The following paper by Professor Bill Stanley is as comprehensive as it is informative. Bill covers everything from the tragedy in Syrian to the refugee problem in Lebanon to the history of Western intervention in Iran!
Reading it, I am reminded of the wisdom passed down to me by my father: “every complex problem always has a simple answer, and it’s always the wrong answer!” Bill’s paper is long and complex because the issues he deals with are intricate and difficult, and it’s impossible to understand the goings-on in Syria without having some appreciation of the broader history of the whole region!
Bill refers repeatedly to our shared time in Beirut and Damascus as part of the ‘Mussalaha’ peace initiative. This serves to remind me that while this paper is full of scholarly information it’s goal is ultimately compassionate. Bill is trying to uncover the web of lies that maintain the war in order to find a path towards peace. That path is not easy to find, but Bill (along with the rest of us) is certainly giving it his best effort.
Middle East Turmoil and the Disintegration of a Nation State
by Professor Bill Stanley
A region seldom without newsworthy events, the Middle East beginning in 2011 has risen to the forefront of world attention. Syria’s emergence in the limelight can be attributed to the scale of physical destruction, a loss of life likely in excess of 100,000 and the magnitude of refugee and internally displaced populations resulting from the country’s increasingly cruel and bloody conflict. It has morphed into a civil war with ugly sectarian connotations interwoven with the introduction of foreign fighters and claims and counterclaims regarding the accelerated use of chemical weapons. Syria’s turmoil has led to dangerous strains upon the already fragile social-political cohesion of neighboring countries, especially in Lebanon. Responses to the Arab awakening that began in Tunisia were not universally positive. Several countries with ruling family dynasties (and treasuries bloated with revenues from the sale of oil and gas) and strong strains of Islamic fundamentalism coupled their apprehension about democracy with concern for Iran’s rising regional influence. All of this has brought together an array of non-Syrian participants including several non-Muslim countries concerned for Syria’s regional geopolitical role, its close relationship with Iran and its support of Palestinian causes. The latter led Syria into two wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973. Accusations have been levied against Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for providing financial support and logistics assistance to foreign fighters moving into embattled Syria. Collectively, these soldiers of faith and fortune have taken an increasingly visible role in the war against the regime and, in the views of some, constitute the real muscle of the opposition. Their violent behavior in turn has caused many Syrians with no love for the al-Assad regime to rally behind the Syrian Army as the salvation of the country. This is not some ‘Banana Republic’ state but a pivotal country in the cultural and political history and current affairs of an often volatile region. Damascus, the capital, is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied urban center in the world. This country’s long tradition of religious tolerance is undergoing serious strain in a continuing and increasingly brutal conflict. The Syria of 2013 is assuming an international profile uncannily similar to the one that emerged in Spain starting in 1936 when several countries with widely disparate ideological and political programs used Spanish territory and the country’s ongoing internal conflict as an opportunity for testing weapons and ideas.
Earlier this year, I was invited to join a small international group of peace activists and political observers for a ‘Mussalaha Peace and Reconciliation Mission to Syria.’ We were 16 in all –two from Northern Ireland including a Nobel Laureate who acted as spokesperson, one from Brazil, two Canadians including one born in Iran and a political exile for 20 years and the other currently involved in reconciliation efforts in the South Sudan. Both the Brazilian and Iranian-Canadian had been tortured while political prisoners in their countries of birth. There were two Australians including an Anglican Priest whose parish is in Sydney’s inner city and whose outreach with the youth of his parish is to teach them to box. Our resourceful all-around leader in Syria was Mother Agnes-Mariam al-Saleeb, head of a small Carmelite Order in the city of Homs. She also served as General Secretary of The International Support Team for Mussalaha in Syria (ISTEAM). She witnessed in person the forces tearing apart her country and during frequent overseas trips pleaded for a more objective appreciation of what really was occurring. She proved invaluable in mobilizing support, logistics and contacts in pro-government and in opposition controlled areas. Three Lebanese active in organizing support from the various religious and political communities in Lebanon comprised the remainder of the team. Two cameramen from Australia joined us to record some of our meetings. Additional private financial support was provided by a wealthy Syrian deeply concerned for the state of affairs in his homeland. This gentleman’s grandfather helped to finance internal opposition to Ottoman rule of Syria prior to World War 1.
Interpreting the Syrian Tragedy
What is taking place in this geographically strategic country has implications beyond its borders. It is no longer only the response of disaffected Syrians endeavoring to change their country’s leadership. More and more, it is an international effort to disassemble the Syrian state as presently exists and to continue a regional process that had its seeds in the 1953 Anglo-American orchestrated overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq of Iran and which continued during the first Iraq war following Iraq’s contentious invasion of Kuwait. If successful, it could result in a significant realignment of the regional map. References to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot understanding between France and Great Britain on how to divide the Ottoman Empire once that war ended (assuming that they would be the victors!) are beginning to appear in the media. Referencing this earlier rearranging of the political landscape could possibly serve as a roadmap to resolve the current crisis in Syria in order that the major international powers might emerge from their current diplomatic confrontations in the region with sufficient positive results to claim a success. Whether any of these discussions will serve to benefit the Syrian people is highly questionable.
Several countries (Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Syria) that saw birth following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War 1 are likely targets to be reorganized (eviscerated) into something akin to cultural-confessional entities each of which most likely would lack the strength and viability of the existing state from which they would be carved. It would in the eyes of many be a tragic ending to the Arab Spring that began with such promise in Tunisia. Might more tightly drawn boundaries of confessional or linguistic populations reduce present conflicts throughout the region in part due to their contentious intermixing? It is a moot question and too early for answers. Geographies of concern include the fracturing of Iraq along confessional lines (and frequent and horribly violent urban bombings), the quest of landlocked Kurds for a national homeland encompassing pieces of four existing states, minority Christians everywhere who feel increasingly threatened by the fundamentalist edge of a resurgent Islam, Arabic speaking Shi’as of Iranian heritage residing outside of Iran’s present borders especially in eastern oil rich Saudi Arabia and the island of Bahrain and non-Shia peoples in Iran whose cultural roots are elsewhere are but a few of the more visible issues. Might there be wholesale forced transfers of population coincidental with changes in the political map and new strategies for control of fresh water or access to maritime space? Whether any conceivable boundary alteration could diffuse the tribal inspired difficulties in Yemen is questionable. Would Israel begin the process of evicting the non-Jewish population of Jerusalem and the West Bank or for that matter the roughly 20 per cent of its indigenous Arab speaking non-Jewish population once the present regional political geography began to unravel? Once started, would this rearranging of the political map extend to the peoples inhabiting the region surrounding the Caspian Sea? There are opportunities in the conflict zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in the possible resurrection of certain of the old Ottoman boundaries to incorporate Turkic speaking peoples.
Syria’s induced implosion by outside powers has attracted an unusual array of international players. Who are they, what do they seek to accomplish and, what if any, might be the domestic perils of getting involved in Syria? The first step is to identify the leading ones. Most deeply involved in Syria appear to be the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Israel and Qatar. Neighboring countries are being destabilized due to the influx of refugees from Syria, especially Lebanon with its long-standing fragile domestic fissures and where more than 1.5 million Syrians have moved into over the past two tears. These numbers continue to grow and are expected to exceed 2 million by 2014. Jordan and to a lesser extent Turkey and Iraq are facing contentious issues due to the influx of refugees. Another ‘player’ but one lacking fixed borders is comprised of those dedicated and often ruthless men fighting under the banner of Islamic extremism. While not necessarily a willing participant, Islam has been drawn in due to its own internal cleavages and diverse sometimes extreme doctrinaire leadership at the local level. This has been made worse by shifting domestic and international politics. Minor players include former imperial powers France and Great Britain, Kuwait due to pockets of ultra- radical clergy and, less obviously, long range strategists in the world petroleum industry. Time and time again the catch phrase ‘War has Unintended Consequences’ is employed to caution those eager to resort to armed conflict. The admonition applies with still greater emphasis in the current situation.
The Libyan adventure emboldened some of the international players to expand their horizons. How easy it was to shift from purportedly protecting embattled civilians in a single locale to regime change on a massive scale. Western military muscle in the form of air power, good intelligence and a vibrant propaganda apparatus together with the assistance of seaborne arms shipments from Qatar were adequate to depose the Libyan leader. Willingness to insert intelligence operatives posing as journalists using GPS devices and access to command communications helped to target for air attack Libyan Government arm caches and mobile heavy weapons units. This last consideration helped to convince the regime in Damascus to bar foreign correspondents which in turn gave license to the opposition to control media conduits to the outside world and present but one side of the story. The Arab Spring might continue but henceforth only in specific geographies encouraged by the Western democracies and certain Sunni Arab ideologues. Bahrain and its minority government’s ruthless suppression of a restive overwhelmingly Shiite majority are to be ignored. Political leadership in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other family ruled countries would be given a pass and, indeed, encouraged to participate in the next grand adventure in Syria to support democratic rule so ruthlessly denied to most of their own citizens. National policies can seldom be ignored but it is sad indeed when western democracies hitch their interventionist wagons to states that care not one iota for democratic ideals or freedom of worship.
Already embroiled in the early stages of civil unrest and with much of its population having long-standing grievances with the ruling Assad family dynasty, Syria to some seemed an ideal target for the next regime change. Damascus had resisted Washington’s overtures to partake in the second Iraq War, and its geographical setting makes it a key player in geopolitical transformations in the often volatile Middle East. Damascus consistently countered Israel and Washington in their efforts to reshape the political map of the region. Last but not least, Syria has provided Iran with a needy ally in the latter’s growing regional influence. This last consideration has amalgamated a common goal among several states conspiring to overthrow the al-Assad government in Syria. These state co-conspirators may agree on very little aside from seeking to block Iran’s nuclear endeavors and growing regional influence. Syria’s former political role in Lebanon and its support of Hezbollah already guaranteed animosity on the part of Israel and the United States. The country’s ties with Iran generated opposition from the rulers of predominately Sunni, fossil fuel rich Gulf States unprepared to accept serious regional political competition from a non-Arab speaking Iran and its often detested majority Shia population. Syria is predominately Sunni but with a long history of ecumenical tolerance among its varied religious communities, a toleration nurtured by central government. It can be fairly said that mosque and church often share the same shade trees in some of the country’s urban neighborhoods.
Observations and Assessments
A meeting organized for our benefit in the old city of Damascus brought together neighborhood religious leaders (a Sunni imam and Greek Orthodox priest) who had worked to defuse violence in their respective congregations between pro-and anti- government supporters. One cannot over emphasize the concern among Muslim and Christian religious leaders for what is taking place. Prior to crossing into Syria, we were introduced to the leadership of the several religious factions resident in Lebanon. We also had a lengthy ecumenical audience in Damascus chaired by Dr. Ahmad Badr Al-Deen Hassoun, Grand Mufti of Syria. There have been assassinations in Syria of Sunni clerics associated with the government; two of the men in street clothes escorting the Grand Mufti into the assembled gathering likely were bodyguards. Seated immediately to his right was Gregory III Laham, Greek Catholic Patriarch of ‘Antioch and all the east, and of Alexandria and Jerusalem’ and with whom we had had a lengthy earlier audience in Lebanon. Also present were bishops and senior clergy representing the Orthodox, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean communities. The Grand Mufti went into detail describing the mayhem, killings, kidnappings, destruction and deteriorating security situation not only in the predominately Sunni community but for Syrians of all confessions. He took note not only of the imported jihadists but of those Syrians of similar beliefs who are growing stronger and increasingly give voice to the country’s internal opposition. His assessments and those expressed earlier by the Greek Catholic patriarch deplore what is taking place and express concern for the present safety and future prospects of their co-religionists (Muslim and Christian) due to the carnage in much of Syria. Refugees including those internally displaced received considerable attention as did the mistreatment of women. One could readily sympathize with their angst. A nation of recognized culture and deeply ingrained acceptance of religious tolerance was being torn asunder in no small part by outsiders dedicated to religious extremism through use of the sword. It would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that what began as a revolt to overturn the long autocratic rule of the al-Assad family is taking on the trappings of a religious struggle to impose the more conservative aspects of Islam on a population generally attuned to liberality.
There always has been a deeply radical component of Islam practiced in Syria but these views have been counterbalanced, ruthlessly on occasion, by an al-Assad leadership and its core constituency of Alawite Muslims, moderate Sunnis and other religious minorities. Whatever the doubts concerning its legitimacy or domestic and international politics, it was leadership that encouraged the ecumenical traditions of the nation state nurtured through history and through the country’s numerous and diverse confessional minorities. At the same time, Syria and the larger region have been embroiled in the consequences of the 1948 displacement of Palestinians and the questionable American orchestrated invasions of Iraq starting in 1989. These have generated no end of follow-up turmoil and destruction. There is also Iran’s emergence as a regional superpower with nuclear ambitions and the strengthening ties between Israel and a United States seemingly unable to function as an honest and impartial broker in the region’s turmoil whenever Israel’s interests are in play. The Arab League in which Syria was a charter member has evolved into still another international organization permeated by American influence. Egypt remains in turmoil and Saudi Arabia, outspoken protector of two of Islam’s holiest sites appears to have buried the hatchet with Israel to promote regime change in Syria. To the outsider, it would seem that only Syria continues to seriously speak up for the plight of Palestine and its human diaspora. Syria has few friends in such an environment but many real and potential enemies. The freshness of the Arab Spring also gave license to darker responses to change whether of local or external origin. Western invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan offered incentive for militant Islamic backlash. It is more than ironic that two of the most ossified religious and political entities in the Middle East are the same ones seeking through quasi covert means to bring to its knees one of the most ecumenical countries of the region and to be encouraged to do so directly or indirectly by the Western democracies. What may have seemed a simple black and white issue of governmental change has turned into a nightmare of geopolitical transformation and cultural upheaval.
The Christian dilemma throughout the region but especially in Syria is complex. Long a minority in what has evolved into an increasingly volatile political setting, Christians find themselves in a delicate situation. Early in the Syrian uprising, Muslim friends or neighbors in urban centers sought their presence in the anti- government street demonstrations following Friday Muslim prayers. Some no doubt participated with pleasure whereas others, mindful of the religious stability encouraged by the Damascus government, were reluctant to protest. Government military responses, the shedding of blood and increased destruction in the urban landscape, lent themselves to less tolerant attitudes towards those who might not share the same goals. The coming of the foreign jihadist fighters and their designs to impose upon so many Syrians a different version of Islam put to rest any prospects for impartiality.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of this ruthless foreign jihadist mercenary group fighting in Syria and spreading its religious doctrine is the choice of destinations for the increasing number of internally displaced Syrians. Collectively, this group is much larger than the already substantial number crossing into neighboring countries. Non-government sources suggest that upwards of 80% of internally displaced Syrians choose for their new habitation a location in government controlled areas rather than in territory controlled by the opposition or imported jihadists. The plight of those in either category can be bleak. In eastern Lebanon close to the Syrian border, our group visited several locations to assess the ongoing refugee crisis–a long-established Palestinian camp near Baalbek, a converted upstairs of a warehouse, an informal rural settlement close to Zahle originally established for seasonal agricultural workers and the UN Refugee processing facility in Zahle.
The Palestinian camp had been established in 1948 on the site of a former French military compound. Most 1948 camps in Lebanon (and elsewhere) began as tent cities, whereas the facility near Baalbek was well planned with several buildings of masonry construction. The elders and offspring of the 1948 refugee exodus from Palestine were adjusting in 2013 to housing newcomers from the latest crisis in Syria. As we sat listening to the camp director detail numbers of arrivals and logistical issues, newly arrived heads of families with children in tow intermittently sought his attention to learn where they might be billeted. The director apologized for the interruptions but did not hesitate to shift focus in order to help these newcomers. Indeed, where to find housing in space that in 1948 may have been adequate had become a gigantic problem demanding unusual solutions. Solutions were varied and dramatic. Each of the pre-Syrian war- established families in camp had taken in at least one new Syrian refugee family and increasing numbers were housing two refugee families. These generally are families with several children and the newcomers surely were overtaxing available space. Refugees from Syrian Palestinian camps continued to arrive knowing that as Palestinians they most likely would not be turned away whatever the hardships and, once registered, might come under the aegis of UNWRA. The camp recreation hall had been divided into multiple housing ‘stalls’ with blankets serving as doors. In one wing ten families were living in quarters so cramped that finding space on the floor for bedding had to be challenging. Sleepers competed for space with the meager personal belongings brought from Syria. Using a pre-arranged schedule, women from each of ten families took turns in visiting the ‘hall kitchen’ to prepare meals on a single hot plate. A nearby shower and toilet served the women and girls. Men and boys found outside facilities. These efforts to house the newcomers were only partially successful. Since it was unlikely that the camp would receive government permission to expand horizontally, the administration decided to use the camp cemetery to provide housing for the living. ‘Temporary’ structures were under construction on a narrow strip of land approximately 15 feet in width between the graves and the cemetery perimeter fence. One structure had already been occupied by a refugee family who, if they wished, might view prepared shallow gravesites only steps away excavated in advance of need. Observing the scene close up was disturbing and left one thinking what next?
The long standing problem of refugees from the conflict in 1948 that led to the birth of Israel on land occupied by Palestinians has never been resolved, but could be receiving more attention as a result of Syria’s implosion and its effect on Lebanon. There are 13 Palestinian camps in Syria that, in the aggregate, house at least 230,000 people. Most are UN-mandated camps that had their birth starting in 1948 and afterwards. Camp living for the Palestinians (and others) never is ideal but for those residing in Syria conditions, until recently, were generally viewed more favorably than in Lebanon. Politically ‘neutral’ conglomerations near Syrian urban areas, the Palestinian camps soon attracted the attention of Salafi Jihadists seeking to use them as military depots and springboards for the dissemination of their brand of Islamic fundamentalism. They were destined to become battlegrounds once government and opposition forces began to recruit camp youth for their side while accelerating an exodus of those seeking to avoid the conflict. Dr. Franklin Lamb, a long- time resident in Lebanon and advocate for the better treatment of Palestinians in exile recently reported on his visit to Homs, Syria and of interviews with residents. The following comments by sisters on the manner in which these non-Palestinian, mostly non-Syrian Salafi jihadists established their power base is noteworthy (letter of August 9, 2013):
“First they (the intruders) appeared only a few in number. We noticed them and that some had ‘foreign’ accents and wore conservative clothes, most had beards. They were polite and friendly. Then more arrived, a few followed by women and children. They stayed to themselves at first and they began using the local mosque—even being welcomed at first by the local sheiks who sometimes expressed admiration for the sincerity and devoutness. Then some of them began to preach their versions of the Koran, and at some point their gentle teaching became more strident, and soon these men were commenting on how some of the Palestinian women dressed in an un-Islamic fashion and even lectured young women about modesty and that they must change their ways, including stop smoking, and to leave public meetings if they were the only women present, and wear a full hijab.” The informant’s sister interrupted to say “then guns appeared and some of the men appeared to be very skilled when they would use, for example, a school or playground to train. They were so serious and seemed to be in a trance of some kind. There was no possibility to talk or reason with them. All they seemed to want was martyrdom! Some actually believed that Syria was Palestine and they were there to liberate Al Quds (Jerusalem).”
The line waiting to enter the UN Refugee processing center in the Bekaa Valley city of Zahle was moving steadily but slowly. These were Syrian families who had first registered at the main border crossing and now were seeking official UN refugee status to facilitate assistance. The need for housing was paramount even though it likely would be in a rapidly growing tent city. Once inside the building, nurses examined the children and any needy adults and provided medications and injections as deemed necessary. Families received a private audience with local hire UN workers, who then made assignments. At the time of our visit most of the refugees being processed were families with adult males present. The absence of adult males could be a sign that the men have remained in Syria to fight with the opposition. The overall processing appeared orderly in spite of what seemed to be an endless line of people. Those waiting for further instruction were engaged in small talk and otherwise caring for babies and young children. There was no line jumping or other jousting for personal advantage and a host of young men and women wearing UN armbands scurried about undertaking various asks. This oversized room with as many as 200 people including scores of babies and young children sitting on benches and awaiting their names to be called generated less noise than one might hear in a fast food restaurant in the United States. There was little doubt in my mind that these were people fleeing serious problems where they lived in Syria. In response to a question from someone in our group, a supervisor offered the comment that some workers would be laid off due to budget constraints in large part, the result of some countries not honoring their financial pledges. This center was an official and reasonably orderly refugee processing depot. Not all refugees are officially documented.
Ample time has elapsed for information about living conditions in Lebanon and elsewhere to have made its way back to Syrians still considering becoming refugees. These include overcrowded or substandard housing and private sector rent gouging. At first, the Lebanese were quick to show sympathy for the newcomers and understood their need for refuge. Sympathy and acceptance soon evolved into growing concern for the destabilization their ever increasing numbers are causing for Lebanese society. The scale of the influx of refugees from Syria is overwhelming. Many of financial means take housing in stable Sunni and Christian neighborhoods in greater Beirut. Whenever possible, those with friends or relatives in the metropolitan area are doubling up. Non-UN registered refugees lacking financial resources or friends already in Lebanon can be in difficult straits. Makeshift housing is commonplace; we visited the upstairs storage room of a food distribution warehouse in the Bekaa where a small corner space had been converted to a one room apartment housing 17 people with a single water spigot, makeshift sink and hot plate constituting the kitchen. The kitchen opened up to a toilet. A nearby seasonal camp for agricultural workers from Syria had grown into a small community of makeshift wood and plastic sheeting-constructed dwellings mired in mud and clearly teaming with humanity of a size never intended for the space available. The adjacent bountiful fields of ripening grain seemed a paradise by comparison. Standing nearby was a man observing closely the activity in the adjacent settlement. Was he the farmer-owner making sure that there were no construction encroachments into the cultivated zone? Most dwellings consisted of two rooms astride a kitchen alcove with a primitive latrine next to the kitchen. The toilet had a crude plastic cover; drinking water was obtained by young boys at the entrance to the camp from large plastic containers filled from a single pipe that, from its location, may have been installed initially to irrigate the grain field.
The arrival of our Mussalaha Peace and Reconciliation group not unexpectedly created a stir of activity since our bus in Lebanon (and in Syria) was consistently assigned a military escort in full uniform or street clothes. One can but imagine the initial reactions of many of the camp residents to this spectacle. Armed soldiers invariably cause apprehension and still more so in an informal refugee settlement. By this time many in our group had learned to disperse and seek information more or less one on one rather than in group discussions. This was facilitated by our cadre of student interpreters who quickly reacted to our needs. It was but a short time before any initial concern for our presence had dissipated; scores of young boys, women and a few girls crowded about out of curiosity and the children possibly in the hope of handouts. Walking through the mud to a distant dwelling, I almost fell into a latrine dug in what I thought to be a haphazard location much too close to the narrow pathway. The opening with its plastic cover blended nicely into the debris covered landscape. Clearly not all of the dwellings warranted private toilets; privacy or access at night must have been a challenge. One must take care in classifying people especially in a war induced exodus from one’s home but this particular camp appeared to be populated with refugees from the lower socio-economic stratum of Syrian society. There was no immediate evidence of a school or medical facility to serve this large cadre of children milling about. We were unable to learn the specifics regarding the administration for such a settlement but the erection of homes in rough linear fashion suggest some organization. A male respondent noted that some of the women in camp had resorted to prostitution in order to feed their families.
There have been no end of refugee crises in modern times and each contains its terrible dynamics. Wherever one chooses to place the border in the Middle East, it is difficult to identify a crisis of the present scale in and about Syria unless the calendar is pushed back nearly a century to the time of the forced Armenian exodus from Anatolia. The Palestinian exodus in 1948 might compare in numbers but not in deaths and physical destruction. The country aside from Syria under the most stress from the Syrian crisis is Lebanon, its immediate neighbor to the west. Taking the million plus Syrian refugees already in Lebanon by the start of 2013 and transposing this number to the population of the United States would amount to approximately 80 million people arriving in the United States in just two years. A small country the size of Lebanon cannot absorb such numbers without potentially cataclysmic strain to its social and political fabric.
Separation of the French-ruled Levant following World War 2 gave birth to a Lebanon that remains fragile politically. Whether the decision to separate Lebanon from Syria benefitted the residents of the former is open to interpretation. Its recent civil war (1975-1991) exposed long existing fissures within Lebanese society and the difficulties and the façade in maintaining a political infrastructure predicated upon a mid-1930s population census that is hopelessly outdated. It is widely accepted that, during their rule, the French favored the Christian Maronites. A vestige of French rule is the continuing, highly esteemed status of some of the powerful leaders of the country’s confessional-political groups. The French also endowed Lebanon with a constitution that specified a rigid quota for assigning positions in government. The constitution assures Maronites of choice leadership positions, mandating that a Maronite be President, a Sunni Muslim for the post of Prime Minister and a Shia Muslim for Speaker of the Assembly. This manner of allocating positions carries on to other government ministries. Political leaders of the several religious groups often are able to work amongst themselves to defuse intergroup sectarian and political problems before they got out of hand. Differential birth rates and political pressure from outside of the country make compromises more difficult. Maronites have dispersed to the Americas and Australia in numbers sufficient to weaken their former standing as the lead population group in Lebanon. Our scheduled audience with the leader of the Maronite church had to be restructured due to his absence in Argentina ministering to these overseas emigrants. Gainers in this still evolving game are the Shia who, at the time of the French census, would have had weak economic prospects, large families and poor group education. This no longer is the case.
One of the contentious political issues discussed at the 1989 Taif, Saudi Arabia conference meant to end Lebanon’s civil war was Muslim insistence on a reapportionment plan to alter the then existing 6:5 apportionment of seats in Parliament favoring Christians, to a balanced 50:50 Muslim-Christian confessional scheme for assigning seats. Christian leaders agreed to this plan. Soon afterwards, the war slowed to a stop but the trauma of it has not been forgotten. An interesting postscript to the revised apportionment plan for electing deputies to Lebanon’s parliament is the lack of sufficient numbers of Christians. Several Christian candidates in guaranteed seats are dependent upon Muslim majorities.
During Lebanon’s horrific civil war, the army barely held together and defections by confession were common. Temporary randomly placed mobile road blocks leading to summary executions of those unfortunate to be holding the ‘wrong’ confessional identity card; the tit for tat neighborhood car bombings and the destruction of Beirut and the core of the city are not just distant memories to adult Lebanese. Most dread a repeat of the chaos and fear felt at the time.
Slowly but almost inexorably the Syrian conflict is drawing in Lebanon not just for the instability in trying to cope with a refugee crisis of unbelievable scale but for its enticing individual Sunni and Shia Lebanese to fight in Syria. First to go were Sunni volunteers who sided with the predominately Sunni based opposition to the Assad government. Then, better appreciating the geopolitical implications of a broken Syria and potential interruptions to a supply line provided via the BekaaValley, Hezbollah reluctantly committed its military to go to the aid of Damascus. It was a decision not taken lightly. Nevertheless, standing aside and watching the regime in Syria disintegrate was not to be tolerated. Syria sits at one end of an overland route by which arms and munitions can reach Hezbollah in its southern Lebanon heartland. Military intervention by Hezbollah led at first to a highly conspicuous boost to the Syrian Army in its efforts in clearing (pacifying) opposition-held areas near the strategic city of Homs. The down side is that intervention in the Syrian conflict brought about an almost guaranteed response by dedicated Sunni Lebanese who support the Syrian opposition.
To date, there have been two retaliatory terrorist car bombings in Shia, Hezbollah controlled neighborhoods of south Beirut. The first claimed no fatalities and likely was intended to be a reminder of what might be in store for Hezbollah if it continued its military involvement in Syria. The second, on August 15 was catastrophic and led to scores of deaths and extensive destruction. Sunni extremists were thought to be the perpetrators. Sectarian-political strains in Lebanese society already were on the increase because of the war in Syria. Ongoing fighting in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunni supporters of Syria’s opposition and the neighboring Lebanese Alawite community supporting President Assad has destabilized the area and resulted in several deaths including soldiers. Sporadic, intensive fighting in the southern city of Sidon initiated by supporters of a radical Sunni cleric also resulted in the deaths of several soldiers and, perhaps not surprising, led to calls by senior Lebanese Sunni clerics for their followers to support the Army in order to preserve Lebanon’s fragile communal stability. We heard similar comments in Syria from both Muslim and Christian respondents, supporters and detractors of President Assad. They noted that the Army was the one institution capable of maintaining the state. Several stated that they supported the army but would not necessarily vote for Assad in a free and open election.
As for Hezbollah, the reader is reminded that this organization did not exist prior to the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. It can be fairly stated that Hezbollah is Israel’s birth child. Washington eventually declared this organization to be a terrorist organization, another of the many questionable edicts pertaining to the Middle East from the American State Department. Shia Lebanese residing in the south of the country and comprising a significant portion of Hezbollah’s military wing fought against the invasion of the homeland, whereas the invaders from Israel escaped Washington’s displeasure if ever it was even considered. To fight in one’s land against an invasion by an outside force is considered patriotism in most quarters. A mid-July 2013 unanimous vote by the European Union’s Foreign Ministers to declare Hezbollah’s military component a terrorist organization appears to be still another endeavor to defang this organization or to use its possible demise as bait for regional political considerations. From all accounts, the Americans dragooned several of the European ministers to vote as they did in order to placate Israel at a time when the Israeli government was being reluctantly drawn into talks about final resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The vote also provided balm to Israel for the earlier decision in Europe to prohibit financial transactions with Israeli organizations in the occupied West Bank. These actions suggest the degree to which Washington and several of its European friends will go in order to facilitate Israel’s cooperation in the volatile Middle East. Whatever the political chicanery in reaching a unanimous decision regarding Hezbollah, Europe has provided future political cover for Israel if ever it chooses to move militarily against this organization.
The American Dilemma
Why is it that this country led by President Assad is even an issue for the Americans? Trained in England as an ophthalmologist, Bashar inherited the presidency from a deceased father seven years after the accidental death of an older brother who was in line to take over from the father who himself had taken control in a military coup. Such lines of succession while anything but democratic are the norm for the region. At last count only Gaza, Iraq, Israel, Turkey and Tunisia can claim democratically elected leaders and in two of these only recently. In all of the above save Israel, there are signals regarding the fragility of the local democratic process. Washington maintained diplomatic relations with Syria’s al-Assad leadership for more than 40 years while also maintaining diplomatic ties with rulers elsewhere whose actions make the al-Assad family seem like choirboys. If direct military intervention, which in late 2013 has become unlikely, or the ongoing supplies of American weapons changes the military dynamics in Syria it should come as no surprise if there is a response by Russia and other friends of Syria. There is no denying the overwhelming capacity of the United States to do militarily pretty much as it pleases in weaker countries unable to retaliate in kind. What is all but guaranteed is that further military intervention in Syria will add to the destruction and deaths and further destabilize this already much tormented country.
One can but marvel at the rationale for intervention offered both by Americans and non-Americans supporting western military involvement in Syria’s conflict. How do they justify their almost total disregard for the bigger picture of ever-expanding destruction and the increasing number of people killed, wounded and forced from their homes often by non-Syrian religious fundamentalists and battle-hardened and often cruel Syrians fighting against the country’s leadership? Has so much been forgotten just to emphasize one major horrific high profile mass killing? One is reminded of rival newspaper publishers seeking the spectacular story to bolster readership. Where was the world’s indignation in 1994 when Hutu militants in Rwanda slaughtered approximately 800,000 Tutsi mostly by machete in a relatively short rampage? In its early period the killing received only modest attention by the international community save France whose military reportedly provided some logistics support to the Hutu army. Later, during a trip to Africa, President Clinton apologized for America’s lack of involvement during the killings while praising the ongoing U.S. military’s efforts in constructing proper latrines and clean water systems for the multitude of Hutu refugees from Rwanda gathered in the eastern Congo, a multitude suffering outbreaks of cholera but infiltrated if not dominated by Hutus with blood on their hands?
Washington gained a powerful public opinion weapon by asserting that the Syrian Army on numerous occasions has deployed chemical weapons against the opposition and, most recently, was responsible for a deadly chemical attack against combatants and non-combatants in the Ghouta and Moadamiyeh areas of greater Damascus These attacks caused scores of deaths especially among sleeping children. Whatever evidence to be recovered by a team of UN chemical weapons inspectors already on the scene, it remains doubtful whether the perpetrator of the attacks will be identified in full. It should be noted that Washington on previous occasions had been less than forthcoming in assigning blame. In May, 2013 authorities in Turkey reportedly confiscated empty chemical cylinders being smuggled into that country by opposition fighters as well as small amounts of the deadly chemical. It may be worthwhile to revisit those terrible pictures of the dead in the recent August 21 incident.
Photos of the children laid out in rows are sickening but where are the dead adults? The anti-interventionist community has been using the internet to make damning accusations that Al Jazeera television posted photos of the dead prior to August 21. An even more terrifying accusation is that the dead children were those who had been kidnapped elsewhere: from eleven Alawi villages in eastern Latakia Province which days earlier had been attacked and rampaged by Sunni fundamentalist groups armed and supplied by Turkey. The children were videotaped dead and dying after their parents had been killed in and about their villages, then brought to the area and used for a grandiose and sadistic public relations coup. It is difficult to give credence to some of these accusations and their validity may never be proved. Nevertheless, there clearly are doubts concerning official statements or from those promoting intervention in Syria’s conflict. Media wise elements within the Syrian opposition might well have organized the August 21 chemical attack in order to embarrass the regime just when the first UN Chemical Weapons inspectors arrived in Damascus. Conversely, elements in the Syrian military could have been the culprits. The fact that both Washington and Moscow remain so adamant and diametrically opposed as to who was at fault suggests that the truth regarding this terrible attack has yet to emerge. It may be worth noting that the UN chemical weapons inspectors after long negotiations had arrived in Damascus to investigate purported chemical weapon attacks elsewhere. Their immediate reassignment to investigate the sites of the August 21 attacks leave still unexamined the designated sites of smaller scale chemical attacks thought to have perpetrated by the Syrian opposition.
The earlier experience of military intervention in Iraq and its aftermath has made many people skeptical of further involvement in Middle Eastern controversy. In retrospect, it is not difficult to view the policies and military action pursued by Washington in Iraq as pre-determined; force would be employed “come hell or high water.” The child’s fable about ‘crying wolf once too often’ might have application in decisions to punish militarily the Syrian regime. Americans and non-Americans are suspicious of Washington’s motives in any new Middle Eastern adventure.
Does anyone really envision the majority of Syrians accepting new leadership if it includes those who pillaged, murdered and forced into exile or new locations in-country so many people? Intervention causing the collapse of the present government could also threaten this country’s ecumenical tolerance. There is ample evidence to believe that any future jihadist role in Damascus would have this result. Threatened with complete collapse, the government surely will call upon friends for more assistance. Drawing Iran more deeply into the conflict could well be an unstated goal of possible American and European military action. For many in the West and in Israel, the continuing terrible tragedy in Syria is but a sideshow to what they perceive as the real issue, the threat posed by a resurgent Iran. Leave aside mutual respect for others and whatever else America purports to stand for in the world community, any military intervention will lead to scores of new plots against Americans and American interests. These are ingredients for expanded conflict with the potential of drawing several players still deeper into the fray. World wars have begun with less volatility.
Syria has consistently refused to accept Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights in the 1967 war. Since the 1948 war of Israeli independence, Syria openly housed in Damascus the politically impotent and aging exile leadership of Palestinian factions that Israel considers to be terrorist groups. Gaza’s senior Hamas leadership also found refuge in Damascus at a time when Israel was openly assassinating its leaders residing in Gaza. Aside from the future of the Golan Heights, these surely are minor issues in the wider regional geopolitical picture. Syria has not been a real threat to Israel since the 1973 war. It is Iran and Hezbollah’s close relationship with Damascus that helps to fuel Washington’s distaste of the present Syrian regime and Israel’s fixation with an Iran seemingly hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear option. An Iran with but a single nuclear weapon defuses much of the implied threat of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and goes far in leveling the military playing field. The true value of such weapons (just one weapon with a suitable delivery system is sufficient) is their inherent threat. Israel’s concerns almost automatically become Washington’s or so it seems. The United States is rightly concerned for nuclear proliferation in the region but its position might be strengthened by publicly acknowledging the fact that Israel has acquired a nuclear arsenal and with no small assistance from the United States.
Fissionable material perhaps innocently provided by Canada allowed India to develop a clandestine nuclear program, one eventually acknowledged and accepted by Washington. The United States also reluctantly accepted Pakistan’s nuclear response once India’s program was confirmed. Neither country has joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty yet both are deemed important enough to American political objectives to warrant substantial and continued military or economic assistance. The second President Bush offered to accept India’s military nuclear weapons and to permit New Delhi to maintain it free of international inspection. How he could speak for other countries no less concerned for nuclear proliferation isn’t clear. In return, India would agree to open its domestic nuclear industry to substantial American private investment. Ironically, this part of the proposed agreement floundered due to American insistence that any liabilities in case of accidents be limited. India’s parliament has refused to sign off on limited liability. Iran did join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and may very well be striving to produce a nuclear weapons capacity but at least it signed the treaty. It is instructive to compare the American response to North Korea’s nuclear program to its present attitude toward Iran. Regrettably, the real nub of Washington’s dilemma is not that another predominately Islamic nation might acquire the bomb rather, that Iran sits in what Israel considers its region of military-political dominance. The United States appears to have accepted Israel as its indispensable and perhaps most important ally. There are legitimate questions concerning how and why this relationship developed and why it is maintained irrespective of its merits and true political cost to the United States.
Americans in various official capacity have repeatedly noted the dangers of military success by the Islamic-jihadist cadres fighting in Syria. The outcome feared most is a fractured Syria with large tracts of the country under the control of indigenous and foreign fighters with an extreme agenda. Such a scenario poses danger to other Middle Eastern countries. This raises the question as to why Qatar, Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent Turkey, are so deeply involved in supporting the anti-government elements in Syria? Perhaps a quick collapse of the al-Assad government was envisioned wherein new leadership might quickly sever Syria’s ties with Iran and Hezbollah. However much desired, this scenario was in doubt once Damascus proved capable not only of holding its own against all opposition forces but in striking back with recent military successes. More significant is why Washington failed to prevent these two Gulf allies from well publicized endeavors to encourage and support jihadist fighters gravitating to the Syrian conflict? The United States may have acquiesced to their role, believing it to be the quick and hopefully fatal blow necessary to topple the Damascus regime. Intelligence surely was available once the foreign extremists started to appear in Syria. If Washington did not have such intelligence, then there are real problems in how well the region and its political entities are understood. Still more disturbing is the possibility that Washington was aware of these activities and gave its blessing, recalling the early successes derived from the arming of anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan.
Another school of thought is that Washington has little leverage. Saudi Arabia moved significant military elements into Bahrain when that island country’s Sunni leadership was cracking down on Shia protesters and just when the United States was advocating dialogue between the two sides. Riyadh still suffers some internal dissent following their permitting the mobilization of American forces in the country as a prelude to the first Gulf War. There is little doubt that Osama bin Laden and his followers gained considerable propaganda value from this action.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are wealthy due to their fossil fuel resources. The latter’s funding of Al-Jazeera’s Arabic and English language television news programs had already attracted attention. Accused of ‘punching above its weight,’ Qatar has embarked on foreign policy initiatives sometimes at odds with friends and neighbors. It was a visit to Gaza following the collapse of Egypt’s President Mubarak that gave high profile status to Qatar’s political leadership while temporarily reinvigorating a dispirited Hamas. Its independence in furthering international political objectives was enhanced by its decision to permit the American military to establish two command and control bases on Qatari territory. The presence of foreign military resources once gave considerable influence to the foreigner. In this case, Qatar appears to have worked this relationship in reverse and to its advantage since it is not dependent upon the foreigner for financial support. Political support is the goal.
The strength and cohesion of Syria’s substantial but often uncoordinated or disjointed internal opposition would be at risk if increased weapon deliveries to Syria exacerbate a simmering emerging three sided conflict. This could entail strengthened ‘moderate’ opposition forces taking on their more radical and militarily successful jihadist allies and the army while the latter fights both the opposition and the jihadists? Events on the ground appear to have out-paced geopolitical thinking in various countries. Foreign born anti-regime forces have expanded the scale of their operations in numbers of fighters involved and in consolidating control of those parts of northern Syria where their strength is greatest. Armed road checkpoints are reported to be emerging between opposition districts and neighboring jihadist controlled areas. Inserting greater quantities of weapons into this conflict will provide still more strength to extremists who are sure to obtain a substantial portion. Indeed, no amount of light weapons from however many countries will likely change the ongoing military dynamics. Caught in the middle will be the Syrian people who are the real losers. Do the western democracies or even those Arab countries bankrolling the jihadist element fighting in Syria seek another Afghanistan in their region? The more fractured the Syrian nation state, the more likely are the opportunities for the growth of cadres sympathetic to Al-Qaida. Extremist control of even a portion of Syria will be a constant headache for all of the players involved. Total collapse of the Damascus government will expand exponentially these opportunities. Is the distaste for an emerging Iran (one with or without nuclear capabilities) so great so as to want this scenario to materialize? The continuing tragedy will not be confined to the Syrian people.
Other Players and Continuing Problems
Russia, by most accounts appears intent on maintaining its special relationship to the regime in Damascus while working with the United States to bring opposition and government representatives to the negotiating table. Russia has been outspoken on extremist excesses and both countries agree that jihadist groups should be excluded from participating. Negotiations require participation by both the opposition and the government and, to date, this has not been the case. Aside from occasional high profile exceptions, the opposition’s external leadership has been consistent in its demands that President Assad agree to surrender power as a pre-condition for such talks to occur. Government in turn insists that there be no pre-conditions. Any real changes in these negotiating positions appear conditioned by events on the ground and possible outside political pressure. Both of the two major powers seem to have concluded that outright military success by either side is unlikely and accommodation from all parties is required to end the destruction and human tragedy. It remains to be seen just how much influence either of the two major power brokers have in this struggle and how they might accommodate the Gulf countries who are supporting the jihadists or Iran whose geopolitical interests cannot be ignored. Whatever the outcome from any negotiations to bring an end to the misery of its people and widespread physical destruction, the Syria that existed prior to hostilities likely is gone. This nation state has been seriously fractured. Not only is the political landscape being altered but so have some of the aspirations, elements of national cohesion and fears of the citizenry. The country’s long standing religious tolerance has on occasion been severely tested and the economic costs of reconstruction will be an enormous strain on the national economy no matter who governs. A stable, economically strengthened neighboring Iraq might have been a buttress to help in Syria’s eventual rebuilding but it too is in shambles and lacking immediate prospects for a return to stability. Actions of Syria’s neighbors will bear watching if the conflict continues without resolution or if a de-facto partition leads to permanent jihadist control in parts of the north.
There have been occasions in recent years when Israel appeared willing to relinquish control of the Golan Heights as part of an eventual peace accord with Syria. Demilitarization of the Golan region would constitute one of the core negotiating components of any discussions. Strategic thinking in Israel likely has changed since the outset of Syria’s implosion and with no end in sight for hostilities. Periodic air attacks on targets in Syria suggest that Israel is not unduly concerned for retribution from Damascus. Justification that the raids are meant to interdict arms destined to Hezbollah may be only partly true. The raids also could be intended to remind Damascus that Israel has concern for ongoing regional events and that Syria is in no position to risk an escalation in hostilities by responding militarily. Return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control may be another casualty if the Syrian nation breaks apart politically. Israel may decide that there is no need to negotiate the future of these strategic heights, that the present de facto boundary eventually can be converted to one legally accepted by most of the world.
Support in Paris and London for Syria’s official opposition seems part concern for the human tragedy taking place and perhaps frustration in the difficulty in achieving some of the aspirations of the Arab Spring. Iran’s nuclear program and the growing political and economic relations between it and Syria is another factor. Early this year, both Great Britain and France were quick to accuse Damascus of small scale chemical weapons use against the opposition. Israel voiced its accusations. These actions seemed designed more for mobilizing public opinion in favor of the opposition than in demonizing the Syrian army. World opinion is sharply divided on the issue of intervening in Syria’s conflict. What might follow any intervention of whatever scale is of much concern. Getting involved militarily in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and especially what has occurred afterwards has given cause and perhaps greater scrutiny for future military endeavors.
What is taking place in this tormented country is giving more visibility to two issues that are destined to attract attention by the world community. Syria’s turmoil has brought both to the forefront. First, there is growing concern that the future of Christianity in this region of its birth and early growth is at serious risk and second, that the stability of Lebanon is under threat of massive instability resulting from exploding anger by the half million or so Palestinians residing in the country’s wretched camps, a people isolated by politics and for these many years conveniently ignored by the world press and governments. Their existence in the shadows of society with no prospect for change is being highlighted by what is taking place in Syria and the evolving and increasingly strident international response.
There is a growing threat to Christians throughout the Middle East. Those in Iraq have experienced the poisonous bacteria growing from Islamic extremism, in no small measure the result of the West’s role in removing Saddam Hussein and the subsequent fracturing of the fabric of Iraqi society. Armenian Christians suffered terribly under a Muslim Turkish government a century ago accused of helping the wartime Russian invasion of eastern Anatolia in 1914. In reality, their persecution began earlier and the war provided convenient rationale. These long ago events continue to poison Turkey’s foreign policy. Syria’s ongoing trauma and especially the behavior of some of the mercenary jihadists toward the country’s minority Christians is another chapter in this upheaval. What sparked considerable concern by church leaders and the Christian community was a flippant remark by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy following deadly attacks on churches and congregations in Iraq. He suggested that Christians should leave Iraq because they clearly were at risk, were diminishing in numbers and had but a bleak future in that country. The Greek-Catholic Patriarch of Lebanon and Syria went so far as to travel to Paris to plead the case for Christianity in the region as well as appealing to the Pope in Rome. These lands were homelands for Christians long before there was an Islam. Furthermore, where were the Christians to go? The geography no doubt is being explored–Iraqi Christians to Syria; Iraqi and Syrian Christians to Lebanon and then, all of them into the ocean? The large Coptic Christian community in Egypt is under increasing threat and there would be no welcome mat in any of the Arabian Peninsula countries or, for that matter in Israel or Turkey. Patriarch Gregory III Laham has told his congregation that, as a minority, they must live at peace interspersed with the Muslim majority respecting their traditions and seeking respect in return. All share the same language and culture. More pointedly, are his recent remarks in an interview with Asia News repeated in The Vatican Insider (August 28, 2013):
“What or who”–“have led Syria to this thin red line, this point of no return? Who created this hell in which our people have been living for months?” “Every day –Islamic extremists from all over the world are pouring into Syria with the sole intent to kill and not one country has done anything to stop them–the planned U.S. attack will affect the Syrian population above all and is no less serious than the use of chemical weapons.”
“The disappearance of Christians is a danger not only for Syria, but for all of Europe. Our presence is the essential condition for a moderate Islam, which exists thanks to the Christians.”–‘This is supported also by the Muslims themselves, who fear the Islamist’s madness.”
Palestinians fled to Lebanon in 1948. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and in a blitzkrieg operation was able to force the controversial Palestinian militia living and fighting in the country to go into overseas exile. Lebanese supporters of the Palestinians also were dispersed. Follow-up massacres of non-combatants in the crowded Palestinian Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in south Beirut were facilitated by the fact that Palestinian fighters no longer were available to offer protection to their people. The killers in this instance were hardened Lebanese Christian Phalange fighters brought to Beirut primarily from strongholds in South Lebanon that had been organized and armed by Israel following its 1978 invasion of southern Lebanon. These Phalange fighters were transported to Beirut in Israeli military aircraft. These distant events remain alive for most of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, a country swelling again with refugees from Syria. Discontented Palestinian youth with little opportunity outside of the camps are increasingly recruiting targets for multiple factions fighting in Syria. A regular income and the comradeship of belonging to a loosely structured military organization can be strong inducement for departing their camp ghettoes. These young fighters who are gaining combat experience in Syria, and who survive, will one day filter back into Lebanon and constitute a seasoned, battle hardened cadre of fighters to be drawn upon at such time that a charismatic leader emerges from one of the camps to organize a militant agenda for improving the lives of the Palestinians. Looking ahead, the Middle East Region and particularly Syria and Lebanon face an uncertain future.
Preparations were started in the United States to provide legislative and public relations cover for what at the time appeared to be an almost guaranteed American military strike in Syria. Those who support military intervention stress that the Syrian regime has to be punished for the highly publicized and deadly chemical attack against its own people. There remains the question of responsibility for the August 21 chemical attack. Washington is adamant in stating that its intelligence sources collectively point to the Assad regime as the responsible party. Russia is equally adamant in stating that its intelligence sources point to the opposition as the party responsible. Each of these countries has its own reasons to either demonize or protect the Syrian regime. One has to question such opposing views for a tragedy of this proportion. In any event, diplomacy for the moment has replaced rattling of swords and something positive might still emerge from this particular tragedy and the tragedy of Syria. What might be expected if an American attack was to take place? At the very least, any significant or repetitious degrading of the capacity of the Syrian military to combat the foreign jihadist invasion of their country might eventually result in the death of the Christian faith in the lands of its birth. A high profile ultra-conservative version of Islam will have no reason to tolerate Christians or even Muslims who are moderate in their religious belief. Imagine some future American newspaper headline caption in bold print—“America responsible for the death of Christianity in the lands of Christ!” The domestic America trauma associated with China’s fall to communism in 1949 will pale in comparison if ever the issue of Christianity’s collapse in the Middle East arises.
If Syria surrenders its chemical weapons capacity in order to prevent American military intervention, it also loses a key element its deterrence against any future military intervention by neighboring Israel who will have both a nuclear capability and a chemical weapons capability. One might fairly suggest that the region is shifting toward greater instability. World leaders at some future date might come to deeply regret the absence of Syria’s pre-2011 regional stabilizing role.
William R. Stanley
Professor Emeritus Geography
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208