FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Bloody Spring

by URI AVNERY

On a  flight to London in 1961, I had a unique experience.

On the way, the plane made a stop in Athens and a group of Arabs joined us. That by itself was an experience. In those days, Israelis hardly ever met people from Arab countries.

Three young Arabs took seats in the row behind me, and I somehow managed to introduce myself and start a conversation with them. I learned that they were Syrians. I mentioned the recent breakup of the United Arab Republic, the union of Egypt and Syria under the pan-Arab leadership of Gamal Abd-al-Nasser.

My three neighbors were very happy about the split. One of them drew a passport from his bag and passed it to me. It was a shiny new document, issued by Syrian Arab Republic.

There could be no mistake about the immense pride with which this young Syrian showed me – an Israeli enemy – this evidence of Syria’s new-found independence. Here was a Syrian patriot, pure and simple.

* * *

One of the books which had a profound impact on me in my youth was Phillip Hitti’s “A History of Syria”.

Hitti, a Maronite Christian from what is now Lebanon, was educated in Ottoman Beirut and emigrated to the US, where he became the father of modern Arab studies.

His ground-breaking book was based on Syria being one country from the Sinai desert to the Turkish mountains, from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of Iraq. This country, called Sham in Arabic, includes the present-day states of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

Hitti recounted the history of this country from the earliest prehistoric times to the (then) present, layer upon layer, including every period and every region, such as Biblical Israel and the Petra of the Nabataeans. Everything was part of the superbly rich history of Sham.

The book changed my own geographical and cultural view of our place in the world. Even before the State of Israel was created, I argued that our schools should apply this inclusive view to the history of Palestine throughout the ages.

(This would have enraged Hitti, who denied that there was a country called Palestine. In a long public controversy with Albert Einstein, a devoted Zionist, Hitti claimed that the entity called Palestine was invented by the British in order to fix in the mind of people that Jews had a claim on it.)

From Hittie I learned for the first time about the many ethnic-religious groups of today’s Syria and Lebanon. Muslim Sunnis and Shiites, Druze, Maronites, Melkites and many other ancient and modern Christian confessions in Lebanon; Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Assyrians and a dozen Christian confessions in Syria.

The European imperialist powers, Britain and France, which broke up the all-inclusive Ottoman Empire after World War I, had scant respect for the diversity of their new acquisitions. However, they both adopted the principle of “divide et impera”. The French excelled in it.

Faced with a fierce nationalist opposition and an armed uprising led by the Druze, they carved up the rump Syria into small religious-ethnic-geographical statelets. They played on the animosities between Damacus and Aleppo, Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Alawis, Kurds and Arabs, Druze and Sunnis.

Their most far-reaching venture, the division between a Christian-dominated “Greater Lebanon” and the rest of Syria, had a lasting effect. (It was called Greater Lebanon because the French included in it not only purely Christian regions, but also Muslim ones – Shiite in the South and Sunni in the port cities.)

When the French were finally kicked out of the region at the end of World War II, the question was whether and how Syria and Lebanon could survive as national states.

In both there was an inbuilt contradiction between the unifying nationalism and the dividing ethnic/religious tendency. They adopted two different solutions.

In Lebanon, the answer was a delicate structure of a state based on a balance between the communities. Each person “belongs” to a community. In practice everyone is the citizen of his community, and the state is but a federation of communities.

(This is partly an inheritance from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, but without an emperor or a sultan. It exists in Israel, too – Jews, Sunnites, Druze and Christians have their own courts for personal status affairs and cannot intermarry.)

The Lebanese system is a negation of “one person – one vote” democracy, but it has survived a vicious civil war, several massacres, a number of Israeli invasions and a shift of the Shiites from last to first place. It is more robust than might have been supposed.

The Syrian solution was very different – dictatorship. A series of strongmen followed each other, until the al-Assad dynasty took over. Its surprising longevity arises from the fact that many Syrians of all communities seem to have preferred even a brutal tyrant to the breakup of the state, chaos and civil war.

No more, it seems. The Syrian Spring is an offspring of the Arab Spring, but under very different conditions.

Egypt is far too different from Syria to allow a comparison. The unity of Egypt has been unquestionable for thousands of years. Egyptian national pride is almost tangible. The question raised by Israeli commentators, whether the new President is first of all a Muslim Brother or first of all an Egyptian, sounds gratuitous to an Egyptian. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is, or course, first of all Egyptian. So are Egyptian Copts, the sizable Christian minority. (Their name, like the word Egypt itself, derives from the ancient name of the country.)

The unity of Egypt, like that of Tunisia and even Libya, after the overthrow of the dictators, is evidence of the national consciousness of these peoples. This is not a given in Syria.

If the Monster of Damascus is finally removed, will Syria survive?

All over the West, and in Israel, pundits gleefully foretell that the country will break into pieces, more or less on the lines of the French colonial precedent.

This is quite possible. One of the few options left to Bashar al-Assad is to gather the Alawis in his army and retreat to the Alawi redoubt in the North-West of the country, cutting it off from the rest of Syria.

This would lead to much bloodshed. The Alawis would certainly drive out all the Sunnis from their region, and the Sunnis would drive the Alawis out of all the other regions. It could resemble the horrible events in India during the partition of the sub-continent and the creation of Pakistan, if on a much smaller scale .

The Druze in the south of Syria would then found their own state (an old dream in Israel. The Kurds in the north-east would do the same, perhaps to join the neighboring Kurdish semi-state in Iraq, a Turkish nightmare. What would be left of Syria would be the eternally competing cities of Damascus and Aleppo.

Possible, but certainly not inevitable. It would be a supreme test of Syrian nationalism. Does it exist? How strong is it? Strong enough to overcome the separatism of the communities?

I would not dare to prophesy. I can only hope. I hope that the diverse elements of the Syrian opposition unite enough to win the present brutal civil war and create a new Syria.

Unlike most Israeli commentators, I am not afraid of the “Islamization” of Syria. True, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has always been more violent than the Egyptian parent organization. By their actions at the time they helped to provoke the terrible massacre in Hama perpetrated by Hafez al-Assad. But political power has a moderating effect, as we are seeing in Cairo.

For me, one riddle remains. I see on the internet that many well-meaning people around the world, especially on the left, support Bashar.

This is a phenomenon that repeats itself. There seems to be a kind of leftist monsterphilia around. The same people who embraced Slobodan Milošević, Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Qaddafi now embrace Bashar al-Assad, again loudly protesting against American imperialist designs against this public benefactor.

Frankly, this seems to me a bit looney. True, Great Power politics do influence what’s happening in Syria, as they do everything else in the world. But the character and actions of Bashar, following those of his father, leave nothing to doubt. He is a monster butchering his people, and must be removed as quickly as possible, preferably under UN leadership. If that is impossible, owing to the Russian and Chinese veto – why, for God’s sake?! – then the Syrian rebels must be supported as much as possible.

I hope with all my heart that a free, unified, democratic Syria will emerge from this turmoil, another daughter of the Arab Spring.

In sha Allah, if God wills it, as our neighbors would put it.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

 

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail