The Dimensions and Implications of Syrian Crisis

The Dimensions and Implications of Syrian Crisis

The violent and bloody uprising in Syria has by now prolonged for more than a year, entailing extreme misery for the people of Syria, and serious anxiety for the world, specially the regional countries. While there are varying speculations about this crisis and its implications, the fact remains that this crisis is much more complex than the generally prevailing perception of it simply being a struggle of Syrian masses to establish a democratic rule, ousting the prevailing despotic government. Vali R. Nasr, Dean-elect, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in an interview published on 4 June 2012, has also mentioned thatit’s much more about the implications for redistribution of power between communities in Syria. Syria’s struggle is between the majority Sunni population and the minority Alawite (Shiite) regime that is also backed by other minorities. However, even this elaboration falls short of providing a clear grasp of the various dimensions of this crisis. And, for that purpose, an analytical appraisal of some of the basic internal factors relating to Syria and its crisis has to be made, because many aspects related to these internal factors are not well-known. The internal factors include the geographic and ethnographic peculiarities, psyche and political behaviour pattern of Syrian people, an understanding of the ruling Alwite community, the opposition groups including the Free Syrian Army and the problems of the Syrian opposition. The external factor relates to the foreign intervention of US and its allies, much of the details of which are already known.

Geographically, Syria is bordered in the north by Turkey, in the east and south-east by Iraq, in the south by Jordan, in the south-west Syrian Golan Heights remain in military occupation of Israel, in the west it is bordered by Lebanon, and in the west it also has its ports in the Mediterranean Sea. It is thus situated in a critically important location in an area which has mostly remained riddled with political and ethnic rivalries, accentuated specially since the last century due to the foreign interventions by the colonial British and French, and subsequently by US and its geo-political allies. Any politico-social upheaval in Syria is, therefore, most likely to gravitate its effects in the region, as also in world politics linked with Middle-East.

Syria has a population of 2, 25, 30, 746 (CIA’s July 2012 est.); comprising of 90.3 % Arabs; whereas number of Kurds, Armenians and others amount to 9.7 %. Out of this population, Sunni Muslims are 74 %, Alawites 12 %, Christians 10%, Druze 3 %; and Ismailis, Yezidis and a few Jews make up the rest. It is, therefore, obvious that any politico-social arrangement enforced in Syria, in violation of this ground reality of the predominance of Sunni Muslims (74%) and of Arabs (90.3%), has to be a sure recipe of turmoil and instability in the country. That fact was also highlighted about 90 years ago by the well-known T. E. Lawrence, who was the main operator of the colonial British conspiracy of instigating the Arab uprising in this region against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. He had authored the book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. A commentary on that book has also been published by Franz-Stefan Gady on        17 July 2012. T.E. Acknowledging such ground reality, Lawrence had mentioned in his book that in order to succeed in Syria, he had to have the Sunni majority on his side. The Alwite government in Syria has always been in violation of these two predominant ground realities, because the minority Alwite faction is so far away from Islam (not merely from Sunni faction) that according to a report published by Reuters French colonial administrators tried to classify Syrian Alawism as a separate religion despite resistance from Alawi leaders who were more interested in identifying with Islam”. And, also because Syria was the only Arab country whose Alwite government supported Iran in its 1980-1988 war with Iraq.    

Incidentally, much knowledge is not common about the Alwite sect and the pattern of Alwite government in Syria. Some of the details, gathered from Britannica, Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions, etc., have been published in the aforementioned Reuters report of 2 February 2012. Some of the excerpts from that report deserve a note: “The Alawite religion is often called “an offshoot of Shi’ism,” Islam’s largest minority sect, but that is something like referring to Christianity as “an offshoot of Judaism”.  Alawites broke away from Shi’ism more than 1,000 years ago and retain some links to it, including the veneration of Ali, the cousin and son-in law of the Prophet Mohammad. Alawi literally means those who adhere to the teachings of Ali. But several beliefs differ sharply from traditional Islam. Named after Ali, Alawites believe he was divine, one of many manifestations of God in a line with Adam, Jesus, Mohammad, Socrates, Plato and some pre-Islamic sages from ancient Persia. To orthodox Muslims, this eclectic synthesis of Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Zoroastrian thought violates Islam’s key tenet that “there is no God but God.” Alawites interpret the Pillars of Islam (the five duties required of every Muslim) as symbols rather than duties. They celebrate a group of holidays, some Islamic, some Christian, and many Alawite practices are secret. They consider themselves to be moderate Shi’ites. They were also highly secretive, initiating only a minority of believers into their core dogma, including reincarnation and a divine Trinity, and into rituals including a rite of drinking consecrated wine similar to a Christian Mass.

About the pattern of governance of the Alwites in Syria, it may suffice to mention that anyone who had the opportunity of eye-witnessing the life of people of a USSR country of the Soviet era followed by a similar opportunity of eye-witnessing the life in the Alwite-ruled Syria could easily find marked similarities between the two. That aspect is also confirmed by the published reports, which present the real picture of the pattern of the Alwite’s 42 years of governmental hold on Syria. Out of those reports, it would suffice to make a mention of the above-mentioned Reuters report of 2 February 2012, another of its report of 7 June 2012, and an article of Jonathan Freedman published in The Guardian on 20 July 2012 and republished by Al-Arabia two days later. Factually, Alawites captured power in Syria through a coup staged by Hafez al Assad (Bashar al Assad’s father) in 1970 and then quickly cemented their control by building a ferocious security apparatus based on fellow Alawite officers. Allying with Sunni merchant classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the Alawite elite expanded their influence to the economy as well as the security apparatus and the military. The core of the feared pro-Assad Shabiha militia is Alawite”. Even now the key units of the Syrian armed forces are dominated by Alwite control and the well-equipped, well-trained 4th Armored Division is about 80 percent Alawite. Alwite government in Syria has a history of brutality that includes the slaughter of up to 20,000 in Hama in 1982, the last time an Assad faced popular protest. And its merciless intelligence apparatus is what Chatham House’s Nadim Shehadi calls a Stasi state, where everyone is watching everyone else.

As for the opposition groups, the two mostly mentioned are the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The SNC is composed of Syrian exiles and is Istanbul (Turkey)-based. It claims to be the main representative organisation of Syrian opposition linked with FSA; and is supported by US and its allies. However another publication dated 21 July 2012 Syria: Anatomy of Oppositionalso highlights the fissures in the Syrian opposition. It mentions of another (second largest) opposition alliance called National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), which is based within Syria and is made up of several left-wing groups, Kurdish organisations, independent activists, and includes both Arabs and Kurds in its leadership. These major opposition alliances do have some operational and policy differences amongst them. There are also reports, though not yet much substantiated, of some Sunni militant groups demanding imposition of Sharia rule in Syria. As for the two reckonable ethno-religious minorities in Syria (the Alawites and the Druze) these have largely remained aloof from the rebellion. However, Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader who is a bitter opponent of Assad, has publicly appealed for Druze and Alawites in Syria to join the uprising, praising three young Syrian Druze militants whose deaths were reported by opposition websites. Obviously, that ‘textural complexity’ of the Syrian opposition (alliances/groups) reflects ‘difficult going’ for them in their bid to oust the Assad regime.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is an armed opposition group operating in Syria. It is composed mainly of the defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel. Its formation was announced on 29 July 2011, under the leadership of Colonel Riad al-Asaad. Many of the General Officers of Syrian Army and Airforce also defected and joined FSA later; and assumed the function of the FSA military council to handle FSA’s strategic planning and arms procurement. This council is headed by General Mustafa al-Sheikh alongwith ten other Generals. FSA’s declared goal is non-political and non-sectarian armed effort to oust the Assad regime. FSA’s command headquarters is in Turkey’s southern Hatay province close to the Syrian border, and its field command operates inside Syria. There are varying reports of its total strength, ranging from 40,000 to 1,00,000. It operates throughout Syria, both in urban areas and in the countryside. So far it is reported to be equipped mainly with automatic rifles (AK 47) and rocket propelled grenades (RPG) which the defecting troops could bring with them, and some other rifles and shot guns, etc. So far FSA is reported to be operating with upto 37 battalion units, out of which at least 17 to 23 are actively engaged in combat. FSA has also established an operational command structure, including local coordination committees, to coordinate its operations. For most of the period its operations were based on guerilla warfare tactics, but recently there have also been some operations in which its units attacked and held the localities before withdrawing again – a clear sign of their increasing operational capability.

A grasp of the ground realities in Syria will not be complete if a mention, albeit brief, is not made about the psyche and political behaviour pattern of the people of Syria. In that context it may suffice to note the observations of T.E. Lawrence in his aforementioned book. He noted about the Syrians They were discontented always with what government they had; such being their intellectual pride; but few of them honestly thought out a working alternative, and fewer still agreed upon one”. He also cautioned about Syrian’s ingrained intolerance of any ‘imposed’ government, specially by foreign element. In that context, though he acknowledged the potential for a general insurrection against the Turkish government in Damascus but again cautioned that it not be foreign led. The mentioned commentary on T. E. Lawrence’ book highlights that in the light of these observations the incumbent Alawi- and Shia-dominated government under Bashar al-Assad has reproduced the ancient foreign Ottoman administration, with the top tiers of government dominated by a Shia minority that constitutes less than 20 percent of Syria’s total population. Lawrence described the Alawi as clannish in feeling and politics.Thus, the current revolt would not be a surprise to him”. These ‘insight observations’ of T.E. Lawrence are certainly sufficient to very clearly point out the likely impediments to the settlement of Syrian crisis, both from the points of view of the Syrian opposition groups/alliances, and of US and its allies for their currently perceptible ‘designs’ of intervention.

The details regarding the overt designs of US and its allies for intervention in Syria are already well-known. Following the pattern of its UN Security Council’s-sanctioned intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iraq again, etc., US with its allies has already reached the ‘advanced stage’ of its intervention pattern by trying to invoke UNSC’s permission for intervention in Syria. However, this time despite the personal efforts of President Obama to pressurise the governments of Russia and China, these two permanent members of the UNSC have stuck with their veto. Despite this veto, US and its allies have not given in, and appear to be continuing covertly with their designs. That aspect of their covert designs is also quite significant, the analysis of which requires proper treatment separately. The most regrettable point is that such an intervention in Syria is being insisted by US and its allies, despite the fact that the previous examples of US and allies interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have only brought widespread destruction and extreme misery to the multitude of humanity. There is just no doubt that the despotic government in Syria must be replaced by a political setup acceptable to the majority of the various segments of Syrian people. However, many other ways of meeting that requirement could be found out rather than repeating the proven US/allies recipe of destruction and human devastation. It must be remembered that the US/allies plan to repeat their pattern of intervention in Syria is most likely to be counter-productive, being in absolute disregard of the lessons drawn by T.E. Lawrence: The major lesson Lawrence drew from the history of foreign interventions in Syria, starting from the Ottomans to the British and French, is that they have been marked by disappointment. The defeats have come not so much in military struggles—both the British and French prevailed in that sphere—but in the failure of political settlements and the transition to peace once the fighting ceased. Or as T. E. Lawrence alliterated, “Any wide attempt after unity would make a patched and parceled thing”.


(Published in The Frontier Post of 27 July 2012.  (Peshawar) (Opinion)