The Truth about Syria: Why the Conflict Can’t Really be Solved


Fragile and fragmented, the small country of Syria has experienced centuries of internal conflict, regional competition, and bitter antagonism towards the West. The Syrian Civil War of the last five years is only the latest (but most explosive) expression of these trends. Historically, Syria is said to be one of the least governable regions in the entire Middle East.

Naturally heterogeneous, Syria’s capacity to survive as a nation has only deteriorated throughout its history. Along with arbitrary borders and imposed expectations of nationhood, the region has been governed in such a way that has exacerbated divisions and failed to address the grievances of the people. The unfulfilled dream of pan-Arabism under the French, along with the oppression of the Sunni majority under Hafez al-Assad and the continued lack of civil liberties and increased economic inequality under Bashar al-Assad, have all set the stage for the Syrian crisis today.

In truth, the region has never been governed legitimately since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Western concept of nationhood did not resonate with the inhabitants of Greater Syria, who instead held tribal loyalties and a sense of identification with the wider Arab world. But the pan-Arab dream was denied to the people through the Sykes Picot Agreement which divided the region into small states (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, and Jordan). Borders were drawn according to the short sighted criteria of the French and British and the reflected the Western idea that statehood was the only viable model for governance.

The French mandate period (1923-1946) then exploited the ethnic and religious diversity of the region through divide and rule tactics. Under French rule, minorities such as the Druze and the Alawites were isolated from the Sunni majority, thus quelling any unifying sentiment from spreading across the country. This made it difficult for early nationalist leaders to develop a viable state. After a rapid succession of military coups, the chaos finally gave rise to the Ba’ath Party in 1963 and the military commander Hafez al-Assad as the long-term President of Syria in 1970.

But the era of “stability” that ensued came at the cost of oppressing the voice of the Sunni majority. The minority-ruled government (Assad was an Alawite, a sect that makes up 12% of the population and has been historically persecuted by other Muslims for being heretic) resorted to repressive tactics in order to maintain control. The Islamic insurgency of 1976-1982, which represented the most organizationally effective way of conveying the people’s dissatisfaction with the minority regime, ended in the Hama Massacre of 1982. In this episode of Syrian history, the willingness of Assad to use brutal military tactics against his own people, in particular the frustrated Sunni majority, was made extremely clear.

Upon Hafez’s death in 2000, his son Bashar assumed power and adopted a similar model for governance. When faced with a civil society movement known as the Damascus Spring, which represented the people’s desire for liberal reform, the response was also greater repression. The same genre of anti-government sentiment, combined with economic grievances caused by modernization reforms, re-manifested itself with more ferment in the protests of 2011. This served as a catalyst to the civil war, in which the aforementioned hardships that had gone unaddressed simultaneously re-expressed themselves with greater force.

The ongoing war has further deteriorated the relationship between the state and the people and has fractured society beyond repair. The conflict has produced 3 million refugees and 6.5 million IDPs, and has destroyed cities and collapsed the country’s economy. The struggle to maintain an education system is creating a lost generation and the resettlement of many families in Europe means a loss of human resource for the future.

At this point, it is difficult to imagine a way of undoing the damage of war and nearly a century of turmoil and oppression. Unfortunately, neither a Western-imposed regime change nor the continued rule of Assad would provide a sustainable peace in the region. The truth is that the peace talks will, at best, stop the fighting temporarily – because absent a great enough revolutionary force of Syrians on the ground with a practical and unifying vision for the country, any solution will ultimately fail. The past is prologue, and Syria’s past has set the stage for the unending challenge of building a nation.

Julie S.