A Hot Summer in Syria

Fighting has spread to Damascus.  My Syrian friends are all on Facebook today and report bombs exploding and shots fired throughout the city.    A Sunni believes that the Free Syrian Army is made up of “men from Turkey, Afghanistan, and Qatar” while an Alawite counters that she’s been stopped at a Free Syrian Army checkpoint and all speak fluent Damascene Arabic but carry American weapons.   My ex, a well-traveled Christian polyglot from Homs (the epicenter of regime violence), is convinced that the Free Syrian Army is a joint Al Qaeda/CIA/Mossad operation and my Kurdish former sidekick seems to have all but disappeared.    While none of these reports are totally trustworthy, the perceptions themselves are undeniable: the only consensus in Syria today is the total lack of uniformity.   Russia’s recent decision to send three naval ships to Tartus, a port in Northeastern Syria, further complicates the question of US involvement in Syria’s festering pseudo-civil war but ultimately, US interests are best served from the sidelines of this conflict.  While admittedly we do have a dog in this fight, it is in both our immediate and long-term best interest to remain spectators

Syria is ethnically, linguistically, and religiously heterogeneous.    For the last forty years, the regime has succeeded in masking this heterogeneity by playing up the threat of Israel and Western imperialism. This rhetoric functioned not only to legitimize the regime itself as the final bastion of political Arabism, but more importantly as a catalyst to unite the Syrian people through a shared sense of struggle.   In 2009, I witnessed this first hand. When Israel invaded Gaza during the appropriately named Operation Cast Lead, the regime’s propaganda machine shifted into high gear: local television networks looped nationalistic songs pledging solidarity with Palestine, Syrians of all ages suddenly all began wearing Kefiayahs, and throughout Damascus posters appeared reading “Ghaza, kolna m3kom”  Gaza, we are all with you.   

Unfortunately, in the absence of the other, the regime has never succeeded in building a basic, non-sectarian, civil framework.  One has only to scratch the surface in order to appreciate the deeply sectarian sociopolitical divides that pockmark the contours of Syria’s human landscape.  Neighborhoods, mahalas, are nearly always demarcated along religious lines: in the old city alone, Christians live in Dwella and Bab Touma, Sunnis in the souqs surrounding the Ummayed Mosque, and Shi’a in a small enclave along the old city’s northern boundary, not far from the famous Shi’a pilgrimage site Mesjid Sayyidah Ruqayya.   Even in the most privileged and secular establishments, the nightclubs and discotheques of downtown Sham, cliques nearly always have a sectarian dynamic: Christians, Alawites and wealthy Sunnis rarely interact and Kurds take out the trash.   The minorities, specifically the Christians and Alawites, are perhaps the most insular.   The Christians, having survived as a dhimmi minority community for over one thousand years, possess a strangely paradoxical relationship with Islam, viewing it both as a threat and a protector.   Each Easter, celebrations last for weeks and are complete with near constant processions, bell tolling, church services, and marching bands.   Their immediate goal is evident: self-assertion in the face of more than a thousand years of Islamic hegemony.

Yet more than any other community and as a consequence of their disproportionate success, the Alawites in particular fall victim to this strongly sectarian perspective.    A significant but powerful minority, the Alawites largely, and perhaps accurately, believe that loss of power would result in their massacre.    While some Alawites are themselves pro-democracy activists, this phenomenon is a consequence of their disproportionate access to higher education and foreign travel.   Some continue to be wooed by a naïve attachment to the democratic ideals that defined the early days of the Syrian Arab Spring but most have embraced the tragedy of realpolitik.   The violent radicalization of the uprising- in no small way a direct consequence of regime propaganda and a policy of violent suppression of peaceful activists- continues to make democracy activists irrelevant by shifting the impetus and leadership to the armed vanguard, currently undertaking a counter-regime insurgency.   As fighting increases, the Alawite core will grow more and more radical and at the end of the day, these Alawites will fight to the last man: to them this revolution is ultimately not a question of governing structure and political legitimacy but rather their own survival.  

Most important to the question of direct US involvement is the fact that the US significantly overestimates both its perceived legitimacy as well as the strength of the opposition.  As was the case in 2003, it would be tragic to convince ourselves that Syrians will greet any form of US military intervention with open arms and hands waving little American flags.  While the last ten years have witnessed rapid modernization in Syria, modernization does not equate to westernization.    In truth, most Syrians view the United States (Government, not people) with a mixture of suspicion and deep hostility.    Since the US invasion of Iraq, Iraqi refugees have become omnipresent in Syria.   The regime has intelligently branded these refugees as walking symbols of American arrogance and imperialism.   As classic regime propaganda has defined the struggle between itself and the West (to include Israel) as a fight against imperialism, direct US involvement will only validate Assad’s rhetoric and rally the divided populace against perceived foreign aggression.

Finally, we know little of the rebels.   Who are they?  As highlighted above, Syrians themselves don’t have answers to these questions.   Rumors abound of Wahhabi and Salafi insurgents fighting in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army.   While these rumors should be taken with a grain of salt, they should also be noted.  As the US has learned these last thirty years, militants, especially Islamic fundamentalists, are not very reliable friends.   I have learned this lesson first-hand in western Kandahar and have no interest in repeating this experience in the Levant. 

In the absence of a unified and representative opposition, Syria might well fall from the frying pan straight into the fire.   In fact, Civil War would likely be the most favorable outcome of direct US involvement.  Upon Qaddafi’s collapse, much of his arsenal fell into the hands of Tuareg rebels who, upon allying themselves with an Al Qaeda affiliate, used these weapons to carve out an independent Islamic State in Mali.   The Syrian regime has unquestionably stockpiled heaps of Soviet sponsored weaponry and biological agents- what will be the fate of these weapons if the regime falls?

Clearly it is neither in the humanitarian interests of the Syrian people, nor in our own direct self interest, to begin funneling weapons to the Free Syrian Army.    As we learned in Beirut, Afghanistan, Mogadishu, and Iraq, short-term, impulsive military forays in the Middle East and Central Asia, even through proxies, normally cost us more than we stand to gain and do harm to indigenous civilians and our own soft power.   While the US does have strategic and humanitarian reasons to dethrone Assad, the current approach ensures more harm than good.  

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