The VICE Guide to Syria
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria and number around 2 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 organize 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 harboring 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 unauthorized 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 traveled 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 60s. 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.