On August 27, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that, should President Obama give the order, the U.S. military is ready to launch attacks on Syria. The U.S. is responding to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons outside of Damascus, which killed hundreds. Below are 11 facts about Syria to put the country’s geopolitical situation in context for Americans.
Syria has an estimated population of 22,457,336 as of July 2013, 74% of whom are SunniMuslim, while 12% are Alawite Muslims and 4% are Druze. The Alawites, with who Bashar Al-Assad is affiliated, are a historically oppressed branch of Shi’a Islam, while the Druze are a secretive offshoot of Islam, blending mysticism with Gnostic elements. The remainder of the population is 16% Christian and 10% Jewish.
Ethnic Kurds comprise roughly 9% of Syria’s total population. They are concentrated in the northeast of the country, where they face routine, systematic discrimination and harassment, just like their counterparts in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. As of August 2013, over 40,000 Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan province due to heavy attacks from al-Qaeda linked rebels on their homes.
In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations authorized the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. The French divided their mandate into six different states, including a state on the Mediterranean for the Alawites. They brutally repressed any hints of independence or dissent, laying the foundations for the modern Syrian security state. After the Germans invaded France in World War II, the French administrators in Syria aligned themselves with the Vichy government, prompting the British and Free French forces to invade mandate Syria, where they remained until an agreement in the UN Security Council stipulated French and British withdrawal.
On February 1, 1958, under the guidance of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria and Egypt merged to form the United Arab Republic (U.A.R). The U.A.R represented the height of pan-Arab nationalism but it quickly became clear that Egypt monopolized the political and economic power of the union, prompting the Syrian army to stage a coup, repudiating Nasser’s authority and withdrawing from the union.
Syria was among the Arab states that attacked Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Despite taking heavy casualties, the Israeli military drove Syria back and annexed the land, immediately beginning settlement construction. Although the international community does not recognize the annexation, 18,700 Israeli settlers live in the Golan Heights to date.
Hafez al-Assad rose to power through the military, where he worked with other officers to establish Ba’ath Party control of Syria in 1963. Hafez al-Assad wrested power from Salah al-Jadid, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in 1970. The leader ruthlessly massacred over 20,000 Muslim Brotherhood members during an uprising in 1983, destroying the city of Hamah. He diedin 2000 and his son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded him.
Syria established a 29-year military presence in Lebanon beginning in 1976, at the start of the Lebanese Civil War. The al-Assad regime exercised control over Lebanese politics until 2005, when international pressure forced the Syrians to withdraw in the wake of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination.
Despite the Assad regime’s historical animosity towards the U.S., its animosity towards Saddam Hussein proved greater, leading it to join the U.S.-lead coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War following Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Syrian participation in the war led to a temporary thaw in U.S.-Syrian relations in the early 1990s and afforded the al-Assad regime more credibility in the Arab world as it sent forces to participate in Arab peacekeeping efforts in the Gulf.
The Iran-Syria alliance is integral to Iran’s efforts to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas in their endless conflict with Israel. However, Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime and intervention in the Syrian Civil War has alienated Hamas. In June 2013, Hezbollah and Hamas officials hurled public condemnations at each other over the conflict. Nonetheless, the public disagreements have not stopped them from attempting to coordinate attacks against Israel and undermine Hamas’ rival Palestinian party, Fatah.
Syria is a leading Middle Eastern producer in lucrative phosphate minerals. Syria’s phosphate exports allow it to fund the requisite imports needed to produce its chemical weapons stockpiles. In the 2000s, Syria used its phosphate funds to purchase the materials needed to make chemical weapons from companies based in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria, and Germany.
The international community accused Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon of creating an unstable political environment conducive to Hezbollah’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. As a result, the Bush administration recalled the U.S. Ambassador to Syria. President Obama, in turn, sent new U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford to the country to hash out contentious issues. In 2011 Obama had to withdraw Ford from his post due to death threats, incited by the al-Assad regime, for U.S. support of Syria’s Arab Spring protests.