By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Aug 21 2019 – As I often do, I recently discussed the Syrian Civil War with a friend of Lebanese origin. He is far from supporting the Syrian regime, which occupied his country of origin between 1989-2008. My friend assumes the Syrian government was behind the assassination of Lebanon´s prime minister Bachir Gemayel, who in 1982 together with 26 others were blown to pieces by a bomb planted at the headquarters of the Lebanese Forces. He also suspects Syria was behind the death of former prime minister Rafik Harari, who in 2005 was killed in a car bomb explosion. However, this does not make my friend an admirer of Israel or the U.S., which together with Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia meddle in Syria´s bloody internal strife. It is an almost impossible task to disentangle the mess of warring fractions guided by corrupt politicians, religious fanatics, liberal politicians, bandits, Mafiosi and/or foreign commercial and strategical stakeholders.
My friend and I talked about what we had learned about the Syrian Army, which is supported by pro-government armed groups like Hezbollah, a Shia militia backed by Iran. However, the most powerful ally of Bashar al-Assad, Syria´s current president, is Russia that with full military force on 30 September 2015 interfered in Syria´s internal conflicts. It is rarely mentioned that since 1971 the Soviet Union/Russia has an agreement with the Syrian Government to maintain a naval base in Tartus, actually its only naval facility in the Mediterranean region and Russia´s only remaining, military installation outside the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, in close-by Latakia Russia has established its biggest “signals intelligence base” outside Russian territory. 1 Apart from safeguarding its military bases Russia´s support to the Assad regime may be considered as a move to recast Russia as a decisive player in the region, reviving its image as a major rival to the USA in the management of global affairs.
USA has ever since the Syrian Arab Republic´s independence in 1946 been apprehensive of this nation that it perceives as an enemy to USA´s Middle Eastern allies – Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Syria was once closely associated, and for a while even united with, Nasser´s U.S. hostile Eygptian regime and throughout the years it has maintained friendly relations not only with Russia but also with China and even North Korea. In an effort to demonstrate its strength and presence, as well as to bolster its claim of effectively suppressing ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) the U.S. is supporting the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (Rojava) through is Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR). The military operations of CJTF–OIR are coordinated by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and carried out by U.S. military forces supported by personnel from over 30 countries. 2 Turkey supports the so-called Interim Government, consisting of at least five armed sections/parties.
ISIL and its former ally, turned foe, the Al-Nusra Front, constitute other warring factions. Al-Nusra is a Salafist 3 fighting force aiming at converting Syria into a full-fledged Islamic nation. Suffering from this mayhem are millions of civilians. I have met a few of them. Among my best pupils when I worked as a high school teacher in Sweden were two orphaned brothers from Aleppo and on the train to work I often talked to a former medical doctor from Homs who sustained his family by selling carpets. These friends and acquaintances experienced their adjustment to Swedish society as quite cumbersome, though they were grateful for escaping the Syrian inferno and not like millions of their compatriots having to suffer misery in refugee camps, or risking their lives during efforts to reach uncertain security in Europe.
I obtained my most profound and long-lasting impressions of Syria when I in 1978, together with some good friends, traveled through this nation by bus or hitchhiking. Everywhere, we were met with generosity and friendship. An unexpected discovery was that Syria, this vast territory of fertile plains, high mountains, and deserts between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, was virtually littered with remains of cities, palaces and temples erected by Accadians, Amorites, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Armenians, Nabateans, Lakhmids, Ghassanids, Mongols, Kurds, Circassians, Mandeans, and Turkmens. A bustling patchwork at the crossroads between the East and the Mediterranean. Syrian cities had grown and become cosmopolitan hubs, wellsprings of culture, art, and philosophy. Here religions had been born and mixed in places like Ebla, Antioch, Emesa, Tyre, Sidon, Bostra, Palmyra, Baalbek, Dura-Europos, Damascus and Aleppo. Magnificent buildings had been left by Umayyads, Christian crusaders, and Ottomans.
In 1516, Syria became part of the Ottoman Empire, which introduced a ruling system based on millets, administrative, faith-based corporations providing a certain autonomy to dhimmi, non-Muslims. For centuries, ethnoreligious minorities – Shia and Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druses, Armenian-Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite Christians, Assyrian Christians, Armenians, Yazidi, Kurds and Jews co-habited Syria in a generally peaceful coexistence.
Even ignorant youngsters like us discerned and appreciated this vibrant culture, visiting churches and mosques and while enjoying the exquisite Syrian cuisine we were able to converse with people in the cafés of Aleppo and Damascus, finding that some of them spoke English or French. However, we were also confronted with poverty and repression. Remaining with me is the sight of a legless man sitting in a wheeled box above a pool of urine while begging under the light of a lamp post in Aleppo. In a square in Damascus, we saw something looking like four lamp posts by which a wooden stage had been erected. When we asked what it was, someone explained that four ”criminals” had been hanged early in the morning, in full view of an interested congregation. The bodies of the executed men had been wrapped in sheets with their names, date of birth and a description of the crime they had committed. ”The stage” had been used by ”students” who had enacted their crimes. We also heard horrifying tales about oppression by the Assad regime, particularly in Aleppo people seemed to be opposed to the corrupt circle around the self-divinized president Hafez al-Assad, calling him al-Muqaddas, ”the sanctified one”.
Four years after our visit, the Syrian Army had in the town of Hama at the orders of Hafez al-Assad ”quelled an uprising” by the Muslim Brotherhood, destroying a large part of the city while killing an estimated 20,000 civilians.. 4 This was a premonition of the carnage and misery that was to follow.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad, who most of his life suffered from diabetes, felt that his health was deteriorating and thus began looking for a successor. His first choice was his brother Rifaat al-Assad, who when Hafez in November 1983 suffered a massive heart attack complicated by phlebitis announced his candidacy for president. This angered Hafez al-Assad who after recovering declared that he was not going to be succeeded by Rifaat. His brother answered by staging a failed military coup. Hafez al-Assad now began to groom his son Bassel al-Assad for the presidency, creating a personality cult around him. However, when Bassel in 1994 died in a car accident his father called back his other son, 29-year-old Bashar, from London, where he underwent postgraduate training in ophthalmology.
Bashar al-Assad´s fellow students have described him as a ”geeky guy engulfed in Information Technology”, reserved and softspoken Bashar avoided eye contact and appeared to be uninterested in politics. 5 Nevertheless, as soon as the apparently undistinguished Bashar had returned to Damascus his father sent him to the military academy at Homs. He toughened, rose in the ranks and ended up as a colonel of the elite Syrian Republican Army. When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, Bashar assumed power, surprising everyone by making Syria’s ”link with Hezbollah – and its patrons in Teheran – the central component of his security doctrine”, 6 while he continued his father´s outspoken critic of the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Meanwhile, the fragile network of tolerance between different ethnoreligious groups disintegrated, politicians and military commanders fought for power and influence, while foreign powers increasingly interfered in factional quarrels.
After the entire nation on 15 March 2011 became embrolied in a ruthless civil war, the age-old cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Hama have been totally destroyed; their mosques, palaces, souqs and quasbas, several of them world heritage sites, are in ruins. Worst than the irreversible damage wrecked on homes, world heritage and a multi-faceted and generally indulgent society is the incomprehensible suffering of individuals; men, women, and children, caught up in precarious situations they cannot control while being used as pawns in cynical power games. In March 2018, the death toll of the Syrian war was estimated at 511,000. 7 On the 4th of August this year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had 5,626.914 Syrian refugees registered 8 and estimated that 6.2 million individuals were internally displaced. 9 These are statistics, figures, though it is important to realize that every number stands for a human being. We may read and talk about the hardship affecting those who have survived the carnage – refugees and internally displaced persons – but is it really possible to discern the suffering affecting each and every one of them? Can we really not do anything to understand and help them?
1 Borger, Julian (2012) “Russian military presence in Syria poses challenge to US-led intervention”, The Guardian, December 23.
3 Salafists, from as-Salaf as-Ṣāliḥ, Pious Predecessors, is a revivalist movement with roots in the 18th-century, conservative Saudi-allied Wahhabi denomination.
4 Rodrigues, Jason (2011) “1982: Syria´s President Hafez al-Assad crushes rebellion in Hama”, The Guardian, August 1.
5 Zisser, Eyal (2006) Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Assad and the First Years in Power. London: I.B. Tauris.
6 Bergman, Ronen (2015) ”The Hezbollah Connection”, The New York Times Magazine, February 10.
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.