The Tragedy of Syria

This Saturday, March 15th, 2014, will mark the three year anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. Or perhaps it marks the beginning of the Syrian Conflict. Or perhaps the Syrian Civil War. In the name lies the interpretative reality, regardless of its impotence to change the raw facts about what has happened to one of the ancient seats of mankind’s cultural, economic, and social history. What has happened, in a word, is a tragedy.

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The Umayyad Mosque, a symbol of the artistic and religious heritage of Syria, in ruins.

Whatever we choose to call the violence that has gripped Syria since March of 2011, a revolution, an uprising, a civil war,  or the blander conflict, it has taken on a life of its own that far exceeds the simple dimension of Syria. Within its boundaries, a wider reflection of the divides within the Middle East of the last fifty years has played out. Saudis and Gulf magnates struggling to help Sunni Opposition as Iran and Hezbollah rallies to the side of the Alawites and the Assad Regime. It is a war that has seen Kurdish separatist forces create a state-within-a-state, it has seen the black banners of Salafi jihadists fly alongside the Green and Black tricolors of the supposedly moderate Opposition, and it has seen the rise and fall of united and disunited fronts, international brigades, Takfiri and Shabiha fighters.  It has seen human rights violations by both sides, the use of chemical weapons, the demolition of hospitals, mosques, and shrines, intense urban combat, and suicide truck bombs along the highways.

The war has spread to Lebanon and Iraq, and has seen the establishment of a jihadist ISIS Emirate in defiance of international borders. It has complicated relations between Turks, Iranians, Israelis, Jordanians, Iraqis, Saudis, Arab Emiraties, Palestinians, Lebanese, Russians, and Americans as much as it has torn the peoples of Syria apart. In three years the World and the Middle East has watched the Ba’athist stronghold of Syria devolve into a sectarian war of regime survival. International powers have threatened, cajoled, and begged for the bloodshed to end, all in vain. Each in turn finds in Syria an opponent that will not move; the Obama administration finding Russian support for Assad and the American electorate as stubborn as the Revolutionary Brigades found the Defenders of Sayyidah Zainab.

The human catastrophe of Syria, like that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is horrendous beyond measure. The dead, likely well over 100,000, are surpassed by the internally displaced and the emigres; over 6 million displaced internally, over 2 million into surrounding countries. The plight of the refugee camps through three bitter winters have been appalling. Within Syria, violence and the destruction wrought by war fought in cities, and often with indiscriminate force, has turned the once great cities of Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Dara, Raqqah, and others into ruins and bitterly contested war zones. Those who remain must pray for peace and survive as best they can. Talks in Geneva have led to a few truces and the removal of some chemical weapons, but there is no evidence that the war will end before a fourth anniversary.

While much of the initial optimism that greeted the Arab Spring has been soured by the lost promise of Tahir and Benghazi, the scenes in Syria truly poisoned the chalice. Bashar al Assad remains in power, able to continue violence against his people, and the opposition has splintered in the face of a common enemy. An authoritarian regime that the West predicted must surely give into the pressure and voice of the people has not only defied the expectation, but defied the West and International opinion with the backing of powerful regional allies. Instead of being overwhelmed by democracy and revolution, the repression that the regime put in place, the narrative of ethnic and religious divide, and the proclamation of a war fought to the bitter finish ended any hope that the Assad Regime would go under. Months dragged into years, and here we stand, unable to but predict when the violence will end. The Regime in many cases seems to be gaining the upper hand, as jihadist groups hijack portions of the opposition and turn on each other.

Is this a Syrian Civil War, building under a slow cooker since the Assad rise to power and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, or a Revolution with the force of youth gone wrong in the hands of extremists and violent fanatics? Could it be now simply a proxy war, as the 1990’s in Afghanistan between Iran and Pakistan, or a vicious sectarian one, one which the Sunni-Shi’ia violence in Iraq seemed to presage but a few years earlier?

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Does it matter what we call Syria’s Tragedy? It is now about so much more than just Assad or the Opposition. The image of Germany in the 17th century, in the long bitter contest of the Thirty Year’s War, has been on my mind for a long time whenever Syria is brought up. A Bohemian revolt against the government of the Hapsburgs, a relatively minor event in a sea of potential tensions, was the prelude to thirty years of conflict which dragged in nearly every surrounding power and internal authority, polarized by religious and political faction, to the economic and near social ruin of Germany. Syria’s tragedy is not approaching thirty years, but its yields in destruction are much higher in the short term. The shifts of alliance, the coalition formation and infighting of the rebels, and the atrocities on and off the battlefield suggests to me a war which, with the aid of modern weaponry and the interference of regional powers, has the potential to be much the same to Syria as it was to Germany, in the words of Dame C.V. Wedgewood, “an unmitigated catastrophe”.

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I also mentioned the Second Congo War, the infamous “Great War” in Africa, which became a proxy war between the powers of central Africa and lingers to this day. Whatever the weariness of the populations, the foreign sources of guns and money to those willing to continue the struggle bind the case of Syria and that of the Congo. The need for supplies, weapons, and resources to fund the war effort has left Syria wide open to foreign powers who use it to fight the battles of the religious and political divides in the Middle East, between Sunni and Shi’ia, Wahabists and Khomenians, and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

What the rebels were at the outset, especially with the remembered horror of Lebanon‘s 15 year civil war, was in many ways desperate to avoid a descent into mass bloodshed. Yet, the power of the Arab Spring movement, the deep seated divides which thirty years of Ba’athist propaganda failed to heal, and, perhaps more mysteriously, that desire of human beings to remake their world and seek justice in the face of the naked sword drove ordinary Syrians to stand against Assad’s government or alongside it. In making this stand, the disasters of war have overwhelmed and corrupted the image of both sides. We hardly would know the combatants in the west but for their flags and insignia, and the sites of carnage seem equally likely in their makers. How indeed could the American public give its voice, tinged with skepticism over the foreign policy blunders of the past decade, to enter even in a limited way into a conflict with such confusing sides and labyrinthine causes.

And people will want to know not only how this happened, by why.

It will be up to others who will write the history of this war, God-willing, when it does come to an end to answer that question. These histories will be able to see the storm of Syria through the distance of time. It will seem, as Wedgewood wrote in her history of the Thirty Years War, a catastrophe with all the deterministic force of inevitability behind it. Others will write how it ought not to have happened, but how a curious combination of factors led to the human tragedy that Syria became.

For my part, I don’t know why Syria turned out as it did, why it betrayed the promise of the Arab Spring, and why it so rapidly became a tragedy. In some ways one could see it coming, and yet a year before my family narrowly decided not to go there on vacation. I can only say, from the safety of a world away, that it will be one of the most compelling and important events of my lifetime, and I only pray that it does not become one of the longest-lived.

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By far the best resource in English on Syria is SyriaDeeply.org. They have kept me up to date for over a year on the conflict, and are well worth a visit.

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