Syria Coming to a Boil
by Eric Margolis: Gadaffi's
Curse Keeps Haunting Washington
spite of its oil treasures, is strictly a sideshow in the great
game of nations. We should be keeping our eyes on highly strategic
Syria, a potentially combustible nation of 22.5 million that lies
at the very heart of what we call the Mideast.
have erupted in the Syrian port city of Latakia, Homs, and in three
smaller southern towns, including Daraa, where, during World War
I, Lawrence of Arabia was captured and tortured by the Turks. There
have been small demonstrations in the capital, Damascus. The tough
Syrian army has been deployed in many urban areas.
It was inevitable
that the revolutions and uprisings sweeping across the Mideast would
reach Syria, which has been ruled with an iron hand by the Asad
family since 1970. Now, Syria’s neighbors are watching Syria’s gathering
storm with a mixture of alarm and uncertainty.
Syria has been
isolated for over three decades. Damascus is under siege from the
United States because of its opposition to Israel and championing
of the Palestinians. US trade and arms sanctions have seriously
damaged Syria’s weak economy and military forces.
hostility from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq, all three dominated
by the US, have further isolated Syria among the Arabs. Until recently,
Turkey and Syria were also at scimitar’s drawn, but relations have
threatens war against Syria because of the vital support Damascus
gives to Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement and Palestinians. Israel’s
virtual annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights and expulsion of over
125,000 Syrians from the Heights by Israel in 1967, and land expropriation
by 19,000 Israeli settlers, remain inflammatory issues. Israeli
heavy artillery atop Golan is within range of Damascus.
powerful armed forces are by now almost totally outdated thanks
to US sanctions, the collapse of Syria’s main arms supplier, the
Soviet Union, and Damascus’ lack of hard cash to buy modern weapons
from abroad. As a result, Syria’s 1980’s-vintage air and land forces
face Israel’s mighty military machine that could crush Syria in
Syria is a
highly sophisticated nation whose rich, though often tragic history,
dates back to the dawn of time. Damascus is believed to be the oldest
continuously inhabited city on earth. Syria has always been one
of the two poles of the Arab world, along with its rival Egypt.
of Syrians is shaped by the fact that under the Ottoman Empire,
Syria, or Shams, as it is called in Arabic, consisted of today’s
Syria, Lebanon, parts of Iraq and southeastern Turkey, Jordan, Palestine
and much of central and northern modern Israel.
More than half
of historic Syria was stripped away by the rapacious French and
British during World War I. Syria has never accepted this national
relations are particularly fraught because France tore away the
Mount Lebanon region from Syria as late as the 1920’s and created
the protectorate of Lebanon to maintain French influence on the
to accept Lebanon’s independence, insisting it is still an integral
part of Syria. The British imperialists did precisely the same thing
with the sheikdom of Kuwait, detaching it from historic Iraq. Iraq’s
late leader, Saddam Hussein, sought to assert his nation’s historic
claim to Kuwait – with dire consequences.
Syria so dangerous and volatile is its repressive and narrow political
system. Former strongman Hafez Asad and his son Basher, the current
president, come from the Alawi, a small, secretive religious minority
from the mountains near Latakia said to be an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Sunni Muslims regard the Alawi, who mix Shia and Christian beliefs,
as dangerous heretics, even pagans.
In the 1960’s,
the armed forces filled up with impoverished Alawis, who had trouble
finding work elsewhere. By the time Gen. Hafez Asad seized power
in one of Syria’s endless coups, the armed forces and many of the
eight or nine secret police organizations, had become dominated
To put down
growing unrest to Alawi rule, and attacks by Sunni militants, a
draconian Emergency Decree was promulgated in 1963, which remains
in force until today. A key demand by protestors in Syria is repeal
of this hated martial law that curtails all freedoms and allows
summary arrest without trials.
iron hand gave Syria its first and only stable government since
World War II. No one knows what will happen if that steely grip
As of this
writing, reports are coming from Damascus that President Basher
Asad may repeal the Emergency law and amend the constitution which
mandates that the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party will be the "leader
of Syria’s regime and society."
Even such an
important change might not vent sufficient popular steam to avert
a major explosion.
challenge is to muzzle the Ba’ath Party Old Guard and enacting important
reforms without allowing the lid to blow off pressure-cooker Syria
where thirty to forty years of anger, frustration and calls for
revenge boil just below the surface.
Some 75% of
Syrians are Sunni Muslim. Alawis and Druze, another secretive mountain
group, make up about 13% of the population, followed by Kurds, Armenians,
Jews, and Circassians, whose Caucasian forebears were victims of
Russian ethnic cleansing in the 19th century.
who make up 10% of the population, can trace their roots all the
way back to the birth of the faith. Many support the Asad regime
out of concern their often favored status as part of the commercial
elite would vanish under a Sunni-dominated government.
long chaffed against rule by "heretical" Alawis, as well
as under the two draconian Asad regimes and their feared secret
police, the "Mukhabarat." Islamists have long been active
in Syria’s underground, inviting savage repression from the regime.
In 1982, this
writer was present when Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood
in the city of Hama rose up against the Asad regime. The rebellion
was put down by the Army, led by the brother of Hafez Asad, Rifaat.
Thousands were killed and part of the inner city leveled by heavy
artillery. The Islamists were beaten into submission- at least until
Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration’s neocon crusaders were eager
to attack Syria and overthrow the Asad regime. Israel urged a US
attack. Syria was and remains a key ally of Iran, the only Arab
one, and Tehran’s beachhead in the Levant. Note that Syria’s Alawi
are close to Iran’s militant Shia.
But it soon
occurred to even the dullest minds of the Bush White House that
if the devil-we-know-Asad is overthrown, who would replace him?
The unavoidable answer was the Muslim Brotherhood – and that term
frightened Washington a great deal. So Syria was spared, "faut
de mieux," as the French say.
This time around,
if the Asad regime falls, it could just as well be replaced by Syria’s
Muslim Brotherhood, that may be thirsting for revenge. A bloodbath
could ensue, plunging Syria into political chaos and violence and
running the risk of drawing Syria’s unloving neighbors and the Western
powers, notably France, into the fray.
I had a long
talk about this danger with President Bashar Asad’s chief advisor,
the very smart, and worldly Bouthaina Shaaban, who is much in the
news these days. Her view is that Asad the younger and his coterie
of technocrats will slowly but surely achieve modernizing reforms
and put Syria on the path to democracy. Madame Shaaban told me that
Western intrigues against Syria, and Israel threats, have played
a major role in keeping the nation under siege mentality and delaying
A big change
in Syria was expected when the youthful Bashar Asad took power.
It did not happen. The conservative Ba’ath Old Guard thwarted any
are at least two major factions within the Asad regime. The "old
guard" wants to crush all dissent, pointing to events in other
Arab nations. The younger, reformist camp wants to end martial law
and create a real parliament and free press. Syria’s important merchant
class is strongly in favor of opening the economy and society, and
seeing the last of Syria’s wretched "Arab Socialism" that
mixed the worst of East European economic quackery with Arab inertia
Syria are far too complex for Washington to understand right now.
Ending sanctions against Syria, restraining Israel’s interventionist
hawks, and applauding democrats from the sidelines is the best thing
the US can do for the time being. Syria is no place for the usual
US bull in the china shop behavior.
him mail] is the author of War
at the Top of the World and the new book, American
Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the
West and the Muslim World. See his
© 2011 Eric Margolis
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