Explaining Syria

A portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2010 A portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2010 Adwo
02 Jul
Syria’s civil war involves over 30 different factions. The opposition alone is reported to have 72 sub-groups. Geographical looks at five websites that help shed a little light on the conflict

Syria Comment

Syria Comment is among the more academic websites examining the conflict, but is still extremely readable. It might not be the best place to understand the basics, though.

The last post in June details the death Mohammad Nasif Kheirbek, a security official in Hafez al-Assad’s government and advisor to current president Bashar al-Assad. The post traces Kheirbek’s family history back to the 12th century, with further updates on rebellions against Ottoman rule in the 19th century.

This is undoubtedly important information for understanding a conflict where tribal, sectarian and family loyalties play an important role, but probably too much information for the casual reader. Such attention to detail is understandable, as Syria Comment is run by Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

But Syria Comment doesn’t just focus on deep history. It also includes lists of named individuals killed in recent massacres, along with opinion pieces and analysis from academics and journalists with expert knowledge on the region.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

This is a more personal effort from a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a US think tank. Al-Tamimi also posts at Syria Comment, but his own site collects together his work for a variety of websites, along with his own regular blog.

Al-Tamimi puts together interesting material, although his posts could sometimes do with additional explanation. For example, a recent entry includes photos and translations from an Islamic State training camp textbook, but unless the reader is familiar with the ideology and theology behind the group, there’s little to explain what’s going on.

This is the place to go for original translations from the ground in Syria. If you’re interested in reading what the various factions are saying to the world and each other, al-Tamimi provides it.

Syria Pulse

This is a much slicker offering than the above websites, and more accessible to the general reader. Al-Monitor provides analysis for countries across the Middle East and aims to draw together journalists and experts from the region. It’s a news site, but with a tilt towards economic and military developments. The reader is thrown straight into events, from rises in fuel prices in Aleppo to Syria returning highly-enriched uranium to China.

Many of the articles are translated from the Arabic, and overall the site feels as if you’re reading a translation of the Arabic media into English. But if you’re not sure what exactly is happening in the conflict overall this might not be the best place to start. The information can be too specific.

Syria Deeply

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 15.47.23Syria Deeply's Conflict Map tracks the civil war

Syria Deeply is an excellent jumping off point to understand the conflict. Unlike the other sites mentioned, Syria Deeply has made an effort to integrate social media, video and articles together. An interactive map charts refugees and casualties from the conflict, while videos cover life for Syrians in exile in Paris.

This site is more about collecting together how ‘the West’ sees the Syrian conflict. Collated videos come from PBS and the New York Times. The daily executive summaries link to publications such as Foreign Policy and the Independent. That’s not to say Syria Deeply doesn’t take in the Arab perspective – it certainly does – but compared to the other sites mentioned here it feels more as if it is written by outsiders looking in on the country.

This, along with the Syria Files section, probably makes it the best place to start if you want to understand the conflict. Syria Files breaks down the conflict from ‘the basics’ and ‘the opposition’ to ‘global players’ and extra reading.

A count-up timer that tells the reader how many days the conflict has lasted provides a poignant (or possibly tasteless) reminder of the conflict’s scale.

Syria in Crisis

Syria in Crisis comes from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and provides a slow-moving and accessible look at the politics and history behind the conflict.

Posts are more sporadic than the other sites, but overall Syria in Crisis treads the middle ground between the ultra-academic minutiae found on Syria Comment and the general news found on Syria Deeply and Syria Pulse.

If you read and enjoyed Syria Pulse and Syria Deeply, but want more depth, this is the place to go. It also contains a guide to the conflict, but it’s more of a glossary than Syria Deeply’s analytical version. If a particular party or politician has you stumped on another website (and you don’t trust Wikipedia) this is the place to turn.

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