No question about it -- Syria matters. It is the most immediate, noteworthy, and single-most dangerous foreign crisis of our day. Two years ago, Libya was the centre of global attention. The world watched and intervened until the regime of Mu’ammar Gaddafi, who had been in power for 42 years, came to a blood-stained and wretched end.
Syria is different, more complicated, and much more serious. Whereas oil-rich Libya is a part of the great Sahara Desert, Syria sits in the ‘middle’ of the Middle East. Its neighbours include Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. Everyone of these countries in impacted by the Syrian civil war, which has no end in sight.
What is happening in Syria? Why does it matter?
Syria is mentioned in the Bible and its capital Damascus is called the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. For a time King David occupied Syria and had garrisons in Damascus. Ben-Hadad clashed with the kings of Israel, while Naaman the Syrian general was healed of his leprosy through the ministry of Elisha. It was on the Damascus Road, as he was drew close to the city, that Saul of Tarsus repented and came to faith in Jesus (often, people said that Saul ‘converted’ on the Damascus Road, as if to imply that he left Jerusalem as a Jew and entered Damascus as a Christian. Saul of Tarsus, also known as the Apostle Paul, never stopped being a Pharisee [Acts 23:6] or Jewish, anymore than John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, stopped being Anglican. Repentance, not conversion, is the appropriate term to describe Saul’s experience). Often, the holy land was the rope in a great tug-o-war came between Egypt in the SW and the Mesopotamian empires of Assyria or Babylon in the NE. Only when both empires were out of commission did Syria become a major competitor to ancient Israel.
Under the French Mandate after the first World War, Syria gained independence in 1946. It has been a dictatorship since 1949. Its most long-term dictator was Hafez al Assad (1930-2000), who ruled from 1970 to 2000. He was succeeded by his second son Bashar (born 1965), the London-trained opthamologist, who was summoned from his career to prepare for the presidential succession.
Syria fought wars with Israel three times: 1948 in the first Arab-Israeli war; 1967 Six Day War, where it lost the Golan Heights to Israel; and the 1973 October (Yom Kippur) War, where it tried to regain Golan and received but a sliver of for its troubles.
It is common to think of the uprising in Syria, which commenced in March 2011, as the overflow of the ‘Arab Spring.’ It can be argued, however, that the real trouble occurred nearly thirty years earlier. At that time, Assad Senior locked horns with the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. Their rebellion was ruthlessly crushed in 1982, with a minimum of 20,000 deaths. Though there were no further overt rumblings for decades to come, it now appears that the Brotherhood and its allies have lived to fight another day. The Assads, unlike other regimes, were prepared for that event and are fighting back fiercely.
What are the grievances of the opposition to Assad’s rule?
1. Baathism: This ideology of Arab socialism, fascism, and nationalism, proved incapable of stimulating the economy, bringing pan-Arabism, cleaning out corruption, or defeating Israel on the battle field;
2. Lack of reform: Assad is English-speaking, relatively young, and western-educated. He was only 35 years old when he became president and the Syrian constitution had to be amended to make his administration possible. Yet prospects of reform have been sporadic or ineffective at best.
3. Poor economic management: Hampered by outrageous corruption (there are reports that the army and opposition are selling arms to each other), failed socialism, a nasty drought, and a growing population who cannot find jobs, though a quarter of a million enter the work force each year;
4. Repression: Syria has been a notorious police state. The dreaded muhabarrat or secret police permeated every level of society, could act against citizens with impunity and they had no recourse for justice. Emergency laws have been in existence for decades. Fear was used to keep the population in check.
5. Arab Spring: The popular uprisings in North Africa, which led to the relatively swift fall of the autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, helped to break the decades-old fear barrier, with the help of regular Al Jazeera broadcasts. Younger Arabs saw, for the first time in their repressed lives, that irevolutionary change was possible.
The Syrian revolt started with the peaceful protests in Duraa, southern Syria. Protesters wanted the emergency laws repealed, removal of corrupt officials, and legalisation of political parties. The Assad government responded with a combination of ‘carrot and stick,’ making concessions in these areas but also clamping down hard on protesters. Opposition parties wanted more -- the resignation of Bashar al Assad. Protests spread across the country and, in the light of continued repression, the violent armed uprising has continued ever since.
Who are the combatants? On one side is the regime of President Bashar al Assad, who is part of the minority Islamic sect of Alawite, an off-shot of Shia Islam. Assad rules the Syrian Baathist Party, the same political party that Saddam Hussein led in Iraq. Though it was not an ideal political situation, one of the advantages was that as a ‘secular’ party, run by a minority (Saddam, as a Sunni, was in the minority in an Iraq that is 60% Shiite), Baathism guaranteed relative freedom of religion to Christians and other minorities. That’s why in both pre-war Iraq and Syria, Christians could worship with relative freedom and safety. Since the war broke out, rebels and their jihadist allies have been targeting Christians for kidnapping and murder, including a few beheadings!. On the other side is the opposition to Assad, called the Free Syrian Army and also other groups, including al Qaeda. In shorthand, these parties are known as ‘the rebels’ and Assad’s forces as ‘the government.’
There has been debate on whether America should ‘intervene’ to stop the bloodletting in Syria. Intervention brings high cost and high risk, yet it has been the order of the day. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are arming the rebels while Iran and Russia support Assad. In essence, the Syrian civil war has become a proxy war between the Saudis and their Sunni Muslim allies versus Iran, the chief Shiite Islamic nation, and Russia. Saudi Arabia and Iran are ferocious rivals and Syria makes a convenient stage to advance their interests, without involving their own territory. So far, the conflict in Syria has cost 110,000 lives, with 4.5 million Syrians internally displaced and another 2 million as refugees in neighbouring countries.
There issues to consider:
WMD: Syria is highly armed with chemical weapons, in part, as a counterbalance to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Some estimate Syria has 100,000 rockets and missiles. The Assad’s armory includes the Russian-made SS-22 medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile, which can carry 120 kilos of explosive material. The recent Russian-brokered deal calls for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons; this will be a mamouth task. Assad estimates it will cost a billion dollars. But does the Russian agreement include the destruction of Assad’s bacteriological weapons, too?
Fragmentation of Syria: One of the possible consequences of the war is that Syria will break up into little ‘statelets,’ run by overlords. The Kurdish population, which has longed to have their own state have taken the opportunity to push for more autonomy from Assad, which appears to have been granted. The next step, if it were possible, is to join with Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, and form one big nation called ‘Kurdistan,’ even though it means the loss of territory for all four host nations. Autonomy for Syrian Kurds mirrors what has happened to the Kurds of Northern Iraq, who enjoy a high-level of self-rule from Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdistan is booming economically!
Islamic Civil War: Iran, the leading Shiite nation, has worked assiduously to forge a Shiite Crescent from Iran, linked with the Shiite-majority government in Iraq, then westward to its Alawite ally in Assad’s Syria, and finally reach the Mediterranean by its patronage of the Shiite militia Hizbullah in Lebanon. This Shiite Crescent terrifies Sunni governments, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan. If Assad falls, then a major chain link will be broken, which would be a big set-back for Iran. That’s why Saudi Arabia is working hard with money (and possibly men) to overthrow Assad.
Islam is divided into the Sunni (85%) and the Shia (15%) and the rivalry has been intense for centuries. The Syrian civil war, with its proxy forces, is now the latest stage of a long-running struggle between the two conflicting sects of Islam. The hatred between the two is unending and immeasurable.
The bigger picture: Intervention, like military coups and outside invasions, is always dangerous. While the West has patted itself on the back for intervening in Libya and getting rid of Gaddafi, it has help create an even bigger mess. Today, Libya is barely a nation at all; the unity of the country is in doubt, car bombings and assassinations are a daily occurrence. and instability could lead to the collapse of the state. In addition, the fall of Gaddafi unleashed weapons and jihadists, who have caused trouble and instability in nearby countries like Mali and the Central African Republic. Meltdown in Syria could be far worse. David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, says ‘the biggest threat to world peace ... (is) ... the possibility of a wave of sectarian strife building across the Middle East.’ One British politician goes further: the civil war in Syria raises ‘the spectre of a third world war.’
One welcome form of ‘intervention’ is prayer: pray for the long-suffering Syrian people, especially the 10% of the population who are Christian; for the stability of neighboring countries, and an equitable peace agreement to be forged. As Jesus Christ says, Blessed are the peacemakers.
For those in the Melbourne, Australia -area, come join us for a special public presentation of ‘Your Early Warning Service,’ called Middle East Meltdown: What’s Happening in Syria, Egypt, Israel, Iran, and Turkey on Monday, October 7th, at 7:30 PM in Glen Waverley.