Confused about what the US and NATO are doing about Syria? Not satisfied with explanations in the mainstream press? Worried that we are promoting more refugees instead of peace in the region? This article gives a very good simple overview of the history and society in Syria, regional religious pressures, recent events and politics, including water theft, background to ISIS, and Turkey's role in opening the refugee floodgates towards Europe. This article represents the text of a talk at a panel on Syrian refugees given by the author in the United States. You can read more of Judy's work on The Deconstructed Globe.
An Ancient Center of Civilization
Syria is a very old ‘country’. Al Sham has been a self-identified and cohesive region for millennia. Damascus was the second center of the Islamic Caliphate  after Mohammad’s death (Mecca was first). The Caliphate, in many ways, had more in common with the Syrian Republic than with the Islamic State. There was religious and ethnic diversity, tolerance and respect for the history of the local peoples.
After WWI, Syria rejected a foreign king and instituted an elected parliament and president. It was a French Mandate until after WWII when it became an independent republic, with a secular and socialist government. The Baath party has been privileged in the constitution since the brief period when Syria was bonded to Egypt in a single socialist republic from 1958-1961 This was changed in a 2012 when the constitution was rewritten by a committee commissioned by Bashar Assad with representation from any opposition group willing to come forward and participate.
Syria has many Christians, and diverse sects of Islam are represented there beyond Sunni and Alawite. There were many Jews in Syria as well before the conflict with Israel caused them to leave. Syrians have lived in peace together for a very long time. Greater Syria includes the ancient lands of the Jews and the birthplace of Christ as well as the center of the first Caliphate after the death of Mohammad.
Syria is a Socialist Republic and the Government Still Supports the Majority of the Population
Sunnis are not closed out of the Syrian government or slighted by it. Although the Assads are Alawite, the Parliament of Syria, the massive bureaucracy that handles the day to day affairs of government and the Syrian Arab Army reflect the demographics of the society at large, meaning that they are mostly Sunni. There are many wealthy Sunnis in Damascus and Aleppo and many of them have government ties.
Despite the war, the President and his cabinet, the parliament, the bureaucracy and the army continue to govern the central areas of the country
At least 2/3 of displaced people from Syria are in the government controlled area of Syria where they receive government assistance and remain a part of Syrian society.
Economic Background of Protests in Early 2011 and Foreign Meddling
Drought had caused the destruction of many small farms. Yes, Global warming played a part. But there was a political aspect to the problem as well. Turkey had a built a new dam upstream on the Euphrates and was retaining their full portion of the diminished water supply. Also, Israel had turned the streams from the Golan that once nourished Syrian lands back into Israel.
Bashar Assad was attempting to reintegrate the economy with the US run ‘global economy’, which had a directly negative effect on the welfare of poor people. Like other developing nations, Syria faced a choice between isolation and sanctions, or austerity and essentially pillage by corporate vultures. Like many of his generation, Bashar Assad felt that in the long run, it was best to end isolation. He modernized Syria’s education system (which is free) and started promoting classes in Arabic for foreigners. While some of the elite became very rich, the poorest people suffered with diminished state subsidies for bread and gasoline.
There was bad blood between the Assad family and the Muslim Brotherhood due to past incidents. However, the MB in Syria are hostile not only to Alawites but to secularism. In 2011, when an insurrection seemed imminent, Qatar began paying disaffected members of the Brotherhood to take up arms against their country. Turkey opened training camps for militants and Saudi Arabia opened the pipeline for foreign fighters into the country.
The US had been working to incite trouble as they could not accept the Syrian governments loyalties to Iran and support for various Palestinian factions and Hezbollah, and their uncompromising demand that the Golan, Syrian land occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, be restored to Syria. When the US reopened its embassy in Syria in 2008, the ambassador immediately began meeting with dissidents and dissatisfied members of the powerful class.
A report on Al Qaeda in Iraq published by West Point in 2008  talks about the ways in which they could support themselves and the networks the foreign fighters used to move through Syria, The report says that these trafficking networks were criminal rather than political and recommends that their usefulness be explored. A recently leaked intelligence report from 2012  says that the United States was aware that one of the Al Qaeda factions was likely to take over a large area including parts of Syria and Iraq, but this was not a matter of concern.
The War in Syria isn't about Democracy or Human Rights
You have heard many terrible things about Bashar Assad, yet he does not govern alone, though he is more powerful now than he was before the war. He doesn’t ‘own’ the army or the bureaucracy that runs the daily affairs of the county. However, he has always been generally well liked by the people to the point where he often drove his own car and was able to walk among them before the war, something American presidents haven’t done since Kennedy.
The Assads have not co-opted the financial resources of the country for themselves and their families, though some of their Sunni allies have become very rich since Bashar’s attempt at cooperating with the neoliberal western economies. 
The Syrian government has made some serious mistakes, over-reacted to threats, and regional insecurities. Desperate for international acceptance, Hafez Assad allowed himself to be manipulated by the global powers into some heavy handed actions in Lebanon which he later regretted.
Even so, compare the Syrian government under the Assad family with Arabia under the house of Saud, the US closest ally in the Middle East other than Israel. Compare the incomparably wealthy Saudi ruling clan who govern an impoverished majority though brutal means with the Syrian Socialist Republic. Compare the Syrian secular government commitment to inter-ethnic and inter-religious tolerance to the Saudi demand that all belong to a single fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam. Compare Syria’s modern, if flawed justice system with Saudi Arabia’s sharia law where hose convicted of crimes like infidelity, blasphemy and witchcraft are lashed, beheaded or merely relieved of other limbs, or stoned to death.
In Syria, women dress as they please, attend college if they like and hold jobs with substantial responsibilities. In Saudi Arabia, women must cover their faces outside their homes and need a man’s permission to travel, receive medical care or own property. They are not allowed to drive. While Syria insists on sovereignty despite horrific international pressure, the Saudis have infiltrated numerous countries with paid mercenary terrorists and are currently conducting a horrific bombing campaign against neighboring Yemen.
You will have to agree that bad governance, democracy and freedom are not the issues that underlie this war. And yet, we have western politicians standing behind the Saudi Foreign Minister as he demands that Assad step down before he is willing to stop arming and financing a foreign army against the people of Syria.
Syria, over the last half century, has taken in more refugees from the region and treated them better than any other country in the region. They have a couple of million Palestinians living there and took in at least 1.5 million Iraqis. The children were welcomed in schools and basic medical care was provided. Sadly, it is now the source of refugees.
The majority of Syrian refugees outside the country are in Turkey with Jordan and Lebanon also hosting numerous refugees. In Turkey, many refugees are housed in fenced in ‘refugee camps’. You can see photos of them. Some families have been there since 2011 when the men trained to join the Free Syrian Army and their wives were relocated to camps in Turkey for security reasons. Most don’t speak Turkish. Many of the women have complained of being mistreated by the guards. Kurds are subject to many forms of abuse in Turkey.
When Turkish President Erdogan recently found himself in trouble, he lost the last election, he turned on the Kurds. US apparent ambivalence about the war since ISIS invaded Iraq irked him. Obama didn’t back his no fly zone. He has many dangerous ISIS and Al Qaeda fighters in Turkey because the US and Qatari training camps are there. He started feeling like he was being used. So, he opened the gates on the refugee camps and allowed the inhabitants leave. And many did leave. This is the root of the refugee crisis in Europe. In fact, the Germans immediately went over to talk to Erdogan and negotiate some kind of deal so he would restrain them and restore order.
In the end, most Syrians don’t want to go to Europe. They want to go home. The best gift we can give them is a swift end to the war and a just political solution that leaves the country intact. The best way to get rid of ISIS and al Nusra is to stop taking care of them, close the training camps and the Syrian borders with Turkey and Jordan; cut off their ability to sell oil. Stop giving arms to any group in the region as they all end up in the hands of ISIS and al Nusra. Let the Syrian army and their allies drive them out. This is the requirement of International law.
That done, it will be possible to implement a just political solution in Syria. The Syrian people are capable of making these decisions without interference. They may choose a new president, but it must be a political choice without foreign intervention.
- The Second Islamic Caliphate was formed shortly after Mohammad's death. It eventually spread into northern Africa and Spain, and was followed by another caliphate based in Baghdad, which spread through Iran and eventually into India and other parts of Asia. Technically, a caliphate was a region governed by a successor (Sunni and Shia differ on what this might mean) of Mohammad. In essence, these caliphates were huge expanding empires governed by imperial dynasties. The rules of Islam, however, supported an equitable and just governance which was ethnically and religiously tolerant, and supported art, science and education.There were battles of conquest and power struggles, but generally the people were not targeted. They paid a tax of some kind and often contributed excess sons to the military. Those that survived, often became wealthy and led urban lifestyles around the court. Obviously the Syrian Arab Republic is not an empire, but as I said, it is tolerant and focused on the welfare of the people
- Is a Lack of Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria?, Smithsonian, June 2015
- BBC: Golan Heights profile - Overview, 2/2015, Notice they don't mention that before Israel occupied the Golan water from the Golan went into Syria.
- Bombers, Bank Accounts and Bleedout, West Point CTC's Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq
- 2012 Intelligence Report
- I couldn't find a sourced accounting of Bashar Assad's wealth. The ones I did find talk about the wealth of Bashar Assad's uncle Rifaat Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf. Both are traitors to Syria who instigated coups and are now in exile. Rifaat was responsible for the Muslim Brotherhood 'massacre' in Dara'a in response to a violent insurrection there during the 80s and Makhlouf made a fortune in the communications industry when Syria agreed to do business with the west on corporate and World Bank terms. Both have been identified as possible successors to Bashar though no one in Syria respects them.My assertion was based on the Assad's lifestyle in Syria and lack of flamboyant vacations. Unlike these men, Bashar is directly targeted by western sanctions. Also, the money in Syria's coffers must be depleted by the war going on. Slim pickins, I'd imagine.