ruled in alliance with the Sunni merchant class who hold positions of influence in the country's second city, Aleppo.
To quote Zach de la Rocha, for much of its recent history Syria has been calm like a bomb. Sometimes, though, there were explosions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an uprising led by Sunni clerics - including the Syrian incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, and more radical Salafists - swept parts of the country, and in 1982 the Assad family ordered the brutal levelling of the city of Hama in an attempt to end the uprising. Beforehand, in Hama, the rebels had been busy beheading secular schoolteachers and enforcing a strict Islamist legal code. Had they attained power in Damascus, it is not likely that their foreign policy would have been pro-American or pro-European. This prefigured the current dilemma faced by western countries, and throws into sharp relief the possibility that while the Assad family have been brutal and decidedly anti-western, they may yet prove to have been the prelude to an even more anti-western Syrian government.
We can't know exactly what was going through the minds of the first protesters in early 2011, but they seem to have been inspired by events in Tunisia and Libya. In January 2011, a Syrian immolated himself and a call went out for mass protests across social media, but little happened on the streets; however much anger and social tension exists, rebellion relies on a critical mass of people taking a stand so that others won't be convinced they're sticking their heads out alone, only to have them chopped off. Then in March a group of young boys, perhaps not so prone to cynical calculation as their elders, were arrested for scrawling "the people want to overthrow the regime" on a wall in the city of Daraa. They were arrested and tortured, and a week later mass protests erupted across the country for the first time. However, Damascus and Aleppo - the two main centres of regime power - remained almost entirely quiet.
The regime had a relatively free hand in attempting to use military might to crush these protests, and the army and Shabiha militia were duly dispatched to do so. At the same time, the regime offered token political and social concessions - with an eye to the Islamist nature of the rebellion, the regime promised that it would remove the ban on teachers wearing the niqab and closed the country's only casino. Assad also technically ended the state of emergency that he had used to claim extraordinary powers to run the country for 50 years, although with his warplanes raining down munitions on his own population it was unclear what difference this made in practice.
Gradually, as the army and pro-government militia massacred their way through the protesters, army units began to defect and fight the pro-regime forces. This is when a true civil war began, although the media was confused at first, much as they were when they claimed during the course of the Libyan conflict that "protesters" had destroyed an elite Libyan army unit. Only army units destroy army units, and this started to happen in Syria, as Sunni foot-soldiers recoiled from being sent to gun down fellow Sunni protesters to protect a regime they hated. The countryside gradually slipped into chaos as the regime only had the military forces to control a certain part of it at any one time, hence becoming a victim of the classic problem in waging guerrilla war. And guerrilla war is what it became, as pro- and anti-regime forces battled it out to control supply lines, territory, and then even the cities.
Where the Syrian public stand on this is hard to judge. Certainly, large numbers of them are disaffected with the Assad regime, or the protests wouldn't have happened in the first place; but Syria is a very divided country, and centres of the rebellion such as Hama and Daraa have very high poverty rates and had been abandoned by the regime. In Damascus and Aleppo, the regime had struck a Faustian bargain, providing stability and inclusion within the national economy in return for tight political control. The residents of these cities were not, by any account, particularly amused when Sunni rebels from the sticks turned up and started pitched battles in their streets. Nor must it be forgotten that the war has become a rallying point for jihadist and Salafist groups who have sown car bombs in civilian areas and generally made it very difficult to predict what will follow the inevitable downfall of the house of Assad. This makes people worried.
But perhaps the greatest challenge facing Syria is the one of relations between the Alawites and Sunnis following the downfall of the regime. The Alawites, who have seen so much violence unleashed on the Sunnis in their name, must be aware that they are a minority in the country and that they face possible annihilation at the hands of militant Sunnis. They can hence be expected to resort to ever-increasing depravity in an attempt to forestall the day of judgement. The Sunni rebel groups, on the other hand, desperately need to find a middle ground between themselves and some way to offer a degree of stability and prosperity to their constituents so that they can cool inter-communal anger and staunch the bloodbath. Iraq, which faced a similar problem in 2008 after being broken by the Americans, had an American Army which was still there to intervene and stop the dizzying descent into genocidal anarchy. Syria has no such stopgap, and where this ends is hence anyone's guess.