Monday, October 7, 2013

Some background to the Syrian crisis, and what I would do about it.

I once posted all this in a thread on a forum somewhere, and the people in that thread said I should submit it to a serious news source, or even Fox News. Draya asked me about a month ago to explain the Syria crisis to her, and so I showed her this. I have no idea if it helped, but reading back a year or so later, it's still a pretty simple primer to the players on the ground in Syria.

First post:

A fairly-extensive rundown for someone that knows absolutely nothing about any of this:

Most of the Arabic-speaking Middle East used to be ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which was based out of Turkey. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and a successful Arab revolution guided by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia, if that rings a bell), the old Ottoman possessions were divided among the various Western powers. Britain got what's now Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, and France got what's now Lebanon and Syria.

These borders were drawn without any real regard to (or honestly, knowledge of) the sectarian, ethnic or cultural divisions of the region, and when the countries got their independence after World War II they were often a collection of nonsensical cultures tossed slapdash into borders that cut across their own natural divisions, and these "nations" were just a hodgepodge of awkward bedfellows at best and one ethnic group dominating and oppressing the rest at worst.

There were two main responses among the Arabs to European colonization: one was Islamist and one was secular, but their views were both espoused across the Arabic world and both believed in a pan-Arabic state.

The Islamist response was centered in Egypt in a group called the Muslim Brotherhood, and they espoused a return to a conservative interpretation of sharia as the guiding principle of government. They were widely oppressed first by the colonial authorities and then later by the post-colonial, often military regimes that governed their nations. The most famous one is still in Egypt, where after years of oppression they came out of the shadows during the Egyptian revolution and now control the presidency and a parliament that may or may not be dissolved. But they also exist pretty much everywhere Arabic is the main language. The Tunisian parliament is dominated by a group associated with the Brotherhood, Hamas in Palestine is the local version of the Brotherhood, and they have a presence within the Syrian Provisional Government and the Free Syrian Army.

The secular response was Ba'athism. Essentially, they believed that the Arab world fell behind the Western world because they refused to embrace modernity and were trapped in a regressive, religious-dominated culture. While they permitted the existence and perpetuation of Islam as an expression of traditional Arab culture, they ensured the clerics understood they existed at the government's sufferance, and not the other way around... and they also protected minority religions like Christianity. In theory they supported democracy and free speech and the like, but in practice once the Ba'athists got in they did whatever was necessary to maintain their power. They weren't Communists, but they often looked with approval upon socialism and as a result tended to ally with the Soviet Union. The most famous Ba'athist was Saddam Hussein of Iraq, but Bashar Assad, the embattled President of Syria, is also a Ba'athist, as was his father. The military-led regime of Egypt had Ba'athist overtones and briefly engaged in the only real attempt at pan-Arabism when they briefly united with Ba'athist Syria as a united country in the 70s. Gaddafi of Libya was for the most part his own crazyman self, but he had Ba'athist impulses insofar as he was friendly with the Soviets, believed in modernization and secularization, and the like. Saleh in Yemen was semi-Ba'athist, especially after Yemen absorbed the Socialist Republic of South Yemen after the Cold War. Ali in Tunisia was also Ba'athist in effect, if not necessarily in name.

There were two minor impulses in the Arabic world: Salafism and socialism. Salafism is basically ultra-conservative Islamism only really took over one country in the Arabic world, Saudi Arabia. (It took over Afghanistan under the Taliban.) Socialism only took over South Yemen in the Arabic world, although a lot of Arabic nations were influenced by it, especially Ba'athist nations wanting to indicate their friendship with the Soviet Union, and so the word "socialist" is in the names of several different Arabic nations.

The Arab Spring hit all the nations of Arabia, but it succeeded in the ones ruled by Ba'athists. First Tunisia fell, then Egypt, then Libya. Then Syria... which is where we're at now.

If this has been a very lengthy explanation, it's only because there is no simple one for Syria. Remember that colonization lumped together a bunch of different ethnicities that didn't really belong together? Well, Syria is one expression of that. Assad is Ba'athist, but he's also an Alawite Muslim, which is an offshoot of Shi'a Islam. As a result, his closest ally is Shi'ite Iran, and Shi'ite-dominated (but with significant Sunni and Kurdish minorities) Iraq is generally friendly to Assad's regime. The Alawites live mostly in the mountains along the coast of Syria, in the west.

Alawites aren't the majority in Syria though: the Sunnis are. The Sunnis mostly live in the east in Syria, right next to the Sunnis of Iraq, which live in the west of Iraq near the border. However, the Sunnis are a slim majority, and all the minorities taken together about equal them in numbers, and probably surpass them in economic clout.

In the south of Syria are the Druze. They're an offshoot of an offshoot of an offshoot of some kind of Islam, I don't remember which branch, but they're so far removed that they're rarely considered to be Muslims... they're their own thing. They're also found in Israel and the Golan Heights (that part of Syria that Israel took and won't give back until Syria signs a permanent peace treaty with them), and because they share a lot of attributes with Judaism (they don't evangelize others, they don't marry outside their own people) they're considered citizens by the Israeli state.

Concentrated in the big cities (Damascus, Aleppo, etc.) are the Christians. There's all different kinds of Christians in Syria, but the biggest two branches are Orthodox and Catholic, in various different sub-branches of each... but for political purposes they're all the same thing. The Christians are the single richest group, mainly because of their shared cultural affinity with the rich West and their easier time emigrating as a result, and then the resulting familial ties to Westerners. That ability to emigrate has resulted in a lot of Arabic Christians leaving the Middle East... in fact, the majority of the Arabic diaspora in the Americas is Christian, not Muslim, and they've even ended up contributing presidents to a few Latin American countries. Christians used to be the majority in Lebanon (probably due to Lebanon being the site of the strongest and longest-lasting Crusader kingdom) and they were far bigger in Syria than they are now, but they're still pretty significant in Syria and besides the Alawites are probably the biggest supporters of Assad's regime, mainly because they're afraid of Iraqi-style pogroms if the Sunnis take over. The most senior figure in Assad's regime to be killed by the rebels was a Christian.

It has to be mentioned, also, that this is all unfolding in the context of a regional cold war in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni coalition that's allied with the United States. In the Sunni corner is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Bahrain. They are supporting the Sunni-led Provisional Government and the Free Syrian Army in Syria because they hope that overthrowing Assad will end Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The other side is the Shi'ites, led by Iran. On their side is the Shi'ite led democratic coalition in Iraq, Assad's regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon (which is effectively a shadow government controlling the real one) and Hamas in Palestine. Hamas is Sunni, but because they get weapons from Shi'ites they're effectively in their corner. How that works is Iran traditionally gave weapons and money to Assad, who passed it on to Hezbollah, who took their cut and passed it on to Hamas. If Assad falls, obviously that entire chain crumbles and Hezbollah and Hamas both lose a lot of influence and can be easily crushed by other parts of their respective nations as well as foreign influence. Also, Iran supported the crushed revolution in Bahrain, because Bahrain is 70% Shi'ite but ruled by a Sunni monarchy that's opened up citizenship to just about any Sunni Arab they can find in an attempt to suppress the indigenous Shi'ite majority.

So we've got, indeed, a fustercluck. On the one hand, overthrowing oppressive dictatorships and replacing them with democracies is awesome. On the other, Assad has successfully appealed to the minorities in Syria to support his regime to prevent pogroms against their communities, and there's a very real chance that this would happen. After the Egyptian revolution, Coptic Christians were attacked and killed by Salafist mobs, and after the American invasion Iraqi Christians were killed by both Sunni and Shi'ite militias in Iraq's civil war. So Assad actually has some support among the general population. Not enough to win a fair election, to be sure, but enough that he can claim with some justification to be speaking for at least certain segments of the Syrian population.

Besides the Alawites, Christians and Druze, the richer Sunnis used to support Assad, mainly to ensure their place in society, but as the revolution's dragged on they've defected to the opposition.

One last bit to mention is the global politics. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained a naval base at Tartus in Syria, and the Russian Federation inherited their basing rights and inherited the Soviet alliances maintained by the region's Ba'athist regimes. By all accounts they've let Tartus fall to shit, and it's a rusting, unused hulk. But the maintenance of the basing rights means that if for some reason Russia needed to get serious about its defense posture, Tartus would give it a window on the Mediterranean. Also they sell a lot of weaponry and military hardware to the Assad regime. If Assad's regime falls, none of this is guaranteed to continue in whatever regime follows, so Russia is supporting Assad.

Also, China in general doesn't support any foreign interference in any nation's domestic politics, because of their own experience with Western colonialism 100 years ago... so for different reasons, Russia and China are both vetoing any Security Council resolutions to stop the violence in Syria and do anything but observe and offer to mediate, essentially.

What this looks like it's headed towards isn't Libya or Egypt or Tunisia but Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a socialist state in the Balkans during the Cold War that broke up along ethnic lines in the 90s. Syria wasn't traditionally defined along ethnic lines, but Assad's deliberate attempt to stoke ethnic tensions to obtain and maintain the support of the minorities for his regime has increasingly made it so. Assad doesn't want to be the next Gaddafi, but he seems willing to try his luck at being the next Milosevic. To that end, the latest reports from western Syria suggest that he's preparing the Alawite and Christian areas to turn into a rump state for his regime. Western Syria might be too tiny to be a viable nation-state without foreign help, but then again they'd have the richest part of Syria and the part that Russia cares most about, so if Assad declared a rump state there and left eastern Syria to the Sunni masses, it's probably a coin toss as to whether it'd succeed.

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the UN, has tried and is continuing to try mediation between the Assad regime and the opposition, but it's failing mostly because of the recalcitrance of the Assad regime, Assad's personal refusal to step down, and the veto powers of Russia and China. It was probably the best chance at a peace deal that Syria had for a while, but it's become clear to just about everyone that it's not going to work. However, because the Western powers are loathe to invade (it'd cost a lot of money and, y'know, there's a recession on) and Russia and China don't want any invasions whatsoever but want to look like they're doing something, Annan's attempts are being kept on life support by all players even though they've already failed.

Second post:

Yeah, it's bad. There are no good options. Assad personally is an unmitigated monster but he's also probably the only thing between the Christians and Druze and Alawites and death ever since he made this an ethnic war. His fall would serve America's regional objectives and our general rooting for democracy but would probably also enable the "final solution" to the Christian, Druze and Alawite question.

Oh yeah, and al-Qaeda has smelled blood. They're backing the rebels, but doing it in as counterproductive a way as possible, as is their modus operandi. Assad has lied from the very get that the rebels he's facing are "terrorists" and al-Qaeda's recent (but tiny) involvement helps legitimize his lies. Also, instead of bombing military targets they're attacking Alawite/Druze/Christian civilian targets, which obviously is turning a lot of otherwise neutral or friendly people against the rebels. Needless to say, the FSA and the rest of the legitimate opposition hates these guys, but they've got their hands too full with the government to really do anything about them.

America has ordered the CIA to figure out who's who on the ground, so that we can arm the guys we like and make sure al-Qaeda isn't getting any of our support... unlike what happened when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and we gave any turbanned crazy heading up there to blow up Commies the national credit card, and that resulted in 9/11. We haven't formally begun arming anyone ourselves, but the Qataris and Saudis are and they have no interest in arming al-Qaeda (a group that was founded, first and foremost, on overthrowing the Gulf monarchies) so they're paying attention to our intel.

Also, the FSA is lobbying Congress to provide them intel on the regime's military movements and the like. Russia is giving Assad satellite and ground intel on rebel movements, so this would just put the rebels on an even footing with the regime. It's probably the cheapest and most effective help we can provide, and I support it.

Something I almost completely neglected to mention in the last post is the Kurds. When the Ottoman Empire broke up and was colonized, the Kurds were divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In Iraq after Saddam, the Kurds have been able to establish the autonomy and, honestly, effective independence of their third of the country. In Turkey, the Turkish government has been at war with the socialist and nationalist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK in the native initials) and the PKK has been protected by Assad as a result, to spite Turkey. The PKK initially were pro-Assad because of this, but lately they've been working with the Iraqi Kurds to establish effective control of their own region inside Syria and neither supporting nor opposing the state. Whoever ends up winning in Syria (or if nobody wins and the nation breaks apart), there will be an independent or nearly-independent Kurdish statelet in Syria. If the turmoil in Syria (and Iraq, don't forget they're still basically lawless up in there) continues, the only safe, secure and developing areas will be the Kurdish ones... so don't be surprised if they both proclaim independence unilaterally and then unite with each other, and Syria and Iraq are both too disorganized to do anything about it.

Now, what am I rooting for? Honestly, the breakup of Syria. It's probably the only thing that'll bring peace in the long term, after the shit Assad's pulled. Really, the entire region needs its borders changed, and this would let that happen. And it looks like it's the preferred endgame of the regime itself. The main regime pogroms that have been happening have been focused on Sunni-majority cities within the Alawite belt in the west, places like Homs. The Sunni majority in these cities also makes them FSA strongholds, but it looks like the regime wants these people gone, one way or another. Obviously ethnic cleansing is grotesque, but it's obviously going to happen one way or another. A possible peace deal might allow, among other things, for population transfers between a future West Syria and a future East Syria that allows the ethnic cleansing to happen without loss of life, instead of the death of millions as happened in Iraq. This was one of the decisions the Allies took after World War II, and the transfer of Germans out of non-German countries helped solidify the post-war peace.

A West Syria would probably retain Damascus and the borderlands with Israel, as well as the western coast, with Eastern Syria getting everything else. Since West Syria would look more like Lebanon than anything (Lebanon also has significant Alawite, Druze and Christian minorities), and since Syria has even forcibly occupied Lebanon in the past and continues to finance Hezbollah in the present, it would probably be ideal to unify these two countries into a Greater Lebanon. That wouldn't happen initially, and honestly it'd probably take a few years after Assad was able to secure West Syria before his own population would feel safe enough from the Sunnis to turn on him and, most likely, institute a democratic government along Lebanese lines, and Lebanon would squirm free from Hezbollah with the end of a direct physical route to Iran to funnel aid. And after all THAT happened, a vote to unite the two would be possible, and likely.

East Syria would have a whole lot in common with Sunni Iraq, and if the Kurds ended up leaving Iraq and Syria and forming their own state, it would be incredibly unlikely if the Sunnis didn't leave Iraq and unite with East Syria to form what would more properly be called Syria (the ancient Assyrian Empire, after which Syria was named, was actually based out of what's now the Sunni region of Iraq) but we'll call it Assyria to signify a change. The Iraqi Shi'ites would be left with the parts of Iraq near the Shatt al-Arab and the Iranian border, and that would properly be called Iraq (the name "Iraq" is taken from the ancient city that's in English rendered "Uruk" in lower Mesopotamia).

So you'd go from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to Greater Lebanon, Assyria, Iraq and Kurdistan. Three states to four, but that's three incredibly unstable states to four probably very stable ones.

Actually, Greater Lebanon sucks as a name. "Phoenicia" would probably be more accurate, if a bit dated.

Third post, explaining a small player in the whole Syria thing:

Oh yeah, the Yezidi. I failed to mention them because they're basically a bit player. They're an island of non-Sunni in the middle of the eastern deserts, and insofar as they go they're allied with the Sunnis. No matter what happens, they're surrounded by the Sunnis, so any breaking with their neighbors would result in pogroms and reprisals even if Assad remained in control of the entire country. They're safest just moving in lockstep with the Sunni. Also, they're in Iraq, also in the Sunni areas there.

Now, what the hell are they, you might ask? Remember way way back in the day, we're talking like Roman times here, there were hundreds of different religions throughout the empire, and one of the main esoteric movements shared among a lot of them was Gnosticism? They're that. They're Gnostics. The reason they survived into modernity while all the other Gnostic sects didn't is because while the rest of Gnosticism was all like "The material world is an illusion, shun it" the Yezidi were like "The material world is an illusion, but having all the sex ever is still fun times, dudes" and so they've been able to breed themselves into continuing existence. They were once more widespread than they are now, but their penchant for large families has ensured that the various pogroms levelled against them throughout the years hasn't wiped them out as a religion or a people.

What's changed since I wrote this:

-al-Qaeda, as represented by the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has gone from a minor nuisance to a major player. This has gotten the Kurds off the sidelines, who are now mainly just attacking al-Nusra and ISIS. Also, the Free Syrian Army is openly fighting al-Nusra and ISIS in order to win renewed Western support for their cause.

-Chemical weapons. Assad doesn't fully control the shahiba, the armed thugs fighting on his behalf. He used to, but in desperation during the war he allowed the control his father had carefully established over them to lapse. And some of them got itchy trigger fingers and attacked a rebel-held Sunni suburb of Damascus with chemical weapons. That's when Obama stepped in and was about to bomb the place, until Russia and Syria offered to eliminate all chemical weapons in Syria and we took them up on it. If you're reading this and didn't have a clue about anything you just read, this'll probably be the only part you recognize.

-Iranian support for Assad's weakened. Iran is as much a fan of chemical weapons as Japan is of nuclear weapons, and for the same reasons: they both saw the business end of them. Iran seems willing to negotiate with us about Syria, and indeed their interlocution was one of the big things that allowed the chemical weapons deal to happen.

Anyway, I hope that helps clear stuff up.

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