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July 1, 2012

Syria: Descent into hell

By Arthur Kane Scott

The Syrian revolution has reached the boiling point of civil war with sectarian violence escalating throughout the country. At least 10 000 Syrians have lost their lives. The city of Hama has become the metaphor for the horrendous violence erupting throughout the country. There are uncanny parallels between what is unfolding in Syria to what occurred in the Balkans in the 1990’s with the collapse of Yugoslavia, and to what occurred in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. In each case ethnic/religious violence exploded. In the Balkans it was Orthodox Serb against Muslim Bosnian, and in Iraq the line was drawn primarily between Shiia and Sunna. One of the ironies is that fleeing Iraqis had saw Syria as a safe haven, but since 2010, Iraqis have been returning to a less than perfect domicile in Bagdad. Kofi Annam’s, the United Nations Special Envoy, recent plan to prevent civil conflict has collapsed. It called for ending all armed violence, peaceful demonstration, and journalistic freedom. The Syrian Free Army in the meantime has become increasingly stronger taking on the Bashir forces in Damascus and Aleppo, the two nerve centers of Syria. The United Nations Security Council has become bitterly divided over the next steps to follow. Russia and China oppose intervention or regime change first on principle, and second, because of the political void that would follow the Assad collapse.   The Russian Orthodox Church leaders have expressed deep concerns with President Putin over the terrible consequences that regime collapse would have on the Christian minority community there. Chapter seven of the UN Charter does allow for military intervention, but it requires unanimous approval from the Security Council, which both China and Russia opposed.

Syrian revolutionary volatility revolves around the complexity of its ethnic, religious, and political mosaic. There are five significant groups in Syria: Sunni, Alawites, Christians, Druzes and Kurds. The first four are Arabs, only the Kurds are non- Arabs. Arab is spoken by all and is the official language of Syria. The largest religious/ethnic group consists of Sunni Arabs who constitute about 74% of the population. The Sunnis, though politically dominant ,during most of the twenty century lost their influence  with the emergence of Hafiz  al – Assad in the 1970’s, who created  a single party state based on an alliance among Alawites, Christians,  and the Military. The Alawites who are Shiia represent about 3.5 million Syrians. Historically they were linked with the Christians and other Shiia’s like Druzes/Ismaili. Kurds represent about 12 % of the population and historically have had strong separatist tendencies calling for the creation of an independent Kurdistan which if achieved would have a profound impact on the geopolitics  of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East. The Sunna has been chafing under the authoritarian rule of Assad’s for 40 years. The government of Bashir al- Assad saw sectarian violence mounting between Sunna and Alawites-Christians all of whom carry memories of cultural profiling and bitter memories of social and economic discrimination going back decades. Sunnas remember the terrible massacre at Hama in 1982 in which 40,000 residents were put to death, and the economic deterioration of their community in jobs, state positions and social influence. The Sunna population has been reduced to second and third rate citizenship even though they constitute the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population. (See, Scott, “Syrian Revolution”; “Assad & Christian Minority”; “Who Are the Sunna?”).

The main bulwark of the Assad regime consist of the military, comprised mainly of Alawites, who at this point in time are fighting for their lives seeing in the collapse of the  Assad regime a collapse from privilege and power. The military has three major parts. First, is the regular military consisting of army, navy and air force. Historically Russia and Iran have been supplying the Syrians including drones and sophisticated electronics. Second, is a comprehensive intelligence network of 17 agencies comprised of 150,000 operatives woven throughout the social fabric of Syrian society spying on and arresting dissidents transforming Syria into a police state? Finally, there are the neighborhood militias or street thugs who keep the Syrians in line known as Shabiha. (Cf, Frank Gardener,

 Compounding the volatility is Syria’s geopolitical location: its importance in the regional conflict being played out between United States and Israel/Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Iran/Hezbollah on the other. Teheran has been a major player in shoring up both Bashir and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in spearheading growing Shiia political activism in the Gulf States.

Another ingredient in the Syrian violence and uncertainty is the role of both the Global/Regional Powers who see in the Syrian revolution an opportunity to strengthen their respective positions. Already many are calling the sectarian conflict in Syria a proxy war to determine who will emerge more dominant in the Middle East. At the global level the Syrian debacle pits the US/EU against Russia/ China. America has frozen Assad’s funds as has EU. But neither Washington nor Luxembourg shows any interest in a military response to the Syrian crisis. In the US, the country is too preoccupied by issues of economic recovery, and an intense 2012 presidential election.  Similarly the EU similarly is preoccupied by the future of the Euro and Greece as well the tottering banks in Spain and perhaps Italy. Russia remains a mainstay for Assad and the military by providing weapons many of which, ironically, are produced in America as part of the military –industrial establishment.

Regionally the conflict revolves around Israel/Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever since the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 tensions between Teheran and /Riyadh has magnified: recently over Iran’s nuclear program, second, over Sunna/Shiia divide, and most importantly over oil, and the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia for decades has been attempting to isolate the Iranian virus of Fundamentalism by pouring millions in the constuction of madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan from which the Salafis, a very conservative Islamist group, including the Taliban, have become dominant. Regarding Syria specifically, Saudi King Abdullah remains critical of the Bashir regime to a large extent because of expanding Iranian influence in Damascus in the form of weapons and economic aid as well as Shiia expansion. (Cf, Jubin Goodarzi,  According to Professor Birol Akgun, “Saudi Arabia has realized the US can no longer contain the Iranian influence in the region. Therefore, she [Saudi Arabia] would prefer to enter an alliance with other regional actors, such as Turkey,” (Cf,

In conclusion, where goest Syria?  She is probably on a slippery slope heading into a nightmare of civil war with no peaceful resolution in sight. The Global Powers are at loggerheads about the question of intervention, and as a consequence the Syrians have become the latest Middle East victim in a new version of the “Great Game” going back to Sykes- Picot in 1916. The regional dynamics compound the sectarian divide for the Syrians as it pits Israel/ Saudi Arabi, and Iran against one other with each country seeking to manipulate the Syrian crisis to their own advantage. One of the great tragedies of the “Arab Spring” is its failure to produce a transcendent person who is able, through a “New Vision” of humanity, to create an inclusive society in which respects for cultural/gender difference is restored returning the Middle East to its Golden Age greatness. As Rumi poetically expressed it: 

                             What can be done, O Believers, as I don’t recognize myself?

                             I’m neither a Christian nor Jew, Magian nor Moslem.

                             I m not of the East or West, neither land nor sea;

                             I’m not of Nature’s mine, nor the stars in Heaven.

                             I’m not of earth, water, air or fire;

                             I’m not of India, China, Bulgaria nor Saqsin;

                             I’m not of the Kingdom of Iraq, nor Khorasan.

                             I’m not of this world, nor the next, Paradise or Hell;

                             I’m not of Adam, nor Eve, Eden nor Rizwan.

                             My place is in the Placeless, my trace in the Traceless;

                             I’m neither body nor soul, as I belong to the soul

                        James G. Cowan trans., Where Two Oceans Meet                                 

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies of the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies.