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Syria – The Devil’s Playground

August 30, 2013

If I believed in the Devil, I would be awestruck by his work in Syria.  My sister emailed me the other night to ask if I was going to post about the current events in that country. I replied that I was not sure if I could add anything to what has already been written – that the situation was almost too distressing for words.

She’s a Church of England minister, so she would probably be well equipped to answer the question of what kind of God allows such evil to prevail. No doubt the one or two Muslim clerics of my acquaintance would have an answer too.

Now that the conflict in Syria is starting to suck in Western powers, and the weapons specialists are making ready the cruise missiles, I keep coming back to one thought. That of all forms of conflict, civil war is the most vicious. The chances of reconciliation between warring nations, where is invasion, victory, defeat, withdrawal and treaty are far greater than they are when communities are ripped apart, families and neighbours massacre each other and one side ethnically cleanses another. The scars of civil war can take centuries to heal.

In Syria, where regional interests fall over each other to exert influence and swing the conflict one way or another, the agony is even greater. Different opposition groups equipped and funded by different neighbours, foreign jihadis drawn in to the latest playground where they can enhance their fighting skills and the hardened street fighters of Hezbollah drafted in to add muscle to the fading regime. Was there ever a people so cursed?

The answer of course is yes. Time and time again. It didn’t take poison gas for Timur, the Mongol conqueror, to create pyramids of skulls out of the slaughtered populations of cities he besieged – Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad among them. Long before bombs and bullets, combatants found ways to slaughter in the hundreds of thousands.

It’s hard to see any positive outcomes in Syria. No doubt there will be “never again” memorials erected by whoever ends up in power. But the statues, the flowers and the inscriptions will serve only to remind the living of their dead, and the unspeakable acts that brought about their end.  Whereas Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the United States can put the bitterness of recent conflict behind them in a generation or two, the legacy of civil war smoulders through the centuries, especially when there is a religious dimension. The battles of Kosovo and Kerbala are remembered in churches and mosques. The folk memories of religious conflict act as rallying cries for each successive generation of potential combatants.

So I have no earth-shattering insight into the events in Syria and its immediate vicinity.

There are many Arab commentators who offer a range of diverse views on the situation. For me, the wisest of them is Abdulateef Al- Mulhim, a retired officer in the Saudi Navy, whose perspectives I always appreciate. In Wednesday’s Arab News – Saudi Arabia’s leading English-language newspaper –  he contends that the Arab Spring was bound to fail, because the Arab world is so hopelessly divided:

“The Arab Spring erupted in many Arab countries, from Tunisia to Libya and from Egypt to Syria.

Yet I have always maintained that the Arab Spring was dead on arrival although I have the highest respect for people’s demands for better living standards, social equality, freedom to think and ask questions and to eradicate corruption.

I also have no fond sentiment for Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and his sons, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad, but I wasn’t optimistic about the outcome of their departure.

The Arab and Western media welcomed the changes, but apparently, many analysts don’t know the complexity of the Arab world.

When you talk to a Syrian from Damascus and a Syrian from Aleppo, it is like talking to two people from two different planets.

A Libyan from Benghazi is completely different to a Libyan from Tripoli. An Egyptian from Cairo would not be welcome in Egypt’s Sinai.

A Yemeni from Sanaa considers a Yemeni from Aden his sworn enemy. The simple fact is that these countries are already divided beyond imagination. “

Mulhim also talks about the disastrous legacies of Gamal Abdul Nasser and Saddam Hussein, both of whom aspired to lead the “Arab World”. In a way, the Pan-Arab ideal is as unrealistic as Zionism. Both are relatively modern constructs that aspire to a unanimity that has never existed and probably never will.

It takes more than a common language and a religious belief shared by a majority to create a unified and harmonious order. Arabs have been divided for as long as people have thought of themselves as Arabs. Such unity as existed in the past only arose by force – through entities created by personal fiefdoms – caliphs, kings, emperors and latterly dictators.

Nor are other linguistic and cultural conglomerations much different. The history of Christian, English speaking peoples is marked by bloody conflict – in England itself and in America. The German-speaking world equally looks back at centuries of conflict.

The savagery of Bashar Al-Assad, Saddam Hussain and their ilk just serve to remind us that we are as capable of dark acts as we ever were. As long as humanity survives, and as long as a sizeable slice of its population holds religious beliefs that exclude others and hold adherents as chosen people, peace and tranquillity will remain fragile and impermanent things, never to be taken for granted.

A sobering thought for those of us who live quiet lives in ordered, well-policed societies, and want nothing more than to live in peace and die in our beds.

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  2. Andrew Morton permalink

    Thanks for this, Steve. An excellent balanced piece, as usual. Today I have a feeling of relief that the British House of commons rejected the idea of military intervention – even a sense of pride that our democracy is capable of delivering such a vote. Although I am no fan of Putin, I couldn’t resist a wry smile at his chracterization of the Western powers’ posturing over Syria as “a monkey playing with a hand grenade.”However, I fear this threat may not be over – the counter-attack will take the form of endless emotive and ill-informed media coverage and even more “dodgy dossier” material to stiffen the resolve and drag us into what is essentially an ancient sectarian divide.

    • Thanks Andy. It’s more than a sectarian dispute. It’s a witches brew (to use yet another metaphor!) of competing interests, both internal and external. The problem is that Assad will not stop if he knows he can win, and his opponents will not give up so long as they have an endless supply of weapons from neighbouring countries. So the prospects for a negotiated settlement are remote. So the question is: what can be done to stop the killing, and who should do it?


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