Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Syria and the Next Crusade

Syria is a bloody mess
Set up by the French and the Brits
Who will never confess
Being the source for all of its fits
A colony fit for a king
A king with guns and some moxie
Far away from Damascus
Who then can rule it by proxy
With knaves and lackeys who ask us
Is this for a pound to be made
Or the eighth and final Crusade?
The nation is odd and complex
And yet will certainly vex
Saints and sinners alike
As they painfully battle the hex
While their armies go south for a hike

There have been seven Christian Crusades to retake the Holy Land from the infidels…no, not those infidels, but the Seljuk Turks and other Muslims who felt oppressed by still other Muslims.  Keep your infidels straight, please.  Centuries after the seventh Crusade that ended in 1250, we reentered the bazaar only to enter the bizarre.  In the mid nineteenth century much of Europe began modern conquests in Africa.  The British and French, at the height of their imperial watermarks in the late1800s and early 20th century created colonial governments in what we now call Iraq and Syria.  They both  forced out the Ottomans and went headlong into creating loyal governments.  The French, without much effort against the Ottomans, became settled in Syria and Lebanon just prior to WW I.  Think carefully now, the Crusades started in approximately 1190 and ended in 1250, but the colonial nightmare of the middle east began in about 1850 and did not end until the 1920s when Europeans established weak governments that were based on the local social elite but owed loyalty to a European country.  We think of the Crusades as an era in history, but European occupation of the Middle East as a transitory event.  The latter actually took more time.  Italians and Belgians and Germans joined in the party along with the French and British.

The creation of weak governments also continued relationships with Europeans that brought trade and profits to the European creators.  Markets and even some cheap labor rewarded the European efforts handsomely.  If you define slavery as humans being involuntarily exploited, and include economic slavery, then emancipation came slowly, if at all. Social slavery as a political policy is still legal in parts of the world, but economic slavery is growing around the world and it may have roots in the notion of colonialism. This de facto slavery is equally onerous and yet it has become so common that we have become inured.  Given the relentless threat of disclosure and deportation, when men and women in the US can only work “under the table” where they are usually paid less than minimum wage, they are afraid to complain or to notify authorities.  That essentially describes economic slavery in other parts of the world. Under the guise of “economic freedom,” legislators are loathe to interfere, so the practice continues.  Unfortunately, the economic freedom they espouse is only for the employers and not the workers.  Protection is boldly absent in immigration legislation, for example.  Note that recently, our House of Representatives agreed to only spend more money for privatizing border security not for providing safeguards for workers.  In the Middle East, the monied gentry and  the connected were granted control by their departing European masters.  This left the local politics to control the economics. The entire Middle East is still teaming with haves and have-nots created in the vacuum of European departure.  The Saudis (one nation allowing social slavery) were blessed with oil under their soil.  This hastened the economic development of the princes, yet did little for the poor and encouraged slavery by the wealthy.  In 1960, Saudi Arabia had about 300,000 slaves.  In other Islamic nations such as Mauritania and Senegal, the numbers are still astronomic.  Given that slavery is permitted by law and encouraged by economic conditions, rescuing slaves by purchase seems to be a fool’s errand that is also a bottomless economic pit.  The money holders are the slaveholders.  You need to outbid the slave masters to free a slave.  Property rights trump human rights and money rules.

Why bring up all that history?  Well, the have-nots are angry and they are organized and they are just as religiously fanatic as their economic masters.  The past couple of years of “Arab Spring” activity illustrates the problem.  Unfortunately, you can’t tell the players with or without a scorecard.  The number of social, religious and economic factions in Syria are legion.  Nobody has the latest social map of the nation.  The Assads have ruled the nation for decades and have made and broken alliances continuously over their period of control.  History books blithely call this “government by patronage.”  It is that, but the patrons and protégés are constantly changing.  Add to this mix, the lethal sectarian hatred and the strong racial components like Arabs versus non-Arabs and language differences and finally the political proxy system and we have uncontrollable chaos.  The Saudis have their proxies in Syria as do the Russians, the Iranians, the Europeans and the Israelis and even Americans to a lesser degree.  Proxies provide arms and transportation to fanatics as well as money and information and technology.  The lower social standing of Shiites compared to the more entrepreneurial Sunni is a constant source of friction, but it is far from the only one.  Even the most minor sectarian differences can provoke a bloody conflict.  Assad and his secret agents are exclusively Alawite (Alawi).  Alawites are followers of Ali and trace their lineage back to the 8th century. This minority represents about 12% of the Syrian population and yet they were “chosen” by the French to serve in their Army to support French interests.  Surprise!  By being trained in the French military, this hated minority was able to rule Syria when the French departed.  They were trained in the military and probably learned to drink French wine that is anathema in most Islamic sects where alcohol is forbidden.  Alawites are unique in the sense that their sect is secretive and their rituals and practices are not shared even with uninitiated Alawites.  We tend to oversimplify Muslim sects and Syria is far more complex than the newspapers or cable TV pretends.  We see Christians as endangered due to their current decline, but in history, Maronite Christians were guaranteed the number two spot in ruling Lebanon that has been a vassal state of Syria at least since its creation in the twenties.  The French created that governing precedent before they left.

Hezbollah is a Shia military and humanitarian organization operating in Syria and supported by Iran, yet Assad has provided them sophisticated equipment including tanks to help protect its regime. The Syrian revolution is not made up of a single political force but a coalition of several political and military groups, some of which are foreign.  It is impossible to separate pro-Assad and anti-Assad components in any assessment of Syria.  Alliances are very temporary and even al Qaeda is operating in Syria with probable assistance from both Saudi Arabia and Iran thus mixing Arab and non-Arab groups which confuses westerners trying to depose Assad.  The chemical weapons used by Syria were probably created with the assistance of Russia and hundreds if not thousands of Russians are stationed as advisors in Syria, but the secrecy of the weapons is maintained by pro-Assad Alawite security forces.  This helps explain why the Russians were anxious to stop other outside intervention beyond their own.  It does nothing to improve the Assad record for killing Syrians.  The disunity of left and right within the opposition forces, does nothing to defeat Assad.

The current conditions in Syria and neighboring Lebanon can be described as a civil war, but that implies a defined opposition group.  There is none.  This lack of unified opposition helps guarantee the continuation of power by Assad for months if not years and should one group become pre-eminent, it will ensure continued strife as new alignments are created.   Millions of Syrians are already displaced and surely more than 100,000 Syrians have already been killed.

At this juncture, no one of the European nations that once played for the Crusaders wants to venture in as a peace-keeping force and for good reason since no score card identifies the teams to be separated.  Obama wisely has avoided boots on the ground and was fortunate to have Russia broker a deal on chemical weapons to keep our planes from Syrian airspace.

All we can do, and, at last, this is my recommendation, is to protect the civilians who are doing their best to flee the continuing and worsening conflict.  We need to get with neighboring Turkey and through the UN, and any nation interested in humanitarian causes, finance and manage the protection of civilians a little further into Turkey where they will no longer be in range of Syrian artillery fire and will have shelter, food and medical care in the numbers needed to sustain life until the bloody and evil opportunism that is Syria is ended.  It matters not who wins.  Right now, all the people are losing…everything from property to life.  At some point, the temporary political and military alignments will solidify and chaos will be reduced enough to support changes.  It will never be smooth. It will never satisfy all the factions.

Winter is coming.  Chemical winter is no better than nuclear winter.  Clothe the naked; feed the hungry; bind the wounds of the injured and stay the hell out of Syria.  That is really what the original Crusaders could have been instead of marauders in the Holy Land who copied the tactics of the Muslim invaders of Europe.  Let us make the 8th Crusade one that does no harm and might save a few souls in the process.

George Giacoppe
30 Sep 2013

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