So, recent sarcastic posts about Syria on a related page have led to a request from our fearless blogger, Tim, that I knock up a rough guide to the current conflict in all its convoluted glory. Not something I’d generally inflict on the world but, if you’re interested, read on…
First up, it’s very important that you understand straight away that in the Middle East, history is not just some vague stuff it’s cool to know about the past. It is the living, breathing body of the dog that wags the tail of the present.
So. What is this history?
It’s rich, varied and complicated, and I am about to do vile injustice to it by compressing it into a couple of paragraphs.
We’ll start with the 4th century a.d., when Syria became a heartland of Christianity – a jewel in the crown of Constantine’s newly converted Roman Empire. Syria under the Romans, and later under the Umayyads, was a much larger and richer province than the modern state, with greater access to the sea – a key point to remember for later. Fast forward to the 7th century and we have a confederation of Arabs under the prophet and war leader, Mohammed, who swallowed up Syria almost immediately after taking care of business at home, and Syria became what it still is today – a major part of the beating heart of the Islamic world.
It has been said that Damascus, for the moslems, carries a religious and cultural significance that is similar in magnitude to the ideological and symbolic importance of New York for the West. Syria was also central to the main schism in Islam today. Briefly, the Shi’ite moslems believe in a hereditary succession of prophets leading down from Mohammed, whereas the Sunni school of thought rejects this. Back in the time we’re talking about, they rejected it so violently that the Sunni Umayyad dynasty killed Mohammed’s nephew in order to take control of Damascus and, therefore, Syria. Syria became the centrepiece of one of the largest empires the world has ever known, and it was a decidedly Sunni one. It is important to note, however, that Syria has always held a reputation for absolute tolerance – which is part of why the current conflict is such a tragedy.
There were a number of ructions and changes – Syria, with real justification, claims the Turkic war leader Saladin as one of their own. Fast forward a few more centuries and we have Syria at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. T E Lawrence (of Arabia), with significant help from the Pan-Arab revolutionary Prince Faisal, broke the back of the Ottomans in the closing years of the First World War. Lawrence, the man on the ground, made promises to Faisal that the Foreign Office had no intention of honouring, having handed the territory over to the French in table-top warfare nearly at the outset of the conflict. A completely gormless official drew a basically random line partitioning it and its surrounding territories, cutting Syria largely off from the sea, screwing over the heroic Faisal and basically setting the hearts and minds of pretty well the entire Middle East against Western intervention forever more.
It is important to note that during the years of occupation, local militia were formed in order to curb the rambunctious and economically and politically powerful Sunni blocs within the territory. Finding motivated and loyal militia was easily accomplished by scouring the hills for a persecuted and beleaguered Shi’a minority known as the Alawites. By the time of independence, Alawite ascendancy in the ranks of the military was a fait accompli.
Syria gained independence from France in 1946, after some extremely bloody fighting, and proved solidly over the next twenty odd years to be incapable of playing nicely with itself. They drafted four separate constitutions during that time, and a fair amount of blood was spilt. It was around this time that the idea of Pan-Arabism began to sweep through the region in earnest, and Syria at one point even formed an integrated state with Egypt. During this period, Syria was consistently aligned with the USSR, which helps to explain their relationship with Russia to this day. Also during the period, the Baath party – a secularist, hard-line communist organisation, replaced the Syrian parliament and ruled over what was increasingly becoming a military dictatorship.
After a couple of embarrassing wars with Israel the defence minister, Hafez Al-Assad, seized power in a bloodless coup (1970). Hafez did a number of good things for the country, standing on a platform of absolute and universal religious tolerance, a focus on commercial prosperity and modernisation and a simultaneous attempt to re-vitalise the agrarian economy. He was also a paranoid and murderous tyrant, who commanded and oversaw numerous artillery strikes and death squad corrals on his own people. The apple doesn’t fall far, and all that. His rule was marked by ruthless authoritarianism but, and most importantly, it was stable. The Syrian people, by this point in their history, were by and large willing to swap just about anything for a country which was not on fire or being bombed every five minutes.
Hafez died, in due course, and his son – a medical doctor trained in London and known as Bashar Al-Assad, succeeded to power. Bashar’s early rhetoric was indicative of major government reform. A phenomenon known as “The Damascus Spring” took place, where open dissent and dialogue on reform was conducted on the assumption that it would be tolerated. This assumption was incorrect. The demonstrations, meetings, fora, etc., were cracked down on ruthlessly and with brutal violence. Bashar seems to have done a reverse Scrooge – starting nice and very quickly turning very naughty indeed. Resentment grew amongst the people as well as amongst elements of the army, who were frequently called upon to supplement the efforts of the security forces. There are accounts of summary executions of army personnel refusing to fire on demonstrators. There was also a major drought and, for oppressed populations, hungry and angry is never a good mix.
Eventually, units from within the army – sometimes whole platoons – cast off the chain of command and vanished into Syria’s expansive hills and plains to conduct guerilla warfare against government forces. Ostensibly, their mission was to: “Protect the right of the Syrian people to conduct protests in safety”. These units eventually banded together in a loose confederation known as the Free Syrian Army. Initially the FSA were mainly seen running herd on demonstrations and funerals, but they very quickly began mounting a highly effective war of attrition on government forces. It should be noted that this was not Sunni against Alawite – some senior figures in the FSA are, and always have been, Alawites themselves.
After about a year, and feeling above themselves through riding a localised groundswell of support, the FSA seriously overreached itself by taking and attempting to hold a sizeable chunk of territory around the Homs/Deraa area. They were absolutely mullered. This was not something that was going to go unnoticed, however, and several things happened during and after the battle for Homs.
Firstly, foreign Jihadi began flooding into the country. This is not an uncommon occurrence in any conflict involving moslems, but it is abundantly clear to any watcher of Syria that the FSA is far from comfortable with the ideology and tactics of its new helpers. Lacking credible centralised command and control, however, there isn’t a great deal they can do about it.
Secondly, the Arab League and, at something of a distance, the UN, became involved. This necessitated the recognition of a central body that could be engaged with as being representative of the rebels. This group, formed ad hoc and specifically to meet this need, took the name of the already extant Syrian National Council. I have no idea who is speaking for that group this week, or whether they’ve dropped or re-engaged with the FSA in the last hour or so.
Thirdly, the Western media machine rolled in, spreading disinformation, half-understood truths and flat-out lies over the front pages of scream sheets and at the top of prime time broadcasts all over the world. This fatally coloured the uprising in exactly the wrong light at the very outset. Now, with embedded specialists and brave war journalism professionals in country, the information situation is much better, but it seems that the world simply stopped listening after digesting exactly the wrong story. As far as mass-consciousness is concerned, we are stuck with the wildly inaccurate version of events promulgated in the early days of the West noticing that something was happening.
It has been said by people on the ground that this is rapidly degenerating into a sectarian conflict. What is also clear, is that the rebel side is working very hard to retard that process, insisting on a message of tolerance, often in strange dissonance with the announcements their crazy jihadi mates. The government claims that it is trying to do the same thing, but nobody really believes them and neither do I.
So, there it is. Not the whole truth, but at least it’s not the hysterical pack of lies that seems to constitute the vast majority of what I will loosely term ‘popular thinking’ with regard to the conflict in Syria.