In 1946, Syria declared independence. It was briefly a parliamentary republic, but the notion never really caught on, and in the first ten years as a country, they had four different constitutions, and a ridiculous amount of changes in government.
In 1956, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, wherein they basically agreed to dabble with communism in exchange for tanks and ammo etc. Russia continues to be close with Syria now, relying on its warm water ports.
Then, in 1958, Syria and Egypt briefly decided to become the same country, the United Arab Republic. But then in 1961 Syria was like: ‘hey, we’re succeeding and we’re going back to being independent’. This led to a big mess and a couple of coups, culminating in the Ba’ath party taking control in 1963. (The Ba’ath party have a secular political philosophy that advocates for a socialist pan-Arab state, the idea being basically that the Arab countries would unify and they’d have this amazing utopic society. It didn’t work.)
So then in 1974, defence minister Hafez Al-Asad took over government and became president in a bloodless coup—which is, of course, the best kind of coup. Al-Asad oversaw what was pretty much the first stable period in Syrian history; he passed a constitution and established a state-run economy, which would have been great, if he hadn’t killed a lot of dissidents, disastrously invaded Israel in 1973, and then in 1976 entered the Lebanese civil war, first on one side…then on the other, beginning a Syrian occupation of Lebanon that would last for almost thirty years.
So, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon was not popular, in particular because the Syrian government had a penchant for assassinating Lebanese politicians.
Another thing to note about Al-Assad is that he was an Alawite. Alawites basically follow a branch of Shia Islam, but don’t follow all the typical forms of Islam worship, such as they don’t think it’s necessary to pray five times a day. Al-Assad was big on bringing the Alawite branch of Islam into the mainstream, but the problem was that to a lot of Sunni and Shia muslims saw Alawites as apostates, so it didn’t particularly help the already tense inter-religious relations in the country.
(There’s a lot of issues in current day Syria because there is so much religious segregation. Despite the fact that the majority of the population are Sunni Muslim, there’s a great deal of segregation, resulting in the superior treatment of Alawites; scholarships go to Alawi children, the government gives its contracts to Alawi businesses, there are separate lanes of traffic specifically for Alawites to drive down. Understandably, this is somewhat aggravating to those of other religions in the country.)
Hafez’s son, Bashar Al-Assad came into power after his father’s death in 2000. At first, there was a decent amount of support for him because it looked as though he was going to be a different kind of leader to his father, ending the repression of his people. Oh, how wrong they were.
After enduring decades of authoritarian governments, the people of several middle-eastern countries raised their voices in protest and ousted their leaders, in what has been called the Arab Spring in 2010.
Now, in Egypt and Tunisia, the uprisings were pretty quick and decisive. In Libya, the protests led to a short civil war, ending with Gaddafi’s death. Syria, on the other hand, is a completely different story.
The Sunni Muslims, repressed for 40 years by a race they considered Islam-rejecting apostates, rioted against the powerful minority. However, the Al-Assad administration punished anyone who spoke out against the regime both swiftly and severely. So people kept protesting, then they were killed, so they protested more violently, then their families were killed and tortured.
Then a big section of the army defected and became the Free Syrian Army.
By now it’s getting chaotic in the Syrian branch of the Arab Spring. Whilst it started as a pro-democracy protest, and there are still many people fighting for a democratic future for the country, there are now a plethora of groups who want a plethora of different things, and whilst some of the groups like each other, others hate each other, so there’s even more tension building up. It’s gotten to the point that Assad has killed so many non-Alawites and military leaders that it’s kind of unclear who on earth would take over if he left.
Then: Chemical Weapons.
President Obama had previously said that if Syria uses chemical weapons, he’s going to do…something. And it looks like Assad’s forces did use chemical weapons; Sarin gas was definitely used and it was definitely used on enemies of Assad’s regime (there are claims that it was done to make the regime look bad, but doesn’t that sound a little like the white people in 1960s america who genuinely believed that african-american radicals bombed an african-american church to make the KKK look bad?)
Anyway, the UN can’t do much about the chemical weapons because of Russia’s veto power on the Security Council, because Russia is ALWAYS going to veto any resolution demanding to do stuff that Syria doesn’t want to do, seeing as it’s their best friend in the Middle East.
But, as much as Russia needs Syria, Syria needs Russia, so Russia can to some extent convince Syria to do whatever they want. So they convince Syria to give up all their chemical weapons. (And whilst Russia was, in doing this, able to wear the diplomatic hat and act like the white knight, let’s please remember that this wouldn’t be a necessary action in the first place if Russia hadn’t blocked every single resolution that proposed to do anything about Syria.)
At this point, Syria is still in the middle of a civil war, and it seems to have reached somewhat of a stalemate. Whilst the aforementioned Free Syrian Army have the support of many western nations including Britain and the US, they refuse to send in weapons in case they get into the wrong hands, but continue to send food and emergency aid, however all other ‘non-lethal’ supplies (eg. medicine) have been stopped for fear they will fall into the wrong hands.
This is an incredibly brief insight into and incredibly complex situation. Please note there may be several issues left out as I tried to keep the article as short as possible.