Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Syria: A Nation Drowning in Blood

It is almost impossible for the American mind to comprehend a land like Syria. With limited understanding, it becomes dangerous to muddle around with such a nation – as it was in Egypt and Libya. America’s great puzzle is its need for self-protection, however, and it must always weigh what actions in strange lands could endanger us.
by Charlie Leck
A dear cousin in France wrote to me and included these words of wisdom in her note: “Americans don’t seem to understand that Syria has been there for over 5,000 years and U.S. intervention will only deepen the conflict. The guy in charge might be mishandling things but, my God, what would happen if some nut of a mullah took over?”
The morning paper carries troubling news from Syria again! An Associated Press story by Zeina Karam and Lori Hinnant refers to Syria as “a nation drowning in blood.” The terrible chaos in Syria continues to worsen.
“It will be hard enough to find a political solution to Syria’s crisis at an international peace conference convening in Switzerland on Wednesday, given the differences between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the opposition.”
                                                                                   [Associated Press]
My cousin is correct – and she is incorrect!
Thomas Paine, at the time of America’s war of independence said so artfully: “These are times that try men’s souls!”
The horrible and cruel events in Syria are much the same. The question of conscience becomes: “Who can stand by and watch and still claim innocence?” President Assad is a cruel man; yet, as my cousin asks, “What kind of government would the alternative be?”
The bloodshed in Syria is revolting and sickening! The nations of the world are looking on and cannot agree on action. Russia and China are strong allies of the Syrian regime’s leader. It complicates things. It prevents the United Nations from taking significant action. It threatens the success of the conference that will convene today in Switzerland.
Consider Syria’s ancient history…
Syria is a mystery to most Americans; and one must say that this includes the American government. It is difficult for us to understand Syria. It begins with the difficulty of getting our heads around the fact that Syria is five thousand years in the making (5,000 I repeat). Most archeologists concur that Syria has one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Evidence of ancient life, possibly dating back a million years, has been found there. It is part of the Fertile Crescent. Cattle breeding and agricultural practices appeared here before it did in any other part of the world. Its language is considered the most ancient written language on earth. Clear evidence exists that shows Syria in contact with ancient Egypt as early as the period of the Pharaohs. The area was fought over in wars that go back two thousand years before the start of our modern calendar. The current land of Syria was occupied by Sumerians, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. It was a province of Greece during the height of Alexander’s empire and of Rome during that empire. When the Roman Empire declined, Syria identified with the Byzantine Empire in the latter part of the fourth century.
In the seventh century (634 to 640), Syria was conquered by Muslim Arabs and became a part of the Islamic empire and Damascus would soon after become the center and principle city of this empire. One must remember that this empire, at its pinnacle, stretched from Spain to India and into parts of Asia as well. During this period, Syria and Damascus flourished economically. As well, during this period, Christianity was completely tolerated and a significant number of Christians rose to high levels in Syrian government. Such tolerance disappeared with the collapse of the empire in the next century and hundreds of years of warfare would follow. The Greek, Latin and Aramaic languages that had begun to be popular quickly disappeared as various dynasties took and then lost control of Damascus and Syria.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, parts of Syria experienced visits by the principals of the Christian Crusades and their enemies, the Mongols. When the area was left devastated by these invasions, the Egyptians followed and controlled Syria for a time from Cairo. Then, in the sixteenth century, Syria became a part of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled from Turkey. During the First World War, Syria would fall under French control and a Kingdom of Syria would be established. There were serious and regular acts of violence and battles between the French and various groups of Syrians during this period. A treaty of Independence was negotiated between France and Syria in 1936, granting Syria independence in principle, even though French economic dominance continued. In 1944, Syria was finally recognized as a free and independent republic. The last of France’s occupying troops left in April of 1946.
Even then, however, freedom from turmoil would not come easily. This history has left Syria overwhelmingly Muslim. This is a significant, complex and extraordinary history. In the terms of such history, America is thought of by the Syrians as a mere child.
There were regular wars between Syria and Israel in the period after Syria established independence. They began in 1948, when both nations were mere infants as independent states. Serious fighting between the nations would erupt again in 1967 and in 1973. Since 1967, Israel has claimed possession of 460 square miles of Syrian land (known as the Golan Heights). In 1981, Israel claimed the land as its own. In legal terms, Syria and Israel are currently at war.
The current Assad regime was established in 1970 by Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian political leader (dictator). The family came from the Alawi minority. The Alawi think of themselves as the “chosen people.” Naturally, the traditional and majority Muslims consider them heretics. The Assads associated themselves with Syria’s most secular political party (the Baath Party) as a way of avoiding these religious questions.
The modern nation of Syria has about 23 million inhabitants. We refer to them as Arabs. They are, however, a complex blend of Semite peoples and groups. Religiously and culturally, about 90 percent of its population is Muslim. The dominant language is Arabic; although there are many Kurds (about 10 percent) and they speak Kurdish. The Kurds are found mostly in the northeast corner of the nation and along its northern borders with Turkey. Educated Syrians are very likely to speak French because of the colonial influence France had there in the twentieth century.
William Polk, an American expert on Syria and the Middle East, calls Syria “a small, poor and crowded country.” Look at it and it resembles the size of Washington State. Yet, only a fourth of that land is arable. Most of it is desert and some small part of that is marginally suitable for grazing. Polk refers to “economic Syria” and says that portion is only as large, perhaps, as Switzerland. There are frequent droughts and enormous dust storms.
Polk builds a case that climate and temperature are shapers of Syria.
Those livable areas of Syria are incredibly densely populated – so densely that arable land is almost impossible to farm
Oil was Syria’s economic salvation, but the nation’s oil is of a poor quality and nearly 70 percent of it never left Syria. Before the violence broke out, Syria was trying to build a serious export business for its oil. That has all but stalled now.
Under normal circumstances, education is provided at no cost in Syria and approximately nine years of schooling is required. The first six years of that is primary and general education and is followed by three years of a vocational training period or of academic studies for those who will seek university admission. The literacy rate for Syrian males is over 85 percent and about 75 percent for woman. During the current crisis, however, the Syrian educational system is virtually shut down.
The major cities of Syria are Aleppo (3 million), Damascus (2.5 million), Homs (1.275 million) and Hama (855 thousand).
Is it any wonder that Syria takes so easily to violence and disruption? America simply doesn’t understand such turmoil and instability. America’s inability to understand the nation has led to a series of mistakes in our foreign policy.
George W. Bush, in 2002, declared Syria to be a part of the “Axis of Evil.” Bush imposed sanctions against Syria in 2004. Congress charged that the Syrians were supporting terrorism and were building up a cache of chemical weapons. American aircraft had been used by the Israelis to strike against Syria in 2003. President Bush made moves to repair relations with Syria in 2006. The negotiations moved haltingly, but the U.S. sent an ambassador to Syria in 2010. Three months after he arrived, however, the U.S. imposed new and stringent sanctions on Syria that were meant to block government revenues (principally from oil production). The world watched and its verdict was that U.S. policy toward Syria was muddled.
In a period from 2006 to 2010, Syria was devastated by a drought that generally ceased all agricultural work and production. Crop failures reached as high as 75 percent. A majority of all livestock died of hunger or thirst. Competition for survival broke out among Syrians – neighbor against neighbor – and against hundreds of thousands of refugees who had sought escape from the violence that had broken out in Iraq and Palestine.
Civil war was breaking out! It became, in many ways, a religious war. Young, radical Muslims from other nations flocked to Syria to fight against counterfeit religions and against other Muslims who cooperated too freely with Christians. The radicals opposed the evidence of materialism that they saw among the Alawi and Christian faithful.
America and other western nations have trouble understanding and defining this civil war as a religious one. Without that understanding, however, a settlement of the issues in Syria is virtually impossible. Amazingly, as Polk points out, this is not a war to establish some sort of democracy. Again, this is something nearly impossible for America to understand. So, promises of a settlement that will lead to more democratic forms of government will not lead to peace. The religious war will continue against and among various factions of Islam.
Regard the following statement by Polk seriously and try to understand the essential nature of what he is saying…
“Paradoxically, governments that would have imprisoned the same activists in their own countries have poured money, arms, and other forms of aid into their coffers. The list is long and surprising in its makeup: it includes Turkey, the conservative Arab states, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the EU member states; and the U.S..”
Polk also refers to the “well of hatred” that exists in Syria and how we, as Americans, cannot begin to understand it.
What will victory by the rebellious forces bring to Syria? That is the very frightening question. Does the world look at evil leadership and conclude that it must be left unaltered because the alternative will be so much worse?
“How the victims and the perpetrators can be returned to a ‘normal life’ will be the lingering but urgent question of coming generations in Syria and elsewhere.”
                                           [William R. Polk in The Atlantic Magazine]


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