I’ll be writing this column, focused on the Middle East, for the year. While some of you may be well-versed in the culture and history of the region or even may be from one of the many ethnicities and peoples that call that area home, others may be unfamiliar with it. My column coincides with my personal journey as well; although I am of Lebanese and Syrian descent, I was born in America and was raised initially with little idea of the distinction between the so-called ‘Arab’ and ‘Western’ cultures. I absorbed a mixture of ideas and values, though my main language skills were not in Arabic, and my contact with the lands of my parents was limited for most of my life. Yet with age came awareness, and with reading came (at least some) knowledge. Today, I watch with as much fascination and trepidation as the rest of the world as the Middle East seems ready to explode with change. And while I am not unaware of the negative outcomes that lurk behind every change, I have an unshakable optimism that the Middle East is changing for the better, at least in the long run.
So, I start off with an examination of Syria. In the past year, Syrian opposition movements have formed an official council against President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime. It is reported that the Istanbul-based council unites various groups, yet the movement still seems to be at a standstill. While this news is both personal and exciting in many ways, it is also one of the most dangerous.
Syria’s and the Greater Levant’s unique history is what differentiates a potential Syrian revolution from many that we’ve seen so far. Heterogeneity and agglomeration – fluctuation and assimilation, this is what defines Syria. Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Muslims have lived together in Syria, more or less peacefully, for many centuries. Yet that peace does not imply an absence of tension, especially in the last century. And this is what makes the conflict so different.
Understanding the sectarian nature of the regime is vital in a discussion of the current uprisings in Syria. I hesitate to even call it a government, because that phrase often implies a sense of legitimacy – not in the democratic sense, but whether a government keeps the people interests at heart. Bashar al-Assad, like his father, Hafez al-Assad before him, comes from the Alawites – a very small part of the population. 84% of the Syrian population comes from the Sunni sect, which has a long history of animosity toward both Assads, father and son. Initially the discontent was political. Yet after the Hama massacre of 1981 where Hafez al-Assad sent tanks into the center of Hama and killed thousands of mostly Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries, what was political became personal. Despite Hafez’s death in 2000, personal animosity did not die along with him.
Bashar, the Western-educated doctor and Hafez’s successor, has promised much reform and delivered little, despite the initial hope of reformers, liberals, and intellectuals across the globe. He has propagated his rule in the same way as his father: torture, oppression of speech, and state control of not only the media, but also industry and wealth. His empty lip service to reform accompanied with economic hardship has heightened the already boiling discontent. The revolts of the Arab Spring were all that was needed to set the country off again, and this is the movement we see today.
But is Assad as universally reviled as Ben Ali, Mubarak, or Qaddafi? It simply depends on the qualifiers. Yes, much of the Sunni population despises Assad, but the few Sunni merchants Assad has allied with prefer his rule for its stability and, as a result, their increasing wealth. The Christian minority, no friend to the Sunnis, have also cast their lot in with the ruling class. Always fearful of the increasing tensions that accompany change, this minority fears the repercussions of Assad’s downfall, and this has only increased their support of Assad. In fairness, Christians in Syria are likely justified in their concern, but a brutal, minority-led dictatorship is fundamentally unsustainable. The more years the Syrian regime limps on, the worse the reprisals will be. And most importantly, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, officers and other soldiers – most of whom are Alawite – are loyal to Assad. While there have been defections in the Syrian military, by and large the army has remained intact as a loyal unit to Assad.
The worst possible outcome of the current situation in Syria is civil war. Each group thinks only in terms of its own survival and its slice of the wealth-and-power pie. It’s a sad truth – the artificial national borders in the Middle East only exacerbate conflict over power divided across these lines. With the army refusing, so far, to topple Assad, the Christian minority showing no sign of widespread support of the revolution, and the wealthier cities of Damascus and Aleppo demonstrating conspicuous silence, it seems that protestors’ patience is wearing thin. If significant amounts of arms enter the scene, and each minority demonstrates autonomy, it is possible for us to see another Lebanon. And with Syria’s strategic position in affairs between Lebanon, Israel, and Iran, the consequences could indeed be catastrophic.