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worldwide wednesdays :: how things got screwed up in syria

it's been five long years of a civil war in syria that doesn't seem particularly close to being resolved. over four million refugees, with more fleeing all the time, a complex web of factions within the country and interested/ interfering foreign nations combined with the destructive charge of islamic state has left much of the west extremely confused as to what's going on and what the best options are in terms of supporting, arming or attacking the groups involved. in fact, referring to a civil war in syria is a misnomer at this point, since the delicate balance that has held the post-wwii boundaries of the nations of west asia is crashing down virtually everywhere. syria was just the first domino. [side note :: a lot of people would argue that iraq was actually the first "domino", but up until syria went into meltdown, the chaos of iraq was contained. iraq was tremendously weakened by decades of sanctions in the wake of a disastrous war in the early 90s, a period that had crucially left it with no international allies. syria, long linked with the soviet union/ russia and iran, was a much more pressing concern. the destabilization of syria also calls into question the legitimacy of many modern middle eastern states, but we'll get to that shortly.]

a friend sent me a horrifying, educational diagram of who's fighting whom in syria and the broader middle east right now. i couldn't find the exact one, but i did find this one, which i like because its shape helps to communicate the truth of the absolute military circle jerk that is happening right now.

so now that you've stared at that long enough that your eyes are bleeding, let's talk a little bit about why syria is such a particular problem.

first of all, syria suffers from the same problem as all middle eastern states, which is that its boundaries were drawn pretty randomly by european colonial powers who either didn't know or didn't care about geographic ethnic divisions. by the twentieth century, syria had been held by the ottoman empire for over three hundred years. that wasn't an odd state of affairs for the territory, which had been occupied by various foreign powers since the time of the roman empire. however, the post-wwi takeover by the french, as part of the sykes-picot agreement, wasn't especially welcome. [side note :: the sykes-picot agreement was one of the two great historical cock-ups perpetrated by sir henry mcmahon. you can read about them both here.

when they entered the wwi to fight the ottoman turks, syria did so under the impression [because it's what they'd been told] that they'd come out of the enterprise as a free state. instead, they came out of it as a french colony and with only a tiny part of their state still in tact, because up until that time, the territory known as syria had included lebanon, israel, jordan, much of iraq and part of turkey. an uprising in 1925 was put down by the french inside a year and the general elections that produced an independent government and a constitution in 1928 were duly ignored. the french allowed the syrians little power over their own affairs, a situation which persisted until wwii. when france fell, syria was briefly put under the rule of the vichy regime, but the british were able to repel the axis power in 1941. of course, that meant that the british were suddenly running things.

ancient ruins in palmyra, before they were bombed in 2013
syria did finally gain independence in 1946, although it was never allowed to renegotiate its own borders, which left it as a rather confused spot on the map. and while it was still trying to establish a government that was acceptable to its own people, it was presented with a spectacle that must have been, given the history of the area, horrifying: western powers created the state of israel. remember that for centuries, that territory had been part of syria. it was filled with arabs [who, like the syrians, aren't ethnically arab but semitic, but they're called arabs because they've long spoken arabic as their mother tongue]. and there were the old colonial powers just handing over the territory like it belonged to them, acting like syria had no say in the matter whatsoever. [side note :: the creation of the state of israel and its historical legitimacy is a huge argument for another time. what i've given here is the syrian perspective.]

syria responded to the new state by invading it and attacking jewish settlements. the government claimed it was necessary to protect the palestinians who lived there, but the decision was something of a disaster. not only did it place syria in opposition to the western powers, but they were defeated and the campaign, for which the people blamed their leaders. in 1949, a coup d'├ętat felled the government, which was followed by two more coups the same year and eventually the establishment of a dictatorship. that lasted until 1954, when a military coup ousted the dictator and heralded a long period where power rested more with the military than with the government.

in 1956, israel invaded egypt, and syria, clearly sensing that their hated neighbour could just as easily send their armies north, allied itself with the soviet union to gain their protection. that alliance persists to this day with russia. syria gets much of its military hardware from russia and russia maintains its only foreign military base outside of the former soviet states in syria. the united states, the united kingdom and their allies have since labeled syria as a threat and even twenty-five years after the end of the cold war, this state of affairs has persisted. [side note :: in fact, israel did threaten to invade syria in 1967, then went to war against several neighbouring arab states. syria lost a valuable chunk of its land as a result, and the resetting of the borders to their pre-1967 configuration has been an extremely contentious point in peace negotiations in the region ever since.]

this is a bullet point history of syria's early years as a nation, but i think it makes the point clearly enough: the process by which syria gained statehood was fraught with a sense of betrayal and with chronic instability.

syria today
you could be forgiven for not knowing this, because from 1970 until the outbreak of the current war, syria was a model of stability, the sort of stability that can only be borne of state repression. it was in 1970 that hafez al-assad, then the defense minister, staged a coup, the final one to date. his presidency is likely to be debated forever. he established a staunchly secular government, and fought hard against religious groups like the muslim brotherhood, who wanted a greater role for islam in the state. in retrospect, many might say that the presence of a secular strongman in power qualified as a "lesser evil", but at the same time, assad was ruthless in suppressing opposition. determined to put an end to a six year struggle with the muslim brotherhood, assad ordered his army to attack the city of hama, a crucial base for the rebels. and attack they did. the syrian army smashed the city to its foundations, killing virtually anything that moved. estimates of the number of dead range from ten to forty thousand, the vast majority of whom were civilians. after numerous deadly attacks on soldiers and two assassination attempts on assad himself, the president and emphatically shown that he held the upper hand.

the elder assad died in office in 2000 and was swiftly replaced by his son, bashir. bashir carried the all-important support of the military and though at first seemed inclined to relax some of his father's restrictions, turned sharply in the opposite direction after a short time in office. of course, it could be argued that there were reasons for that. remember how syria got started? well there was never any reason to think that things had improved below the surface. in fact, assad was probably well aware that after decades of the lid being locked down with brutal force on the national pressure cooker, things could turn much, much worse.

the assads, after all, came from a muslim sect known as the alawites, who comprise about 3% of the population of syria. that's an estimate, because the syrian government stopped asking questions about religion on their official census when hafez al-assad gained power. ostensibly, this was because the government wanted to show that the government wasn't getting involved with people's religion, because it was a private matter. however, it also had the effect of disguising the fact that the alawites were a tiny, tiny minority in a country that was over 70% sunni muslim. and the assads wanted to keep that quiet because, despite their commitment to secularism, positions of power have been filled by a lot of alawites and whereas the sunnis have remained largely disenfranchised. [for that matter, it's estimated that there are about three times as many kurds as alawites in syria, with the population concentrated in the north, near the border with turkey. the kurdish people deserve a worldwide wednesdays post of their own and, what do you know, there is one.]

a roman mosaic in syria, possibly destroyed
unfortunately, junior assad doesn't seem to have appreciated that times have changed and, when syria had its own arab spring uprisings in the wake of successful popular revolts in tunisia and egypt, he decided to make an example exactly as his father had in hama decades earlier. only worse. in 1982, the cold war was still in full swing, which meant that the exchange of information between soviet-allied countries and those who sided with the united states and nato was infrequent and unreliable. initial reports of the attack on hama estimated the dead at around one thousand. it's doubtful that there would have been international intervention even if the facts had been known and publicized, but it certainly made the incident seem less important and assad seem less bloodthirsty. [something that might have come into play when george h. w. bush decided to temporarily set aside differences with the regime in order to secure their support for the first gulf war.]

in putting down his own popular uprising, bashir al-assad found his horrific tactics instantly broadcast all over the world and the backlash was fierce. russia, still loyal [and depending more than ever on the sale of military goods to bolster their slack economy], could block the united nations from taking any action, but not much else. even the assad's longtime ally iran seemed a little less than enthusiastic about expressing support. at first, the overwhelming cry in the west was to arm the rebels against assad, who was clearly a monster. but then it turned out that one of the chief groups fighting assad was isis, which stopped that dead in its tracks. since then, american politicians have insisted that there must be someone they could support without causing more problems, but it's become increasingly obvious that there isn't. the one option that republicans have been floating is arming the kurds, but that sets them up for a very delicate balancing act with erstwhile ally turkey, for whom the kurds are terrorists. [side note :: in fact, america has also branded the kurds as terrorists, but have recently chosen to apply a much narrower interpretation of exactly what that means. officially, the kurdistan workers party in turkey is still a terrorist group, but america does not consider kurds in either syria or iraq to be terrorists. of course, the kurds are the same group in all three countries, which is sort of the point of their political struggle.]

a dictator from a minority group declaring a secular state in a deeply muslim country who repressed great portions of the population, while at the same time creating a country with a flourishing, educated middle class and taking advantage of the politics of the cold war to entrench his position, in whose absence a country whose boundaries have always been artificial has fallen into bloody and often sectarian violence. if you think that sounds familiar, you're right: it is pretty much the exact same story as that of syria's neighbour, iraq under saddam hussein. the only difference is that syria's strife began with an internal uprising, whereas hussein's iraq was decimated by an american military attack and a decade of ruinous sanctions. in the end, the ugly question is the same: can you stand by in good conscience while the devil you know hammers down on thousands of innocent people? can you risk having one more failed state in the middle east? is it even possible to stuff the islamic state djinn back into the bottle?

as the forces of isis barreled over the border between iraq and syria, they made a point of symbolically smashing a wall between them, to show that they did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the division. difficult though it may be to accept, the terrorist group isn't wrong about this. the divisions created between modern middle eastern states created nations that require a ruthless autocrat to maintain. but the other option would seem to be to stay at arm's' length and hope that rationality and self-interest eventually trumps the vitriol. 


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