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Why people are fleeing Syria: a brief, simple explanation

Syrian refugees in Munich, Germany.
Syrian refugees in Munich, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

With the refugee crisis worsening as many Syrians attempt to flee to Europe, many people may find themselves wondering just how the war in that country got so bad, and why so many are fleeing now. Here, then, is a very brief history of the war, written so that anyone can understand it:

Syria is a relatively new country: Its borders were constructed by European powers in the 1920s, mashing together several ethnic and religious groups. Since late 1970, a family from one of those smaller groups — the Assads, who are Shia Alawites — have ruled the country in a brutal dictatorship. Bashar al-Assad has been in power since 2000.

This regime appeared stable, but when Arab Spring protests began in 2011, it turned out not to be. The country's Sunni Arabs, the largest demographic, were clearly sick of their second-class status, and of the country's corruption, brutality, and inequity. Protests began that spring.

On March 18, Syrian security forces opened fire on peaceful protestors in the southern city of Deraa, killing three. Protests grew, and so did the increasingly violent crackdowns. Assad's troops shot demonstrators, abducted and tortured activists, and even murdered children.

Perhaps inevitably, Syrians took up arms to defend themselves. Defectors from Assad's regime joined them. By early 2012, the protests had become a civil war. Government forces indiscriminately bombed and shelled civilian populations; Assad aimed to crush the rebels and their supporters by brute force.

Assad deliberately targeted Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, civilian and rebel alike, for slaughter. His goal was to polarize the conflict on religious lines, to turn what began as a broad-based uprising against a dictator into a sectarian war, with religious minorities on his side. He knew this would attract extremists to the rebel side, which would make the world afraid of seeing Assad lose.

It worked. By 2013, hard-line Sunni Islamists had become some of the most effective anti-Assad fighters, backed by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Meanwhile, Iran's Shia government backed Assad with cash, weapons, and soldiers. It became, in part, a Middle East sectarian proxy war of Shia versus Sunni.

Meanwhile, a Sunni extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had been mostly defeated in 2007, was rebuilding itself. It grew strong fighting against Assad in Syria, and later swept northern Iraq under the new name ISIS.

By 2014, Syria was divided between government, rebel, ISIS, and Kurdish forces. (The Kurds, an ethnic minority, have long sought independence.) It is divided in a terrible stalemate:

syria is divided into different fiefdoms

Syria's territorial divisions, as of September 2, 2015.

(Thomas van Linge)

Civilians always suffer most in war, but Syria's have suffered especially. Assad targets them ruthlessly, including with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. ISIS and other groups, when they take over towns, put them under brutal and violent rule. Fighting has left entire neighborhoods and towns flattened.

About 250,000 people have been killed and half of the country's population has been displaced, with 4 million fleeing as refugees:

the number of refugees climbed as the conflict went on

Syrian refugees registered with the UN over time.

(UN High Commission on Refugees)

Most Syrian refugees end up in overcrowded and underfunded camps in neighboring countries. But with little hope of returning home, many of these families are seeking new lives in Europe, though the journey is expensive, uncertain, and often fatal. That they would risk so much speaks to the horrors they're fleeing, and to their hopes, however faint, of finding a future for their children.

Watch: The shameful US response to the Syrian refugee crisis, by the numbers

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