Monday, March 21, 2016

The Syria We Never Knew

Charles Glass, Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe

The conflict in Syria began when police arrested some youths for scattering anti-administration graffiti. When authorities detained and tortured the youths, locals began a peaceful protest, and police followed standard procedures: they attempted to disperse the crowd by opening fire. This usually works. For whatever reason, in 2011, outside forces distributed weapons to “defend” the protesters. Outside observers expected the Assad administration to collapse after mere weeks.

Charles Glass has written extensively on the Northern Levant, besides reporting for ABC News. During the Lebanese hostage crisis of the late 1980s, Glass was captured by militants, held for over two months. Among American journalists, few have more experience with Levantine history and politics. As the Syrian conflict approaches its sixth year, as over half the population has been displaced, either internally or internationally, he offers badly needed context.

Under the dominion of “President” Hafez al-Assad from 1970, and his son Bashar al-Assad from 2000, Syria knew levels of internal stability not necessarily enjoyed by other Middle Eastern nations. Minority populations of Alawite, Shiite, and Druze Muslims, alongside various Christian populations and even Jews, knew longtime peace. The administration was autocratic, certainly, but it secured durable sectarian harmony that translated into economic prosperity and political constancy.

The peaceful protesters, mostly secular and democratic, expected NATO forces to bolster them with air power like they did with Libya’s rebels; that support never came. The Assad administration expected to swiftly, efficiently quiet dissident protests, like they have time after time; outside forces kept the opposition alive. With each side believing victory imminent, they never prepared for a years-long sectarian conflict. The citizenry has grown openly weary of war.

Charles Glass
Worse, the secularized protesters got supplanted by religious absolutists, who quickly coalesced into two factions. The Free Syrian Army is about as democratic as the LRA, and has attempted, without success, to rouse the nation’s Sunni majority into pogroms against minority populations. The al-Nusra Front became theocratic and intolerant, especially after it found allies in Iraq’s al-Qaeda subsidiary. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi folded the two groups together into the Islamic State.

But Glass doesn’t limit himself to the current conflict. As with most uprisings and state-sponsored oppressions in the Middle East, the Syrian conflict has origins in history, some well outside living memory. Glass finds instructive background, sometimes only obliquely parallel, in three prior conflicts: the Lebanese Civil War, the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925, and Seferberlik, the Syrian rebellion against Ottoman oppression during World War I.

Glass’s most engaging, and longest, chapter addresses the Great Syrian Revolt. When Syrian emirs overthrew the Ottoman yoke, they expected liberty for what they called Greater Syria (which includes Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan). Their European allies had different goals. The region fell under French and British mandate, which drew unhistorical borders and attempted to force modernization on populations that didn’t particularly want Western-style governments. They rebelled, as colonized peoples do.

The Great Revolt, in Glass’s telling, doesn’t precisely mimic the current rebellion. It didn’t have the absolutist religious fervor the Islamic State brings, and it had more clearly defined personalities guiding the rebels. But in broad strokes, the similarities are unavoidable: a high-handed government, deaf to the people’s pleadings. The multiple rebel paths converging on Damascus. The complete failure to electrify popular support, leading to petty struggles for insignificant ground.

One other parallel remains important, the involvement of foreign proxies in tribal conflicts. Back then, France packed its native army with Alawites eager for opportunity, leading to today’s Alawite-dominated Assad regime. Today, Bashar al-Assad absolutely demands support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, while the rebels enjoy support, sometimes under-the-table, from NATO, Turkey, and the theocracies of the Arabian Peninsula. Multinational balances of power turn on whatever outcome Syria eventually produces.

Like many journalists, Glass mostly avoids policy prescriptions through most of the book— which isn’t very long. Only in his afterword does he look toward future options available to stop the fighting. Outsiders will need to relinquish certain demands, especially that Assad abdicate; awful as he is, we’d prefer him to the other options currently available. But it wouldn’t take much to starve the FSA and Islamic State of materiel.

This book fills a much-needed gap in ongoing policy debates. Journalists run two-minute stories, while legislators seek the “good guys” and presidential candidates promise to “carpet-bomb the desert.” But Glass, whose career turns around Greater Syria, brings great detail. His history is thorough; his current events maintain exacting journalistic standards, answering questions even veteran news addicts haven’t understood. Until now.

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