Syria – In the Arab World
Syria probably got its name from the great Assyrian Empire that kept it an independent state and ruled it for a straight nineteen centuries from the 25th to the 6th century Before Christ.
With Alexander the Great, Syria came under the rule of the Seleucid Empire, Seleucid being a diadochi of Alexander, remaining under its command from 312 to 83 BC. Eventually the Romans took over Syria in around 64BC. And the Romans were ousted from Syria only by the Rashidun Army at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636AD.
After several subsequent Muslim dynasties the Ottomans, of the white Turk race, ruled Syria from 1516 right up to 1916. The Ottomans were Turks and not Arabs, making them different from most of the Muslim world they ruled upon in the Middle East and North Africa – Syria being a predominately Arab state as well.
Arabs were Semites that had been push out of Mesopotamia down the Nafud Desert in time immemorial. By the 8th century BC the Arabu, the Idumea and the Nabatu were Arab tribes well placed adjacent to the Levant.
The Ghassanids migrated to Southern Syria from Yemen in the 3rd Century CE. Syria was a Byzantine province at that time and the Ghassanids were among the early Christian communities and became a client state to the Byzantine Empire. In contrast the Lakhmids were Arabs that migrated to southern Iraq at the same time, converted to Christianity but allied to the Persian Sassanid Empire.
Today, according to Index Mundi 90.3% of Syrians are Arab, while the rest of the 9.7% are Kurds, Armenians and other, whereas 87% of the people are Muslims, 10% Christians and 3% Druze.
In their last decades, the Ottoman Empire had weakened - the British, the French and the Russians had been breaking away parts of its territories in their sway for imperialism. The Ottomans had slacked in technology and battleship in comparison to West Europe and the people felt economically reversed and void of progress. It was natural for the people to blame the Ottomans and their policies for their stagnancy - sultans that had once been patrons of knowledge and innovation, had now become blind of the evolving needs of empire-building. Hence Arab Nationalism, that was strongest in Syria, arose from despise against the impotency of their rulers – the Turks.
The Nationalists had been evoking the spirit of freedom and Arab revivalism for some decades using their writings and underground political organization. Secret societies with revolutionary program, such as the al-Fatat and al-Ahd became active. They inspired in the Arabs, the dream of a single unified Arab state, with Arab rule, spanning from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. Yet until WW1 the general public was also open to the idea of Ottomanism, whereby some people wanted to keep their hopes with a ‘conservative’ Ottomans and some with a ‘modernist’ one – contending ideals seeking to return prosperity and greatness to the Islamic East as opposed to the Christian West.
At the onset of WW1, the number of Arab Nationalist listed with the Ottomans were only in the hundreds, they too were persecuted by strict Ottoman officers like Jamal Pasha, the Turkish commander in Syria – and a revolt from the public at time of war was not eminent.
But as it happened, the British made allegiance with Ibn Saud, who was a longstanding rebel against the Sultan and who controlled most of the Arabia Desert except for the western belt. The British offered him funds and arms, to be part of a major revolt against the Ottomans, with whom his family was already at wars for several decades. On the other hand, the British conspired with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Bin Ali, to call for and lead the Revolt, for his being a Sharif (thought to be descendants of the Prophet) would make it highly likely that the people would rally around his call. Hussein’s son Abdullah linked up with Arab nationalists in Syria to make way for the Revolt. The third factor that was instated at the heart of the Empire was the ‘Young Turks’, harbored by Paris, they aimed at overthrowing the yoke of a decadent caliphate from the weary shoulders of the assumed forward-looking Turks.
In the apparent, selling handsome deals to the Arab defectors, promising them Arab sovereignty in exchange for their support, Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement behind closed doors, wherein they had divided the Middle East among themselves. In case of victory in WW1, Syria, Lebanon and North Iraq were to be given to France – and Jordan, South Iraq and Palestine to Britain.
With heavy military support and many British led operations by the armies of Hussein’s sons, the Ottoman’s strength was broken from inside. Winston Churchill, Britain’s colonial secretary promised Feisal and Abdullah the kingdoms of Syria and Transjordan respectively. In 1918, with the collapse of the Ottomans and defeat in WW1, Arab troops, led by Emir Feisal, captured Damascus and he was proclaimed king in 1920, after Syria’s first parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile France and Britain met again, to slice up the Middle East according to the Sykes-Picot plan, at the San Remo Conference, in April, 1920. France delivered an ultimatum to King Feisal asking him to dissolve the Arab Kingdom and the Syrian Army and accept French Mandate or face war. French army entered Syria and drove Feisal and his men out of Damascus in July 1920.
Thus it is clear that the same Arabism fueled by the Allied Forces in WW1, was bitterly smashed after victory and it will be equally clear as we see events unfold, that Arab Nationalism was pursued more strongly after the War as compared to before it. In fact it has never died since.
In their mandate of Syria, France sought to increase her strength by supporting religious minorities and thereby weakening the Arab Nationalist Movement. After Feisal’s defeat in the Battle of Maysalun, the French general Henri Gouraud subdivided the mandate of Syria into six states. These were the states of Damascus, Aleppo, Alawites, Jabal Druze, Hatay (Alexandria) and the State of Greater Lebanon. The Alawite and Druze states were administratively separate from Syria until 1942.
Thus Syria, which was hitherto a seemingly homogeneous province within the greater Ottoman Empire, was now effectively divided on ethnic and religious lines – contradicting the western ideal of the creation of a secular form of nation-state. On the contrary, this divide created a religious political order where previously there wasn’t any.
By giving minorities the power they could not have dreamed of in a unified Syria, the French had created an order they would never want to be reversed – yet amazingly the numerous revolts of the Syrians against the French demonstrated that nearly all the sects were equally hostile to the French mandate and their divide. It appears that the Syrians were united in their love for Arabism and moreover were unwilling to subjugate to humiliating foreign rule.
For the first three years from 1920, the French stayed busy in quelling revolts in Alawite territories, Mount Druze and Aleppo. From 1925 to 1927 the Great Syrian Revolt led by Druze leader Shaykh Hilal al-Atrash united all Sunni, Druze, Alawite, Christian, and Shia – with the common goal of ending French rule.
Before the ‘enlightened’ French came, the Ottoman ‘millet system’ had allowed locals of different religious affiliations to uphold their own legal standards and much authority had been devolved to the local level. But the French appointed their officers at all levels, subtracting the local notables from all previous authority. They changed Syrian currency to the franc and the economy was now dictated by French bankers. The French language became compulsory in schools, pupils were required to sing the ‘Marseillaise’, the national anthem of France. These and other oppressive measures from the French brought the Syrians to the Great Revolt.
In their parliamentary struggle the Syrians kept insisting for complete independence and called for the constitution to be approved which was necessitated by the League of Nations as a step towards self-rule. The French delayed a constitution till 1930, then too they eliminated from it the possibility of a unified self-government for Syria.
Eventually France agreed for Syria’s independence in 1941, but with the usual plan to instate a puppet regime in their stead. So they put their pawn Taj al-Din al-Hasani on the presidential seat, when real power laid with the ‘Free France’ forces. At Hasani’s death Shukri al Quwatli, a nationalist and former Fatat member became president in 1943. At this time WW2 was in full swing and on the face Quwatli declared support of France against Nazi Germany, while their own struggle for self-rule against France was continuing. At the end of the War, France re-entered its troops in Lebanon and Syria to regain control in May 1945 – they were received with protests. French troops shelled the Syrian parliament and attempted to arrest Syrian government leaders in Damascus, resulting in the deaths of some 500 individuals.
Meanwhile Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Transjordan had been working for an Arab League and succeeded in creating it in 1945. The League expressed support for Syrian independence and demanded the withdrawal of French troops from Syria – the last French troops withdrew in April 1946.
The formation of the Arab League was not a trivial matter for the Arabs, rather it represented the very strong inspirations for Arab unity among the citizens of the previous Ottoman Empire. The Arabs saw the land from Egypt to Iraq as one – and in such case Palestine lay in the heart of this land.
This was the reason why when Israel declared its establishment in May 1948, not any Arab state but the Arab League as a whole went to war with it.
The Palestinians had been struggling against the Jews since their First Aliyah of 1903, when they complained to the Ottoman Sultan about the Jews for swiftly taking over their farms and businesses. A long road of political and active resistance culminated in the Great Arab Revolt of Palestine in 1936. And when the UN approve the partition plan of Palestine in Nov 1947, Palestine fell into civil war and the newly sovereign Arabs decided to take Israel out of Arab land once and for all by way of war. But the 1948 Arab Israel War turned out to be a disaster for the Arab world and Palestine. The Arabs had barely come out of their decades-long struggles for independence, nor were they militarily comparable to the resources of the imperialist powers that backed the creation of Israel. At the peak of the war Israeli man-power was over a hundred thousand, whereas all the Arabs could not contribute more than sixty thousand, which proves more of disorganization and lack of strategy and vision than shortage of numbers against a small Israel surrounded by so many Arab states.
Moreover, Israel had international support, not only of the British, Americans and French but also of Russia at that time. Golda Meir collected $50 million from the American public in her 1948 tour, she also met Stalin in Moscow, who provided a secure supply of arms from Eastern European countries to Israel during the war. The irony is that Meir also went into Jordan, disguised as an Arab lady, to meet with King Abdullah to urge him not to join the Arabs against Israel.
The Arab defeat also meant that the unity between Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Jordan was defective and marred with distrust. Marred with distrust because of Jordan and Iraq’s mutual defense treaty and the Hashemite’s tendency to tilt towards the British. And defective because as much as they were united for riding Palestine from the Jews, they were also apprehensive as to who would eventually get to annex Palestine. Perhaps that was the reason why at the end of the war, Egypt had annexed the Sinai, Jordan the West Bank and Syria the Golan Heights, which remained annexed till the 1967 War – all this time there was no successful effort to consolidate Palestine.
The defect in Arab unity had other major reasons too. The end of WW2 was also the beginning of the Cold War, and at the onset of the Cold War it had become imperative for each power to try to align the nascent Arab states as their client states. US Pres. Roosevelt made agreement with Britain for bilateral regional division of interests between Britain and the US in the Middle East. This agreement was actually an understanding between the two to reserve Persian Oil for Britain, Saudi Oil for US and to have a shared holding of the Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil. Such an understanding was not only a source of extreme strategic and economic benefit but also created the need for defense pacts that would ensure long term trust and reliance between US and its allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and between UK and Iraq and Jordan. This type of understanding undermined France as a regional stakeholder.
In fact this US/UK maneuvering not only isolated France from being able to form a foothold in the region but also left Syria without a reliable superpower to strengthen its back. To further weaken an already struggling France, when France forces bombed Damascus at the end of WW2, it was Churchill who demanded immediate removal of French forces from Syria and as a result British forces were allowed to intervene in Syria, which caused ultimate weakness of the French Troupes in a hostile country.
Moreover the need for the IPC (Iraq Petroleum Company) pipeline to get to the Syrian port of Banias and for the Tapline (Trans-Arabian Pipeline) to pass through the Golan Heights made Syria an undesired but essential part of the puzzle for US and UK. For this very reason the US and UK were not happy with the scenario of having in Syria, an Arab Nationalist Government allied to Egypt that would disrupt its oil plans, nor did they want a French-controlled Syria but what they wanted from Syria was either its unification with Jordan or with Iraq, both Hashemite clients of UK. But the Syrian politicians who were largely Arab Nationalist and viewed the Hashemite to be stooges of the West, disallowed such a unity and in its place preferred unity with Egypt of Nasser, whom they viewed as one who had bravely stood against the imperialists and at times had succeeded against them.
The Soviets on the other hand were also not much interested in Syria, their focus was to consolidate with the Turkish Straights, Azerbaijan, and Iran. And at this point Quwatli was also closely allied with the Saudi King, who was concerned with a potential Hashemite-controlled land bridge that would isolate Saudi Arabia from the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
Defeat in the 1948 War shock the Arab states – confidence in leadership once again staggered. Taking advantage of the time the US sponsored a coup d’état in Syria, whereby Husni al-Za'im, a Syrian Army officer was to seize command, removing Shukri al-Quwatli, the staunch Nationalist who had refused to allow US/British pipelines to pass over Syrian soil.
Al Zaim was killed in 1949 and Hashim al-Atassi, a nationalist took his place. After a few more coups and shuffles al Quwatli was re-elected for the third time in 1955 and in an exemplar move Quwatli handed over his position to Gamal Abdul Nasser, joining under him the two states of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic, in 1958.
With the unity of the UAR, the Syrians realized that the dream of Greater Arabism is practically a lost one – however charismatic and up-right Gamal was, yet he was one man and could not put his heart in two chests. The Ba’ath Party was particularly resentful for Gamal’s banning of political parties in Syria.
Ba’ath was a socialist party, and the history of socialism is deep in Syria. The spirit of the French Revolution had never died since its inception in 1799. The ideas of liberalism, radicalism, nationalism, socialism, feminism and secularism had gradually swept across Europe – for the colonized world, the idea of socialism and communism presented an alternative to the excruciation they suffered under their ruling capitalist. Socialism and Revolution come together, as they present the desire of the commoner majority to dismantle and redistribute the power of the minority elite – and as the commoners have no power they have to organize underground.
Secrecy and underground networking has been therefore the vital art possessed by communists and revolutionaries, wherever they exist. In almost all colonized states and in what were now the ex-Ottoman states, strong communist camps existed. The Al-Ahd and Al-Fatat were two such secret societies in Syria. Parallel to secrecy, socialism also always has a ‘renaissance’ factor aided by literary work and journals, in the Arab world this movement was called Al-Nahda or ‘the awakening’. As far back as 1870, Butrus al-Bustani adopted the socialist slogan of ‘Love of the Homeland is an article of Faith’, in his journal Al-Jinan.
As the Arabs were attracted to socialism, they were also apprehensive of the ills of communism where it collided with the statutes of Islam. For this reason the socialism of the Arabs was ‘nationalistic’ and ‘radical’ and also to an extent ‘liberal’ but it was not ‘feminist’ or ‘secular’ nor did it completely defy ‘private property’.
Another very common trait of communist revolutionaries is to form membership not only in the political-minded but also in the bureaus of authority and power i.e. in government and army officers. So while Syria already had the National Bloc (Al Kutlah al Wataniyah) and Istiqlal (Independence) Parties, there was need of a new party that would penetrate in the Army. And to this end, Michel Aflaq (a Christian), Salah al-Din al-Bitar (a Sunni Muslim) and Zaki al-Arsuzi (an Alawite) created the Ba’ath Party in April 1947. Like other nationalists the Ba’ath had supported the creation of the United Arab Republic and surrendered their rights to Gamal’s control – and like the others in Syria so did they find this union unsustainable.
By 1961 Gamal had tightened his control on all authority in Syria, and much of the government machinery and the army were disgruntled. The Syrian officer corps had been reduced by half, most Syrian officers were posted to Egypt, whereas Egyptian officers were posted in Syria. Three Alawītes, Saläh Jadid, Häfiz al-Asad, Muhammad Umrān and a Druze, Hamad Ubayd were among these young officers posted in Egypt. They were Ba’athists, and they formed a secret organization there, later known as the Military Committee.
Pursuing his socialism, Gamal nationalized all banks, insurance companies, industrial plants and public utilities in 1961, this increased tensions and a group of army officers organized a coup to remove Gamal’s apparatus. The Supreme Arab Revolutionary Command of the Armed Forces (SARCAF) took control and reinstated the Syrian Arab Republic. The period between 1961 and 1963, known as the Secessionist Period was marred with instability and coups, until the final coup of the Military Committee that seized power and formed the National Council headed by Major General Amin el-Hafez.
With Amin el-Hafez began the era of a Ba’athist-controlled Syria.
The rise of the Alawites in the Syrian Army was brought about as a policy of the French, who in their mandate period preferred to recruit minority communities, such as the Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Circassians and Ismailis from the rural areas in the Army. Most Arab Nationalist movements generated from the wealthy Sunni Arab landowning and commercial families and the French used the Army to suppress them and quell revolts. For this reason there was a general sense of resent in the Sunni Arabs against the Army, who viewed it as an instrument of the French rule and did not like their sons to join it. Though most of the Alawites were corporals, sergeants and junior officers, but the Alawites formed about half of the eight infantry battalions of the troupes, engaged in policing and intelligence. So when independence was gained the mainstream politics was controlled by the Sunni Arab majority but the Army was not under their full control.
When the Ba’ath Party was created with a slogan of socialist reforms and equal status for all religious communities, and portrayed its Arabism more pure from the Sunni Arab’s Islamite Arabism, wherein the non-Muslim Arab were treated as ‘imperfect Arabs’, the Alawaites and other minorities welcomed its membership. Through the Ba’ath the Alawites gained in politics what they already had in the Army. Moreover, the Secessionist Period that was marred with successive coups made the Army ever-active in politics and the removal of many top ranking Sunni officers made way for the Alawites to come to the top ranks.
The 1966 coup removed Amin al Hafiz and brought Salah al Jadid, an Alawite into power. Once in power, the Alawite assured their full control in the Army and suppressed the Druze and the Ismailis along with the Sunni Arabs from coming to power. In 1970 with yet another coup after defeat in the Six Day War, wherein Egypt had lost the Sinnai and Gaza Strip, Jordan lost the West Bank and Syria lost the Golan, Jadid was replaced by Hafiz al Assad.
The Alawite rule was increasingly repressive in some ways, it repressed mainstream Sunni Islam, it suppressed political freedom and because the Alawite kinship penetrated in all places of power, they were tempted to make economic gains and corruption became the order of the day. The Sunni Arab majority was bewildered.
It is easy to understand that a nation that had been fighting for several decades, first against the Turks and then against the French for independence, self-determination and for an Islamic Arabism – that it would never be happy under a minority control – a minority of heterodox Muslims, that many Sunni Arabs did not even accept to be an authentic form of Islam – many Syrian Sunnis regard the Alawite as a sect more heretical than the Jews. Robert Kaplan has compared Hafez al-Assad's coming to power to ‘an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia’.
With the Alawite absolutism in power and isolationism of all non-Alawite from it, the aspirations of the Sunni majority was assimilated in the Muslim Brotherhood, which did not work just as a political party but as a movement – for reestablishing Syria as an Islamic State. In the 1970s the Brotherhood turned to violent means against the Ba’athist regime. Armed clashes were reported in 1964, 65, 67 and 1973 in reaction to Assad’s plans to eliminate the clause in the Syrian constitution stating that Islam is the religion of the president and the source of all jurisprudence. In 1980 the Brotherhood had gain popularity and some control in major cities, a failed assassination of Assad was conducted in June of that year, Assad retaliated with strict crackdowns including the massacre of 1000 members in Palmyra Jail. The Regime enacted death penalty for membership in the Ikhwan, most leaders were forced into exile. The crackdown eventuated in the 1982, Hama Massacre, wherein an estimate of 25,000 were killed in a 27days siege of the town.
Although at the national level the Alawites were repressive but that did not undermine the fact that they were Arabs and pursued the same ideal of Arab Nationalism as their country-fellows did. From the onset Hafiz al Assad aimed for another war to oust Israel. Reproaching from Jadid’s idea of a ‘people’s war’ against Israel, Assad turned towards military alliances with Arab states and Russia. He blamed Jadid’s passive policy for the defeat in the 1967 Six Day War and wanted to reverse the political isolation of Syria in terms of having allies. Three months into power Assad visited Soviet Union and offered them presence in Syria and access to its naval bases in exchange for Russian weapons and training. On the other hand he revived relations with Sadat of Egypt and the two parties agreed on waging yet another war on Israel.
The Yom Kippur War was wage in Oct. 1973. Egypt and Syria simultaneously lanced offensives in the Sinai and on Golan. In three weeks Israel had occupied large areas of Egypt and Syria forcing them towards the US-led Peace Process starting from the 1978 Camp David Accords. After the war Egypt entered the US camp, while Syria remained in the Russian one.
Historically Lebanon had always been a part of Syria but the French had carved it out in such a way as to make its Christian population significant though still a minority. The politics was structured as such that the President had to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker a Shi’a Muslim, the Deputy PM and Deputy Speaker Eastern Orthodox. When the PLO was ousted from Jordan in the 1970 Black September, and welcomed in Lebanon by the Sunni majority, dissent occurred in the Western-tilted Maronites and the leftist and pan-Arab groups who sided with Soviet-aligned Arab countries. Fighting between Maronites and PLO began in 1975 and went on in different phases till 1990.
The Ba’ath Party upheld Arab nationalism and unity as its major agenda and with the back tracking of Egypt from the Pan-Arabism goal after Nasser, Syria could consider itself the sole champion of the Arab ideal and the real threat to Israel. But Syria was surrounded by many anomalies that had effects on its acts – firstly, the Ba’ath Party had taken power in Iraq and in Syria in about the same time and was ideologically one party, and Hafez al-Assad feared the dominance of the Iraqi Ba’ath over Syria’s. Secondly, as the US and Britain had no interest in aiding Syria, it had to secure itself in the Soviet camp. For this reason it inevitably became part of the broader Russian, Iranian nexus and its future plans for the Levant would now be only those that would satisfy this whole nexus. Due to this, Hafez al-Assad, who like his predecessors had championed the PLO and had welcomed and aided PLO members in Syria, and had fought for them in the Black September War, had to make divergence in his plans now. Especially in Lebanon, where PLO had now stationed after their removal from Jordan.
In spite of Lebanon’s separation from Syria, Syria had always been able to exert control over Lebanese politics and economy. The Soviets and Iran were good with Syria’s hegemony and control of Lebanon but despised PLO dominance there. On the one hand an absolute and focused PLO would potentially become as powerful as to one day resolve the Palestine issue, which might decrease Soviet projection in the Middle East, and on the other hand, Iran despised the PLO for it being a completely Sunni forum. So in 1974, Musa Sadr made Amal, the first Shia party in Lebanon, and in 1985 a breakaway faction of Amal made Hezbollah, the predominantly Shia militia – and Syria slowly shifted from the PLO to Hezbollah. This explains why, in the early phases of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) Syrian forces fought along with the Maronites against PLO and later when the PLO had been neutralized Syria turned against the Maronites, because a Christian, pro-West Lebanon was not a desirable either. Hafez al-Assad needed to ensure Syria’s dominance upon Lebanese trade, ports, politics and foreign policy – this only would maintain Syria as a threat to Israel and not vice versa.
Syrian troops remained stationed in Lebanon until 2005, all this time Hafiz with the help of his troops dominated on Lebanon’s political structure, for instance Pres. Elias Herawi, Speaker Nabih Berri, PM Rafic Hariri and Vice PM Isam Fares were all Syria-backed. It is reported that after Pres. Mouawad’s assassination, when Pres. Hirawi was elected, he straightaway went to Syria to meet Hafez El Assad to compile the list of members to be appointed in the parliament.
This dominance continued in Bashar al-Assad’s time. Amidst criticism that Bashar was behind the 2005 Hariri Assassination, UN, EU and US pressurized Assad to pullout its troops from Lebanon. He did so, but by this time Hezbollah had become a formidable Syrian asset in Lebanon.
The reason for Saudi Arabia to remain passive in the wars with Israel was that the Sauds had been under the protection of the British from the beginning. Ibn e Saud who had led the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Sultan in eastern Arabia was later supported by the British to oust Hussein of Mecca in 1924 in a bloody campaign against several tribes that stood with the Sharif of Mecca. The British had an understanding with Ibn Saud that he was not interested in proclaiming a caliphate for himself, rather he would form a Saudi Arabia. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was united under Ibn Saud in 1932 and in 1933 Ibn Saud made a 60years oil-contract with US oil companies, making the kingdom’s security a priority of their foreign policy. The same was true for Turkey, which Kamal Ataturk had converted into a secular nation-state, nothing to do with the Arabs any more, nor much with Islam.
The time of the Arab Spring was perhaps an inevitable phase in the evolution of contemporary history. It has come in a sequence that started with the two-century era of colonialism that was able to acquire all lands in Africa, the Americas and Australia, until they came tooth and claw with established empires in Asia, North Africa and south-eastern Europe. Then came the era of revolutionary ground-breaking, wherein secret societies and agents of ‘renaissance’ planted in enemy soil the seeds of dissent against prevailing status-quo. And then came the era of the two World Wars that destroyed all empires from the Ottoman to the Japanese – the pride in unity had vaporized and all that was left were selfish nation-states, desperately clinging to ‘interests’, swaying from ally to ally in the ever-changing balance of circumstances.
This post WW2 era was the era of the Bi-Polar Cold War, also cold for being a secular, ethnic and feminist era, where hearts are not warmed by the cries of faith nor wars are fought in the name of valor and noble cause, but where banks, cartels and economic and hegemonic interests rule out when and where, which part of humanity will fight which other in their proxy. And after this era has come a Uni-Polar era that threatens to bring all that walks on the earth under its sway of command, and to counter which potential regional groups have been sprouting every here and there.
Islamist terrorism is also a product of the Cold War era of proxy-war based foreign policies of big powers. Wherever there were Soviet-tilted governments the US and its allies sought to oust them by supporting, funding, training and arming dissident groups and turning them into rebels and guerrillas. While elsewhere rebels took ethnic or political slogans, in Muslim states like Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan the rebels were trained as jihadi under the slogan of Islam, under an extreme Wahhabi Islamist cult. By the time of the Arab Spring Islamist terrorism had clenched Afghanistan and Iraq and Al Qaeda had spread it branches with different names in almost all Muslim states, and in many they had established organized militias.
So the era immediately after the Cold War, when the world turned uni-polar right up to the Arab Spring was the era of preparation – for ultimately taking over all resource above the tropic of Cancer by conquest and/or by toppling the Muslims states from within. The Poseidon of Imperialism will not cease until it has tested itself against the entire globe at least once – even if it results in its own annihilation.
When the Arab Spring touched the borders of Bashar Al Assad’s Syria, the whole Sunni world including his own nationals despised him for being an Alawite dictator upon a majority Sunni population. But the Arab Spring in Syria may have served to dwarf Assad’s crimes against his people – turning him into the lesser evil and a viable choice for the people. In the wake of the Arab Spring, protest against Assad regime began in Syria with the start of 2011. In the course of the last five years several regional and international actors have entered the Syrian Civil War, making it a major geopolitics theater, changing the circumstance of both Assad and the Syrians.
In July 2011, seven defecting Syrian officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In August the ‘Syrian National Council’ was set up in Turkey, from where the FSA organized and launched attacks. And a Syrian National Coalition was set in Doha in 2012. Some have called it ‘a proto-world war’.
Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi sums up the case in his Dec 2011 article: ‘Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi’s army. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British Special Forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.’
From the south the Hezbollah have entered to secure villages inhabited by Lebanese Shi’ites and to help Assad in other fronts like in Homs. US, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE and UK have all joined in a coalition against the Assad regime, and support the groups fighting Assad with funds, arms and training, calling them ‘moderate rebels’.
The ‘moderate rebels’ include many faction and umbrella formations. The Free Syrian Army and the Army of Conquest are two such umbrella groups but allegiances to these groups keeps fluctuating. The notable factions have been the Al Nusra Front, some Salafist fronts like the Ahrar us Shams, Al Tawheed and Faulaq as Shams, the Kurdish groups YPG and PYD and the later formed Islamic Front backed by the Saudis. While all these groups claim to be local and only getting support from outside, the ISIL or simply IS, and Al Qaeda faction, led by the Iraqi fighter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, swept into Syria in April 2013. Soon it gained control over one-third of Syrian land to the east and almost all the oil and gas sources. In Sept. 2015, Russia started its air campaign on the side of the government of Syria.
Summoning hindsight not very far in the past, would it be unreasonable to bethink that the events unfolding in the Arab World today, must have some connection with the politics of the last six decades or the last whole century. Is there a sequence in the events of Syria being a stronghold of Arab Nationalism, then being despised by the UK and US for being a French colony, potentially dividing the fruits of the Middle East for them? And later when the French left, for Syria to unite with Egypt against Israel, and eventually when the US succeed to lure Sadat into the US camp, for Syria to run to the opposite, Soviet camp. And for the US coalition with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt that were essentially Sunni lands, their inclination to make the Shi’ite belt their enemy for the sake of their Sunni friends. And for their interest in keeping the Middle East ever unstable and divided so as to secure their friend Israel’s vulnerable position therein. And for Syria to decisively enter the Russian camp before the Yom Kippur War of 1973. And for Khomeini’s depriving Britain and US their longstanding interests in Iran and Iran to decisively ally with the Russians as the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 88). And when Iraq found that the same US that supplied it with billions of dollars’ worth arms and biological weapons and instigated it to take over Iran had by the end of the war turned against it, and destroying its military capability in the Kuwait episode of 1990, and after that its turning against Iraq in the UN, making resolution after resolution for the UN to allow an attack on Iraq for its unjustified allegation of Iraq’s possession of WMDs – until finally its invasion in 2003. And with that, like the US and its allies liked to keep the Middle East constantly in its own troubles, Russia and its allies wanted to keep Israel constantly in trouble by creating and funding pro-Palestine rebel groups – Syria became the patron of Hezbollah.
Can it be also the case that the Saud, who deliberated the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans at the behest of Britain, and later remained aloof of the Syrian and Egyptian alliances against Israel, have in time thought of themselves, being the center of Sunni Islam, the actual inheritors of Arab Nationalism – bent on wiping off the scourge of Shi’ite infidelity from the purity of the Arabs.
But as much as they may like to think, today’s scenario is not a win-win for the Saud nor for their ally Turkey. Today each and every neighbor of Saudi Arabia from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Palestine to Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Egypt is burning in the fire of war and conflict – with or without Saudi backing. And today, on the urging of the US, not only has Saudi Arabia engaged directly in war with Yemen, but being lure into direct confrontation in the Syrian War too.
Will Syria fall into the same pit of relentless chaos like Libya and Iraq have fallen. Will the Saud or their Turk friends be able to reap the Arab fruit that the West, despite all its avarice and intrigues has been unable to reap, even for which it orchestrated two world wars and is ready to fashion a third one – this is the most gnarly question of our times.