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 brutalizing the opposition. He centralized 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 modernization 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 or 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 50s, 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 neighbor. 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.
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