The Deep Tangled Roots Of The Syrian Conflict

Published On September 4, 2013 | By Marc Belisle |
by Marc Belisle

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”  —Aldous Huxley

 Five US Navy destroyers are bobbing somewhere on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, their Tomahawk cruise missiles primed to fire.  The Arab League supports UN-backed action, but the UN is gridlockedThe British Parliament has said bollocks to that, forcing David Cameron to leash the dogs of war, while French President Francois Hollande has said oui à la guerre, but may face his own parliamentary vote.  President Obama has sent the question to Congress in search of legitimacy for military action against Syria for President Bashar al-Assad massacring 1,400 of his own people with sarin nerve gas.  When Congress returns from recess on September 9th, they will join the president in grappling with one of the most complex problems the international arena has seen since the end of the Cold War.  The current civil war is less than three years old, but the people, decisions and events that have shaped the horrific bloodletting go back at least a century.  This is a brief, and at times grossly oversimplified, overview of some of the most salient historical roots of the Syrian conflict that Congress should consider before deciding whether to authorize the president to pull the trigger.  The overview is followed by my observations of what all this history means, but I will allow you to draw your own conclusions about what course of action, if any, should be taken.

Roots of the Conflict

For six centuries, under the Ottoman Empire’s highly developed administrative system, the various religious and ethnic groups of Syria and the broader region flourished and generally lived in harmony, certainly in comparison to today’s Middle East.  Even prior to the Ottomans, Syria had been conquered by the Romans in the wee years Before Christ.  Following the division and collapse of Rome, the Byzantine Empire administered Syria for nearly a millennium before the Ottomans captured Constantinople/Istanbul.  Unfortunately for the Ottoman Empire, they backed the wrong side in World War I.  As mustard gas choked soDamascus 1925ldiers in the trenches along the Western Front, fighting also raged in the Levant, as popularized by Lawrence of Arabia.  As the Central Powers crumbled, Syria had been one rich province of a succession of sprawling empires for nearly 2,000 years.  In 1919, as the War to End All Wars ended, Britain and France occupied Istanbul, overthrowing the Ottoman government, and carved up the Ottoman Empire like a turkey, into Turkey and a dozen other countries in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa.

The Ottoman province of Greater Syria had encompassed most of the Levant.  The Allies divided it in the conscious effort to separate ethnic and religious groups to divide and conquer.  The new countries/colonies, Syria and Lebanon, became French protectorates under a League of Nations mandate.  Straddling the hilly border between the two larger Sunni Arab states, microstates of Alawite, Druze and other minorities were segregated from the larger Sunni territories.  Almost immediately, the French crushed a Druze-led rebellion and then encouraged the Alawites, a minority Shia sect, to join the military, to coopt them and to act as an anchor against the more restive Sunni majority.  This exacerbated the cultural rift and distrust between Sunni and Alawite Shia in Syria.  Ever since, many Sunni have suspected the Alawites of complicity with foreign powers, including France, Israel, the Soviet Union, Russia, Iran or the US. 

France began to slowly loosen the reigns of empire with a treaty that simultaneously acknowledged Syrian independence but nonetheless favored France’s military in 1936.  The rise of Hitler quickly reversed France’s decision due to fears that the Nazis could gain colonies, and oil, in the Middle East.  During World War II, Syria was briefly administered by the Vichy French government, who were resisted by Arab nationalists as well as British and Free French soldiers.

Following World War II, the French left Syria in 1946, and it became an independent, albeit unstable, country.  Virtually the moment that the UN declared Israel an independent, sovereign nation in 1948, Syria joined Palestinian forces, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and to a lesser extent, Lebanon, in attacking Israel in the Arab-Israeli War.  Israel sent all challengers packing.  Dealt a stinging defeat and forced to tolerate Israel’s presence, the broader Middle East’s political deck was reshuffling just as the Cold War was heating up.  In Syria, a string of coups left the country dangerously unstable.  Communists sought to take advantage of the situation.

Syria 1955During the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, Eisenhower rebuffed UK, French and Israeli ambitions to invade Egypt over fears that the confrontation could spark a nuclear war between NATO and the Soviet Union.  Fresh off his diplomatic victory in the Suez Canal Crisis, Egyptian President and ascendant pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser brokered a political union with Syria in 1958, known as the United Arab Republic, in part to block communist designs in Syria.  The union lasted only three years.  Nasser’s refusal to significantly share power with Syria led to a military coup in Syria in 1961, and Syria was again independent.  In 1963, military officers, including a number of Alawites, particularly Hafez al-Assad (who would later become president), midwifed the Ba’ath party’s secretive rise to power.  During this time period, border skirmishes frequently broke out between Syria and Israel.  This culminated in Israel attacking Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, known as the Six-Day War, in 1967.  Israel dealt another stunning defeat to its Arab rivals, and this time, captured the Golan Heights from Syria.  Israel has occasionally offered the Golan Heights as a bargaining chip for peace with Syria, but still holds the territory today.  The Soviet Union took advantage of the war to begin to spread its influence in the region.  It severed diplomatic ties with Israel and sent a $2.5 billion military aid package to Syria.

General Hafez Assad 1966

General Hafez Assad 1966

In 1970, Alawite Air Force General Hafez al-Assad seized power through the Ba’ath Party in 1970 and declared himself president in 1971.  As a member of the most reviled minority in Syria, his ascent to power has been compared to “an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia.”  Assad maintained an iron grip on power for 30 years, until his death in 2000.  He did this by manipulating the natural divisions within Syrian society to keep any group or individual from gaining enough power to challenge him.  He also created “the region’s most watertight police state, with a mix of civilian and military agencies and spy headquarters. The mukhabarat, as spy bodies are known in the Arab world, became pervasive and omnipotent.”

Assad also reached out to the Soviet Union, and began receiving Soviet arms.  In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel yet again, and with US aid in spite of threats from Moscow, Israel once more defeated the two Arab states.  The Soviet Union paid Syria’s war costs and sent more weapons, drawing Syria fully into the Soviet sphere.

In 1979, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Assad’s Syria was one of the first countries to recognize the new Iranian government.  Though the leaders share Shia Islam, their ties have been more strategic than religious.  Iran sought legitimacy, allies and avenues of influence while Assad viewed the new alliance as a way to bolster Syria’s position against rivals Israel, Iraq and the United States without becoming a puppet of Moscow.

The most serious challenge to Assad’s rule, and arguably most important root of the current conflict, came in 1982 when conservative Sunni nationalists, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, seized the city of Hama and called for a broader insurrection.  Assad responded by besieging the city with a military force of over 10,000 Alawite soldiers commanded by his brother.  The government troops shelled the city and then slaughtered the rebels along with civilians.  Estimates of the massacre’s toll range from 10,000 to 40,000 killed.  Not unlike China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, in Syria, no one is allowed to publicly acknowledge the Hama massacre.

In 1976, Assad intervened in neighboring Lebanon’s civil war.  Syria came into direct conflict with Israel in Lebanon.  It also got dragged into local sectarian violence and garrisoned troops in Lebanon for a decade and a half.  In the 1980s, during Syria’s occupation, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia/political party allied to Iran and Syria, was conceived to resist Israel’s influence in Lebanon.  In 1990, Syria brokered an agreement that finally ended Lebanon’s civil war.  However, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon effectively continued until 2005.  Popular Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 other government officials opposed to Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics were assassinated.  Following Lebanese protests and international pressure, Syria left Lebanon for good.

Syrian Troops arrive In Saudi Arabia to expell Iraq from Kuwait 1990

Syrian Troops arrive In Saudi Arabia to expell Iraq from Kuwait 1990

The civil war in Iraq was largely fought between Sunni and Shia militias.  Although Sunni-Shia animosity stretches back to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, prior to 1979, Sunni and Shia had lived in relative harmony since the original schism.  The Iraqi civil war precipitated by Saddam’s ouster was the worst sectarian violence, probably ever, between the two sects of Islam.  That sectarian conflict has spread, and largely characterizes the violence in Syria’s civil war.  Iraq appears to be teetering back toward civil war, as the sectarian violence in both countries increasingly congeals into a single transnational conflict system.

When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad took power.  Though he briefly promised reforms, and even allowed criticism, he quickly reversed course and filled his father’s shoes as a repressive dictator.  When the Arab Spring sprang up in Damascus in January, 2011, Assad sought to replicate his father’s brutal success in Hama three decades earlier.  The months of vicious overreaction to protests militarized the opposition and from the cocoon of repression a moth of civil war emerged as violence began skyrocketing roughly a year after the protests began.


There is an old saying (bordering on a slur) about the Middle East that ‘they’ve been killing each other forever.’  This is not really true.  Prior to World War I, the Middle East flourished under the largely tolerant (except toward the Armenians) pan-Islamic tutelage of the Ottoman Empire.  For centuries, the Arab world developed and preserved priceless works of science and culture while the West wallowed in dogma-fueled iniquity.  The Middle East is still, today, right now, dealing with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire precipitated by the Allies’ WWI victory followed by colonialism a century ago.  Borders were drawn arbitrarily by uninformed people over a complex loose patchwork of peoples.  The divisions between them were then consciously amplified, exacerbated and cynically manipulated for power, first by colonial powers, then by Machiavellian Arab leaders themselves.

Rampant anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the establishment of Israel (rightly or wrongly) was probably perceived as something of a neo-Crusader state by the Arabs who saw the West as consciously dividing Arabs against themselves while expanding their own influence.   The extremely proud Arab people have always viewed it as something of an existential fish bone in the throat.  The response to this has been futile militarism under a number of guises.  Nasser’s pan-Arabism experiment was probably the Arabs’ best shot at establishing a degree of security and identity that could have eventually replicated the success of the Ottomans in cobbling them together.  Its failure left the region exposed to the tides of the Cold War.  That, in turn, led to two frightening trends in the Middle East: dictatorship and Islamism.

Syrian refugeesFrom Qaddafi to Mubarak, Saddam Hussein to al-Assad, tyrants across the region have kept a lid on the squirming cans of worms that their arbitrary borders, exacerbated divisions and corruptly managed economies have created.  We saw what happens when you remove a dictator, rip the lid off the can of worms, in Iraq.  And we are seeing it in Syria now.  The failure of Arab nationalism and the rise of dictatorship, especially the perception (fair or not) that the dictators are supported by Western colonial powers, has also given rise to Islamism.  We saw this directly in Iran in 1979 when the repressive US-backed Shah was overthrown in a students’ revolution quickly usurped by the Ayatollah.

In retrospect, the Arab Spring now seems to have created the false hope that the liberals, epitomized by Egypt’s Mohammed ElBaradei, could have taken power.  Instead, their season of unrest has unwittingly helped export Iraq’s sectarian civil war in expanding showdowns simultaneously running along an X axis between the forces of dictatorship and the forces of Islamism as well as along a Y axis between Sunni forces and Shia forces.  In Bahrain, a Sunni monarch keeps a repressive lid on Shia protests with Saudi help, while in Syria, a Shia dictator slaughters Sunnis with Iranian support.  What we are seeing today in the Middle East is akin to the upheaval in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages as the Reformation coincided with the decline of the old monarchical order.  In the life and career of Hafez al-Assad, one can easily see shades of Cardinal Richelieu.

This is not meant as indictment of the Middle East, its people, its religions or its cultures.  I shudder to think what America would look like if, say, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in 1861, as opposed to 1865, followed by a peace brokered by Britain or France.  We could have a region of constantly feuding microstates, too.  Imagine a patchwork including the Democratic Commonwealth of Greater Harvard: a Canadian-ObamaPensivebacked democratic socialism led by Prime Minister Elizabeth Warren; the People’s Armed Jesus Revolution of Nashville: a slave-owning, weapons-dealing theocracy under the thumb of Grand Deacon Pat Robertson; and Bushy Texia: a wheelin’ and dealin’ desert oil kingdom run by the Bush dynasty.  Meanwhile, Westboro Baptist Church declares a Crusade against all of them and lights off car bombs at malls.  Debate would rage in Istanbul about whether the Ottoman Empire should intervene to protect the poor Mormons being slaughtered.  The same dynamics that make the Middle East a vertigo-inducing carousel of violence potentially exist in every large society.  It is the century-old, ongoing atomization of once-flourishing pan-Islam, combined with foreign meddling and abrupt, arbitrary, manipulated division that militarizes those dynamics.  And it is that militarization that is bleeding Syria today.  Can or should ‘we’ do anything about it?


by Marc Belisle | Staff Writer | The Everlasting GOP Stoppers

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Marc Belisle

Senior Writer at Reverb Press.
Marc Belisle is a writer, activist and teacher. He is a regular contributor to The Everlasting GOP Stoppers. He has an Master's degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies.

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