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October 20, 2016

Syria: Descent into hell

By Arthur Kane Scott

One of the most disturbing pictures, besides those depicting Syrians crossing the Aegean Sea to escape into Europe, was the picture of Omran, five-year old boy, dazed and sitting in an ambulance. It went viral on social media. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/world/middleeast/omran-daqneesh-syria-aleppo.html?_r=0).

The Syrian Civil War has created the largest refugee problem since World War II, and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 involving Hutu and Tutsi. In this act of genocide 800,000 Tutsi were slaughtered.

Half the Syrian population of 23 million have found their lives disrupted. Another 400, 000 to 500,000 forced to leave their homes. Of these, one-quarter killed, half of whom are civilians.

One million Syrians have sought refuge in Europe. This has created a nationalistic or far-right backlash among European Union members echoed in the United States with the Republican candidate Donald Trump. It has given rise to Far Right movements calling for boarder closings and the United Kingdom to Brexit.

Nearly five million Syrians have fled to neighboring Middle East countries: Turkey,2.6; Egypt, 1.9 million; Lebanon, 1.7; Iraq, 246,000; and 60, 000 Syrians stuck on Jordan’s boarder. Living in refugee camps is difficult with crapping, limited food and movement. Besides poor sanitation, expectations for future improvements are dismal. (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868).

Aleppo, the New York of Syria, is the largest Syrian city with a population of 2.5 million. Today it’s East Aleppo with a population of 275, 00 that is being targeted for its resistance to Assad. A brutal conflict involving chemicals and barrel bombings of civilians in cities. Everything is targeted from hospitals, health centers, and schools.

A noteworthy story coming out of Aleppo is the White Helmets.  They are a volunteer force of First Responders who have saved about 60, 000 Syrians from the aerial terror. There is even a discussion of a Nobel Peace Prize for their medical interventions. Netflix came out with a documentary about their heroics. What is happening in Aleppo is consider a humanitarian tragedy? Ban- Ki-moon, UN Secretary- General, “appalled by the continuing military escalation.” (http://time.com/syria-white-helmets/).

Geopolitics of Syria:

    Prior to 1916, there was no Syria. It was known as the Levant. The land of the rising eastern Sun.

During the ancient/ classical/ Islamic times, Syria was divided among competing powers. Damascus was primarily a fortress and commercial town. Aleppo to the north was vulnerable to Anatolia from which the Ottoman Turks would emerge dominant with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The Turks controlled the Levant through World War I. By 1914, Turkey had become the “sick man on the Bosporus,” with England and France exercising their imperial presence through the Suez Canal and the presence of oil. The Great War led to the collapse of the Ottoman’s, to the Sykes-Picot Treaty, and the Balfour Declaration.

The West imposed a new map on the Near East which had nothing to go with geography, tribe and kin, history, language and culture. It did serve, however, their imperial ambitions, leading to the mandate system, by which Lebanon and Syria fell under French rule, Palestine and Transjordan under the English. (http://www.telesurtv.net/english/analysis/How-Sykes-Picot-Is-the-Root-of-Syria-Iraq-Sectarian-Conflicts-20160513-0028.html).

The French decided to bring French Civilization to Syria with an emphasis on the language, secularism, Catholicism and western education.

There major concern was the issue of Arab nationalism that had played an important role in World War I. The warunified the Arab tribesmen under Sharif Hussein bin Aliand Lawrence of Arabia leading to the capture of Damascus prior to English arrival. The Arab goal of independence with Damascus as capital, however, fell on deaf ears at Versailles. The Arabs were just too backward, they needed the tutelage of the French and British. This is captured dramatically in the film Lawrence of Arabia in the last scene in which the Arabs are portrayed as not having the technical skills essential to administer modern Damascus and abruptly leave.

During the Mandate period the French concerned by threat of Arab nationalism to their rule implemented a policy of divide and rule, by playing one group off against other. The ethnic and religious diversity of Syria made this an easy policy.

Syrian Diversity:

 Ethnic and religious diversity is one of the key issues to understanding the Syrian Civil War. Syria is comprised of five significant groups: Sunni, Alawites, Christians, Druze’s and Kurds. The first four groups are Arabs; Kurds are Indo-European. Arabic is spoken by all. And is the official language of Syria. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sectarianism_and_minorities_in_the_Syrian_Civil_War).

Largest religious group is the Sunna who represent 74 percent of the population. They dominate the cities, and during the Ottoman’s were the ruling elite. They see themselves as followers of Muhammad’s Sunna or practices, and the Five- Pillars. Sunna represent about 85 percent of the global Muslim community.

Post-World War I, the Ba’ath Party under the leadership ofa Christian, Michel Aflaq, was created. It drew heavily from the Sunna population. Aflaq called for the creation of a state based on western principles of nationalism and socialism as the best way to check-mate the danger of sectarianism implicit in Syria’s religious and ethnic diversity. The problem confronting the Ba’ath Party was that nationalism was too foreign and abstract for the ethnic and religious complexity of Syrians.

Alawites became the ruling elite of Syria and main supporters of the Assad family. They constitute about 13 percent of the population or approximately 3.5 million. Their status in Islam is mixed. Sunni scholars see them as heretics. Off- shoot of Shia 12ers, who take their name form the 12th Imam, who tradition has it ascended in 874, and is destined to return and restore peace to the world. In addition, they have incorporated Christian elements into their practices including the Trinity and taking wine. Alawites were historically marginalized by the Sunna. But during the French Mandate their position improved as Paris turned to them as a Sunna check by allowing them to enter the military.

Christians represent 10% of the population or 2. 5 million. They are found in the large cities of Aleppo and Damascus. Damascus is often called the city of St. Paul. The Christian community is embedded in trade, commerce, business, medical profession and engineering. Because of their minority status and rise of Islamic Fundamentalism they are fearful of ethnic cleansing. The Christian community has been subject to periodic persecution. One of the worse being in 1915 when the Turks under Ataturk attempted to Turkify the Ottoman Empire.

The Kurds, Indo-Europeans, are the largest minority in Syria at 10% of the population. Their areas are located along the Syrian-Turkish border, especially in the northeast. Kurds were people ignored by Sykes-Picot. They claim for themselves Kurdistan which includes parts of Syria, eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and northwest Iran as well as the headwaters of Tigris-Euphrates Rivers. The problem the Kurds encounter is that no one wants to see them independent as that would dramatically upset the geo-politics of the region. Kurdish independence is a factor in Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War.(http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440).

Islamic Resurgence:

The Islamic Resurgence was a response to the failure of Arab nationalism under Nasser and Sadat of Egypt, Hafez in Syria, and Saddam Hussein to unify Arabs and to free Palestine by defeating the Israeli’s. Simultaneously, it was energized by the success of the Ayatollah Khomeini Revolution in Iran against the “Great Satan,” America, in 1978. The revolution in Teheran marks the beginnings of introduced Islamic Fundamentalism.(http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t253/e9).

Many Sunna Muslims likewise called for rejecting western modernity and materialism and returning to religious roots of Islam. In Syria this opposition took the form of the Islamic Brotherhood in which Sunna’s finding themselves discriminated, their political and economic voice diminishing, began to oppose their Alawite leader Hafez Assad. This led Hafez to crush the Brotherhood at Hama in 1982. Approximately20,000 residents at Hama were killed. (http://www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/commentary/syria-hama-massacre).

Assad Family:

The Hafez family has ruled Syria since 1970 through the Ba’ath Party. A wonderful film on FX entitled the Tyrant looks at the family, and the dynamics and dark side of family power.

Hafez Assad, an Alawite, came to power through the military as head of the Airforce and Ministry of Defense. Hafez was a tyrant who ruled with an iron fist. He institutionalized fear: arresting 1000s. Hama the best example. Many simply disappeared. Hafez ruthlessly controlled behind the scenes through family and clan members from his home village of Qardaha as a godfather. Reminiscent of Mafia families.(https://www.amazon.com/Asad-Struggle-Middle-Patrick-Seale/dp/0520069765).

Syria lost the Golan Heights first to Israel during the Six Day War, and again during the Yom Kippur War, when Sadat unilaterally signed a peace treaty with Tel Aviv in 1973. This treacherous act embittered Hafez toward Egypt and the Israelis. It was a setback to his dream of a “Greater Syria” which called for the incorporation of Lebanon. Nevertheless, Syria has treated Lebanon pretty much as a client state.

Hafez, although of the same stripe as Saddam Hussein, looked upon him as a regional rival and thug. Moreover, there was their sectarian differences: Hafez relied on Alawites, whereas Saddam on Sunni Iraqis which constituted 30 percent of his country. Hafez supported the Iranians in the 80`s against Saddam, and joined the US led coalition during the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91. Similarly, Damascus joined America again in its decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein under GW.

Bashir Assad rose to power with the death of his father in 2000. Bashir was not the heir apparent, which was his play-boy brother Basel, who died in a car crash. Bashir in fact was away in London studying ophthalmology when his father died. At first he seemed to be more open to reform but become frightened by the democratic tenor of the Arab Spring. It was his crackdown against democratic reformers in Dara that led to the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Today Bashir is considered by the West a war criminal, because of counter-insurgency and indiscriminate aerial bombings against his own people

Bashir rules essentially through his family. Key members are his mother Anisa, his very ambitious and calculating sister Bushara; and his brother, Maher, who heads the Republican Guard and the terrifying Fourth Division. Maher is much more like his father, Hafez, in demeanor. Bashir’s wife, Asma, although western trained, apparently has little influence in the family councils. She is looked as an outsider by most Syrians. They have three children, the oldest, Hafez, is being groomed as successor. (http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2013/02/assad-family).

Urban Centers of Opposition:

  • Dara sixty miles south of Damascus, bordering Jordan, has a population of sixty thousand and was a Sunna bastion. It became the cradle of the Syrian Liberation Army resistance and revolution against Bashir largely influenced by the Arab Spring.
  • Homs, the third largest city in Syria, is about 100 miles north of Damascus. It had a population of 1 million which has been greatly reduced by the Civil War and Assad`s military. It had a very affluent Sunna commercial and merchant class.
  • Damascus is the current capital. Called Pearl of the East. Blessed with water, fertile soil and a World Heritage City. City of T.E. Lawrence. Arab revolt, and the great mosque of the Umayyad dynasty. Has been rather untouched by the Civil War, and possess a large Kurdish population of 300,000, as well as a strong Christian presence of 15-20%. These populations are pro-Assad and fear regime change.
  • Aleppo lies north of Damascus, very close to the Turkish border. It’s the largest Syrian city with a population of 1.6 million. A World Heritage city, too. Aleppo historically was a great trading center linking the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. It was the terminus point of the Great Silk Road. The city was razed by Timur in 1400.  Aleppo has been divided since 2012. Eastern Aleppo, center of resistance, has a population of a quarter-million. Like Damascus, it has a large Catholic/Armenian/Syrian Christian population that constitutes about 15-20% of the population. There is also a sizeable Sufi presence.(http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-18957096)

Where Are We:

Overall, Bashir al–Assad Ba`athist regime still controls one-half of Syria and three-quarters of the population. The Civil War, with the entry of Russia, is running in favor of Bashir and in all probability he will weather the storm of regime change.

The situation in Syria is quite confused because of these factors:

  • Rise of ISIL, a Sunna extremist group in eastern Syria and northern Iraq shifted the attention away from Assad. It’s a break- away group from al- Qaeda and the Iraqi military locatedinthe Sunna Triangle. Washington gave birth to ISIS by its policies after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
  • Specifically, by favoring the Shia of southern Iraq at the expense of the
  • Sunna, and disbanding the Syrian Army.
  • Free Syrian Army (FSA). Free Syrian Army is composed of military defectors from Assad’s regime. Many of whom were drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunna fundamentalist who saw Assad’s regime as haram. Today the FSA has been broken, hardly a factor and marginalized.
  • Al-Nusra, comprised primarily of Wahhabis, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is supported by other Safaist, or ultra-orthodox Sunna group. They oppose Bashir on religious and geopolitical grounds. See the conflict has a struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region and leadership of the Muslim community.
  • Turkey under President Erdogen has become engaged because of the Kurdish problem. The Turks are very concern about the Kurds of Turkey and /Syria joining hands to establish an independent state and controlling the head- waters of Tigris -Euphrates. (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-18957096)
  • Shia Iran and Hezbollah of Lebanon have rushed to the support of Assad providing, men, money and fire power to sustain him. Tension has arisen between Syrian Nationals and the Islamists from Iran and Lebanon. Ironically, Russian and senior Syrian officials, who are secular, have more in common with each other, than the Islamist Iranians and Lebanese. For Teheran, shoring-up Assad not only increases their influence in the region, but also represents a slap against Riyadh(http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/us-russia-syria fate.html Agreement-Iran-Reaction-Assad-).
  • Arrival of Putin in Syria has greatly changed the conflict in favor of Assad. Putin has intervened because of his opposition to American policy of regime change, and to consolidate his tactical position in the Levant centering on the Russian air/naval base at Nartus, which gives Russia access to lucrative Mediterranean shipping and commerce.
  • In addition, the Syrian crisis has created a storm within the European Union about the threat posed by Muslims to European Civilization giving sustenance to “Far Right” revivals undermining European solidarity and perhaps even threatening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO). Iran and Russia also are drawing closer over the future disposition of Syria shifting the Middle East balance against Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh.   Besides Putin see Russian engagement as a way to send a message to Islamists in Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia that extremism is unwelcome. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/11/why-russia-is-in-syria/).
  • The United States role in Syria is ambivalent. Despite the “Red Line Agreement” about chemical weapons Obama did not act, but turned to Russian to mediate their disposition. Washington’s position is that Assad must step-down first before legitimate discussions can occur over a transitional government.
  • Obama is caught in Syria, “although deeply troubled,” because of his desire to wind-down American Middle East involvement, and make a Pacific pivot. American since 9/11 has spent trillions there, and at home there is a growing weariness with this endless “Rabbit Hole.” Avery strong American isolation movement has emerged which calls for Sunna and Shias to deal with their sectarian differences.
  • Further, The Middle East quagmire has led Americans to question or even have doubts and concerns about the future of United States` continued greatness as exemplified in “American Exceptionalism” and “American Indispensability.” This has led many to ask has the time come for Washington to re-evaluate its global role as “policeman of the world” before it undermines itself as didRome. (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/10/anders-fogh-rasmussen-trump/503468/).

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Board Member Museum of the American Indian, Novato, California