As the West edges closer to yet another Middle Eastern war, there’s been loads of talk about the who, the what, the why of the Syrian civil war. “They’’ve been doing it thousands of years” is the often-cited refrain from laymen isolationists, stating the supposed interminable history of bloodshed in the region that goes back to Moses.
So here I am to challenge a few assumptions and make a few explanations. As makes sense, let’s go to the basics.
Syria is a really old name for a very new country
Syria is an old goddamn word. It’s not Arabic, and the Arabic equivalent used today (Sooryah/سوريا) doesn’t carry the same set of phonological sounds as the Greek, which sounds just like the word used in English. Without going into too much detail, the word “Syria” is as old as the Bible, but the country Syria is about as old as your grandparents.
Besides a handful of city-states in the way-back-when times of B.C., Syria has never been independent before the modern era. There was the Seleucid Empire from around 300 to 70 B.C. based out of Syria, but that empire was originally cut from a very large chunk of Alexander the Great’s empire. At the end of its existence, the Seleucids were constrained to die in Syria really because was it their least valuable province.
The country Syria is actually quite new – 1946 new, when the French mandate ended and Syrians were asked to govern themselves for the first time in existence.
Syria’s new because Syria’s super easy to conquer
Unlike Turkey and Iran, with their mountains and hills, or Egypt, with its deserts, Syria’s got some rather nice, open land where armies can march to and fro in relative comfort. Those three places could put together empires and big armies, and then promptly went at one another. Any invasion from those places crossed Syria. Virtually everybody who has ever gone to war in the Middle East has, at one point or another, conquered Syria – Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Muslims, Parthians, British, French, etc.
Being conquered so much gave Syria shitloads of different cultures and peoples
Because Syria was just a piece of an empire, there’s never been an official Syrian culture. Empires function very differently than countries. A country naturally gravitates towards a single culture, language, and religion because a country is supposed to be just one group of people living together as a community. Empires typically don’t give a shit about that. Empires want to collect taxes, crush rebellions, and conquer new countries so they can build bigger and more ridiculous monuments for their leaders.
Being in an empire allows cultures the safety to split into weird sub-cultures which, over time, become fully fledged cultures on their own. Additionally, soldiers and officials from the ruling empire bring their own cultures with them. Hence, in Syria, you get the Alawites and Druze, sub-cultures that managed to survive thanks to the fact that nobody was homogenizing the place. You also get Christianity, once the religion of the Roman Empire and Sunni Islam, the religion of the Ottoman Turks.
Syria was horribly governed until the Assad family came along
When the French left town in 1946, they hadn’t taught the Syrians much about government. Even before them, the Ottoman Turks hadn’t wanted the Syrians to know anything about running stuff besides keeping the lights on and fixing roads. So the guys who took over quite suddenly in 1946 literally had no fucking clue what they were doing. All they could manage was to copy France, failing, in the process, to understand that even France has a tough time being France.
These first leaders behaved the way you might if placed in charge of a business fresh out of university. You might well have had some formal training in business, but you’re sure for shit not ready to lead.
They faced down some big problems – poverty, political immaturity, tribalism and corruption. They failed. From 1946 until 1970, government after government collapsed or was overthrown. They tried everything – socialism, democracy, military dictatorship, nationalism. The Syrians got so desperate they even united – briefly – with Egypt from 1958 – 61, hoping to get a better government out of the deal. It didn’t work and the union fell apart in a military coup.
The Assads who came along in 1970 did so in yet another military coup. But these folk were different. They’d seen the coups and learned from them. They set about making Syria coup-proof.
Under the guise of Arab socialism, a popular enough ideology, the Assads doled out ministries, key command positions, and other favors to a handful of favorites. A lot of the time, this was based on tribe or family. But mostly, it was just a reward for grotesque loyalty. The Assads did what nobody up until that point could – they lasted. Hafez al Assad, the founder of the regime, even got to die peacefully in his bed in 2000, bequeathing the government to his son.
The Assads were confronting familiar problems common to these new Arab countries – tribalism that corroded government, poverty that made people susceptible to corruption, stupidity in the elites who had never had been given the chance to actually run things under the empires that came before. These were the same problems that made Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Algeria unstable places. Their solutions were the same as those countries – picking key winners in society based on the litmus test of blind loyalty. Like Saddam in Iraq and Ghaddafi in Libya, this worked because it was essentially the same imperial system that had provided stability as provinces or colonies.
But it was fucking terrible for making a country
A country is a political community where the majority of people participate in the success or failure of a defined geographic area. In Syria, the Assads formally educated everyone that they were part of this country called “Syria” while at the same time excluding them from making any decisions about such a place. It was a contradiction that was doomed to fail.
Unlike an empire, where you’re told to shut the fuck up and pay your tax, a country is supposed to be part of you. When it bleeds, you bleed. When it triumphs, you triumph. The Assads were running Syria like an empire but pretending it was a country. For nearly 40 years, they got away with it, slowly changing thinking from “My family, my tribe,” to “my country” as they tried to balance the forces that had, from ’46 – ’70, been overthrowing governments.
You could tell that it wasn’t always working. When the Muslim Brotherhood launched an uprising in Homs in 1982, Syria responded as any good empire would and leveled the place. Also like a good empire, the Assads managed to hide the incident pretty well from most of their countrymen, preventing the uprising from spreading further. By the time people knew about it, Homs had been butchered and the lesson had been learnt.
The bomb was already set, however. A country is, by definition, a place where the majority is part of the ruling system. But Syria had no real “majority” because its people were divided by tribe, region, class, and religion. Syrians were slowly being convinced that these divisions didn’t matter.
That is, until they actually tried uniting for a common cause
When Hosni Mubarak, long seen as the toughest of Arab dictators, fell in February 2011, a rather large number of Syrians thought they could do the same. United by the 40 years of propaganda the Assads had been spouting, ordinary Syrians took to the streets and demanded a say in their country.
Except the idea of Syria as a country was a blatant lie. Syria was still being run as though it was a province or colony of some far-off imperial power. The Assads could never share power. They knew, eventually, their own power would be eroded and they’d be ousted, liable to the serial prosecutions bound to happen because of all their human rights violations. So the Assads shot first, then shot again, hoping that if they kept shooting their grumbling underclasses would remember their place and the tried and true neo-imperial system could reassert itself.
Then the Syrians started to shoot back
Alas, the Assads had done too good a job with their propaganda. To the Syrians, their lives didn’t matter; what mattered was the dignity and freedom of their country, the exact line the Assads had been using for 41 years. Except now, instead of Israel, it was the Assads themselves who were standing in the way.
It really took until November of 2011 for the Syrian protesters to militarize. By then hundreds were dead and the Syrian army was bludgeoning its way through villages and cities. The rebels organized into local brigades, though some high level defectors tried to set up the Free Syrian Army. The Assads, paranoid as ever, stopped trusting people with ties to the countryside and kept soldiers from those areas in their barracks, relying on troops from the coast and the major cities. Because of the lack of a unifying culture, city people were less likely to be Sunni or, if they were, to have a secular, nationalistic bent.
It didn’t take long, what with the recent sectarian war in Iraq, for people to see this as contest of Shi’a vs. Sunni. That wasn’t the whole truth – some people held on to the idea they were fighting for a united Syria against a brutal despot. But for the Shi’a, Druze, and Christian minorities in Syria, afraid that a new government would mean they’d be less safe (and having the natural contempt city-dwellers do for country folk), the uprising was not a fight to birth a proper nation but a power grab by jihadists, hicks, and other scum.
But this fight is still a new one
This isn’t a struggle going back a thousand years. It’s a fight going back to 2011. Syria doesn’t have a long, horrible history of struggle between Sunni and Shi’a. It’s got a long, relatively peaceful history of being dominated by outsiders. Syria’s problem is not that everyone wants to get even for grudges a billion years old. Its problem is that no Syrian has ever figured out a way to run their own country properly.
Enter the outsiders
Syria wasn’t swallowed up by some foreign power after 1946 solely because the age of colonialism was dying. Empires were to be dismantled, post-haste, under the aegis of the United States and Soviet Union, who both benefited from the deaths of the European empires. Left alone, one of its bigger neighbors would eventually have taken over. But Syria wasn’t alone. The faraway Americans and Soviets guaranteed its borders against its neighbors.
Eventually, the Assads had to make a choice between the two superpowers and backed the Soviets. In exchange, they got shitloads of tanks, planes, and weapons to both protect their own power inside the country and face down the Israelis. Even when the Soviet Union fell, Russia remained as the main arms supplier and supporter of the Assads. For little strategic gain, Russia continued to play at being a great power, perhaps hoping that someday Syria might come in handy. It seemed a cheap purchase of influence until the uprising happened.
Now Assad’s outnumbered but not outgunned
Assad can’t rely on his whole army and needs to keep divisions on the border with Israel. The forces he can use are outnumbered, but have tanks, jet fighters, etc., that have a great deal more killing power than the equipment used by the rebels. It’s a bit like those scenes in a zombie movie where the heavily armed survivors are nevertheless on the run from hordes of unarmed undead. The rebels can lose people and replace them; in a tribal society, every dead rebel guarantees more recruits from his family eager for revenge. Assad and his faction can as well, but have a far shallower well to pull from.
Killing Assad won’t end the war, though
Even if Assad dies, the conflict is no longer about an oppressed people fighting an evil dictator, like Star Wars. It’s about one group racing to butcher their enemies at a high enough rate as to cow them into surrender, like Gangs of New York. Assad isn’t important. Either the majority rules and (probably) oppresses the minorities, like in Iraq. Or the minority stays in power and oppresses the majority, as has been the case. Either way, it doesn’t end well and democracy as Europe and America knows it won’t be in the cards for a long, long time.
The race is on to grab as many allies as possible
So far, Assad is winning. He’s got Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in his column. The rebels have Saudi and Qatar and, to a certain extent, Turkey. If all things remain the same, Assad can (probably) win a stalemate and hold on to a divided country. But if the Europeans or Americans firmly pick a side, his forces will soon discover themselves both outnumbered and outgunned.
The end game is when one sides’ morale breaks or until foreigners come in to settle things
Thus both sides must kill large numbers of the other. It’s a classic civil war. There are two finales for this story – either one side gives up because it’s lost too much, or some outside power joins the fray and imposes a settlement. In American history, the Confederacy surrendered after being utterly devastated by the military depredations of the Union. However, had Britain entered the war on the South’s side, American history would have been very different.
In conventional wars, quite often, only the elites have a stake in winning or losing – they gain prestige, honor, access to resources, etc. But in a civil war, whole societies are changed and affected. Like it or not, by now everyone in Syria is on one side or another, simply by virtue of where they were born. Since whole communities are now involved, the body count must be higher. Every community must reach a point where they’re unwilling to bury any more people.
Why the fuck should America bother?
It’s a good question. There’s little oil in Syria, so no money to be made. America has no emotional relationship with Syria or its people, like Israel. It cannot guarantee a friendly government afterwards. So why do anything?
The answer is simple: precedent and perception. Precedent in that America wants it known that when A happens, America will do B. This then leads into perception. America wants all small and medium sized powers to be afraid of American power. This makes them more pliable and helps America achieve its interests faster and cheaper. As Governor Tarkin of the Death Star once famously stated, “Rule through fear of force rather than force itself.” America doesn’t need to win elections or even be liked in foreign countries. It needs to be respected and feared.
Despite the unpopularity of a Syrian war, America will, eventually, get involved in one way or another. Because of its domestic unpopularity, the president will try to do this with as little cash and as few troops as possible. But he must do it regardless. It will go to show just how powerful America really is when it eventually applies this “light touch” to devastating effect.
Even if Barack Obama manages to hold his line of non-intervention until after his second term ends, you can bet the next president – Republican or Democrat – will make ending the Syrian civil war a priority. In geopolitics, personalities don’t matter for the grand sweep of things. Presidents come and go; only interests remain. America has an interest in being seen as powerful. It therefore must occasionally exercise that power to remain credible.
So America will do something eventually
And that something remains up in the air.
And it might blow up in America’s dumb face
And Syria could be another Afghanistan, a failed state requiring intervention after intervention as its society atomizes.
Or it might be another Iraq
And be unstable but essentially still running.
But regardless, America’s goals will be achieved
And that’s to remind everybody out there that it’s not to be fucked with.