Thursday, October 20, 2005

The problem with Syria

In my previous post I noted that Syria is ruled by a minority ruling clique. What is significant about this clique is their tenuous Islamic credentials. Culturally and linguistically the Alawi are Arabs, but religiously they are despised by Sunni Muslims, who view them as heretics.

The first question that comes to mind is: how did this non-Islamic minority come to dominate one of the most famous of all Arab locales, namely what is modern-day Syria, whose capital is Damascus? Indeed, Damascus was home to first Islamic caliphate, the Umayyads (later the Abbasid caliphate was based in Baghdad, and the Fatimid caliphate was based in Cairo, making Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo the most important cities in Islamic history, followed by the holy cities of Mecca and Medina… and even though Jerusalem is never mentioned once in the Quran, it is also supposedly the third holiest city in Islam).

Long story short, when the French came to control what is now Syria and Lebanon, they found it most expedient to use the local minority groups to act as the local “police” of the areas they controlled. Your typical “divide and rule” policy. The minorities happened to be the Druze and the Alawi.

The Druze are similar to the Alawi in that ethnically they are Arabs, yet religiously they follow an offshoot of Islam, which in the eyes of the Sunnis (and Shia) makes them hated heretics. Thus, the Druze and Alawis tend to live in mountainous areas, specifically atop the mountains, for protection. The Alawis' traditional homeland is located in northwestern Syria. The Druze, on the other hand, are found in northern Israel, southern Syria and in the Shouf mountain region of Lebanon. Interestingly, in Israel the Druze community is loyal to the state. After Israeli independence, the local Druze leadership requested that their sons be drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces—just like young Jewish men are drafted (although being Arabs and therefore hyper-freaky-protective-chauvinist about women, Druze women do not serve in the military, whereas Jewish women are drafted into the IDF). In fact, the Druze are known for not just serving in the IDF, but serving in elite combat units!

Getting back to Syria… the Druze and Alawis were tapped by the French to make up the gendarme. After Syrian independence, disproportionate numbers of Druze and Alawi had significant Western military training, and therefore held important defense positions. It wasn’t long before they took a look around and realized, “Hey, our sectarian groups dominate the military—let’s take over the country!” Without getting too involved with Syrian history, there was coup after coup after coup, and in the end the Alwites came out on top, despite the fact that historically they were the quintessential ignorant mountain people!

And they’ve controlled the country pretty much since the late 1950’s. By the 1960’s one family among the Alawites in particular remained on top: the al-Assad’s. The current dictator of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, son of Syria’s longest reigning ruler ever—Hafez al-Assad.

In terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria has been Israel’s one of Israel’s (and the West’s) most implacable foe. If you were an Israeli soldier and you were captured in combat, you’d better hope it wasn’t by the Syrians. The Syrians were (are) perhaps the most fanatical foes of Israel, and Israelis who had the misfortune of being captured by the Syrians in any of the various Arab-Israeli battles suffered the most, as the Syrians were particularly cruel (and to be known as particularly cruel among the Arabs is saying something!).

If the Syrians were so cruel, why has Saddam and the Iraqis been on the radar screen over the years far more so than the Syrians? Simple: Hafez al-Assad was no dummy. Whereas Saddam was a bumbling idiot, making idiotic moves that cost his country billions of dollars and almost a million lives (i.e. invading Iran in the early 1980’s), and whereas the Iraqis eventually forced the United States and the West to intervene (i.e. after the invasion of oil-rich Kuwait), Assad was a brilliant, patient tactician. Nobody can deny him that, despite the fact that he was an evil rotten bastard. But if you doubt Assad’s ability to massacre thousands, read up on what happened in Hama. And while you're at it, do a search on the Syrian mukhabarat (let's just say they put the "olice ate" into "Police State")

But if we want to understand Syria’s implacable hatred of Israel, and its unwillingness to make peace, even though Egypt made peace with Israel in the late 1970’s-early 80’s, you have to understand the precarious position of the Alawis.

Because the Alawis are a suspect minority, they feel that in order to maintain legitimacy to rule, they have to prove that they are among the most nationalist of Arabs: hence their fanatical opposition to Israel’s existence. Nobody doubts the Egyptian loyalty to the Arab cause. Egypt is the largest Arab county. It is the leader of Arab popular culture. It is and has always been the leader of the Arab world. That is one of the reasons why Anwar Sadat could fly to Israel, visit Jerusalem, address the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and finally make peace. Because he was a confident Muslim Arab leader.

The Alawi are not confident Muslim Arab leaders. They might not even be Muslims. Therefore, they go overboard in their nationalist fervor—hence the support of myriad terrorist groups and Syria’s complete and total rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

The sooner the Alawi Ba’athists are gone, the better for everybody in the region, Jew and Arab alike.

Now you understand Syria. Pay attention to the news... it's getting interesting.


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