September 14th, 2013
12:57 AM ET

Why America can't shape Syria

By Fareed Zakaria

A new internet game – “Where is Damascus?” – asks you to pinpoint Syria’s capital on a map. Even if you are off by 100 miles, you will probably have done better than 80 percent of the people who played the game. According to its creators, a number of the people inside the U.S. Department of Defense tried it out as well…and only 57 percent managed to locate Damascus. Some of the guesses were as far off as India and South Africa! Let’s hope those folks weren’t tasked with targeting the air strikes.

So, as a public service, here are three facts about Syria:

First, it became a nation recently and with much turmoil. Until World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the Middle East, plus parts of Europe and North Africa. It had ruled much of this land for six centuries. But when the Empire collapsed after World War I, it led to a complete fragmentation of the region. France and Britain carved up parts of the empire. Syria broke free of French influence after World War II. Then followed a series of failed governments, then briefly it actually joined up with Egypt to create a new country, the United Arab Republic, and then seceded from that republic three years later. In 1963, the Baath Party organized a coup – and that is the beginning of the Syria we now know.

More from CNN: Ending bloodshed in Syria

Second, the borders were drawn somewhat arbitrarily. Now, that is true of much of the world. Think of Africa, where the colonial powers created dozens of states that had never existed. But what is more important regarding Syria is that its borders contain many different communities and sects that have often not thought of themselves as one nation.

Consider the divides between Shia and Sunni, the two main Muslim sects. In his book The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr begins with a fascinating map. The portions in white are where Sunnis live, and the portions in grey are where Shia are predominant. It is a randomized distribution. Now if you zoom in on Syria, you will see a small minority of Shia – the Alawites – who have been running the country.

And that is the third point. Syria is the last of three great minority regimes in the Middle East. The first were the Christians in Lebanon, the second the Sunnis of Iraq, and the third, the Alawites of Syria. Often as a consequence of a “divide and rule” policy, the colonial powers would favor a prominent minority group as their allies. (The reason they chose a minority was obvious – that group would always need the help of an outside colonial power).

More from GPS: Syria's neighbors worry about extremism

Now, the Sunnis make up a majority of Syria, but the country has within it other groups – Christians and Kurds for example – and many of the minorities have historically tended to ally with the Alawites, worried about what a Sunni-dominated Syria would look like.

And what can we draw from history about Syria today? Well, over the last thirty years, we have seen revolts against these three minority regimes. In the 1970s and 80s, it was the revolt against the Christians of Lebanon, and a fifteen year civil war ensued. In Iraq, the United States deposed Saddam Hussein and the Sunni power structure, but it fought back in a long civil war that in many ways still continues. (Remember, Iraq is the second most violent country in the world today, after Syria.) In Syria, this struggle between the Alawites and their allies on the one hand and a mostly Sunni opposition movement on the other, will probably be a long and bitter struggle as were the other two. And it's not clear to me, at least, that limited American military intervention will be able to do much to shape its outcome.

Whether or not you agree with me on that, just make sure you know where the country is before you want to bomb it.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria • United States

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    1. Leonor de Borbón, Sofia of Bourbon.
    2. Florencia Kirchner, Max Kirchner.
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    September 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  2. cjones1

    This American visualized a battle between apocalyptic Shiites and Caliphate- minded Sunnis. I am glad you clearly define it on a smaller scale...there is a potential for World War III. I also imagine the Isrealis are very nervous considering the slaughter of the last century and threats continuing into this century...especially from the Shiite side.

    September 15, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  3. Exmuslim

    Sunni islamc kuranc ideology is destroying humanity everywhere and they want to clean this mess by non muslim kafirs with their tax payers money so that these goon dehumanised muslims will prepapre againt to make hundreds of 9-11,7-11 and so on. Shame on those humans who still choose to be muslims. Islam is cancer of human society and must be eradicated with chemotherapy or radiotherapy. One who worships kuran and allah, are criminals of humanity.

    September 16, 2013 at 11:04 am | Reply
  4. Randall Whittier

    Great commentary on Syria: "Just make sure you know where the country is before you want to bomb it."

    September 16, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
  5. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    September 17, 2013 at 3:52 am | Reply
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