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Explainer: What you should know about the Syrian Civil War

What is going on in Syria?

In 2011, during the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring, protesters in Syria demanded the end of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in the country since 1971. In April 2011, the Syrian Army was sent to quell the protest and soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion and civil war spread across the country.

According to the BBC, the conflict has broadened and become a battle between the country's Sunni majority against the president's Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in regional and world powers. The rise of the jihadist group Islamic State has also complicated the conflict.

Wait, what is the “Arab Spring” and the “Ba’ath Party”?

The Arab Spring is the term the Western media has used to describe the various protests, demonstrations, riots, and civil wars that began in December 2010 and spread throughout many countries with predominantly Arab populations.

The Ba’ath Party (short for the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party) is a political party that began in Syria which espouses Ba’athism, a mix of Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialist ideologies. Ba’athism calls for unification of the Arab world into a single state. The movement is split into two main factions, one in Syria and one in Iraq (Saddam Hussein was a Ba’athist).

And what’s Sunni and Shia?

Of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, about 90 percent are Sunni. The name "Sunni" is derived from the phrase "Ahl al-Sunnah", or "People of the Tradition” (the tradition referring to the practices of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad). Shia comprise the other 10 percent (though they are the majority in some countries, like Iran and Iraq). Shia — literally "Shiat Ali" or the "Party of Ali" — claimed that Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader (imam) of the Muslim community following his death in 632.

They’ve been in opposition — and sometimes outright war — since AD 632.

Don’t Sunnis and Shi’ite have the same beliefs in common?

Mostly, at least on the basics. For Christians, the Nicene creed is often viewed as the basic statement of faith, the essentials agreed upon by all orthodox believers. Muslims have a similar creed (shahadah) roughly translated as, “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” The Shi’ite, however, tack on an additional sentence: “Ali is the Friend of Allah. The Successor of the Messenger of Allah And his first Caliph.”

Who is this Ali?

Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the reason these groups don’t get along (the terms Shia and Shi’ite come from condensing Shiat Ali, “partisans of Ali”). After Muhammad died, the leadership of the Muslim believers (the Ummah) was the responsibility of the Caliph, a type of tribal leader/Pope. The Sunnis respect Ali and consider him the fourth Caliph while the Shi’a contends he was cheated out of being first. Sunnis, following the tradition of the period, thought the Caliph should be chosen by the community while Shi’ites believe the office should be passed down only to direct descendants of Muhammad.

What is the Islamic State?

Islamic State is the current name of an Islamic militant group that was established in Iraq in 2004 and pledged allegiance to “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” They later broke away from Al-Qaeda because of differences in doctrine and objectives and formed a distinct organization. From late 2006 to mid 2013, the group called itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

From 2013 to mid 2014, when they expanded into Syria, they called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). (Most Western media translate “Levant” as “Syria,” hence ISIS.) Since 2014, they have expanded their ambitions to be a global organization and today simply refer to themselves as “Islamic State.”

The stated long-term goal of Islamic State is to establish a “caliphate” to rule over the entire Muslim world, under a single leader and in line with Sharia (Islamic law). A caliphate is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph, a person considered a political and religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Their interest in the Syrian civil war is to bring the country under their caliphate.

What is the toll of the Syrian civil war?

To date, estimates range between 250,000 and 470,000 Syrians killed, 1.8 million wounded, 3.1 million refugees, and 6.3 million internally displaced.

I know the country is somewhere in the Middle East, but where exactly is it located?

Syria, which is about the size of North Dakota, is located north of the Arabian Peninsula at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The country is bordered by Turkey on the north, Iraq on the east, Jordan on the south, and Lebanon, Israel, and the Mediterranean on the west. Its biggest cities are Aleppo (pre-war population 2,301,570) and Damascus (pre-war population 1,711,000).

Isn’t Syria one of the lands mentioned in the Bible?

The modern state of Syria is part of the area known throughout history as Greater Syria. In the Bible the city of Damascus is mentioned 67 times. The road to Damascus was the place of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9) and Antioch was the city in which the disciples were first called Christians.  (Acts 11:26).

Hasn’t the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people?

That certainly appears to be the case. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, all strongly indicate that chemical weapons were used on civilians in Damascus in August 2013.

Secretary Kerry also stated that the Syrian regime maintains custody of the country’s chemical weapons and that have the capacity to deliver them by using rockets. In 2013 the Syrian regime refused to allow U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.

After a threat of U.S. military intervention, President Assad finally agreed to the complete removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Investigators have still found evidence of chemical weapons being used by government forces.

Are the anti-Assad rebels the “good guys” in the civil war?

Not exactly. Christians are increasingly becoming the target of violent attacks by the rebel forces. Catholic and Orthodox groups in Syria say the anti-government rebels have committed “awful acts” against Christians, including beheadings, rapes and murders of pregnant women. A special ‘Vulnerability Assessment of Syria’s Christians’ conducted by the World Watch unit of Open Doors International from June 2013 warned that Syrian Christians are the victims of “disproportionate violence and abuse.” They warned further that Christian women in Syria are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse

How are other countries involved?

Several countries have used the crisis as a proxy war for their own interest. Iran and Russian have backed President Assad against the rebels. As the BBC notes, the Iranian government is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to bolster the Syrian government. And Russia has launched an air campaign against Assad's enemies. Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement has also backed the Syrian government by sending fighters to the area.

Several countries with Sunni majorities — Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — have supported the Sunni opposition. France, the UK, and the U.S. have also provided limited military support. The U.S. had been providing anti-aircraft weapons and trained and armed 5,000 rebels. Both programs, however, have since been abandoned.

What should I know about the Syrian refugee crisis?

We’ll cover the refugee crisis in greater detail in next week’s article.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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