Trying to Make Sense of Syria? Here’s Our Essential Reader

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Syria President Bashar al-Assad. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

Do you find yourself trying to make sense of the dynamics that led up to Syria’s brutal civil war? Are you struggling to understand the geopolitics of it all in a news environment dominated by quick-and-dirty analysis? Here are some essential reads that will help you gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening in Syria, in Washington and in other countries with a stake in the conflict.

Timeline: The BBC has an informative historical timeline spanning 95 years, from the end of the Ottoman Empire’s dominance to the deployment of chemical weapons last month. It’s a quick way to get oriented.

A just war?: Humanitarian intervention rests heavily on “just war” theory–specifically the notion, developed in the post-Cold War era as part of the broader “human security movement,” that the international community has a responsibility to protect innocent civilians from being massacred by their own governments. Moral philosophers tend to use a complex mix of criteria to determine whether an armed intervention might rise to the level of a just war, and these standards are often subject to fierce debate. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit friar, rounds up what just war theorists are saying about a possible strike on Syria in The National Catholic Reporter.

Deep analysis: William Polk was a State Department analyst during the Kennedy administration. Over the Labor Day weekend, he penned an in-depth analysis of the crisis for The Atlantic. If you only have time for one long-read on Syria, this is the one.

A massacre resonates: One of the reasons Syria was believed to be immune from the uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” and one of the reasons the rebels see themselves in a life-and-death fight, can be summed up in a single word: Hama. In 1982, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, ordered an uprising in the city of Hama to be put down with extreme violence. Up to 30,000 people died. Reuters looked back at the bloodbath and spoke with some of the survivors.

Climate war?: While it’s not a straight causal line, there is little question that an unrelenting drought induced by climate change combined with agricultural mismanagement and an existing refugee crisis to create a powder-keg in Syria. Writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Shahrzad Mohtadi details a story that’s gotten far too little attention in the mainstream coverage of the conflict. (Moyers & Company’s John Light interviewed Francesco Femia, director of the Center for Climate and Security, about this angle.)

No white hats: Up until about a year ago, advocates of intervention in Syria’s civil war hoped that a relatively liberal government could replace the Assad regime. They pointed to the ideological moderates in the Free Syrian Army as a source for potential leaders. But since that time, the FSA has become sidelined by radical and violent Islamists from around the region. In Foreign Policy, Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh and author of Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution, explains what happened.

Regional lynchpin”: Syria’s civil war is creating a regional crisis, dividing its neighbors and aggravating long-standing tensions. Benedetta Berti and Yoel Guzansky, two Israeli researchers, place the conflict into context as part of a regional power-struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their respective allies for FPRI.

Refugee crisis spilling over: The United Nations says the Syrian civil war has sparked the worst refugee crisis in the world, with over two million people being displaced both internally and abroad. Nour Malas looked at how a flood of people, uprooted from their homes, are straining other countries in the region for the Wall Street Journal.

Russia and Turkey: These two states stand on opposite sides of the international community in terms of intervention. Both wield great influence; Russia enjoys veto power on the UN Security Council and Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, plays a vital role as a bridge between East and West. Two good reads on these countries’ relationships with Syria are The New York Times’ Russians and Syrians, Allied by History and Related by Marriage,” and Foreign Policy’s Turks Grapple with Syria.”

Red lines and the U.S.: Human Rights Watch lays out the case against the Assad regimeThe New Yorker‘s veteran national security reporter Dexter Filkins took a deep dive behind the scenes of the White House debate over how to respond to Syria. In Foreign Policy, Karim Mezran, Jason Pack and Haley Cook looked at the lessons that should be learned from the U.S.-led intervention in Libya. The Center for Strategic Studies’ Anthony Cordesman argued that limited attacks won’t accomplish much. And Garance Franke-Rutka argued that Congressional authorization for war could lead to escalation in The Atlantic.

We’ll continue to update this post as the situation in Syria continue to unfold.

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  • Anonymous

    I wonder if any of the players making the ultimate decision about a US invasion have read any of these.

  • Elena Ferrante

    I hate to point out the obvious, but look at the statistics of American young men( and everyone else), who are unemployed or underemployed. We can’t fix other countries, when our own is in shambles…

  • Anonymous

    30 years of failure, trillions of taxpayer dollars, thousands of US troops have lost their lives and they still want to Strike Syria. What kind of learning curve do these hawks need?

  • MarchMarine17

    Thank you for this in depth look at the horror show that is current day Syria. Though most will not take the time to read this information( as they have been Pavlovian trained to respond to mere sound bites and out of context quotes by Newsmaxx, Fox I have posted this on Facebook. CNN and others of the supposed ‘liberal media’ seem once again to be chaffing at the bit, to push for yet more US war, this time in Syria. I am a supporter of President Obama, but NOT on this issue of proposed military strikes on another sovereign nation by the US-Syria. This civil war within Syria, is a major problem, only suited to The United Nations-period! Peace, love and Semper Fi! MarchMarine17.

  • Anonymous

    I have some questions based on reports and our own dubious history. What roles have the US and Israel played in encouraging the civil war to destabilize Syria? What clear evidence points to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons? Could either the US or Israel have used a chemical weapon to discredit the government and justify our intervention? What is to be gained by the US, because we certainly don’t value Syrians’ lives by launching drone strikes with impunity?

  • Barry Kort

    I reckon nothing short of Darwinian extinction will suffice.

  • Grace Walker

    history was a boring subject as a child, now it is what i eat sleep and breathe and can never understand enough of in my years of adulthood

  • Ann Harris

    Finally some voices of sanity and reason speakiing to the sullied and questionable history of the U.S. foreign policy and its so-called humanitarian interventions. Seems like Iraq and Afghanistan should be recent reminders of the folly and fog of this kind of war/aid/policy.

  • Peter Five-Oh

    No mention of the agenda to build a gas pipeline thru Syria, which is probably the real reason for the need for ‘regime change’ in Syria.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a thought: Couldn’t we go into Syria and just do something to help them get fresh water?
    We could save lives by feeding the refugees!
    Dropping bombs do not make us win wars, do not make us win hearts and minds, do not let us become great humanitarians out saving the world.
    Aren’t there other choices?
    Aren’t Americans tired of spending trillions of dollars to lose wars?
    Perhaps Halliburton or Harris or Boeing–whoever–could diversify into other things like making fresh water, cost effective wind generators, then they could get government contracts for them in Syria instead of missiles?
    Americans are not warmongers.
    Politicians and corporations are the warmongers.
    WMD suckered us once. No more.

  • Anonymous

    Are you saying that we should help develop the nation rather than send in missiles?
    Even here in the US, we might even be able to stop crime by making it possible for young people to find hope, decent work, respectable income, and a future.
    It is easier to risk nothing than to risk losing a good life that you earned.
    Somehow thinking like this was lost in current insanity of our elected idiots.

  • Anonymous

    Well I want to see a list of who voted for another war in the Mid East and I want others to have it in hand next election. They will just have to learn to read. Think they can spare the time from chasing down lobbyist for contributions?

  • GaryL

    While is always a good rule-of-thumb to become conversant with as many historical narratives as possible, in this particular case no amount of causal understanding can obviate the fact that, under international law, the United States presently has no lawful underpinnings for launching a unilateral attack against the sovereign nation of Syria and to do so would equate to an act of war.

  • Anonymous

    Pegasus, I am proposing that the wealthy Arab nations fund a massive “Arab Marshall Plan” (they can call it whatever they want) to create jobs for the 30% of their population which is 30 years old or younger. No US money would be involved; I expect that the UN or World Bank would help to set it up, but the oil-producing nations like the Saudis, United Arab Emirates, Dubai, etc., would fund the whole thing. They can well afford it: think of this the next time you gas up your car. It is a fact that when young men have nothing to do, and especially when they are hungry, they hang around and get into trouble (Think of the youth gangs in the big cities.). In the Arab world, they also listen to rabble-rousing imams and ayatollahs who tell them, “It’s not your fault that you’re hungry. The Americans (or the Israelis) took away your food. Here are guns: go and kill them; die for Allah.” Give these young men jobs, and there will be no more jihadis who want to fight and die.

  • Anonymous

    Elena, we can’t be the world’s policeman. See my “Arab Marshall Plan,” above, in my answer to Pegasus. No American soldiers should die in Arab countries anymore.

  • Jing Yagunazie

    oil gas and bankers. None of which help Americans.

  • StopStupidity

    I truly appreciate these links as I for one would like to learn more before I provide an opinion where I admit I know very little about. I do know that it’s seldom that conflict escalation can be attributable to just one issue but usually involves several – true with any conflict.
    Unfortunately, some people won’t bother to read further about this or any other conflict and it’s origins and will continue to throw opinions out there with very little background knowledge about the issues they choose to comment about. Even worse, some people will believe what they read in those comments along with those 2 minute “quick and dirty analysis” without looking further into the issues especially if it fits neatly with what they would like to believe and parallels those assumptions we make that influence other decisions. The politics over the past several years in our own country is proof of that.
    Thank you again for making it easy to get further information and varying perspectives so that I will learn more about it.

  • Anonymous

    DsAg, it’s true that the US is #1 in arms sales, with France at #2. The Moyers article clearly states that the Saudis are arming the rebels, while Iran is arming Assad, so I guess you’re right that it’s US vs. Russian arms there. I know that my “Arab Marshall Plan” is a long shot, but it’s the only solution in a region where 50% of the population is 30 years old or less. Either send those young men to work, or have them kill one another, as is happening now, tragically.

  • Jim

    This is not a civil war. It is a proxy war funded by Qatar, Saudi
    Arabia, the US & other allies & is about natural gas pipelines.
    The US role in this is totally criminal. Do a search for: Geopolitics of
    Gas and the Syrian Crisis Minin global research.

  • Aaron

    There is no evidence of assad committing chemical attacks. There is still the rule of international law. An no-one wants to support an unjust war. We did that already, remember?

  • Pamela Sherrard Waters

    Syria ha not attacked us. Huge difference between that and 9/11!

  • Tupak Huehuecoyotl

    Wars of Petropolis and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC): Proxy
    Wars, Proxy States, Proxy Politics. The five states named here have
    neither signed nor acceded to the global CWC.

    Which of these is a client state of the US? (Hint: The US supplies 1.23
    billion dollars a year to standup the military apparatus of this

    1 Angola
    2 Egypt
    3 North Korea
    4 South Sudan
    5 Syria

    Source: Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
    Facts and Figures
    The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has now been in force for more than 15 years.
    The international community is using this instrument to eliminate the
    possibility of developing, producing, using, stockpiling or transfering
    these dreadful weapons forever.

  • Anonymous

    Why don’t you look up the articles yourself? Common sense would dictate that that is what we all will or should do to educate ourselves, unless we really don’t give a damn. Google Middle East gas and oil pipelines Control.

  • Alpha Wolf

    For the reading list” An excellent tour of the Middle East and how America’s interventionist foreign policy has often strengthen our “enemies.”

    After surveying the mess left in our wake, the author harks back to the Powell Doctrine as the guiding light of our foreign policy:

    “The Powell doctrine stipulates that the US should use military force only when a vital national-security interest is at stake; the strategic objective is clear and attainable; the benefits are likely to outweigh the costs; adverse consequences can be limited; broad international and domestic support has been obtained; and a plausible exit strategy is in place.

    Given the US record since the doctrine was formulated, another criterion should be added: the main beneficiaries of military intervention are not America’s mortal enemies.”


    Let’s hope Kerry’s “gaffe” offers “the best and the brightest (circa 2013) a graceful way out of the corner the President painted himself into.

  • Anonymous

    This site is a very refreshing alternative to the rest of the USA Eunuch Press which is incapable of educating the public and simply cannot conceptualize any meaningful followup questions in the face of Military Industrial Complex BS explanations of the world.

  • Susan C

    Pleeeez…. knees? to attack Iraq I never had, even less after realizing we attacked the wrong country….. speaking of long term historical embarrassment and so much added suffering and did I mention expense???? glad you could get a LOL out of it.

  • Jim

    With respect to addressing “… chemical weapons used on a massive number of civilians, and what to do about that situation.”

    If we want to hold war criminals accountable, we have some of our own to think about. From 1991 to 1996 the US killed half a million children in Iraq by destroying the water supply by using trade sanctions against the
    importation of Chlorine & water purification equipment supplies.
    This was a war crime under Article 54 2. of the Geneva Convention quoted here, “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects
    indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as …
    drinking water installations and supplies … for the specific purpose
    of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or
    to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve
    out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.”:

    US govt. documents were declassified that showed how we planned to eliminate most of the drinkable water in 6 months & even predicted in advance what diseases would occur in epidemic proportions & that children & the elderly would be the primary victims of these diseases. Later documents confirmed our predictions were correct; 95% of the drinkable water was destroyed, the various diseases occurring in epidemic proportions were listed, & the primary victims of those diseases were confirmed to be children & the elderly.

    One thing that these documents did NOT say was that Chlorine & water purification equipment supplies had some military purpose & therefore needed to be embargoed, which means the entire purpose of this was merely kill & sicken huge numbers of people & especially children & the elderly.

    This information was presented in the Sept. 2001 issue of the “Progressive Magazine”:

    In the 12 yrs. since Prof. Nagy wrote his article, his instructions for finding the 7 government documents upon which his article is based have become obsolete. Here are the links to these documents on a US Government military website:

    1. “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities”:

    2. “Disease Information,” 22 January 1991″

    3. “Disease Outbreaks in Iraq,” 21 February 1990,

    4. “Medical Problems in Iraq,” 15 March 1991,

    5. “Status of Disease at Refugee Camps,” May 1991,

    6. “Health Conditions in Iraq,” June 1991,

    7.”Iraq: Assessment of Current Health Threats and Capabilities,”
    November 15, 1991,

    In 1996, when asked if killing a half million children was worth it, Secretary of State, Albright said, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”:

    At the Nuremberg Trials our Supreme Court Justice & Nuremberg
    prosecutor, Robert Jackson, said we wouldn’t hold the Germans to any
    higher standards than we would hold ourselves. No one has been or will
    be held accountable for our killing of a half million children in Iraq. It appears a biblical admonition would apply here, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Perhaps we should convict our own war criminals for the killing of a half million children & who knows how many additional young adults & the elderly, before we complain about the extremely dubious claim of Syria’s killing of 1400.