Making Sense of Syria

Translation: We are all with you.

Much of the world has been aghast at news coming out of Syria, as the demonstrations now common in much of the Arab world have been brutally suppressed. Government sources, however, claim they are fighting an armed insurgency. Media, notably, has been blocked from the country, lending credibility to the idea that the government has something to hide.

We have been in Jordan for a short visit, and while here I was able to meet with a Syrian Christian resident in Amman. She is originally from Allepo, and was able to provide some of her perspective on the matter. It is only one opinion, of course, but provides a local perspective that goes beyond claims and counter-claims. For a good journalistic account of Syria, here is a link from The Economist. Here is another account from Christianity Today, focusing on the Syrian Christian perspective. It will resemble much of what follows.

The source, who preferred not to be named, will be called Samiya. She did not believe she was under any suspicion, but was planning a trip to Syria to take care of some administrative matters, and thought best to keep her name out of the news.

In short, Samiya believed both accounts to be true. The Syrian people have been steadfast in their peaceful protest for national reform. The government has been countering this group with violent repression, but as in protests elsewhere, they carry on.

At the same time, certain groups within Syria have undertaken violent militia action against the regime, and have mixed in with the protestors. These have been putting certain villages under pressure, and the Syrian army has had several bloody encounters with them. Samiya believed Jisr al-Sughur, on the Turkey border not far from Aleppo, fell into this category.

Within this struggle, she believed, lies were being told on both sides. Certainly the government is not being honest concerning its suppression of peaceful protest, using the militias as an excuse for further crackdown. Yet the tales of horror have also been exaggerated by the reform party. Several weeks ago a terrible tale spread on the internet about a boy who had died in the hands of security, revealing severe torture and mutilation of his body. Samiya, however, heard statements from relatives in the boy’s family, stating that while the boy did die at the hands of security, the torture marks were administered after he was handed over to his family. They (or those within the violent opposition) desecrated him in an effort to rally more of the population against the regime.

Samiya believed these militia groups, and the families associated with them, were hardline Sunni/Salafi parties funded and encouraged by Saudi Arabia. Knowing Syria to be a key ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia would greatly wish to see the fall of the regime. In the aftermath, the minority Shia Alawite autocratic rule would give way to some sort of Sunni governance. This would also likely lead to an end of funding of the Hizbollah party in Lebanon; interestingly, the head of Hizbollah is among the only personalities to rally to the defense of the regime.

Though they have not rallied to the defense, Samiya understands Israel, oddly enough, to quietly resist the fall of the regime. Though Syrian political rhetoric is strongly anti-Israeli, there has been almost no conflict on Israel’s northern border during the Bashar al-Assad presidency. While Syria does support Hizbollah, Samiya claimed this was to create a resistance force on the border against possible Israeli expansion. Lebanon is a weak government, and Hizbollah makes difficult any future advance into Beirut – which Israel has attacked before. From there, it is only a few dozen kilometers to Damascus. In any case, while Israel considers Hizbollah a thorn in its side, it fears more greatly the chaos which might prevail should the regime fall. As with worries in Egypt, better the enemy you know, than the one you don’t.

Samiya believed that one of the reasons for Western hesitation in Syria reflects the above difference in perspective. Many believe that politics in the Middle East is orchestrated around the US-Saudi Arabia-Israel alliance. Within this set-up, Egypt is largely a pawn (though possibly now seeking more independent foreign policy), Turkey is an emerging player, and Iran is the enemy. During the Egyptian revolution the US was quick to call for the fall of Mubarak, trusting that Egypt would remain within this overall structure.

Yet with Syria, the United States finds itself between two allies. Saudi Arabia would like the Iranian ally to fall, while Israel is reticent. American equivocation can be explained by its middle position between the two. It may well be the future of Syria lies mainly in the hands of the Assad family and the protestors against it. But it also may be the future will be shaped by the direction the United States eventually leans.

As for the actual interaction between the Assad family and the protestors, Samiya believed that Bashar was not naturally a butcher, and was not the prime mover behind the repression. Rather, she believed that however he may desire to reform (though he has had several years to do so previously), family military and business forces cannot contemplate losing the primary role the Alawites maintain in society. In this repression, then, Bashar is complicit, but also too weak to do anything otherwise.

Finally, Samiya spoke of the Christian participation in the demonstrations. They have been present, but many Christians have been reluctant to speak against the regime. The Alawite minority has ruled Syria by co-opting other minority groups, including Christians, and backing the dominant Sunni upper-to-middle class. Some fear there could be sectarian war against Alawites, Christians, and Druze, should chaos grip the state while a power vacuum sorts itself out.

Samiya played down this possibility, but did state her personal preference for the regime to stay while carrying out significant reforms that would change the system over time, though democratic participation. The regime is brutal, and Samiya could not understand why more Christians, on humanitarian grounds, did not enroll in greater numbers within the peaceful demonstrations. Reform is absolutely necessary, but many Christians are standing on the sidelines.

To repeat the earlier warning, it should be understood that Samiya is only a source – outside of the country at that – and does not fully understand what is happening within Syria. Her perspective, however, helps put together information that come through piecemeal in the headlines. In truth, a jigsaw puzzle has only one correct solution, but until all pieces are collected, multiple constructed realities are possible.

May God grant peace to the Syrian people and bring about a just resolution with as little bloodshed as possible. As it is already too late, may forgiveness and grace characterize all parties in the days to come.

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