This paper was delivered by Dr. Najib Saliba to the parish community of St. George Cathedral, Worcester MA on May 17, 2012.Dr. Saliba is Professor of Middle East history at Worcester State University, Worcester MA.
Syria is a pivotal country in the Arab Middle East. Its uniqueness and centrality in the region are centuries old. It is one of the cradles of civilization. Damascus, the capital of Syria, has the reputation of being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. In the Hellenistic Age (323-31 B.C.) Antioch, in northern Syria, part of Turkey today, was the second largest city after Alexandria in Egypt. In the early Roman Empire, Antioch and Damascus were the third and fourth largest cities of the empire. In early Christianity, Syria was the Holy Land, especially in its historical borders. St. Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, converted to Christianity at the gates of Damascus. Antioch also was one of the earliest sees of Christianity where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Several patriarchates, seated in Damascus today, are named after Antioch. In Arab-Islamic history, Damascus became the capital of a sprawling Arab Empire, the Umayyad Caliphate, from central Asia in the East, all the way to Spain or Andalusia in the west. Damascus today is home to one of the oldest and most beautiful mosques in Islam, the Umayyad Mosque. In modern Arab history, Damascus became the center of Arab Nationalism and the idea of Arab unity. Syrian nationalists drafted the first Syrian Constitution in 1928, which rejected the division of Syria into French and British mandates in 1920 and affirmed the equality of all citizens under the law, regardless of religion or ethnic background. This is the heritage that Syrians are proud of and still identify with today. It is very important to keep it in mind in order to understand Syria’s political behavior.
The year 2011 may be remembered as the year of Arab uprisings. They started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other places as well. This is what the West has dubbed rather prematurely the “Arab Spring”. In Tunisia and Egypt, the uprisings led to the deposition of presidents Zain and al-Abidin ben Ali and Husni Mubarak with little or no bloodshed. In Libya, Colonel Muʻammar Qadhafi was killed as a result of foreign intervention, and in Yemen, President ‘Ali Abdallah Saleh resigned pursuant to an agreement. In Syria, the situation is different. While in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprisings were basically spontaneous and backed by a majority of the people, the same cannot be said about Syria. The Syrian uprising is essentially a sectarian uprising led by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood with foreign support, Arab and non-Arab, whose aim is the overthrow of the secular Baʻth regime headed by President Bashshar Asad, who happened to belong to the ‘Alawite sect of Shiʻi Islam, considered heretical by Sunni extremists. In essence then, the conflict in Syria is Sunni versus Shiʻi, a conflict that has deep roots in Arab-Islamic history. This is actually the second uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against the Baʻth regime. The first was toward the end of the 1970’s when Bashshar’s father Hafiz Asad, was president. It started with an attack by members of the Brotherhood on a military school in Aleppo leaving 32 cadets dead and 54 wounded, mostly ʻAlawites. This first round culminated in February 1982, when government troops bombarded the city of Hama, the center of the uprising at the cost of 3000 to 4000 militants dead, as opposed to some 400 government troops, according to diplomatic reports. This is the event which the Western media refer to so frequently putting the number of dead anywhere between 10, 000 and 40, 000, without saying anything about what precipitated the fighting.
Of all the groups that make the Syrian opposition (no less than 20), the Muslim Brotherhood is the most important. It was established in Egypt in 1928 by a charismatic school teacher called Hasan al-Banna and spread to other Muslim countries including Syria. Its objective has been to establish a Muslim state based on the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book, and the Shariʻah, Islamic law. Its slogan has always been, “Islam is the solution”. The Brotherhood has had a violent history. It tried to assassinate Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir in 1954, for which it paid dearly. It was banned in Egypt and several of its leaders were executed. Currently, it is banned in Syria, where membership in the Brotherhood carries a death sentence.
Next to the Brotherhood come Wahhabism, Salafism, and al-Qaʻida, as fundamentalist Islamist movements. All aim to cleanse Islam from corruption and bring back the pure Islam which existed under Prophet Muhammad and the early Caliphs (610-661). The Salafists stand out among Islamists groups in their call to restore the Caliphate, which was abolished by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk in 1924. Socially, they would force women to cover up and restore the Jizya, the head tax on non-Muslims, as was the case in early Islam. Al-Qaʻida is probably the most violent of them all. There is some evidence that it is active in Syria now.
Besides the Islamists mentioned above, the opposition includes a variety of diverse groups, Muslim and non-Muslim, active or inactive, within Syria or in exile. The most active groups within Syria are the Free Syria Army (FSA) and the Local Coordination Committees. The Free Syria Army is composed of defectors from the regular army. They number probably under 10, 000, led by Riad al-Asʻad who is based in Turkey. This is the group that engages the army in hit and run attacks in many localities in Syria. The FSA cannot hold land and was expelled from BabaʻAmr in Hims and from Idlib, northern Syria. The local Coordination Committees plan demonstrations and provide news items to the foreign media whether factual or not. In Syria also there are groups led by Hasan ‘Abdal-‘Azim and Michel Kilo who reject violence and foreign intervention and call for peaceful change through dialogue.
Outside Syria, we have the Syrian National Congress (SNC) based in Turkey and led by the Sorbonne Professor Burhan Ghalioun. This body is supposed to unite the opposition and speak for the “revolution”. In the US, there is the so-called “The Reform Party” led by Farid Ghadry, who reportedly visited Israel more than once. In Paris, there is the former Vice President of Syria, ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who had served President Hafiz al-Asad and his son loyally until he had a fall out with President Bashshrar in 2005. Since then, he has lived in Paris where he established the “National Salvation Front” in 2006, composed mainly of Muslim Brothers. Since the beginning of the uprising, Khaddam has called for foreign military intervention in Syria, claiming that foreign intervention is not occupation. In London, there is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which also disseminates news about Syria. It is financed, at least partially, by the U.S.
What does the Syrian opposition stand for? As stated above, the Syrian opposition includes many diverse groups, no less than twenty, each having its own ideology and vision of the Syria of the future. Some call for the establishment of a secular multiparty democratic political system in which all citizens are treated equally under a secular constitution. Leaders of this group are willing to dialogue with the regime to avoid violence and effect gradual reform. The majority, however, those who take to the streets every Friday, some may not even be Syrians, speak of democracy, human rights, freedom of thought and expression as a cover to win Western attention and support. We shouldn’t be deceived by what they say. We know what and who they are from the signs they carry. One sign, for example reads. “Allah Akbar”, God is great! Another says, “There is no God but Allah, and Asad is the enemy of Allah”. A third sign says, “We kneel only to Allah”. Yet, a fourth sign identifies the demonstrators as “the sons of the Blackstone”. The Black Stone, of course is found in the Kaʻbah in Mecca, which Muslims hold sacred. Additionally, one brigade in the FSA is called the Sahaba brigade, named after the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Clearly then, the terminology of the Syrian opposition is not a secular one, like freedom, equality, fraternity, the symbols of the French revolution. The terminology of the opposition reflects a religious theocratic and fanatic mentality which secularists cannot trust.
Because of the diversity and lack of common denominators among opposition groups, the Syrian National Congress was established last September (2011) in Istanbul, Turkey to unite the opposition movement, lobby for foreign recognition, and establish a road map to effect political change in Damascus. Since then, several meetings have taken place in Istanbul, Tunisia, Doha (Qatar) and Rome. Unity proved elusive, and each meeting resulted with new disagreements and new splits. Secularists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of dominating the SNC, that the SNC was unrepresentative of the people of Syria. Secularists are also suspicious of Turkey’s influence on the SNC, accusing Turkey of having an Islamic agenda. As the Doha meeting was underway, Haitham al-Maleh, a lawyer and top leader in the SNC, stormed out of the meeting calling his colleagues, “stupid and silly”. Four days later, he split from the SNC, along with 20 members and formed “The Syrian National Alliance”. A New York Times reporter captured the moment, saying:
“Nearly a year after the uprising began, the opposition remains a fractious collection of political groups, long time exiles, grass-roots organizers, and armed militants, all deeply divided along ideological, ethnic, or sectarian lines, and too disjointed to agree on even the rudiments of a strategy to topple” the regime.
l (NYT, Feb. 24, 2012)
Will the Syrian opposition be able to overthrow the Asad regime? Last September, I gave a talk at the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge and took the position that the opposition was incapable of unseating Asad and his regime short of a split in the Army or foreign intervention. I still stand by that position. Despite over a year of demonstrations, violence and bloodshed the Syrian army remains solidly united behind the regime, despite some defections from the lower echelons. There were no defections from Asad’s cabinet, not even from his diplomatic corps. As to foreign military intervention, it looks less likely now than a few months ago, given the stand of Russia and China on the Security Council of the UN and the setbacks the opposition has suffered in Baba ʻAmr and Idlib. Asad commands respect and support from over 55 percent of the Syrian population at the least, according to recent studies and reports; but you don’t read this in the unprofessional western press. Besides Army support, Asad is backed by Christian, Muslim, and Druze minorities, as well as by a significant segment of the Sunni Muslim population. Even the top Sunni cleric of Syria, Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, whose son was assassinated in Aleppo most likely by the rebels, backs Asad. The business classes of Damascus and Aleppo continue to back Asad. This is probably the reason why the two cities were the target of multiple suicide bombings recently as a punishment for not joining the uprising.
Should it happen and the Syrian regime falls to domestic forces, who will rule Syria? Clearly, the Muslim Brothers are best positioned to be the main beneficiaries. They are the most organized and have been the most repressed. The examples of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco provide a good model for the Syrian Brothers to follow. They may form a coalition cabinet initially, but how long will it last? How long will it be before the revolutionaries turn against one another as happened time and again? If the ruling Baʻth Party is dissolved and purged as is likely to happen, and as happened next door in Iraq, we may have a long period of instability, settlement of old scores, and perhaps a sectarian civil war. The German magazine Der Spiegel (Spiegel On Line: 3/29/2012), the Economist (March 24, 2012) and the Lebanese daily al-Safir all documented some of the brutalities the Syrian rebels have inflicted on their victims. Also, Human Rights Watch has accused the rebels of serious violations of human rights.
Should the Syrian regime be unseated by the rebels or as a result of foreign intervention, the conflict will almost certainly become regional. Not only Lebanon, but Iraq, Jordan and perhaps Israel will be involved. “Lebanon is in a very delicate situation”, said the Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati recently. Analysts agree that the removal of President Asad could create a power vacuum in Lebanese politics. Any civil war in Syria could spill over to Lebanon”. (Wall Street Journal Sept. 30/2011)
As a finale to my presentation, I want to say a few words about the motives of those states which aligned themselves strongly behind the Syrian rebels against the Syrian regime, namely the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states led by Saudi Arabia, and the Western Club, led by the U.S. Earlier, I explained the struggle in Syria as a sectarian one between Sunnis and Shiʻis, not a struggle for democracy, freedom, and human rights, as the rebels would like us to believe. The six Gulf states of the GCC with the exception of Bahrain (which is 70 percent Shiʻa but ruled by a Sunni dynasty) are solidly Sunni and under the hegemony of Saudi Arabia. They are ruled by family dictatorships, no democracy, no political parties, no free press, no freedom of thought and expression, no transparency and no accountability to anyone. Some are absolutists, some have Shura or consultative councils without any power. Is it likely that these states, Saudia Arabia and Qatar in particular, are after establishing democracy in Syria? In Saudi Arabia, women cannot even drive! Isn’t it more logical to establish democracy at home first? The truth is, these states want President Asad down because he is a Shiʻi, a ‘Alawite, ruling a country whose population is about 70 percent Sunni. Furthermore, Asad is in a political alliance with Shiʻi Iran. The GCC states, Saudi Arabia in particular, detest Shi’ism and consider it heretical. Saudi Arabia considers itself the center of Sunni Islam. It fears Shiite Iran and is fanning the flames of religious extremism. It is polarizing the Middle East like never before, and using the television to do so. A Wall Street reporter observed the other day that, “Saudi Arabia…is fully behind the [Syrian] opposition. The media battle is galvanizing populations across the region along sectarian lines and fueling fears that a local conflict will” become a regional one. “Several Salafi channels in tightly controlled Saudi Arabia have appeared to seize on Syria to escalate their case against Iran and Shi’ites in general…Salafis are ultra conservative Sunnis whose interpretations of Islam overlap with those of al-Qa’ida.” A Salafi channel described Shi’ites as “worse than Jews”. (Wall Street Journal, March 24-25, 2012)
Why would the U.S. line up behind the Gulf dictatorships against Syria? The answer is simply convergence of interests. U.S. interests in the Middle East include uninterrupted oil flow and Israel’s security. Through backing the GCC states, the countries that have the most oil and natural gas reserves in the area, the U.S. secures its current and future oil needs. Furthermore, Qatar, a GCC state, hosts the largest U.S. military land base in the strategic gulf area. Bahrain, another GCC state, is home to America’s Fifth Fleet. The GCC states are also a great market for America’s arms sales. The fact that the GCC is a collection of family dictatorships does not bother the U.S. and the GCC is no threat to Israel.. When GCC troops suppressed the democratic movement in Bahrain last December, the U.S. maintained its silence, all our talk about democracy notwithstanding.
Last but not least, a word on U.S.-Iran relations. The U.S. and Iran have not been on talking terms since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which deposed the late Shah, a great friend of the U.S. and Israel. The reason for Iran’s hostility to the U.S goes back to 1953, when the U.S. and Britain teamed up and deposed the Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddeq, and restored the Shah to power after a brief exile. Musaddeq was the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. The British turned against him because he nationalized Iran’s oil which was totally controlled by the British. So, we teamed with the British, deposed Musaddeq and put the Shah back in power. This is what precipitated the hostage crisis when we admitted the Shah to the U.S. at the advice of Henry Kissinger in November 1979. During the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988, we claimed neutrality but supported Iraq. President Hafiz Asad denounced the war as unnecessary and wasteful and kept Syria neutral. This was the beginning of the Syria-Iran Alliance which led to close cooperation politically, economically, and militarily, especially under the administrations of Bashshar Asad and Mahoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Furthermore, Iran built close relationships with Hizbullah in south Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, two bitter enemies of Israel. In this context, coupled with Iran’s presumed development of nuclear weapons (which Iran repeatedly denied), Israel felt a serious threat to its security and threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, as it did in Iraq in 1981. The U.S., always a faithful ally of Israel, declared it would never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, but focused on breaking the Syria-Iran Alliance. When Barack Obama became president, he tried to pry Syria out of its alliance with Iran, promising a new chapter in U.S.-Middle East relations and a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He could not deliver. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad won a second presidential term in June 2009. The Western Club claimed that he rigged the elections and tried to instigate an uprising in Iran using the Iranian opposition as happened against Musaddeq in 1953. It failed. The outbreak of the current uprising against the Syrian regime provided another opportunity to break the Syria-Iran Alliance and relieve Israel. Hence, the U.S., leading the Western Club, quickly threw its weight behind the uprising, backed by the GCC states. They are trying to do in Syria what they failed to do in Iran in 2009, using the same tactics: heavy media propaganda, dehumanizing the Asad regime as we dehumanized the Iraqi regime before our invasion in 2003, and making lavish promises to the people to turn against the regime. Spokespersons for the White House and State Department gave Asad little time left in power. One even referred to him as a “dead man walking”. Last week President Obama referred to Syria as an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security and diplomatic goals. (T&G, 5/10/12). There is no evidence to back this statement. Syria joined the U.S coalition against Iraq in 1990, and supported the U.S. against al-Qaʻida in 2001. Syria, however, is not a client state and refuses to be dictated to. Encouraged by this highly hostile atmosphere against Syria, Burhan Ghalioun, President of the SNC and the rebels spokesman, issued a statement conceding exactly what the Western powers and Israel have demanded from Syria for years, namely: termination of the strategic alliance with Iran, severing ties to Hizbullah and Hamas, expelling anti-Israel Palestinian leaders from Syria, and a pro-Western orientation in foreign policy, (The Economist, Dec. 17, 2011). Should this come to pass, the U.S. objectives would have been fulfilled and Israel’s security assured, but for how long?