Considering Syria's complex history, America comes to right decision in conflict

Syria flag

By default, and with a little help from Vladimir Putin, President Obama seems to have come to the right decision about what America should do in Syria, which is nothing, or as next to nothing as possible.

It should be clear by now that the many and manifest problems of Syria will not be solved by bombing forces loyal to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, nor will they be solved by arming those groups who are opposed to the regime.

In the first place, the Syrian rebels are not freedom fighters in any sense that Americans understand, but rather a ragtag and fractious coalition of Islamic extremists, aggrieved moderates and local militias. And, unfortunately, as the conflict has dragged on, the most motivated, dedicated and effective rebel fighters, those who have inflicted the greatest losses on Syrian governmental forces, are those who have been most closely associated with Al-Qaeda and sundry other radical Islamist groups.

In the second place, Bashar al-Assad is a not a Sunni, a member of the dominant sect in Islam, but an Alawite, an adherent of a schismatic Shiite group that has millennia-old roots along the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria and southern Turkey. The Alawites have a long history of being oppressed and persecuted as heretics by fellow Muslims, right through the Ottoman period, until the French took control of the region in the aftermath of World War I. Like all colonial powers, the French divided and conquered local factions by elevating oppressed minorities to positions of power over the majority population, in Syria, the Sunnis. In the specific case of the Alawites, they proved especially adept at soldiering, and rose quickly through the ranks of the French-controlled Syrian military to hold many senior positions.

By the time Syria gained its independence following World War II, the Alawites were well-placed to protect themselves against the return of Sunni depredations, having allied with another historically oppressed minority, the Christians, to form a political bloc that was backed by a strong presence in the military. One of the ironies of the modern period is that the fascist Ba’ath movement, closely associated with both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria, was founded in 1947 by three Arabs, a Christian, a moderate Sunni Muslim, and an Alawite, as a way of helping all Arabs transcend their religious differences. Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, joined the party as a teenager in the late 1940s, moved up the ranks as an air force pilot, and eventually become the Minister of Defense. From that position he was then able to seize power in a 1970 coup.

Finally, it has to be noted that the Christians of Syria, a kaleidoscopic assortment of Nestorians, Catholics, Chaldeans, Maronites and Orthodox groups representing about ten percent of the total population, are largely supporters of the dictator Bashar Assad. As the rulers of Syria, the Assads, like all the Ba’athists have been opponents of radical Islam in all its forms, and they’ve allowed Syrian Christians nearly total freedom of worship, including the right to teach, preach, proselytize and build churches, and American protestant missionaries worked openly in Syria right up until the civil war broke out last year. These Christians rightly fear that a hard-line Sunni take-over of Syria bodes ill for all of them, a belief reinforced by recent events in Egypt, where the brief tenure in power of the Muslim Brotherhood was accompanied by the murder of Coptic Christians and the sacking of Coptic churches and monasteries.

To use the American military to “send a message” does not acknowledge the complexity of factional and tribal politics in Syria. The destruction of Bashar al-Assad, as odious as he is, will have unintended but largely foreseeable consequences, including the inevitable persecution of Christians and the likely massacre of Alawites in Syria. There is simply no good answer to the problem of Syria, and because of that America should not be arming either side in this war, and we certainly should not be bombing anyone.

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Howard Miller

Howard Miller

Visiting Professor

Howard Miller, assistant professor and academic chair of the Department of History Politics and Phil... [More]

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