The conflict that Syria is entangled in today is not something new and we can safely say that its roots go back hundreds of years into the dim and distant past. The strategic position that the region enjoys both from geographical and political point of view did not escape the attention of long gone emperors and ancient rulers. The Romans, Egyptians, Assyrians, Ottomans were all interested in gaining influence in these territories or controlling them in one way or another. The spark that led to the division that has proved so explosive in the 21 century was the Alawite massacre that was committed by the Sunnis. From that time on the animosity between the two religious groups was the source of instability and worries for outside observers. Despite the ethnical mixture, a 10% Christian minority and a Sunni majority the country is controlled by the military which consists primarily of Alawite officers. The Syrian president Bashar Assad as well as his Father came from the Alawite minority.
The way this situation came about has everything to do with the outburst of the first world war. At that time, the Ottoman Empire was holding sway over a vast portion of land including Syria. Since the empire supported Germany, the British send their agent whom we today know as Lawrence of Arabia to conduct subversive activities. Although these turned out to be successful and Syrians gained independence under Sunni leadership, the subsequent agreement of the French and British to divide the country put an end to the Syrian ambitions. What followed was a period of oppressive French rule during which the French in a cynical way used the hostilities between the Sunnis and Alawites and place the latter group in a position of power that would curb all Sunni initiatives that the French would disapprove of. In this way the Alawites gained a firm grip over the military, which they have enjoyed ever since.
As pointed out by BBC’s Dan Snow, after the second world war the Soviet educated Assad the elder brought stability and emerged as the victor in an internal power struggle. The stability came at a cost. Outside observers and his opponents criticized him for brutally crashing the rebellion that was led by the Muslim Brotherhood. His bond with the Soviet Russia is something that his son Bashar Assad is maintaining until the now. Today, the conflict in Syria bears witness to the classical divide that was an integral part of the cold war. The west is backing Syrian rebels and opposition, a good portion of whom are Sunni fighters, while Russia is eager to support the ruling regime to protect its long existing influence. It seems that the west – east divide has not exactly disappeared with the end of the cold war. With both sides of the conflict adamant to protect their geopolitical interest, it is highly likely we will not see the end to this bloody conflict any time soon.