The VICE Guide to Syria
Illustrations by Mike Taylor
We have put together this guide in an attempt to condense the facts gleaned from thousands of pages of reference books, biographies, religious texts, firsthand accounts, reports and other information that have informed this issue. We could’ve included dozens of additional entries, but in our opinion the topics below are the most important for you to begin to understand the complexities of the conflict. We also recommend that you read our illustrated timeline of Syria’s tumultuous history, “The Road to Ruin", to provide some context before digging into the guide.
Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is the most important figure in Syria’s short history as an independent nation. Nearly every aspect of modern Syrian life was shaped by Hafez, which isn’t surprising given that he ruled the country with an iron first for decades – from 1970 until his death in 2000.
Hafez came from a long lineage of powerful men. His grandfather Sulayman was respected by his fellow villagers for his strength, courage and marksmanship. They nicknamed him “al-Wahhish” (“The Wild Man”), which was apparently so fitting he adopted it as his surname. His son Ali Sulayman inherited many of his father’s fierce characteristics, cementing his kin’s reputation among the Alawite mountain tribes. In 1927, at the recommendation of some village elders, their last name was upgraded to the more distinguished al-Assad, meaning “The lion.”
According to Patrick Seale’s magisterial biography, Asad: Struggle for the Middle East, Hafez was born in Qardaha, when the northwestern village “consisted of a hundred or so mud or rough stone houses at the end of a dirt track. There was no mosque or church, no shop, no café, no paved road.” Few people in the region could read, but Hafez got lucky and snagged a spot in the nearby French colonial primary school. At 16, he joined the secular Pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party and quickly made himself into an invaluable asset by distributing Ba’athist literature, holding secret meetings at his house and fighting rival groups and the police.
By 1963, Hafez played a major role in executing a coup that put the Ba’athists in charge. Three years later, he helped to engineer an even bloodier takeover that resulted in his appointment as minister of defense. Four years later, he staged another coup, clawing his way to the top and into the presidency – an office he would hold for the rest of his life.
A slick but uncompromising leader, Hafez managed to avoid the fate of previous Syrian overlords by undercutting his competition and brutalising the opposition. He centralised the country’s political system, changed its constitution and allied with the Soviet Union. Leveraging propaganda to present himself as a man of the people, he pushed Syria’s infrastructure toward modernisation while suppressing dissent of any kind. In the process, he expanded the reach of Syria’s security forces and created a Soviet-style cult of personality for himself, commissioning thousands of statues, portraits and posters to be displayed across the country. In 1982, he ordered the massacre of thousands of Sunnis in the country’s fourth-largest city, Hama, and a year later quashed a coup attempt by his younger brother Rifaat.
In a just world, Hafez would have been punished long before he died for his decades of iron-fisted rule. Instead, he passed away relatively peacefully, in 2000, from a heart attack.
Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus in 1965, five years before his father finished his ascent to the top of the Ba’athist Party. The third of five children, Bashar had a “normal” childhood that included frequent soccer games and ping-pong matches with his father. Few expectations were placed on Bashar, mostly because it was understood that his older brother, Bassel, would inherit his father’s presidency when the time came. Bassel – charismatic, confident and good at sports – was the natural choice for a successor; Bashar was shy and uninterested in government. He graduated high school in 1982 and went on to become an army physician, then went to London’s Western Eye Hospital to study ophthalmology.
In 1994, Bashar’s life was forever changed when Bassel died in a car accident. Immediately after the funeral, Bashar was deemed the heir apparent, and his preparation for the presidency began: He joined the military academy and began working out of his deceased brother’s office.
Hafez died on June 10, 2000, and Bashar assumed the presidency at the tender age of 34, so young that parliament had to lower the minimum age so he could “run” for office. A sham election was held, followed by another in 2007 that “reelected” him.
If the lesser-son-unexpectedly-takes-over-the-empire narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the plot of The Godfather. Except Bashar is more like Fredo than Michael. Regime insiders told the Financial Times that Bashar is insecure and prone to mood swings. His uncle Rifaat, who fled the country after trying to take it over in 1983, told CNN that Bashar “follows what the regime decides on his behalf.” Bashar might have been a decent doctor, but as a dictator he was both brutal and prone to waffling, a deadly combination. “You discuss an issue with him in the morning and another person comes along and changes his mind,” said former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Whatever combination of poor choices and bad luck led him here, Bashar is quickly painting himself into a corner with a whole lot of blood. Some accounts attest that he refuses to step down because he fears his Alawite clan will be massacred by the rebels. “Syria’s Assad Has Embraced Pariah Status”, read a Washington Post headline over the summer. That seems like a fitting epitaph for a man who didn’t ask for a regime or revolution to fall on his head but seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
Looking back on his early life, it seems crazy that this nerdy goofball – who, by the way, took the Hippocratic oath – would end up being mentioned in the same breath as Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il. From time to time he probably asks himself: “For fuck’s sake… what am I doing? I wanted to be an eye doctor and bang English broads.”
CIVIL LIBERTIES AND THE EMERGENCY LAW
As you might’ve guessed by now, Syria’s never exactly been a bastion of freedom of human rights. In the colonial era, the French government routinely executed villagers without fair trial and displayed the corpses of “bandits” in Damascus’s central square. After WWII, Adib Shishakli, a military commander who ran the country, dissolved all opposition political parties, banned newspapers and persecuted ethnic minorities. In 1963, the Ba’ath Party took power and declared a state of emergency that gave the country’s security forces wide-ranging powers; the “emergency law” was finally revoked in April 2011, ironically, just as the real crisis began.
Syria’s emergency law dictated that citizens can be arrested, detained, tried and sentenced without due process or access to an attorney. All this continues today. Elections are held, but only as a formality.
Freedom of assembly is written into the constitution, but the Ministry of Interior has to approve any gathering of more than five people. Before the revolution, protests against Israel were usually approved, while their pro-Islam, pro-Kurdish and antigovernment counterparts were quickly broken up. Last year, as demonstrations spread, security forces were given the green light by the regime to disperse protests by shooting civilians and leaving them to die in the street.
THE DAMASCUS SPRING
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in 2000, when Bashar took over, Syrians were hopeful that the new Western-educated president would begin dismantling the security state. Proud citizens met in private homes to discuss reforms in a movement that was called the Damascus Spring. Intellectuals signed the “Statement of the 99,” a manifesto demanding an end to martial law and the freeing of political prisoners. Bashar even gave them a reason for hope when he shut down Mezzeh Prison, long reviled for its brutal treatment of inmates. But this hope did not last long.
In August 2001, the regime cracked down on would-be reformers, arresting prominent members of the discussion groups that it had been tolerating, charging people with “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means” and “inciting racial and sectarian strife”.
The hope in the West is, of course, that once Assad is toppled, the rebels will institute a free and democratic society and everyone will live happily ever after; however, the presence of jihadists fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army indicates that the country could potentially replace secular authoritarianism with theocratic oppression if religious extremism is left unchecked.
Russia is Syria’s oldest and most powerful ally, and its government is one of Assad’s last remaining friends outside his domain. They have blocked all UN resolutions condemning the regime and vetoed (occasionally alongside China) any attempt to sanction a government that has been killing its own civilians.
All the while, the Russians have continued to sell weapons to Assad. One of the biggest transactions happened back in January, when the Kremlin signed a deal to send 36 fighter jets to Syria at the cost of $550 million. The jets won’t be delivered for years, and by making the sale, Russia is assuming that the current government or some iteration of it is going to be around for a good long while.
Damascus’s cozy relationship with Moscow dates back to the Cold War. In the 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent more than $200 million in aid to Syria as part of the neocolonial chess game that was being played out among the Arab nations. The USSR-Syrian alliance held strong after the successful coup launched by Hafez in 1970. The Soviets sent boatloads of arms to counter Israeli influence, and Syria’s love for Russian guns, planes and missiles hasn’t abated. Russia sold Syria $1 billion worth of arms in 2011, and at this point the sky is the limit.
More geopolitically important than the arms dealing is the Russian naval facility in Tartus. Hafez gave permission to the Soviets to establish the base back in 1971, and it’s been a vital port operation ever since. It’s also Russia’s only military port still in operation outside the former USSR. Through the realpolitik lens of Vladimir Putin and Co., it makes perfect sense to keep Bashar in power. He is a valued munitions customer, but more important, he gives them a place to resupply their nuclear subs.
Syria’s long and tangled history with Lebanon dates back to its separation from Syria in 1920, when European powers still dominated much of the Middle East. Syrian troops have been a continuous presence in the country from 1976 until 2005’s “Cedar Revolution”, which kicked Syrian security forces out of Lebanon. But Syrian intelligence agencies still hold sway in the country and have been blamed for a series of high-profile assassinations of Lebanese officials over the last decade.
The close political, economic and cultural ties between the two countries are beginning to fray under the weight of the recent conflict. Lebanon’s government is roughly divided into two blocs: the majority, pro-regime March 8 Alliance and the opposition, pro-rebel March 14 Alliance. The Shia militant group Hezbollah dominates March 8 and is by far the strongest political element in the country, and Assad’s regime is one of Hezbollah’s biggest supporters in terms of money, weapons and political cover. This relationship has been lowering Hezbollah’s standing across the Arab world, as the group has been widely accused of sending fighters to back Assad’s sociopathic meltdown.
Some pro-regime Lebanese politicians support the creation of a pan-Arab “Greater Syria”, which would encompass Lebanon. For its part, the Syrian government and its many supporters still consider Lebanon a province rather than a sovereign neighbour. Similarly, many Lebanese bristle at the thought of being one with Syria, as its residents are considered by much of the country to be lower class.
Widespread talk of spillover from the conflict into Lebanon is rooted in the close relationship between both nations and their peoples. These days, the civil war in Syria occasionally plays out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where local Sunni gunmen, who support the rebels in Syria, have reportedly battled Lebanese Alawites. Beirut has recently become the scene of deadly fighting and bombings between pro- and anti-regime forces – a terrifying prospect in a country that has not yet healed from its own brutal civil war, which ended only a few years ago.
During the Tripoli clashes, a pro-rebel Lebanese commander named Abu Ibrahim told us, “This has been going on my whole adult life,” referring to fighting Syrian-backed militias fighting in Lebanon. He showed scars that he said were from battling Syrian troops in 1983 and added that, for now at least, he would not let his sons fight. The Syrian Army and its local proxies are also widely accused of massacring Sunnis in Tripoli during the civil war, a dark episode that will never be forgotten by Lebanese residents.
The deep hatred and mistrust of the Syrian presence in Lebanon is exacerbated by Syrian forces’ almost-daily incursions into Lebanese territory. With a weak military and a security establishment still largely loyal to the Syrian regime, Lebanon has so far failed to react to these exchanges in any meaningful way.
Click through to the next page for more on Syria's Jews, jihadists and media. Or view the whole guide in a single page.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria and number around two million. These mainly secular Sunnis have been concentrated in Syria’s northern provinces since the time of the crusades.
After being stripped of their passports in the 1960s, over the past decades the Kurds have struggled to survive as noncitizens. Kurdish language and culture were forbidden, and thousands of Kurdish activists were disappeared and tortured in Assad’s prisons. This ongoing repression led to an uprising in 1986, after hundreds of Kurds gathered in Damascus to celebrate Newroz, one of their most important holidays.
Recently, Kurds have tried to put a stop to their factional infighting and have begun to organise against the Assad regime. Their moment came this July, when the government withdrew their military from Kurdish areas to fight the FSA in Aleppo and Damascus. Seizing the opportunity, the Kurdish militia known as YPG (Popular Protection Units) took over one Kurdish town after another; roadblocks were set up and Syrian security forces were placed under house arrest.
The Kurds occupy a third position in the war, opposing both Assad and the opposition. While they loathe Assad, they fear that the Free Syrian Army will establish an Islamist state. The fact that Turkey is harbouring the Free Syrian Army and supplying them with weapons makes the Kurds even more suspicious, because the Turks and Kurds have enough bad blood to fill an entirely separate guide. This fall, Turkey’s prime minister gave Assad an ultimatum: If he permitted the Kurdish independence movement or guerrilla PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) cells to operate in his country, Turkey would attack. The Kurdish movement is now preparing for full-on war with Turkey, another crackdown by Assad’s forces, and the infiltration of extremists into their autonomous territory. Once again, the Kurds find themselves stuck in the middle, fighting for their survival and independence, and the future is looking pretty bleak.
In 2005, the US State Department estimated that there were 80 Jews living in Syria. Jews have made the country their home for at least 2,000 years, even as they have been subject to unfair impositions like a special religious tax that only they were forced to pay. Waves of Sephardic Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s to Syria but found the country deeply inhospitable.
Still, life didn’t become unbearable for Syrian Jews until Israel was founded in 1948. After Israel spanked Syria’s ass in the Arab-Israeli War, the embittered Syrian government implemented a slew of laws forbidding Jews from owning property, drivers’ licenses or telephones. In 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, 57 Jews were allegedly murdered during a pogrom in the city of Qamishli.
Anticipating an exodus, the Syrian government paradoxically made it nearly impossible for the Jews to leave. Hafez would only allow Jews to travel if they could provide a bond of $300 to $1,000, in addition to leaving a family member behind as collateral. Starting in 1972, the human rights activist Judy Feld Carr, known only as the mysterious “Mrs. Judy” to her charges, secretly smuggled more than 3,000 Jews out of the country via Syria’s version of the Underground Railroad. Those who didn’t successfully complete the crossing were found guilty of unauthorised travel and were frequently tortured during their time in detention. In 1977, under pressure from Jimmy Carter, Hafez finally allowed some Jews to leave the country freely.
In 1994, the Israeli government admitted to conducting a two-year covert operation that whisked many Jews out of Aleppo and into Israel. Many of them “visited” New York City – home to the world’s largest population of Syrian Jews (75,000 as of 2007) – and from there travelled to Israel, never again to return home. In total, Israel helped almost 4,000 Jews flee Syria, and by the end of the operation only 300 remained in the country – largely because they were too old to flee. Most of these stragglers are dead now. The Kniesset Ilfranj synagogue in Damascus is the last Jewish place of worship in the country. Mrs. Judy estimates that there are 16 – yes, 16 – Jews remaining in Syria today.
No one is really sure what percentage of the Syrian rebel force is made up of “jihadists” and “foreign fighters”. While it’s true that hardline young men from Libya and the Gulf States are sneaking in to fight, their actual numbers and influence are probably exaggerated in the Western press and by tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists. The jihadists – devout, clean-living martyrs – have come to be known among the opposition for their fierce and uncompromising fighting style. They make the secular, four-pack-a-day-smoking FSA look ragtag by comparison. It’s indisputable that the opposition has taken on a more religious tone in recent months – but that’s bound to happen when the secular middle class flees the cities and towns during a war in a heavily divided and deeply faithful country. Poor country folk are largely the only ones left in these areas; when their families are killed and villages razed, the only thing they have left is Allah.
To better understand the predicament the opposition faces, imagine that civil war broke out in the US or any Western country, really. You’re fighting with the secular, leftist young people who are completely unprepared to face a high-tech military and, as a result, are getting slaughtered. Some armed-to-the-teeth evangelicals and bumpkin dirt farmers step in and offer their help. And while you know that if your side wins, these hardline elements will try seize power, incorporate their belief system into the new government and outlaw abortions, in the fog of war it’s an alliance you can’t refuse.
Western fears of jihadists hijacking the Syrian revolution have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We refused to send weapons to the secular opposition because we were scared they would fall into the hands of extremists, so the secular opposition was forced to turn to the jihadists for help. The Salafi groups have guns and money coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and al-Qaeda’s involvement in the conflict has supposedly become more focused since mid-July. VICE correspondents on the ground in the region report seeing notably few foreign fighters – a Libyan here and there, but not the terror pit some politicians are making it out to be. The secular opposition is obviously worried that the revolution is going to fall into the hands of the religious zealots. But for the moment, the FSA and its allies need these mysterious, vaguely threatening bearded men who aren’t scared to sleep on the front lines and are absolutely unafraid to die for the cause.
Syrian law restricts the press from publishing information that “causes public unrest, disturbs international relations, violates the dignity of the state or national unity, affects the morale of the armed forces or inflicts harm on the national economy and the safety of the monetary system.” The media has been completely state-controlled since the 1960s. As of 2001, private media outlets have been permitted to operate, but the government retains the power to quash and censor anything.
The internet is likewise restricted. Most of the ISPs are owned by the government, which doesn’t think twice about blocking any and all content that they perceive to be anti-regime. Social-networking and video-sharing sites were banned across the board until February 2011. But even after Facebook and YouTube were unblocked, human rights observers noted that the regime still routinely censored information – in particular, it tried to keep images of protestors being beaten and shot from leaking out of the country. Those who successfully circumvent the censors and post antigovernment content can face prison terms and torture.
TV sucks a whole lot of balls in Syria, no matter which direction you flick the channel. All but two TV stations in Syria are satellite-broadcasted, and most are controlled by the state-backed Syrian Arab Television and Radio Broadcasting Commission. The handful of private channels operating in the country live in constant fear of pissing off their government minders. This means that almost all Syrian “journalists” must cling tightly to Assad’s jock in order to safeguard their careers (and, in some cases, their literal survival). This doesn’t keep them from being aggressive and publicly attacking or undermining anyone who disagrees with their pro-regime view.
In recent months, TV has turned deadly. In June, the privately owned pro-Assad station Al-Ikhbariya was attacked by FSA forces, which resulted in the death of seven of its employees. This was followed by an insurgent sniper attack on Iranian broadcast correspondent Maya Nasser in September. Expect these attacks to become more common as the conflict progresses.
Arab League foreign ministers have asked the region’s satellite-TV providers to block transmissions from Syria in order to limit the Assad regime’s influence, and Syrian television companies halted the production of new shows at the beginning of the revolution. This included the filming of some of the most popular soap operas in the Arab world, as well as propaganda like the 29-part series Ash-Shatat (The Diaspora), largely based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a fabricated anti-Semitic publication that details attempts by Jewish leaders to take over the world and was propagated by Hitler before WWII. The series includes a scene that suggests that, at one point in time, Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood as an ingredient in matzo.
Click through to the next page for more on Syria's chemical weapons, gambling and underground newspapers. Or view the whole guide in a single page.
For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history.
In Syria’s state-controlled media landscape, it can be difficult for those inside the country to get access to information that hasn’t been turned into mystery meat by the Ba’ath Party sausage grinder. The regime’s monopoly on news, however, has spawned a number of underground antigovernment newspapers made with home printers and copiers. Unabashedly partisan, these papers provide a counterweight to the misinformation and skewed facts presented by the mainstream Syrian media and give a voice to the opposition.
We contacted Kareem Lailah, the editor in chief of the Hurriyat, which according to him was the first of these opposition papers, founded last August. Kareem told us that Hurriyat is hand-delivered by activists who moonlight as the world’s ballsiest paperboys, delivering their message to the doorsteps of homes in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. Standard operating procedure is to drop a copy on the doormat, ring the doorbell, and haul ass out of there before anyone sees you. While their success rate is impressive, Kareem said, “Two of our brave journalists have been arrested… one was imprisoned for some days and the other for about three months.”
While the bulk of the editorial content within these handmade publications is dedicated to reporting and op-ed pieces, many include political cartoons and reports on local culture. Zeina Bali, a Syrian journalist who wrote a piece about the papers for Syria Today, told us that the paper Surytina even publishes book reviews that link their narratives to developments in the civil war.
When we asked Zeina how she thought these papers were being received, she put it quite succinctly: “I think they present the antigovernment movement in a very peaceful way. In my opinion, especially since they are still running this, it is a very positive thing. It will prove to the people that there is a civil aspect to the uprising. I think a lot of people have just lost faith.”
URBAN LIFE VS. RURAL LIFE
Like most of the revolts that kicked off the Arab Spring, Syria’s revolution incubated in rural and semirural areas after the protests in Daraa. This is not a coincidence. The mishmash of FSA fighters and activists has rapidly become the country’s equivalent of the Occupy movement – if Occupy had guns, RPGs and an actual goal. People are angry and confused, and as always, the urban rich are the ones being held accountable.
Approximately 54 percent of Syria’s population lives in the cities, while around 44 percent are out in the sticks, including a sizable Bedouin population that roves the country’s vast desert. As you can imagine, this breakdown creates a yawning class disparity. But the conflict has produced an inverse effect in migration patterns. Many Syrians are fleeing the violence in Damascus and Aleppo to head back to their ancestral villages, while the rural poor are taking refuge in overpopulated suburban slums. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that during the course of the conflict around 1.5 million people have been displaced. According to a joint report by the UN and the Syrian government, at least three million residents are in need of supplemental aid to ensure an adequate harvest and livestock supply over the course of the next year. Half of those people will be nearing starvation within the next three to six months.
The past few years of drought conditions have been exacerbated by the conflict, and the agricultural sector has lost $1.8 billion this year. Economists say that the fallout from fighting could contract the national economy by 14 percent or more. Businesses throughout the country are definitely feeling the squeeze (if they haven’t already been reduced to a steaming pile of rubble).
The Syrian national ID card includes its holder’s ancestral name and “place of origin”, i.e., the neighbourhood and city most closely associated with his or her family name. Before the uprising, the ID card caused the kind of minor travel-related annoyances we’re accustomed to in the West. But in the past 20 months, the ID card has become a potent tool for profiling and weeding out suspected members of the opposition. If you get stopped at a checkpoint, being from a rebel city or neighbourhood can mean the difference between life and death. And while an individual’s religion isn’t blatantly listed on the ID, most officials can make a pretty good guess about a citizen’s sect based on the information.
Syria has a long history of using citizenship restrictions to decide who’s in and who’s out. In 1962, the state arbitrarily revoked the citizenship of 120,000 Kurds. These Kurds and their descendants were all considered ajanib (stateless) until last May. Ajanib are not permitted to marry, own cars, rent houses or possess national IDs. Below the ajanib are the maktoumeen (hidden) – those who live in stateless limbo, unable to leave Syria legally but also forbidden from getting a job.
After oppressing the separatist Kurds for decades, three weeks after the uprising Assad issued an amnesty, giving them full citizenship. This conspicuously timed move was a cynical political bid to keep the armed Kurds from allying with the opposition. It worked; the Kurds have become a third position of sorts, quietly laying the foundations for their own autonomous Kurdish revolution in the North while the FSA and the regime slaughter each other.
Even if you’re not against the regime, your ID can be used to punish you if you don’t take good care of it. This fall, the regime released 267 people from prison who had been found with broken ID cards. In recent months, a firebrand Syrian sheikh has been calling for Syrians to break their ID cards to protest the regime. One man told Agence France-Presse that he had been on his way home when security forces stopped him and found his ID card broken. Another unlucky soul told AFP, “They beat me and forced me to confess that I was following the sheikh’s instructions, which I didn’t know existed.” When these Syrians were released, their heads were shaved and they bore signs of torture. The lesson is to take good care of your driver’s license, especially if you live under a paranoid-schizophrenic wartime regime.
In late July, the government publicly acknowledged that Syria has chemical weapons. They then immediately backpedalled on this statement. In reality, Turkey and the West have known about Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile for decades: Sarin, VX, even WWI-era mustard gas. The Syrians have a grand collection of heinous munitions that have been largely denounced by the civilised world.
Syria used to import the chemical agents needed to make their nerve gases, but by the 1970s they developed a moderately sized chemical industry and now manufacture their own. It’s still unclear whether Syria possesses biological weapons – the processes used to develop them can be carried out under the guise of legitimate defense research. Whatever they have can be deployed via their Russian-made Scud missiles, which have a range of about 300 miles, putting them easily in range of Jerusalem.
Luckily for the world, any deployment of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction would likely sour the regime’s cozy relationship with Russia and China. Regardless, one of the international community’s major concerns is that when Assad falls, al-Qaeda and its affiliates could commandeer the WMDs, and the conflict will morph into something even more hellish. Whatever happens, it’s almost guaranteed that the next Syrian government will use the country’s chemical arsenal as a geopolitical counterweight to Israel’s nuclear capabilities.
The Syrian Air Force is stocked almost exclusively with Russian-made aircraft, but most of this Cold War-era fleet is obsolete or in disrepair. Reports indicate that as many as half of the aircraft are unable to operate at any time. Much of the fleet is made up of MiGs, but video evidence shows that the regime has sometimes relied on Czech-built training aircraft to attack rebel strongholds, presumably a sign of further deficiency within the force.
Although camera-phone videos show the rebels downing Assad’s helicopters and jets, the regime still maintains total air supremacy, constantly carpet-bombing rebel areas with explosives and helicopter gunships. An air attack on Maarat al-Nu’man on October 9 reportedly resulted in the deaths of at least 40 civilians.
The rebels have called repeatedly for an internationally enforced no-fly zone, like the one imposed on Libya in 2011 that significantly undermined Gadaffi’s efforts to crush the armed rebellion and eventually toppled him. The US and NATO have so far declined these requests.
The Koran is clear on gambling being a big no-no – it’s considered a “great sin” on par with getting drunk – so it’s not surprising that casinos are basically nonexistent in many Middle Eastern countries. Even though the Assad regime is secular, Muslim clerics had enough sway with the government to officially ban gambling and close the existing casinos back in the 1970s. Since then, Syrians who lust for forbidden pleasures have had to cross the border to Lebanon or find underground games.
In 2010, the ban on games of chance was openly challenged by Syrian entrepreneur Khaled Hboubati when he opened the Ocean Club, a casino near the Damascus airport. Though the Ocean Club didn’t have a gambling license – such a license doesn’t exist in Syria – the Guardian quoted a source saying that the government had given the casino “the quiet go-ahead”. This tolerance was seen by some as a sign that Syria is becoming more modern and Westernised.
But as with most indicators of liberalisation in Syria, the Ocean Club turned to shit awfully quickly. In mid-February, less than two months after it opened, the Ministry of Local Administration shut the place down. There had been calls by hard-line Muslim members of parliament to close it.
Two months later, the Syrian uprising was in full swing in Daraa, and the legality of gambling became a moot point. It’s hard to say whether other entrepreneurs will attempt to open casinos after the war ends and a new government emerges, but you can definitely bet on a complete shutdown if the extremist elements gain control.
Click through to the next page for more on Syria's women, gays and lingerie. Or view the whole guide in a single page.
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history.
For many young Syrian women, the grass is greener in Lebanon. Beirut is seen as a sparkling bastion of liberalism and free expression – a place where familial pressures fall by the wayside and the clubs bump all night. For others, Lebanon serves as a much-needed escape from Syria’s claustrophobic dating scene or a discreet place for a weekend tryst.
Syria’s constitution guarantees religious freedom to all. Women are free to wear whatever they want; the choice to cover or not cover – and how much is left revealed – is personal and generally based on familial traditions. Christians and Muslims, dressed in a variety of ways, hang out together. The hijab is typically reserved for formal engagements where it is worn for cultural rather than religious reasons. Throughout the country, mothers wearing niqab (a face veil worn in conjunction with a hijab) can be seen walking alongside their uncovered daughters in Hello Kitty backpacks. Moderately covered women shop in the local souks with their uncovered friends. It’s all pretty casual.
Syrian Christian women, unfairly or not, have a reputation for showing off God’s blessings. Tight pants and revealing shirts drive men of all faiths wild. In Syria, both Christian and Muslim men thank Jesus for the invention of skinny jeans. Some conservative Muslim guys find it offensive that “Christian girls wear tight trousers” because it can lead to lustful and impure thoughts, but most are quietly grateful.
Syria is considered to be one of the most fashionable countries in the Middle East. The men like sharp suits, bedazzled Ed Hardy-looking T-shirts and limited-edition Nikes. But the majority of the garments manufactured in the country are for women: colourful headscarves, blinged-out abayas (long tunics) and a hell of a lot of high-tech trashy underwear. Syrian women love lingerie for the same reasons women have loved lingerie since time immemorial – to feel good about themselves and keep their men from straying. Most females in the West would be mortified if their future mother-in-law gave them a gift in the form of a fluffy g-banger with LEDs and a crotch that magically flies open when you clap and scream “Open sesame!” but this is totally acceptable behaviour in Syria. Bachelorette-party gifts could include feathered panties with tassels, python-skin-patterned and sequined bras or a vibrating cell phone that covers the lady bits – there is nothing taboo about this cheesy lingerie, as it’s meant to only be seen by husbands.
THE SAYYIDAH RUQAYYA MOSQUE
In the year 632, the death of the Prophet Mohammad precipitated a split between his followers that provided the catalyst for the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. The Shias believed that Mohammad’s cousin Ali should take over, while the Sunnis were gunning for Abu Bakr, Mohammad’s close companion and father-in-law. Abu Bakr won the political dispute and ascended to the caliphate – the scene was set for 1,500 years of Sunni dominance and Shia resentment. Adding insult to injury, Ali’s son Husain was murdered and decapitated, and Mohammad’s great-granddaughter Sayyidah Ruqayya was locked away in a prison and murdered at the tender age of four.
Today, observant Shias bus from all over (mostly Iran) to pay their respects at the opulent mosque in Damascus erected where Sayyidah Ruqayya’s millennia-old infant body is entombed. Black-clad pilgrims buy children’s toys to leave on top of Sayyidah Ruqayya’s tomb, in remembrance of the grave injustice of her murder. After these acts of religious piety, the pilgrims make a stop at the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque (named for Husain’s sister) before the long bus ride back to Iran.
While a foreigner would be hard-pressed to know his name, Rami Makhlouf is seen as the poster boy of corruption and nepotism. The infamy of the most powerful businessman in Syria is so great that popular proverbs are regularly altered to slander him. He also happens to be the maternal cousin of Bashar al-Assad. Aided by the regime’s mafioso patronage system, Rami’s business ventures – Syriatel (one of the country’s two mobile-phone companies), real estate and banking – have a virtual monopoly on 60 percent of Syria’s economy. His net worth is around $6 billion. Many in Syria consider him a thief and representative of the problems that have kept Syria’s wealth concentrated in the hands of the chosen few.
In a June 2011 interview with Reuters, Rami asserted that he would remove himself from Syrian business and donate much of his wealth to charity. A central part of this vow was to sell 40 percent of his shares in Syriatel. Opposition figures question his commitment to philanthropy, perhaps with good reason – reports in Al-Akhbar suggest that he has been buying significant shares in many banks throughout 2012.
The Ministry of Health regulates the price of cosmetic surgery in the country. A nose job in Syria is only $700 to $800, a third of what you would pay in Europe. And for a little extra cash, you can get giant fake boobs. But you definitely get what you pay for; plastic surgery in Syria is notoriously shoddy. In Beirut, if your nose looks like it got caught in a meat grinder, they say, “She probably got that done in Syria.” Many cosmetic surgeons are unlicensed and run their “practices” out of unsanitary offices.
Another less common surgery is also available in Syria: For $17,000, Middle Eastern women can have their brown eyes turned green or blue. Doctors cut directly into the eye, remove the iris and replace it with a prosthetic. If surgery goes badly, the patient goes blind. The Syrian Ministry of Health is attempting to rein in the country’s sketchy cosmetic market, but as Syria remains in a state of perpetual war, the demand for cheap plastic surgery is understandably leveling off.
FOOD AND SUSTENANCE
The ancient city of Aleppo’s status as a culinary powerhouse can be attributed to its prime location along the Silk Road, and its cuisine could be classified as antiquity fusion. For centuries, the region’s chefs have had access to the widest variety of spices, grains, fruits and vegetables that the Ottoman world had to offer.
Before the civil war decimated large parts of Aleppo, there was no better place to experience the city’s lauded cuisine than the Armenian neighbourhood of Jdeideh. Beit as-Sissi, or Sissi House, it was widely considered one of the best restaurants in the country and served some of the finest kebab karaz (spiced ground lamb soaked in cherry sauce) on earth before it was burned to the ground at the beginning of October. The open-air courtyard was surrounded by private wood-panelled dining rooms.
Leading Aleppo historian Abraham Marcus recently told us, “Sissi House offered the perfect ambience. It represented the best of the city’s traditional architecture: sober and elegant, with solid limestone walls whose golden patina and delicate carvings surrounded you with their warmth. So much money and care in recent years has gone into the restoration of this and many other historic buildings in Aleppo. Now a city widely held as a model of historic preservation has become the scene of shocking destruction.”
For hot homosexual action in Syria, look no further than a gay hammam (bathhouse). Just like any spa, hammams have private rooms, and are cheaper and more discreet alternative to a hotel. Since 2010, however, the owners of hammams have been more suspicious of newcomers due to frequent police raids. Many gays have gone back to cruising in Damascus’s parks.
Gay men used to gather and socialise freely despite a Syrian law that technically outlawed homosexuality. The police flexed their homophobic muscles by cracking down on hammams – an easy target, since it’s considered despicable to be gay in the Middle East. In April 2010, 25 gay men were arrested, raped and tortured for three months according to Mahmoud Hassino, publisher of the gay magazine Malaweh.
Syria’s cities, towns, deserts and villages are littered with the remains of the ancients. Kingdoms have been built atop kingdoms since the earliest days of antiquity. The Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans and French have all, at different times, had a stronghold in the region and left behind monuments to their respective legacies.
The perfect example is the famed Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. It was constructed as an Aramaean temple nearly 3,000 years ago. When Rome conquered Damascus in 64 AD, they repurposed the site as a shrine to Jupiter, the king of the gods. The temple was converted into a church near the end of the fourth century and then converted into a mosque in 706.
Monumental archaeological discoveries are common on the Syrian steppe. In the 1970s, near the Turkish border, the 12,000-year-old settlement of Tell Qaramel was discovered. Archaeologists uncovered five massive round stone towers that were built 2,000 years before the tower at Jericho, previously thought to be the oldest tower on earth.
UNESCO’s World Heritage list protects six of Syria’s historical monuments: the ancient cities of Aleppo, Bosra, Damascus, regions of northern Syria, the crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers with its citadel at Qal’at Salah El-Din and the ancient desert town of Palmyra.
Five of the UNESCO sites have suffered heavy damage due to the conflict. UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, recently issued a statement saying, “The Umayyad Mosque, heart of the religious life of the city, one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world, is being severely endangered – the extent of which we do not know yet. In northern Syria, the region of the Ancient Villages inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011 [has been] heavily struck and it seems that the invaluable Saint-Simeon byzantine complex might have been touched.”
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history.