The most important thing to remember about Syria is that the food there is so good. The Lebanese are marketing pros and big travellers (only 3 million of the 17 million Lebanese live in Lebanon), so everyone thinks that Lebanese food is the best.
No way! The most delicious hummus is eaten in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
But as my friend Laurent says, “Is it tasteful to remember then that people in rebel areas including Aleppo are literally starving because of the strategy of Bashar al-Assad’s Regime?”
Now that truth has been restored, let’s begin:
Syria is a big country. 22 million inhabitants (in 2012). With a religious/ethnic distribution roughly as follows:
60 to 70% Sunnis (15 million)
Sunni Islam is the “mainstream” denomination in Islam. The vast majority (85%) of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis. The only countries with a Shiite majority are Iran (90%), Iraq (60% Shiites), Azerbaijan and Bahrain. There is also a large minority of Shiites in Lebanon (remember this, because we’ll talk about Hezbollah later), Pakistan, India, Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (Oh, I feel sorry for them!).
The Muslims we know about, here in Belgium, are often Sunnis. This is because the majority of Belgium’s Muslims are Moroccan or Turkish, countries that are largely Sunni.
The schism (separation) between Sunni and Shiite Islam dates back to very early in Islam – from the very beginning in fact – due to a fight over inheritance (as there is in any good family). The Shiites wanted Hassan, the son of the fourth Caliph Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, husband of his dearly adored daughter Fatima, to become Mohamed’s successor. While the Sunnis chose Muawiya, the strongman at the time, as the fifth Caliph.
Since that time, they haven’t been too friendly with each other (an understatement for sure! They are currently at war with each other in quite a few countries).
More practically, here are a few differences between Shiites and Sunnis:
– The Shiites have a highly structured clergy while the Sunnis do not (this is also a great concern in the creation of a “Belgian Islam”, which politicians dream about because there are no official or even legitimate representatives).
– Shiites practice body self-flagellation (that reminds us of our “friends” from Opus Dei) during the annual rite of Ashura. This is something that Sunnis (and possibly us) find too, too bizarre.
– As far as prayer goes, everyone is supposed to pray 5 times a day. But Shiites are allowed to pray only three times a day.
– And finally (and most importantly), Shiites (as the religion was developed most often as a religion of minorities/the oppressed) recognize the practice of taqiyya, meaning concealment. Which means that a Shiite, in a hostile environment, is permitted to lie about his faith. This “authorisation to lie” makes many Sunnis say that Shiites are “big hypocrites”.
In both religions, Shi’a and Sunni, there are moderates and extremists (there are even quite a few people who are secular). In the moderate Sunni version, for example, there’s Moroccan Islam, and the trashier version: Daesh. As for Shiites, for example on the one hand, there are the fake-tits-fake-lips dolls of Beirut’s nightclubs, and on the other hand, some Iranian ayatollah who think that 8 years old is a good age to get married when you’re a girl.
10% Alawites (2.5 million)
Alawites are a distant variation of Shiite Islam.
For many centuries, the Alawites were Syria’s weakest, poorest, most rural and most despised people.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad (“Bashar’s dad” – as we say in Brussels – the current president) took power with his party, the Ba’ath party – a socialist, nationalist and sectarian party. During his entire “reign” then that of his son (46 years is significant), he promoted the Alawite minority. The Sunnis felt oppressed. This explains part of the reason so many Sunnis currently hate Alawites (nearly Shiites, to remind those who are lost).
10% Kurds (2.5 millions)
The Kurds are not a big minority in Syria, but they are concentrated in the North and Northeast of Syria on the Turkish border. (This is where I went to do my portraits of Armenians, we’ll talk about them a lot. Sorry for the fans of the West. I will try to go to Aleppo and/or Damascus in 2016 to make up for it).
– Be careful, there’s a catch – the Kurds are an ethno-linguistic group, but they are Sunni Muslims.
In the remaining 20%, there is everything, but among others, Yazidis – who worship the Sun God – about whom we talk a lot (even if not enough) for the time being, because the Islamic State tortures them. See the portrait of David where he talks about the sordid market with Yazidi slaves.
For very many Kurds, their Kurdish identity is more important than their religious affiliation. Although there are also Islamist Kurds, buddies with the Sunni Islamist militias, and Salafi jihadists, buddies with Daesh Kurds, but let’s not complicate things.
-Be careful though, because there’s a second catch – the Kurdish population straddles 4 countries; Turkey (14 million) – but don’t tell that to Erdoğan!, Syria (2.5 million), Iran (8 million) and Iraq (6 million), and dream (more or less secretly depending on the country) – quite legitimately in my opinion – of having a country of their own.
I said that, in Syria, the Kurdish minority is concentrated in the North and Northeast. In the Northeast region, called Rojava, they are the majority and currently live in almost de facto political autonomy. (As Syria is cut into several pieces by the war and Bashar al-Assad currently has other battles to fight than with the Kurds).
Two other areas, in northern and north-western Syria are populated by Kurds (in orange on the map), and their goal is to bring these three territories together. In 2015, the taking over of Kobane from the Islamic State allowed them to unite the East with the centre. Their goal now is to take back from Daesh the territories separating Kobane from the western area around Afrin, in order to unify all of Syrian Kurdistan. This doesn’t please Turkey at all, which is currently going ballistic about it. If you look on the map, you’ll see that it’s right on the Turkish border!
Map source: La Croix.
The main party of the Kurds is the PYD (Democratic Union Party, in Kurdish). This is closer ideologically (and friendly with) the PKK (the Kurdish separatists from Turkey). Their army is called the YPG.
Derived from Marxism, the vision of PKK/PYD has evolved into what they call « democratic confederalism« . The key concepts of it are: democracy (with the most direct democracy possible), socialism, ecology and feminism. Personally, they fascinate me because their political doctrine is totally out of sync with other political movements in the region (totalitarian, nationalist/religious, chauvinist and pollutant).
Unfortunately for them, as a (very) large part of Syrian oil wells are located in the region of the Kurds, they’ll have a hard time obtaining their independence. Like Pierre Mac Orlan said: « oil seems to be the most perfect smell of human despair, if human desperation has a smell.”
The Kurdish fighters from Syria, the YPG, are fighting against Daesh. Their brigades include 40% women. Although very decorative, they are not just there for looks. These are the ones who won, among others, the battle of Kobane against the Islamic State. (And even the peshmergas – Iraq’s Kurdish fighters – who are pretty chauvinistic, have confessed to us that they were very good fighters).
- 7% Arab Christians (1.8 million)
Meaning Syrians of Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, etc. religions… In short, all the other Christians who speak Arabic.
- 2% Assyrians (500,000)
Assyrians do not consider themselves Arabs, but Mesopotamians. They call themselves the original Christians. They speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. And they obviously also speak Arabic, otherwise they would be a bit lost in the region.
In Syria, I attended a beautiful Assyrian mass. I was moved, and sent my mother a message that read: « I’m praying with Christians at the end of the world.” She immediately corrected me by saying. « My dear, we are the Christians at the end of the world. They are the true ones!”
- 08% Armenians (160,000)
Of course, I’m finishing with my favourites: the Armenians. In 2012, there were still 200,000 Armenians. There may currently be half as many, but a lot of them – I think – hope to return when things get better…
I can predict your question: « Christian Arabs, ok. Mesopotamians, too. But why are there so many Armenians in Syria?” Let’s go back:
In 1080, shortly before the first crusade, the Armenians (a lot), fleeing the Seljuk invasion (nomadic tribes from the Aral Sea), created the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (which corresponds to a part of Anatolia in current Turkey). This Christian Kingdom, an ally of the Crusaders, would be independent until 1375.
In 1375, the kingdom fell to the Mamluks and then it was taken over by the Turkic tribes, but a lot of Armenians remained there – and in the rest of the Ottoman Empire – until the genocide of 1915.
In 1915, during the Armenian genocide, many Armenian survivors took refuge in all the Syrian cities close to the border with Turkey and particularly in Aleppo. This explains the strong presence of Armenians in Syria and Lebanon.
Armenians speak Armenian (it sounds silly, but this is important) and are mostly Apostolic Orthodox Christians. They have two Popes (Catholicos). One in Yerevan and one in Beirut. Isn’t it strange that they are Orthodox and their Popes are called Catholicos? Yes. Bizarre!
There are also Catholic Armenians (very chic) and Protestant Armenians (less comical).
Armenians from Armenia and Armenians of the diaspora (Armenians from Turkey) do not really speak the same language. And yes, Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and Armenians from the Russian Empire were separated for a thousand years. A thousand years, that will change an accent. Just look at how people from Quebec speak after only 250 years!
And finally, other minorities. In Syria, there are also: 2% Turkmen, 2% Druze, 1.5% other Shiites – not Alawi – (300,000), 0.5% Circassians, 50,000 Russians, etc…
In short, Syria, is a large melting pot that Bashar al-Assad held tightly closed very firmly with a lid (and his father before him), and when it started to cook… The civil war began.
Second part: now that we understand what populations live in Syria, let’s start a little explanation of the war.
First, let’s talk about Iraq (neighbour):
In 2003, a Western coalition led by United States President Bush invaded Iraq (who supposedly had weapons of mass destruction and supported Al-Qaeda) to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party (which had a lot of large flaws (disgusting) but had one big advantage: it was secular. Like the Ba’ath party in Syria). Very quickly, the Iraqi army was defeated, Saddam Hussein was captured and executed, and then a new representative government was put in place (with Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds etc.). But in the aftermath, the coalition also dissolved the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein’s other security bodies. Big mistake! Order in the country will never be restored.
- First there is a war against the new government and against the American “occupation forces” (who have a bad image).
- Then this anti-American/anti-government combat would be transformed, under the influence of Al-Qaeda, into a horrible civil war: Shiites against Sunnis. Where of course minorities (there were also many Christians in Iraq) suffer.
Since 2003, the Iraq war has seen about one million deaths. Remember that it has been hell in Iraq since 2003. And as the groups found in the Syrian and Iraqi populations are similar, the Iraqi chaos will “help” the civil war in Syria after 2011.
2011-2013. Protest to the armed insurrection
In 2011, in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria (the Assad family has been in power with the Ba’ath party since 1970, and the country isn’t exactly what we would call a democracy), as part of the « Arab spring », large peaceful demonstrations are organised.
The demonstrations demanded democracy, better economic management, the end of corruption, etc.
Bashar al-Assad brutally repressed them. Therefore, the protest movement was turned into an armed rebellion… and then into civil war. Between the two, Bashar al-Assad, under the guise of a generous amnesty, released a number of radical Islamists from his prisons so that they would join the insurgency, allowing him to illustrate his argument for departure: the rebels are terrorists. Thank you, Bashar!
Since 2013. The civil war.
The armed rebellion weakened the government and this turned into civil war. As civil war gives birth to chaos, all the communities described above would take up arms and slug it out with each other. So here are the forces currently present (at the beginning of 2016):
1. The Syrian regime (of Bashar al-Assad). It controls a large part of Western Syria, the most populous part the so-called « useful Syria* ». Since Putin’s Russia entered in the conflict, the regime’s forces are in the process of regaining land after failing to cave in.
Europe and the US don’t want to support them, because they consider Bashar al-Assad to have dirty hands. On the other hand, the regime is helped militarily by:
- Hezbollah (the Lebanese Shiite militia) and Iraqi Islamist militias and Afghan Shiites.
- Iran. In short, all Shiite forces in the region.
And Putin’s Russia (for whom being a dictator isn’t so serious).
2. Nationalists:The Free Syrian Army. Initially made up of government army deserters, it is the first movement to rebel against Bashar in 2011. If my 4-year old son asked me who the “good guys” are, I would say it’s them. But I’m not sure this would be the “real” truth. These are secular Arab nationalists. Their goal was/is to overthrow Bashar and turn Bashar’s Syria into a democracy. It was a significant force from 2011 to 2013. Then, the “Free Syrian Army” was totally replaced by Islamist movements. Today, the Free Syrian army is (sometimes) military allies with army (Islamists) trying to conquer Bashar al-Assad. But this does not mean that they are friends.
In fact, should the Bashar al-Assad’s regime fall, the Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias would immediately come to blows, because they don’t all share the same vision of society. We believe that they no longer represent anything major in the field now. They are/were armed by the United States, France, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
3. The Army of Conquest founded in March 2015, includes the Sunni Islamists close to the Muslim Brotherhood (sometimes deemed moderate, but I don’t think they’re so moderate), and the Salafi Islamists (who are not at all moderate). Basically they all say that their goal is to create an Islamic State (great!) with Sharia as the basis for law (Yay!) but only in that state, religious and ethnic minorities would be protected. They are funded by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
And then, ago also the strongest of the group, the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the local branch of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Salafi jihadist takfirists (which means excommunicator). Their difference with Daesh is that they want to establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria and not a global Caliphate like the madmen of Al-Raqqah. Because they are really dangerous, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will not finance them (directly). As a Jihaddist movement, Jabhat al-Nusra attracts and welcomes many foreign fighters (like Daesh). Syrian Salafis also criticise its foreign origin and blame it for “stealing” the Syrian revolution.
4. Daesh. The Islamic State. They obviously need no introduction. But here are some details all the same: Daesh (the Arabic acronym of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa ash-Sham, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams) is an Islamist Salafi Sunni self-proclaimed state (i.e. not moderate all), that is Jihadist (advocates violence to achieve Islamic objectives and attract foreign fighters), and takfirist (« excommunicator ». To them, Shiites are heretics that must be killed. The yezidis are seen as « Satan worshippers » and deserve death or slavery. Even Sunnis who don’t agree with them are declared « hypocrites and apostates » and are thus martyred). It is the only militia that has actually managed to create a « State within a State » even if they only recognise one state in the world: theirs. It bodes well for them, because no state in the world has recognised them.
Daesh also comes from Al-Qaeda (like Jabhat al-Nusra). But after their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wanted to take full control of the Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria), they were disavowed by Ayman al-Zawihiri, the leader of Al- Qaeda worldwide, who zigzags between drones in the mountains of Pakistan. But al-Baghdadi doesn’t mind, because he proclaimed himself Caliph in June 2014, after conquering Mosul in Northern Iraq. Daesh is at war with all the other rebels, the regime, the Kurds from Syria and Iraq, the Russians and the international coalition. In short, with everyone.
The Islamic State straddles Syria and Iraq. They were very proud when Mosul (a big city in Iraq) was taken and they were, in fact, able to remove the border between Syria and Iraq, which was created artificially, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1916, by the English and the French, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. So they control two large cities: Al-Raqqa in Syria – their capital – and Mosul in Iraq.
5. The YPG, Syria’s Kurds. The Syrian State was falling into ruin, and the Kurds are geographically very isolated (quite the opposite of Damascus). The Kurds of Syria have “benefited” in attaining their autonomy. In fact, since November 2013, they have had (although not recognised), an autonomous government in Rojava, which puts into practice its doctrine of « democratic confederalism » (doctrine of the PKK and the UPG) and where minorities – Christians, among others – also sit.
There, now you’re all specialists on the conflict in Syria. As the situation changes very quickly, it will be necessary to keep current with it. (I promise I’ll help.)