I drove up to the frontier post – massive concrete crossed swords, topped by a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was practically deserted; loudspeakers mounted on the minaret of a nearby mosque roared with a fiery anti-British and American rhetoric. Edgy border guards let us through and we sped at 110mph to the capital, Damascus, running the gauntlet of the deserted road with the odd burnt-out vehicle shoved to the side. The centre of Damascus is still held by Assad’s troops, while the rebels control some suburbs and parts of the rest of the country.
Our first view of the city was of towering clouds of smoke where government air attacks had pounded rebel strongholds, while overhead there was the metallic flash of planes.
The war has been raging since 2011. So far, the UN estimates, around 70,000 Syrians have been killed, two million people are homeless and more than a million are refugees in neighbouring countries as a result of the violence.
How did the fighting start?
On 17 February 2011, in a square next to the famous Al-Hamidiyah souq in Damascus, something remarkable happened. The police had just beaten a local shopkeeper, which previously a cowed population would have pretended not to see. This time, though, emboldened by the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, a crowd gathered and protested.
People recorded the drama on their mobile phones, and news spread on the internet. Protestors roared, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated.” The oppressed had found their voice. Within weeks, demonstrations broke out across Syria as massive crowds protested peacefully against the Assad regime. The government responded with violence, detentions, torture.
Over the summer, peaceful protest turned into armed revolt as a number of militias led an insurrection from bases within Syria and also in Turkey. They declared the formation of a Free Syrian Army, launching attacks on the regime that the government attempted to put down with maximum force. Soon it was a full-blown civil war.
What is Syria like?
Syria is a treasure house, packed with some of the most precious relics of our past. It was the birthplace of large-scale farming and writing and Damascus is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. Syria was once hugely wealthy and influential, sitting astride the great artery of trade flowing from China to Europe and North Africa.
Millennia of history have left their mark. Syria has some of the finest Roman ruins I have ever seen, such as Palmyra, a beautiful city in a desert oasis. It also boasts the best Crusader castles, such as the mighty Crac des Chevaliers, and my favourite: the less well-known Saladin Castle, protected by a massive, man-made chasm.
Syria is also the setting of beautiful medieval Islamic town centres and markets. The country has, however, suffered a decade of economic under-performance, experienced huge population growth and endured a terrible drought.
During the 20th century it has been politically volatile, and since 1970 has been dominated by one family: first Hafez al-Assad, then his son Bashar. They ran a dictatorship where opposition was viciously repressed.
How does history help us?
The terrible events ripping Syria apart are deeply rooted in the country’s turbulent past. Only by exploring the history can we understand what is happening today.
Syria’s place on the cusp of Europe and Asia made it a conduit for people, ideas, trade and religion. When you walk the streets of Syria’s cities you can see the resulting patchwork of different ethnic and religious groups.
I attended a Christian church service where worshippers did their best to ignore the thump of artillery outside, and visited Alawite and Sunni Islamic places of worship. The civil war has seen different Islamic groups pitted against each other; Christians, Druzes and Kurds have also been drawn in.
So what role does religion play?
President Bashar al-Assad, head of the ruling Baath Party, is from the small Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, who make up about 12 per cent of the population but dominate the security establishment and senior ranks in the military. However, he and his father also embraced secularism, another reason why many Sunnis, Syria’s largest religious group, opposed their regime.
Sunni and Shia Muslims disagree fundamentally. As a branch of Shia Islam, Alawites are seen by Sunnis as even more misguided and heretical. I met a Sunni preacher who insisted that Alawites were not Muslims at all.
Throughout history this view has prevailed with many Sunnis. There have been countless massacres, each mythologised by the respective communities, and the Alawites were marginalised. The Sunnis despise the Assads for their religious background and their secularism and resented the Alawites for usurping the Sunnis’ traditional place at the heart of Syrian government.
Is it a sectarian conflict then?
Religion is clearly an important element in the fighting. Sunni groups came close to assassinating the first President Assad, and launched a full-scale revolt in the town of Hama in 1982, which was crushed by the Assads with appalling violence. The Syrian Human Rights Committee estimates that anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people were killed. I met survivors who told of corpses left on the streets for the dogs.
Today’s war is the product of this vast historical reservoir of bitterness. Syria’s diverse population, once a great strength, is turning on itself.
What hope is there for democracy?
Under the Assads Syria has been run as a police state. It also suffers from many problems common to countries that won their independence from European empires in the 20th century. It was controlled by France for most of the first half of the 20th century and, like many newly independent countries, subsequently struggled as factions tried to establish their dominance.
Coups, revolutions, dictators and repression mean that there has never been a stable, democratic, legitimate government in Syria: no tradition of debate, opposition or a free press. But the rebel forces are not unified, and with al-Qaeda-linked groups joining the fight against the regime, there is no guarantee of an end to the instability and bloodshed if Assad falls.
Why should we care?
We should care because thousands of innocent civilians are being killed. We should care because, as you read this, young people are, like the many I met, being maimed, their futures blighted. Millions of people have been displaced, a lot of whom rely on aid from the UK and some of whom will end up on these shores.
We should care because our shared heritage is being destroyed. Because any conflict that deepens hatred between peoples isn’t confined to one country, but spreads across the world. Lebanon has seen violence, it’s widely reported that Israel has launched an airstrike, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (who support the rebels) are lining up against Iran, China and Russia (long-term supporters of Assad).
In today’s world, unrest, violence, hatred and extremism do not recognise national boundaries. A problem in Syria is a problem for us all.
A History of Syria with Dan Snow is on Monday at 9:00pm on BBC2