In a Jordanian border town, the teenager goes unnoticed. He's one of hundreds of thousands of refugees who've fled to Jordan to escape the bloody civil war in Syria.
But this young man carries a burden--maybe an honor, too--that almost no one else shares. He knows that he and his friends helped start it all. They ignited an uprising.
It began simply enough, inspired by teenage rebellion against authority more than political activisim. He and his friends watched his cousin spray-paint the wall of a school in his home city of Deraa (dera-AH) with a challenge to President Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist-turned-dictator, about the upheaval then spreading across the Arab world.
"It's your turn, doctor," the cousin wrote in March 2011.
After the graffiti, the teenager and his friends were arrested and tortured, setting off demonstrations in Deraa that sparked Syria's bloody civil war.
It's been almost two-and-a-half years since the uprisings known as the Arab Spring began in December 2010 (see map, p. 15). The initial optimism that marked the revolts--the hope that a democratic Middle East was around the corner--has given way to harsh realities. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began when a frustrated 26-year-old fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest, the assassination of a political opposition leader has sent the country back into turmoil. In Egypt, the economy has collapsed and the first democratically elected parliament has been dissolved, leading to talk of a second revolution.
Nowhere has the Arab Spring had bloodier consequences than in Syria. The initial uprising has evolved into a civil war with the goal of ousting President Assad. About 70,000 people have been killed and more than a million have fled the country. The idea of Syria as a nation is disappearing amid cycles of sectarian bloodshed that could lead to its breakup.
Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Syria's population, are battling the brutal 43-year dictatorship of the Assad family. The Assads are Alawites, a Shiite sect that has held most positions of power in the government and military (see "Who's Who in Syria," p. 14).
In February, the U.S. announced it would send $60 million of food and medical supplies to opposition fighters. The U.S. has condemned the Assad regime and warned it not to use chemical weapons, but it's been hesitant to supply arms directly to the rebels for fear the weapons would end up in the hands of extremists, including groups linked to Al Qaeda. The C.I.A., however, is now helping other countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, funnel arms to rebel fighters.
"We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is...