By Saul Landau
On three occasions I traveled through Syria, whose boundaries got made by French colonial officials, a nation that once served as the seat of an Islamic Empire. In 2004, I made a film there (“Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place”) and traversed that nation in a small bus. I saw ruins from the Romans, Mongols, Christian Crusaders and Turks who previously ruled and occupied the territory. The Krak du Chevalier, the immense castle near Homs built by the Crusaders in the Twelfth Century, stood as a tourist attraction until the recent war.
Driving down Syria’s fertile plains, one sees the mountains – to the west and the Mediterranean. Driving eastward into the desert, one sees the Palmyra remains, a Roman relic city, preserved by the dry, hot air. In traversing Syria, I met different ethnic and religious groups, from Kurds and Armenians to various sects of Christians, Druze, plus many Palestinians, refugees or assimilated, as well as members of the ruling Alawite Shia sect and members of the majority Sunnis. Most of them – not the Palestinians – identified themselves as Syrians, first and foremost.
Since 1946, when Syria gained independence from France, several of its governments tried to forge a system whereby this diverse population lives harmoniously. But such a feat may have stretched the human political imagination; instead, Syria’s fragile stability has derived from iron rule, control through force of the political hostilities inherent in building a nation with many conflicting interests and ancient hatreds.
From 1958-1961, Syria fused its identity with Egypt under Nasser and became part of the United Arab Republic, but an army coup restored it as Syria before the Alawite-controlled pan-Arab nationalist Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963. The Baathists have governed since then. In 1970, Hafiz al Assad, a very high ranking Alawite military officer took state control and retained it until his death when his ophthalmologist son, Bashar, took power and has kept it.
In 2011, however, a rebellion erupted that both challenged Baath legitimacy and also threatened its rule. By 2012, the rebellion had developed into civil war, with significant foreign interference.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar sponsored the anti-Assad campaign by recruiting and arming foreign rebels for a jihad in Syria, some of them extreme right wing Muslims, and providing backing for those in Syria willing to take up arms against the Assad government. In Syria, the Baath government’s authoritarian rule and inflexibility when difficult economic times hit in 2006, created a culture ripe for rebellion. Its de facto alliance with Iran and its strong anti-Western policy also brought increased support for the rebels from Washington and Western Europe.
Syria, under President Hafez al-Assad from 1970 to 2000, had failed to regain possession of its Golan Heights in the 1973 war with Israel, which it had lost to Israel during the 1967 War. But when neighboring Lebanon erupted in civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s, Syria extended its political and military influence south into that country, arming the Hezbollah militia.
In 2005, heavy international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A UN report implicated Syrian officials in the killing, although Damascus denied any involvement.
By 2006, Syria faced a dramatic economic slump. The government did little to ameliorate the growing poverty, while maintaining its traditional corrupt practices. The ruling class, mainly Alawite elite, then began to pay the price for its failures to stop corruption and for its slovenly response to the new ideas spread through the region by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia – the Arab Spring.
In 2013, Syria’s poorly managed state-run economy barely survives its civil war as street fighting and artillery and bombing attacks have crumbled much of the country’s infrastructure. The people and the nation have become transformed into an international battleground for competing Middle Eastern interests, especially those of the oily Gulf monarchies and those of Iran, to which Syria has allied.
Estimates of deaths range as high as 60,000. The government dealt brutally with domestic opposition. Back in 1982, the government brutally suppressed an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, killing as many as 20,000.
But in 2000, Hafez al-Assad died and his son Bashar assumed presidential power. The new government released hundreds of political prisoners, but did not allow for free press or politics.
When Arab Spring-based protests erupted in Syria in 2011, security forces used heavy weapons and mass arrests to try to crush the rebellion. The protests quickly evolved, however, into armed rebellion, backed by arms and financial aid from the West and the Saudis. During 2012, the rebellion, fueled also by soldiers from North Africa, Chechnya and elsewhere, became an outright civil war. Government officials defected and government control depended on the use of heavy weapons, air attacks and strong Russian backing.
On the world stage, Western nations organized against Syria and helped isolate it. After all, Syria had backed anti NATO forces in Iraq and had tried to counter western influence in Lebanon.
In May 2010, Washington imposed sanctions on Syria for violating a UN ban on arming the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. By December 2012, NATO nations recognized the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” This made a statement to the world against the Assad government.
Israel saw the Assad government as both an intransigent opponent of peace treaties with Israel because it supported anti-Israel armed groups, especially Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza. But, on the other hand, Assad allowed no meddling by strongly anti-Israel Palestinians in Syria, along the Golan Heights border with Israel.
In 2013, peace lovers pray that U.S. and Russian diplomats sit together to create a peace plan for Syria, one that stops the flow of weapons to both sides and puts heavy pressure on rebels and government leaders to sit and formulate a plan to stop the bloodshed and destruction. The bookies have not yet taken odds on such an outcome.
Saul Landau’s SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE was filmed in 2004 and is available from roundworldproductions.com