In perspective

The book considers the propagandistic and military dimensions of the crisis, suggesting how Syria might evolve. At the heart of this analysis is a key element of Syrian society: its ingrained interconfessional character deriving from the historical presence on its soil of various religious faiths. Powerful minorities have, however, repeatedly applied political and military pressure to force the state to abandon its non-religious and non-discriminatory character.

The author’s review of scholarly texts is combined with research in Syria and other countries. He has conducted interviews with religious leaders, NGO personnel, combatants, displaced people and other victims. Among those interviewed is the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, who offers his perspective on the crisis and on the country’s past and future.


“In addition to explaining the causes of a long conflict, Syria in perspective strips off a lot of myths that come to us about the conflict in Syria”.

“A splendid book has just appeared, Syria in Perspective. More than a new version of the war, it is a different insight for trying to know and understand the reality of a place and a society that as the author says no one knows despite having heard so much about it”.

Marta Landín


Rosa Regàs

Writer and former Director of the Spanish National Library

“How does a multi-religious state work? The journalist and professor Pablo Sapag explains it in Syria in perspective. He analyzes the historical and political keys to the Syrian conflict, the different fronts, regional and global interventionism and the propaganda and information around this conflict”.

“In short, we are facing an essential work to understand the historical, political, economic and, above all, religious and propagandistic dynamics of the Syrian crisis. A work that every objectivity and rigour lover should read calmly before passing judgment on such a matter ‘intoxicated’ of prejudices and misinformation”.


Spanish national radio

Antonio César Moreno Cantano

Revista Internacional de Historia de la Comunicación


Chapter 0


The author’s reasons to write this book, the research plan, the sources used and the overall book structure

Chapter 0

Chapter 1


A chapter devoted to set the bases to approach the Syrian crisis, why it’s not a civil war and what is it instead.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2


This chapter outlines Syria’s historical, political and social background, emphasising the multi-religious character of its society as the context that has framed the country’s politics since 1946.

Chapter 2

Chapter 3


Without several intertwined factors, the Syrian crisis would never have reached such a violent and destructive point.

Chapter 3

Chapter 4


From Turkey to Iran and from the US to Russia, different powers defending vital interests in Syria and beyond. 

Chapter 4

Chapter 5


Strategic communication was crucial in both the internal and external aspects of the Syrian crisis. Find the propaganda messages of all those involved in the Syrian conflict.

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


A comprehensive approach to the different combatants parties, the main battles and the tactics used in such an irregular armed conflict.

Chapter 6

Chapter 7


Read about the attempts to tackle the crisis through negotiations and the social and cultural logic that ended violence in towns, villages and neighbourhoods.

Chapter 7

Chapter 8


Syria pretends to rebuild itself but COVID-19, international economic sanctions and the permanent pretension of a minority to impose a state religion complicate that endeavour. 

Chapter 8

Syria in perspective by its author

Shedding light on Syria’s blind spot

This book doesn’t understand the Syrian crisis as a sectarian one. It approaches it from a different angle. The Syrian society is a long time multi-religious and multi-ethnic one, composed of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and others. That is something barely assumed outside the country because there are very few societies like the one of Syria, Lebanon and other two or three other countries in the Middle East. In the West there is a tendency to believe that their scheme of minorities and majorities apply to other societies exactly in the same way. However, a quantitative approach to the population of Syria and other countries without considering the qualitative dimension of social and power relationships there falls short to explain their realities. There is an extended belief that a certain religious or ethnic group – either majority or minority – acts politically as a block oppressing other groups. That belief disregards the deep social interconnections of societies that are more a mosaic than an archipelago. So this book tries to circumvent an assumption which is not so obvious in Syria’s daily life and political and constitutional systems.

Neither a civil war nor a sectarian one, a multi-faceted crisis without a starting and an ending date

This book neither frames the Syrian conflict as a classic civil war, as it has been presented in the media and by some academic and political circles. In Syria there was not a single element of those that scientific literature -Kalyvas, Sambonis and Moro- consider necessary to talk properly about a civil war, if the intention is not propagandistic. In a real civil war are needed two proper governments exercising real political control inside the country and over the territory and its population. Real armies and two administrations capable to provide services to the people, from health to garbage collection are also indispensable conditions. That’s why it is simplistic to compare the conflict in Syria with the Spanish or the Lebanese civil wars. Using old recipes to explain current complex situations is useless if someone wants to understand. In theoretical terms, in political sciences, the Spanish Civil War is the model, the archetype of that kind of conflict. However, if you compared what happened there in the 1930s and what has happened in Syria, you will not find similarities. The Spanish Civil War, as the Lebanese one had a starting and an ending date. You don’t have that in Syria. The crisis showed its face in 2011 but it was in the making for years. In fact Syria faced two other uprisings linked to political Islam (the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood) in 1964 and between 1973 and 1982 (the SMB and the Fighting Vanguard).  Even though the situation is already normal in most of the country, the crisis is still there. In fact Syria will face for a long-time terrorist activities and other adversities, like the US and EU economic sanctions which have complicated the reconstruction and the fight against coronavirus COVID-19. That has nothing to do, however, with a civil war, not even with a war in the military sense of the term.

The international dimension of the Syrian crisis

Syria’s crisis cannot be understood only from its economic, political, social and in terms of civil right deficiencies, however grave and deep they were in 2011. Without the intervention of external regional and global powers, this terrible armed conflict but not a civil war would have never reached the level of bloodletting and destruction witnessed since 2011. The armed conflict in Syria fits better in Mary Kaldor’s ‘new war’ category, which stresses the importance of active external interference. Syria in perspective addresses this point explaining the interests and actions of those external powers acting against or in favour of the Syrian state. Regarding the former, one of the aims of some of those external powers interfering in Syria, whether regional or global –from Saudi Arabia to the US- , was to divide Syria in statelets. If instead of a united Syria with 23 million people you have four or five mini Syrias with 4 million people each, you will have weak countries depending on the will of external patrons and without any political or economic autonomy. Other regional and global powers such as Iran, Russia and China took the side of the Syrian state because a combination of material and political interests, but in the case of Russia also because it shares some cultural and religious values with Syria.

Not one, but several Syrian oppositions

The groups that rose against the Syrian government were of different types. You cannot put in the same basket all those groups which were protesting in 2011 for several reasons. There were many of those groups that did not have a violent agenda. However and compared with others those groups were weak in terms of organization and so they were coopted by other stronger ones and better connected to foreign agencies. The latter had a tougher or even a violent agenda which was evident from the very early stages of the crisis, as Joshua Landis exposed in Syria Comment.

Two different strategies for the propaganda war


Follow the full interview of Zeinab Al Saffar to Pablo Sapag in Menaldahel program of Al Majadeen TV channel here 

In the propaganda battle, in which strategies, tactics and technical resources are needed there were big differences between the various actors of the crisis. The strategy of the groups that rebelled first against the government and then the Syrian state itself was good and fruitful for the short term and to an audience outside Syria. The one of government and state was successful for the long term and inside Syria. At the beginning of the crisis, the non-violent opposition groups were very clever in the use of propaganda because they focused on the outside world and they were able to frame events in Syria in the so called ‘Arab spring’ narrative so they were able to catch momentum. They did it in the right time, which is very important in propaganda terms. In so doing they were able to mobilise civil society from other countries which however did not know or understand well Syria. That was a big propaganda achievement also gained through the intense use of social media.

Bashar al Assad and the single enemy propaganda rule

In terms of the message, opposition groups reduced all the Syrian complex reality to one person, which is a very well-known propaganda technique called the single enemy propaganda rule. You reduce a complex situation to one face, in this case, Bashar al-Assad’s one. But at the same time such propaganda tactic is only good for the short or medium term. In the case of Syria that was fine for two or three years but not for a decade because you cannot sustain such a message ten years, especially when in 2011 those groups said that in a matter of months the government was going to collapse or be toppled because an overwhelming majority of Syrians were against the Syrian government. As time passed by without that happening impartial observers started questioning that narrative of what was going on in Syria because not a single government can sustain itself just because it has military power. So those observers started looking what else was allowing the Syrian government to have the upper hand in the conflict and that’s why such propaganda message lost credibility. The Syrian government also set a good propaganda strategy from the very beginning of the crisis. Beside its internal troubles, Syria was facing not exactly a revolution but an external aggression launched by several regional and global powers through proxy forces and other means, including a propaganda campaign through mainstream media fed by sources as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights or the White Helmets. The Syrian government understood that it was not possible to compete with such a formidable foe and that it didn’t have a single chance to pass its message to a broader global audience. It understood that in the midst of such a complex crisis it was impossible to explain to the outside world the nuances of a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society developed through centuries in such a critical geopolitical area as the Middle East. So the government took the decision to focus mainly in the internal battle front rather than the external one. So the government decided to spend its communication efforts in Syria itself. It did it without feeding the opposition and external powers message which repeated that everything was Bashar al-Assad’s fault. Thus, the government did not put Assad in the centre of its message. Instead of that its narrative was centred in the unity of the Syrian people emphasizing that the State was the guarantor of Syria’s multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society and that the main representative of that State was the Syrian Army. That played well for the government because many Syrians, even those with several legitimate reasons to be upset with it and with the time ruling Ba’ath party, understood that the red line was Syria’s non-denominational state, the true guarantor of Syrian multi-religious society. Some of the external and non-systemic opposition groups especially those who overtook the weaker ones of the first hour, were advocating for a denominational state incompatible with a Syrian social, political and constitutional tradition so well described by Moubayed, Atassi or Muaz Khatib, a former imam of Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque and briefly president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition until he resigned for his differences with the state powers behind the organisation. The government understood that social media was a formidable propaganda tool for reaching people outside Syria, although not towards Syrians inside the country. In 2011 Internet and social media penetration in Syria was a mere 21% so that was not going to mark any difference inside Syria. At the other hand, the Government controlled 100% of traditional media, another indicator that in Syria there was not a civil war. The government message was accordingly channelled through traditional media, mainly the state news agency SANA and the public TV networks while some supporters launched Facebook and other social media sites which added to the pro-government digital propaganda campaign of the non-official Syrian Electronic Army.

Spain, France and Latin America vis-à-vis Syria

Historically Spain has had a very special and close relationship with Syria because the Umayyad Caliphate expanded to Spain leaving a big legacy in Al Andalus and Cordoba in particular. In more recent times relations were always excellent. Spain was one of the first countries to recognise Syria’s independence and to open an embassy in Damascus. After that and regardless of the political sign of the Spanish government, all the administrations had very good relations with Syrian governments. There were several reciprocal state visits and other gestures. When Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000 his first state visit to a non-Arab country was to Spain. That was not a casual but a very powerful political decision. However, for the last ten years -the ones of the so called ‘Arab Spring’- Spain has been busy with its own economic, political and territorial problems thus not developing an independent position vis-à-vis Syria and other countries of the Mediterranean Basin. Instead, Spain has followed France’s position which is in line with the ancient French idea of transforming the region in an area of influence controlled through the artificial creation of small and weak statelets organised through sectarian lines. You have to go back to the Crusades and the French Mandate over Syria to understand this approach. In Damascus General Gouraud’s provocation in Saladin’s mausoleum is still recalled. It was a clear demonstration of the difficulties that France and other Western countries have when dealing with a society composed along the centuries by Christians and Muslims of different denominations. In following France, Spain got detached from Latin American countries, which due to their large and long standing Syrian communities showed a more constructive approach to the Syrian crisis.

Syria’s reconstruction in a time of sanctions and pandemic

Syria has to get stronger in terms of economic and social development, improve its political system and enlarge its unique national reconciliation process led by internal opposition figure Ali Haidar. At the same time it has to be wise in the way it moves itself in the international arena because if you have a weak position inside and a bad environment in the international sphere, as happened in 2011, that’s the best recipe for a big disaster which is what we have seen for the last ten years with all the suffering of the Syrian people: tens of thousands of deaths, wounded, mutilated, displaced, refugees, huge material destruction and a sharp devaluation of the Syrian pound. Syria’s unique multi-religious and multi-ethnic society has to deal with an internal minority which wants a religious denominational state but also with the external pressure of regional and global powers which for economic and geopolitical reasons desire a weaker Syria or one aligned with their positions and so less independent. Definitely it’s a huge burden.