Syria – part II

Before I left Damascus for my trip around the eastern part of Syria – I was not allowed to go into Dayr Az Zawr, eastern region of the country- I had the opportunity to have a lunch with a bunch of Iranian college students, visiting Syria, mostly to visit the Shi’a shrines like that of Zaynab,  the Prophets granddaughter. They were friendly but reserved. I was impressed with their English speaking abilities and also the fact that all of them were studying some form of hard science. It started me thinking about the the spurious value of many of the subjects so many of our students take like “criminal justice” etc. We give award diplomas to students who leave college unable to write a decent sentence or solve a basic math question. Before I left Damascus I was given a short boring lecture on where I could go and not go by some State Department security guy. Much of Syria is what they call a military zone. Usually that means the regime wants to hide something or a rebellious people, or also in the case of Dar Az Zayr, it is where the Syrian oil is located. To the north of the Dayr AZ Zawr region is the Kurdish area…a very sensitive region for the regime. It is usually in some form of revolt, violent or peaceful. The first place I went to is a short distance from Damascus, the town of Ma lula. Its importance is that it is (or was) one of the three small towns in Syria (and the world) where the language of Jesus is spoken. Aramaic is fast disappearing but the townspeople continue to keep it alive mostly for the benefit of the many European tourists who come to hear the language spoken. I bought some tapes of a homily by the priest. The people are all Eastern Christians and a good friendly people. But like Christians everywhere in the Arab world, they are leaving as fast as they can get visas They all supported the Assad regime, not because he was a good guy, but because he was, and his son, Basher is, a bulwark against the Sunni Arab Islamist wave sweeping across the lands. For the same reason many Shi’a Muslims, Christians and Kurds became communists in the 1950’s and sixties Shortly before I arrived, the favorite son of Hafez, Basil, was killed in a drunken driving car accident. He was a dashing figure, not at all like his geeky brother Bashar, a horseman, a flier, a man about town. Everywhere I went, especially in the Christian and Alawi areas, his picture was in every shop window. We returned to Damascus that night. From there my driver took me to the famous crusader castle Krac des Chaveliers near the northern Lebanese border. Lawrence of Arabia wrote pages on it marveling that was the most admirable castle in the world. I have never been much interested in ruins or old relics, except for the history they hold. So after a few hours we continued motoring up the Syrian coast, stopping in Baniyas for a while. The entire eastern Latakiya area seemed depressed to me. Being the home turf of the Assad’s I was thinking it would be a Syrian showcase. It is not. Poor restaurants, shabby homes, bedraggled peasants. All the glitz of Damascus was missing; we then motored to Hamah, my most disliked city in all Arabia. I have never been in an Arab city which was so unfriendly. A very conservative stronghold of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the women were all carefully covered up, some with the niqab ( veil) all with the hijab. No one would look me in the eye. I seemed to be in a city of perpetually constipated people. I sat in the dirty Damascus park and watched the waterwheels powered by the Orontes river turn. Many were built during the Byzantine period, others by the first Arab kingdom, the Ayyubids, and others under the Mamluk regime. Only two were working when I was there. But looking around the city it was easy to see the tremendous damage done to the city by the Assad elite special forces and artillery in 1982 during the first Muslim Brotherhood revolt. Some say up to 20000 thousand died in the bombardment of the center of Hamah. No wonder they have constipated faces! Cement patches were on every building it seemed. I suppose the patches now have new patches on them. From there we drove to Aleppo. Well up in the north of Syria and a long time trading center. Its modern claim to fame is the web-like shopping bazaars. Shopping is another one of my least favorite activities but I do it to get to talk to people. The people were friendly, outgoing, and many were of Turkish origins. They have always been closely connected to Turkey in trade. While driving up to Aleppo, we passed literally hundreds of commercial trucks carrying goods to the north. I was never quite sure why the Syrians prefer to have their imported goods coming through Beirut and then overland to Syria, It does in one more way indicate how important Lebanon is to Syria. I stayed in Aleppo two days, telling my driver to come back and pick me up. I was glad to get away from the Arabic language machine. He made my head hurt. The hotel was an old one but I liked it. It was Arabic architecture and had the basic amenities, Coming up from Damascus we passed field after field of pistachio trees. We stopped for a while to listen as they were going through the process of popping open, When they do the whole orchard of pistachios makes a chorus of pops sounding like an AK-47 I returned to Damascus and stayed another day and as usual spent some time in the hotel bar and had a long conversation with two German businessmen who explained in detail the horror stories of trying to do business in Syria. The shifting government regulations designed to increase bashshish payoffs, bribes, general corruption, incompetence, made doing business a near impossibility. One thing they said, which I know from Cairo, is that Americans and American corporations do not have the patience required to get contracts from a culture that moves at a snails pace and with a constant requirement for being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right people and having the right amount of cash. For instance in Cairo, a German businessman lived in Cairo for almost 5 years to get a contract for his Swiss company selling a combination missile and gun air defense weapon. When he did get it was worth a thousand times over what the company paid him to hang out ( in a high living style) in Cairo. Next day I left. I remember sitting in the dirty airport looking out a fly specked windows which looked as if they had not been cleaned in years and thinking how great it would be to arrive in Cyprus in a few hours. Cyprus is a great place, especially after Syria. I have always loved Cyprus, My wife and I went there often and stayed with a British air force officer and his family. I especially liked the Turkish part of Cyprus, before the Turkish invasion (1974) to “protect” their fellow Cypriot Turks. On this trip it was obvious that the Turkish part had become a waste land compared to the Greek area.The only bad part of the Greek part are the Greeks of Nicosia. I heard so much whining and lamentations on how the Americans let them down when the Turks came in and kicked their ass. But again I digress. At the airport I watched a young Syrian mother all in black with the hijab trying to control her unruly son. It is an aspect of Arab culture that sons are often allowed to do almost anything. They are as children very badly behaved. Try sitting next to a couple of them on a 12 hour cattle car flight. They are all over you and the mother gives you this ‘arent they sweet, smart kids’ look. You want to strangle them. She looked so unhappy, batting away the millions of flies, her eyes lifeless, I kept wanting to talk to her but of course that is taboo. She would be accused of consorting with her Western lover and maybe killed. I always would hear that these women in black were just as happy as the ‘anything goes girls’ of the USA, but looking at her made me doubt that, as I have seen so many others just like her all over the Arab world. So now what do we do about Syria? Syria is back in the news. Obviously Obama feels that politically, doing nothing is the way to go, and since he is nothing more than a political animal that is what we will do. In actuality at this point there is not much we can do that would be to our benefit. As the Washington correspondent for the  Economist put it recently, the Americans have no stomach for intervention in Syria. He is right of course. It does seem a bit strange to me however. When you think how few Americans have been involved in any way or been affected in any way by the war in Iraq or Afghanistan where does this lack of will come from ? It’s not  like  having to endure a bombing blitz on our cities. It is a lack of leadership of course. You can’t lead when you take your direction from sensing sessions and voter surveys. Had we had a president who exuded power and competence, his admonishment and threats might have had some effect a year ago, but the savvy and weakness – smelling despots that rule the Arab world have measured him and found him wanting. He has become irrelevant to power shifts in the Middle East. The Christian community fears what will follow a possible Assad downfall. There have been many reports of attacks on Christian communities, which as usual are not reported in the Western press. The Kurds hate the Assads, but hate the Sunni Arab nationalists and Islamists even more. The Druze have also stayed out of it. They would like to see Assad weakened but an Islamic government is an anathama to them. A weaker Assad spells a weaker Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Druze in Lebanon are itching to get back at the Shi’a Hezbollah which humbled them a few years ago. The Druze, who like to view themselves as the Prussians of the Arab world were bested by a better trained Hezbollah in a brief series of battles. And of course the Alawis, much like the the Israelis view the Arab threat, view this war as an existential one. There can be no doubt that the Alawis are finished in Syria if Assad goes down. The more martial Alawis became better military materiel because the French, as colonials have always done with minorities, used them as instruments to keep the majority Sunni population in check. Most of the NCO’s of the French officered army in Syria were Alawis. It was one of the very few ways to upper social mobility for the Alawis. Prior to that time the Alawis were the servants, good for menial jobs, and wet nursing the Sunni babies in Damascus. They have always been resented by the Sunni when they reversed the social apple cart, and revenge is in the air, But this does not answer the question as to why, with an Army that is overwhelmingly Sunni, the Syrian regime continues to butcher the Sunnis with very few of them deserting to the other side.. In large measure of course it is the old Arab custom of keeping a finger in the wind and making sure that they wind up on the winning side. There has been no” tipping” point. Despite the claim of Syrian oppositionists, soldiers going over to them have been few in number. Another one is that the regime is mostly using “elite” Alawi units to do the dirty work and now more frequently, they are using the Sunni militia “Shibiba’ to instill fear into the Sunni community with well publicized massacres. Again part of the answer lies in the Abel and Cain story, rural against the urban, In the 1980-82 revolt, the Syrian artillery, composed of mostly Sunni soldiers, bombarded their co-religionists without great reluctance. It lies in the fact that most of the Syrian Sunni artilleryman were rural and had little in common with the urban Muslim brotherhood. They were not their people. Also there are many well to do Sunnis who have a vested business interest in keeping the Alawi regime in power. Papa Assad carefully cultivated some of the powerful Sunni families and they stand to lose much, including their lives, if Assad goes down. Syrian is crypto-socialist state, run by corrupt incompetents. Where will this go? Well barring outside intervention, and despite the huffing and puffing fron Assad’s ex-friend Tayyib Ergodan, prime minister of Turkey, they will do nothing but complain that the West is doing nothing. Russia and Iran will continue to assist the Assad regime, securing themselves a deeper foothold in the Arab world as we simply fade away or resort to vicious digital attacks on Iran’s nuclear ( for peaceful purposes only) facilities. Summary. At this point Assad has the initiative and looks to be a winner. Only internal domestic events within the Alawi community can change that. Next week..lets go to the land of the Pharaohs where I served for a couple of years.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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