Top Ten things Americans need to Know about Syria if they’re going to Threaten to Bomb It

Ambrose Bierce is said to be the author of the saying “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Despite the vigorous national debate about intervening in Syria, there is some reason to think that most Americans could not find it on a map. Here are some key points about Syria that this blog has been trying to underline.

1. Syria is a country in the eastern Mediterranean; northern Syria is due east of Sicily and southeast of Athens. Syria’s population is about 22 million, making it the 54th most populous country in the world, smaller than Ghana, Taiwan and Nepal. The population of a country helps to determine how big its military can be. Syria by this criterion is not very important militarily. Syria does have stockpiles of toxic gas, but these cannot be easily delivered any significant distance and are not effective weapons except against a massed military formation. it is not clear that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are bigger than those of Russia, the US, Israel, and North Korea.

2. Syria is a largely Arabic-speaking country. Arabic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew. But about 10 percent of the population is Kurdish, which speaks an Indo-European language ultimately related to English.

3. Before the revolution that began in 2011, The Syrian economy was diverse. About a quarter of the economy was industry and mining. Retail sales were another quarter. A little over a fifth was agriculture. And tourism accounted for about 12 percent. Syrian industry has been nearly brought to a standstill by the civil war. Millions of Syrians have been displaced from their homes, either fleeing to other cities inside the country or being forced abroad to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Even before the troubles, Syria was a relatively poor country with an annual gross domestic product in nominal terms ($64 bn) that is 65th in the world behind Angola, Cuba and Ecuador.

4. The Syrian revolution and civil war did not begin as primarily sectarian. It is to some extent a class struggle High population growth rates and economic stagnation made the state unable to provide jobs to a burgeoning youth population. Droughts and the bad effects of global warming also created a water crisis that harmed farmers and pushed youth off the farms into city slums where, after the 2008 world crash, there were no jobs. The big protests in 2011 originated in the slums around the cities in the center of the country, where young men who had moved there for work from the countryside found themselves locked into long-term unemployment. The governmental and business elite in Damascus benefits from the regime and has mostly remained loyal or neutral, whether they are Sunnis or Alawites. About half of the large northern city of Aleppo is still with the regime, as well. Because the upper ranks of the ruling Baath Party are disproportionately dominated by the Alawite minority, and because so many discontented youth in the cities of the center are Sunni, the conflict took on a sectarian tinge. But its underpinnings are economic.

5. Some 10 to 14 percent of Syrians are Christians. They speak Arabic and are primarily Eastern Orthodox (like Greece and Russia) or Uniate Catholics, belonging to Eastern churches that at some point recognized the Pope and came into communion with Rome. A few Christian villages still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Syrian Christians tend either to be politically neutral or to tilt toward the ruling regime, being afraid of the more radical Sunni fundamentalists who have come to the fore on the battlefronts of the north, one of which has declared itself an affiliate of al-Qaeda. The clerical hierarchies of the Syrian Christians and their Lebanese coreligionists have strongly come out against a US missile strike on Damascus. Another 10 to 14 percent of Syrians are Alawites, members of a branch of Shiite Islam that is considered unorthodox by other Shiites. They don’t have Friday prayers, and some of their beliefs are New Age-ish. The Alawites predominate in the upper echelons of the ruling Baath Party and the officer corps.

6. If the US were to intervene in Syria, it certainly would not be about oil. Syria was not a significant oil exporter. By 2009 it was producing less than 400,000 barrels a day. The world produces on the order of 90 million barrels of oil a day, and some countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia by themselves produce in the neighborhood of 10 million barrels a day. Nor is Syria necessary to pipelines in the region. Iraq’s northern fields feed into Turkish pipelines, and Turkey is anyway so far much more stable than Syria. Syria’s production has been more than halved by the war, but the loss to the world markets is minor. Libya’s production has fallen by nearly a million barrels a day in the past year because of oil worker strikes and autonomist, Eastern claims on resources, and this shortfall has barely produced any comment in the American press.

7. Some 60% of Syrians are Sunni Arabs, i.e., adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam who speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Sunni Arabs also predominate in Jordan and Egypt. Large numbers of Syrian Sunnis are secularists, either nationalists or leftists, and not very observant. Many Syrian Sunnis still follow the tolerant, mystical Sufi form of Islam. Others have come under Saudi influence and are known as Salafis, but this is just a euphemism for Wahhabis, members of the intolerant and rigid form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. A very small number of Sunnis have affiliated with al-Qaeda, but they have had the important battlefield victories in the north.

8. Contemporary Westerners imagine they are the pinnacle of civilization, but they are newcomers to the phenomenon by Syrian standards. Syria is the site of the ancient civilization of Ebla, between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. It was later ruled by Assyria, the Pharaohs of Egypt, Babylon, Persia/ Iran, Macedonia, and Rome/ the Byzantines. Along with Palestine, after the death of Jesus around 33 AD/ CE, Syria was a site of the spread of Christianity. St. Paul had his conversion on the road to Damascus, and I was once shown a building he was said to have stayed in in what is now a Christian quarter of the city. Between the time of Jesus and around 600, it gradually became mostly Christian. Beneath Damascus are the catacombs where early Christians hid from persecution. It was conquered by the Arab Muslims in 634-640. Over many centuries thereafter, the people of Syria gradually began speaking Arabic instead of Aramaic, and gradually converted to Islam from Christianity and Judaism. There is no evidence that violent coercion was at the root of this conversion, though there were tax advantages and it was a way to move up socially. Arab Muslim rule of Syria was challenged in the medieval period by the Crusaders and the Mongols, both of which were fought off. Medieval Syria may have been 50% Shiite, but the dynasty founded by Saladin imposed Sunni orthodoxy after he conquered it in 1175-1185.

9. In 1516 Syria fell to the Ottomans based in Istanbul in what is now Turkey, and was ruled by the Sunni Muslim Ottoman empire until World War I. In 1916 Britain and France secretly concluded the Sykes-Picot agreement, which awarded Syria to France if the allies defeated the Ottomans (who sided with the Germans and Austrians in WW I). The British allied with the Arabs of the Hijaz and Jordan to push the Ottomans out of Syria toward the end of the war, a story told in the classic David Lean film, “Lawrence of Arabia” (1963). But the French were outraged that the British had connived to foster an Arab state in Syria in 1918-1920, and in 1920 they invaded and asserted their claim under Sykes-Picot. The some 20 years of French rule in Syria was the worst example of colonial administration in French history, and few French historians have bothered to write about it. In 1944 Syria was recognized by the allies as an independent country (France having been colonized by Germany was in no position to continue to colonize Syria).

10. Independent Syria suffered from a series of military coups. The March, 1949 coup of Husni al-Za`im may have been encouraged behind the scenes by the Truman administration because his predecessor had objected to an oil pipeline that was to go through Syrian territory. In 1958-1961, Syria was joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic. In 1963 officers of the Arab nationalist Baath (Resurrection) Party, which claimed to be socialist, made a coup. The Baath is still in power in Syria. In 1970 Air Force general Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, made an internal coup, and in 2000 he was succeeded by his second son Bashar, an opthalmologist trained in England. The Baath is a brutal one-party state characterized by a secret police that intensively spies on the population and punishes dissent with arbitrary arrest and torture. It raised standards of living and brought the country from being overwhelmingly rural farmers to having a slight urban majority.

55 Responses

  1. “Syria does have stockpiles of toxic gas, but these cannot be easily delivered any significant distance and are not effective weapons except against a massed military formation.”

    This seems to understate the lethality of sarin or VX warheads, the range of the Scud-C or Shahab-2 missiles in Syria’s inventory and the number of casualties that might be inflicted if they were targeted at a population centre.

  2. What happened in Syria and Lebanon during World War 2 is little known in either Britain or France – primarily, I suspect, because the British and French actually fought each other there. Vichy France and Germany started to supply arms to rebels fighting the British in Iraq, so British Empire troops (and some Free French) invaded and took over in 1941. It was during this campaign that Moshe Dayan lost his eye while serving alongside an Australian unit.

    • Admiral Darlan (before he was assassinated) made the point to Churchill that he had made sure that just the French fought the British in Syria (i.e., that he deliberately did not call for German assistance, to keep them out of the mix). Note that about the same time, the British took over Iraq by force from the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali government.

      Churchill, in his war memoirs, expresses his belief that the German Fallschirmjaeger killed in the Battle of Crete would have been better employed taking over Syria, to link with and solidify the Rashid Ali regime in Iraq.

  3. What about the Druze with such a large section of the map next to Israel?

    • Good point.

      The Golan Druze are considered to be the only Druze faction under Israeli occupation that are, as a group, hostile to Israel.

      As a rule, Israeli Druze have been loyal to the Israeli government and have achieved substantial prominence within the Knesset and Isreal Defense Forces.

  4. I don’t understand the left’s support for the tyrant Assad. Seems like the left’s support for Stalin before WWII.

  5. It’s said

    [Syria] is a party to the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol

    I don’t think, though, that anyone has pointed out that Syria was a French colony at this time.

  6. “…it is not clear that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are bigger than those of Russia, the US, Israel, and North Korea.”

    You know, I wish someone would quantify the size of this stockpile. For comparison, Russia & US chemical stockpiles were 40,000 and 28,000 metric tons, respectively, just a couple years ago. I thought of this each time the clip of Obama on PBS was rebroadcast, where he called Syria’s the largest in world…

    Meanwhile, what happened to the “Bandar al Sultan/chemical canisters to untutored rebels” story. It seemed suddenly to have grown legs last Friday after drifting around the internets for a couple weeks but has largely gone unremarked since then. Anyone know?

  7. “The Baath is a brutal one-party state characterized by a secret police that intensively spies on the population and punishes dissent with arbitrary arrest and torture.’

    Maher Arar quoting an ex-CIA agent tweeted:

    “If u want a serious interrogation, u send a prisoner 2 Jordan. If u want them 2B tortured, u send them 2 Syria”- Bob Baer, ex-CIA agent

  8. Professor, Please keep up your amazing work on events in the Middle East. You are the only source of the “truth” in events in this vital area.

    Michael Lardner

  9. I have some questions. Like many Arab and other less-developed states, Syria played a role in the Cold War. Saddam Hussein, a Baathist in Iraq became an American ally. Was Assad (the current president’s father) a Soviet ally, an American ally, independent? Where does Syria get its weapons?

    It seems to me that many of the problems that the USA encounters in the Middle East (and elsewhere) come from previous attempts to “fix” problems. Afghanistan and Iraq are two obvious examples. Does Syria fit into this pattern at all?

  10. Very nice post. I think it helps to lay out the history in these situations. It’s fascinating indeed. Most people oblivious about what has happened in the past. I bet your average Christian American has no idea about the Christians in Syria and Egypt and that Aramaic was the language of Jesus. We need more reporting like this to give depth and background, we will be better off for it.

  11. There is scuttlebutt about natural gas pipeline politics being involved. Crossing Syrian territory would be useful as an export route of Persian Gulf natural gas to Europe. And who would benefit, and who would consider it as helping unwelcome competition. Is there any truth to the claims that this is driving behind the scenes motivations of the different regional players?

    • Look at the map. How would you get from Syria to Europe except through Turkey? And therefore wouldn’t Turkey be enough?

      • By sea : The gas pipeline arriving through Turkey in the Black sea have to cross the Bosphorus which is very straight and crowded and as such dangerous for big tankers. The road to Syrian ports is also shorter from Iraq (Look at the map :-) )

        I seem to remember that there is a pipeline project through Syria (?). Also it is always good to have alternative roads, both for the sellers and the consumers.

        IMO, you are underestimating the importance of Syria when it comes to pipelines.

        • The French/German TV channel Arte has a regular geopolitical emission entitled “Le dessous des cartes” aka “Under the Maps” where each week they try to decipher the world challenges using maps. It is a remarquable emission produced by a Political Geographer : François Victor.

          Here is a link to the emission they made on the Black Sea And “the pipes geopolitic” : link to ddc.arte.tv.

          It is available either in French or in German and one can buy each emission separately or get access to five years of archives for a monthly fee.
          (You have to view it on a computer, it won’t work on a tablet).

          Here is a link to the presentation of the last emission :
          link to ddc.arte.tv

          One can view the latest emission for free during one week here :
          link to arte.tv

          This is a wonderful emission, a very didactical one. One that regular reader of this blog would surely enjoy if it was available in English.

          (And one that shows how public TV channels are vastly superior to private commercial TV channels)

        • Accident : the editor added a dot at the end of the URL and noe the link don’t work unless you erase that dot from the new opening window.

    • Well, for instance if you wanted to export oil from Iraq to the Mediterranean, going through Syria does seem a rather obvious route for a pipeline.

  12. A critical factor to the Syrian conflict’s growth is that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq has shifted the regional balance of power toward (Shiite) Iran. Saudi Arabia, for example, has now seen the rise of (Shiite) Iraq along with past rises of (Shiite) Hezbollan and Iran. It was inevitable that outside players, with conflicting agendas, would greatly add to the Syrian civil war.

    One partial solution — which would require the US to sacrifice influence and therefore won’t occur — is for the US to realize that Iran is the state it should be working closely with — not Israel or Saudi Arabia. Iran, for example, has proven its effectiveness to the US by the assistance it provided after the US invaded Afghanistan. Consider: “After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11, 2001, the US requested help and Iran’s diplomats and Revolutionary Guard quietly provided extensive intelligence and political assistance to the U.S. military and CIA, to improve targeting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. [And once] the Taliban was ousted in late 2001, Iran again proved crucial to getting the victorious Northern Alliance to accept a limited number of cabinet posts and Hamid Karzai as the new president – a critical step toward immediately stabilizing post-Taliban Afghanistan. Iranian diplomats made clear their interest in expanding contacts with the United States….[However,] any remaining chance of reconciliation evaporated in early 2002, when George W. Bush declared Iran part of his Axis of Evil. Iranian officials considered it a slap in the face, and it had grave consequences for President Khatami and his beleaguered reform movement. The U.S. denunciation became ammunition for hard-liners, who used it as final proof of American mendacity – and of reformist naïveté.” link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

    • I think you’ve hit on one of the most important long-term problems the US has – its disastrous 60-year project to keep the Middle East under the domination of Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of the most incompatible underlings one can imagine. The Saudis have tried to assert their importance at various times. The first was its joining the oil embargo in ’73 in opposition to Israel, which led to Kissinger’s pseudonymous threat to invade. Then Saudi encouraged the US to join it and Pakistan in the expansion of the Afghan mujaheddin, with all the grief that has caused us. Then in the mid 80s US intel caught the Saudis building a secret missile site designed to fire Chinese-made, nuclear-capable IRBMs, and quietly quashed the move. Instead, we provided the secret Desert One base to the Saudis, paid for illegally by overcharging weapons sales. Finally, the Saudis had to look on helplessly as the US bungled the Iraqi occupation with severe consequences to Iraqi Sunnis. Since then we have seen a new Saudi assertiveness, apparently intending to create Jihadi tyrannies as a buffer zone wherever Saudi gold can co-opt a civil war.

      So the pattern has been that neither partner can truly act in the interest of the other. When the Saudis act independent, we slap them down; but when we ally with them their Wahhabi extremism leads to tragedy, and when they give in to us, our violent stupidity leads to regional crises. The Saudis refuse to accept that US public opinion is completely poisoned against the only sorts of militants who the Saudis seem to trust. The US refuses to allow Saudi to develop as a normal regional power with normal channels of influence over its weaker neighbors.

      Of course, our relationship with Israel is even more dangerously dysfunctional, but we Americans are more willing to lie for Israel. When we lie for the Saudis, at least we feel bad about it.

  13. “class struggle” Which class is the US backing. During the cold war the US backed either the ‘bourgeois’ or what some marxists called the ‘petty bourgeois’ (small business owners). Is that the case? And if the US is backing the proletariat isn’t that a departure from the cold war winning strategy?

  14. Your analysis of the effectiveness of chemical weapons seems to overlook something that should have been made obvious by the regime’s August 21st attacks: they are very useful in an urban insurgency, especially one in which the local civilian population is considered the enemy, and especially as terror weapons.

    The threat of Syrian chemical warfare isn’t so much that it would be used in a Syrian military attack against the United States, but that it could cause proliferation, or fall into the hands of al Qaeda (or, the proliferation could cause someone else’s weapons to fall into the hands of al Qaeda).

    • Considering that Aum Shinrikyo MADE the Sarin gas they used to attack people in the Tokyo subway, any “concerns” about al Qaeda getting Sarin from Syria are spurious at best.

      If al Qaeda wants Sarin, the components are daily available.

  15. “Arab Muslim rule of Syria was challenged in the medieval period by the Crusaders and the Mongols, both of which were fought off.”

    Given US experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan it might not be a good idea to place too much faith is Obama’s flaunting or American military superiority.

  16. “St. Paul had his conversion on the road to Damascus, and I was once shown a building he was said to have stayed in in what is now a Christian quarter of the city.”

    I saw the same building back in the late ’70s and the street was, indeed, “strait” [i.e. narrow]!

  17. Excellent summary Dr Cole. The key four-legged-stool is your item #4: high birth rates, economic malaise, drought conditions, and political unresponsiveness.

  18. I could be wrong but here is how I see it: If President Obama orders an attack without UN support he is harming the International Law movement, and if he attacks without Congressional approval, he is hurting the movement for Constitution checks and balances. The only group of people benefits from an attack on Syria is the PNAC boys and the movement for an imperial president: Bolton, Kristal, the Bushes, etc.

    • If Obama attacks without an OK from the congress critters, he will be handing the republicans the best reason possible to impeach him and remove him from office, which is what they have wanted to do since the day a non-white person was elected to POTUS.

      Considering that after the first attack, things will very probably get really ugly (and costly) for the US, the republicans might be able to get a lot more than the 22 additional votes they would need to convict Obama in the Senate (getting the 218 votes to indict Obama is a slam dunk in the House).

      Given that the entire house is up for election in a little over a year, it is doubtful that a war resolution could pass the house since a clear majority of Americans do not want any attack.

  19. For folks who haven’t lived and worked a lifetime in the Middle East, here’s a short list of long books that are merely part of the required background to having any clue about what’s happening in Syria. Every one of these is a classic, and well worth reading at anytime. But essential now. They are all available on Amazon.

    History of the Crusades v. 1-3. Steven Runciman. Publisher: Books Events – Special Repackaged Edition (2011). Originally published in 1951. ISBN-10: 1780812213. Especially Volume 1.

    The Guns of August. Barbara W. Tuchman. Publisher: Presidio Press (2004). Originally published in 1963. ISBN-10: 0345476093.

    Seven Pillars of Wisdom. T. E. Lawrence. Doubleday Doran & Co.; 1st edition (1935). For the simple beauty of his English prose and its keen sense of ethnography and place, Lawrence’s book is a must read. But read the next one to get an idea of how much Lawrence was having us on in his own account.

    Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Scott Anderson. Doubleday (2013). ISBN-10: 038553292X. This is a fascinating read, and fill in many gaps deliberately left by Lawrence.

    A Peace to End All Peace, 20th Anniversary Edition: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. David Fromkin. Holt Paperbacks; 2 Reprint edition (2009). ISBN-10: 0805088091.

    The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Barbara W. Tuchman. Random House (1985). ISBN-10: 0345308239.

    Orientalism. Edward Said. Vintage Books (1979). ISBN-10: 039474067X. (And my peeps who have lived and worked a lifetime in the Middle East will recognize the irony of including this masterpiece).

    The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. Robert Fisk. Vintage Books (2007). ISBN-10: 1400075173. If you’re not in tears after the first chapter, you’re hardly human; and it just gets worse.

    Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. Robert Fisk. Nation Books; 4th edition (2002). ISBN-10: 1560254424. As background to the civil war in Syria, this history of the little war in Lebanon should be required reading.

    History of the Arabs, Revised: 10th Edition. Philip Hitti. Palgrave Macmillan; 10th edition (2002). ISBN-10: 0333631420.

    • Also don’t forget these two essential reads:

      1. The Palestine Diary Volume 1, 3rd Edition: Britain’s Involvement 1914-1945 (ISBN 10: 1419635697)

      2. The Palestine Diary, 3rd Edition: British, American and United Nations Intervention 1945-1948 (ISBN: 1419635700)

  20. It seems by keeping the threat of military aggression hovering over Syria (on the table in the vernacular) and being so strident about it the Obama administration is injecting a a humiliation factor that could make diplomatic efforts more difficult.

      • Our Constitution was not written with the idea of making it easy to quickly issue threats of overseas force, regardless of the benefits. Congress is meant to gum up the process. Maybe that had to be rethought after 1945, but the American people haven’t held a referendum to proclaim outright that Presidents require global credibility so badly that they can do or say anything militarily without being undermined by Congress.

  21. The Syrian balkanization map shows a Druze sector. I don’t think I’ve heard of any news or analysis specifically referring to the Syrian Druze, not sure why.

    I usually find the statistics cited for the Sunni population size to be no less than 70% and above.

    Besides a strangled political and economic situation creating such an environment, some credit should be given to the hi-tech Arab Spring (and the original architects, the Tunisians) for pushing the envelope and starting a trend.

    Syrians stood up after the momentous changes in Egypt’s and Libya’s revolutions. The reason Syria’s protests, encouraged by other Arab democratic revolutionaries elsewhere, were slower and delayed (even protests in Gulf Arab countries, such as Bahrain, were earlier) was due to such incredible fear (compared to Egyptians who did fear but still had room to be surprisingly vocal) and oppression by Assad’s regime.

    And in regards to Colonial France’s handling of Syria, I think this BBC article sums up some of the divide and rule history well.

    Why there is more to Syria conflict than sectarianism
    link to bbc.co.uk

  22. Other minority groups include the Ismaelli. Their interesting history can be read in ‘Syrian Ismailism’ by Dr Nasseh Ahmad Mirza’ (Curzon 1997)

    • Another important minority group Prof. Cole did not include are the Armenian Christians who fled to Syria after the 1915 Genocide in Turkey. There were 250,000 Armenian Christians before the 2011-2013 disturbances, and now there are only 50,000 left. Some of them left everything they had and went to Armenia, others – to Lebanon, etc.

  23. Thanks for quoting good old “Bitter Bierce”. Bierce’s stories about the Civil War were the best. He knew of the wasteful and disastrous nature of war, and a civil one at that, no less.

  24. This is a good 3 minute history overview and sketch. However Americans need to know a hell of a lot more than that about Syria if they bomb it. For starters:
    1) Until the uprising began Syria was a great place for Westerners to visit, stay and study Arabic, etc..
    2) US has been meddling in Syria and actively promoting opposition elements since 2004 Bush plan to “remake” the Mideast. Seymour Hersh documents some of this.
    3) Foreign financed armed rebels killed seven Syrian police on March 20 2011, right at the START.

    In other words, this is not simply a civil war. It is also a foreign financed war of external agression.

  25. Maybe ‘New-Agey’ has a judgmental ring. Syncretic is a better descriptor, a religion that borrows elements from other religions. Alawism is deeply mystical and beatiful, containing some of the last echoes of late antiquity, and is clearly a continuity of Plotinian and Zoroastrian traditions.

  26. Good summary. I’d quibble with:

    >> [it certainly would not be about oil].

    Right. But it would be partly about gas. There are huge geopolitical stakes involved in building a gas pipeline from Qatar to Europe via Syria and Turkey, which would weaken Russia. So energy is a big factor in Western thinking.

    >> [France having been colonized by Germany was in no position to continue to colonize Syria]

    Why not? Didn’t France continue to colonize Algeria, Vietnam, etc? Also, as a historian, you understand the difference between occupation and colonization. Germany didn’t colonize France.

    • France couldn’t keep the other colonies you mentioned very long after the war either. Historians of decolonization see the German conquest of France as important in leading to the independence of the colonies because it delegitimized such conquest and also weakened France economically and militarily.

      No, I can’t see the difference between what Germany did to France and what France did to Syria.

      • But the Germans never “colonized” France, as they did in the East (to Poland, and even the Crimea). France was always governed by Vichy, originally with an unoccupied “Free” zone in the South. Even after than was occupied (November 12, 1942), Vichy still administered France. As an example, the Paris police continued in place, and were armed, even under German occupation. Jews, communists, etc., rounded up in France were almost exclusively arrested by the French police There was also never any attempt to settle German nationals in metropolitan France, nor to conscript the French to fight in Russia. (Alsace and Lorraine were of course different, they were annexed immediately and were subject to conscription.)

  27. The Shi’ite (Twelver) population in Syria is about 200,000. They have been generally pro-government in orientation and have been targets of rebels, but a number have opposed the Assad regime and been persecuted by Assad’s security services.

    There are about 100,000-150,000 Armenians within Syria, who speak Armenian and/or Arabic. They are primarily Apostolic Church members but some are Catholic or Evangelical in religious orientation.

  28. Juan Cole, you are wonderful for adding fact and context to what most, especially Americans, do no know or bother to study. Thanks immensely.

  29. One aspect that I think could go into a little further is the Syrian business structure.

    Many prominent Western corporations have substantial commercial interests in Syria, including Ernst & Young, Shell Oil Company, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Mercedes-Benz to name a few.

    Syria Telecom is state-owned and is the nation’s telephone company. The mobile phone services are operated by the multinational comglomerate MTN via its Syrian subsidiary – and also Syriatel. Syriatel’s majority owner is Rami Makhlouf, a maternal first cousin of Pres. Assad. Makhlouf is in his early forties and is worth an estimated five billion dollars; he considered Syria’s wealthiest citizen.

    The Makhlouf family rose to power as financial advisers to Hafez Assad, whose wife is a member of the Makhlouf clan. The Makhoufs effectively dictate what businesses may transact operations within Syria.

    Rami Makhouf once tried to get Mercedes-Benz to grant him an exclusive distributorship for its cars; the automaker declined, citing their ongoing long-time relationship with a Syrian businessman. Makhlouf got the Syrian legislature to pass a law preventing Mercedes-Benz from selling replacement parts in Syria. The auto manufacturer then stopped doing business altogether in Syria. Eventually Makhouf capitulated and the MB former distributor was reinstated.

  30. To elaborate on your #4, it is worth pointing out that Bashar’s efforts to liberalize the economy (bowing to Western pressure), during the years immediately preceding the civil war, had the usual effect of all neo-liberal reforms: a rapid widening of the gap between rich and poor. As is usually the case in developing countries pursuing a neoliberal programme, well-connected insiders in Syria were the first to benefit from the changes.

    The economic liberalization drive in Syria under Bashar was substantial. Foreign direct investment rose dramatically. A free trade agreement was made with Turkey. A stock exchange was opened. Private banking was permitted, and restrictions on foreign exchange were relaxed. Plans were made to privatize a wide range of state-owned concerns.

    Most importantly, there was the slashing of subsidies on food and fuel. The reduction of these subsidies was the priming-charge for the explosion of unrest.

    One thing is missing from your commentary. I think one ought, in all honesty, to mention that Syria under Bashar permitted entry to about a million refugees from Iraq following the Anglo-American invasion of that country. Considering that, as you state, Syria’s population and economy are not very large, it is not difficult to imagine the impact of a huge influx of refugees.

    The inflationary effect on food and housing costs caused by the refugee crisis was substantial, and when combined with the hardships of drought and a neoliberal structural adjustment, the development of a serious political crisis seems an obvious result.

  31. “I can see Syria from my house!” ;-)
    –An American living in Greece

  32. A number of points:
    1. Bashar liberalized the economy because it allowed his family (through the Makhloufs) to take state wealth into their private hands. Thus privatization has been great private business for Bashar and his family, who were estimated to control 30% of the Syrian economy before the rebellion. Mark Koroi’s about Makhlouf and Mercedes is not the only example of that.

    2. Syria was great for Western foreigners. Not so great for non-white foreigners. I remember talking to some Algerians in the 90s who had escaped the civil war in their own country. They said they had understood what fear truly meant when they arrived in Syria. Similarly, westerners of non-white origin, such as the many second generation Asians I met, complained of how they were treated by the police.

    3. It’s disingenuous to present the rebellion as being primarily the consequence of economic factors beyond the control of the regime. This rebellion, like all the Middle East rebellions, was largely motivated by the very visible kleptocracy of the regimes, as well as the routine violence and torture, lack of basic freedoms, and decreasing credibility of the regime. The 2008 crisis may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it is not the cause…

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