The VICE Guide to Syria

By VICE Staff


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.”

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 3 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 neighborhood 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 neighborhood 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 civilized world.

Syria used to import the chemical agents needed to make their nerve gases, but by the 70s 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 70s. 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 Westernized.

But as with most indicators of liberalization 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.

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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.