Syria symbolizes quite a shift in my understanding of a number of things.
In 2003 I reluctantly supported the Iraq invasion. For most of the ’90s I had been an apolitical pietist. Then 9/11 happened, and we were all red-blooded Americans now. Having studied economics in college and despite being registered an unaffiliated voter I tended to support Republican candidates, assuming (wrongly) they were pro-market and agreeing with their hawkish policy prescriptions, especially with the U.S. under a seemingly existential threat.
But in 2006 I became aware of Ron Paul. His speeches and writings sent me back to the ideas I had embraced as a student: free markets instead of crony capitalism, free trade and diplomacy instead of managed trade enforced by aircraft carriers, sound money instead of inflation and debt, and respect for the sovereignty of individuals, states, and foreign countries.
When war broke out in Syria over the spring and summer of 2011 it marked the first time in my life I would resolutely oppose a U.S. intervention. I was a youngster during Vietnam and heard only the side of the story one could hear in Southern Appalachia. In my home and community there was as much contempt for draft-card burners and student peace protests as the North Vietnamese communists themselves. But by the time the Syrian conflict erupted I had a new-found skepticism, especially when talk of supporting the “rebels” began to circulate in the media.
Ah, the media. In 1968 Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet offensive. He returned with a sobering assessment: we had done the best we could, but only a negotiated settlement could end the war. In other words, Uncle Sam wasn’t going to win this one. He should settle for a draw.
Fast-forward to our day. We have no correspondents on the ground in Syria. Rather, Wolf Blitzer faithfully reminds us that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has murdered 250,000 of his own people.* And barrel bombs: a primitive instrument of death used by an army that, until the late fall of 2015, had no access to precision weapons, fighting an insurgency swarming apartment buildings in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Darayya like cockroaches. But Western news services, including Reuters, are relying on a dissident living in a London suburb calling himself the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” A generation removed from the Vietnam era, American media seems to have become adjuncts of the State Department.
Alternative media, as well as the U.S. Defense Department’s own declassified documents, present a different backstory. Wikileaks revealed that in 2006 political counselor William Roebuck sent a cable from the U.S. embassy in Damascus outlining a strategy to destabilize the Assad regime, to prod it into over-reacting. Western sanctions have inflicted misery on ordinary people, and the Syrian pound has lost purchasing power at an alarming rate. Charles Glass, a journalist who is no apologist for Assad, has spent ample time on the ground in the country and wrote in his 2015 book Syria Burning that from the early days of the conflict the CIA was escorting “armed men” across the border from Turkey. The Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in 2012 that conditions along the Syrian-Iraqi border had ripened for the emergence of a salafist “Islamic state,” and that such an entity, while unsavory, could be useful to the West and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar) in pressuring the Assad regime to fold.
It amounts to what political economist Tim Anderson calls a “dirty war on Syria.” One doesn’t have to be an Assad fanboy — as I am not — to detect the gross impropriety of the interventions in that country.
What do Americans in general think? As Cronkite would later point out, the U.S. government realized the impact the media had on shaping opinion about foreign interventions and after Vietnam restricted access to the field. Americans relying on the major networks and new channels don’t have enough even-handed information to hold informed opinions on Syria. My perception is that many of them are in a 1972 mindset. They don’t really want American boots on the ground to establish democracy there; but given what they’ve been shown about ISIS they would be content for B-52’s to bomb Syria into oblivion and “let God sort ’em out.”
In the winter of 2015 I visited a Bible study at a small, rural Reformed church in my community. The topic of ISIS came up during prayer requests, and one visibly agitated older gentleman said, “I think we ought to do to them what we done to Japan.” Of course, it was civilians who died in overwhelming numbers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I think his sentiment betrays the American public’s deep inability to differentiate the people of the Middle East. We are, after all, in a post-9/11 America where Muslims are viewed with more suspicion than during the Iran-hostage affair of 1979.
Aye, there’s the rub. Not all Syrians are Muslims, and most Syrian Muslims aren’t Islamists. Syria is home to over two million Christians: Orthodox, Catholic, and Assyrian, with sprinklings of Anglicans and evangelical Presbyterians. These folks stand by the regime and the Syrian Army in spades — not so much out of love for the regime as for their country, and because for now their very survival depends on it. I knew this much when the uprising first began, and for this alone I couldn’t support the armed opposition, whatever its shape or color.
Syrian Muslims, apart from the Islamists, present an interesting challenge to the fairly us-and-them world of American conservative Christianity. As they say, knowing people makes a difference. I taught Syrian Muslim students in community college. I have befriended several more, including Christians, through social media.
What I’ve learned? That being Syrian is the thing.
Religious identity, while important, takes a backseat in their society — the hallmarks of which are lavish hospitality (tears if you don’t accept an invitation to their house for tea and snacks), healthy and delicious food, and good music and dancing (dabkeh, anyone? Dabo Swinney could never keep up).
Don’t take my word for it. Brad Hoff, who served as a U.S. Marines intelligence officer, spent time traveling and mingling in Syria and gives perhaps the best ground-level perspective on what Syrians are really like in “A Marine in Syria.”
Of more import for Americans is the attitude toward Christianity among Syria’s majority moderate Muslims. While probably less the case in rural areas, in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo it is not uncommon for Muslims to join Christian celebrations and parades, especially at Christmas and Easter. Muslims have been spotted praying or meditating at ancient, historic Christian shrines like the chapel beneath the site of Ananias’ house in the Old City of Damascus (where Paul was baptized) or the enclave at Ma’loula.
In an interview with RT a Kurdish girl serving in the YPJ was asked what gave her strength in the fight against ISIS. On her list was “the mercy of Jesus Christ.” What to make of this? Based on my conversations with Syrian friends I can’t help but believe that the two millennia presence of Christianity has left a greater mark on Syria than we might imagine.
I’m not advocating syncretism or universalism here. But God will sort us all out, for sure.
Regardless, I have fallen in love with these people and pray for them.
As for Bashar al-Assad, a soft-spoken ophthalmologist by profession, he’s certainly not the uniformed buffoon of a Saddam or Gaddafi. Historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in 2007 that Bashar was pursuing a secret peace deal with Israel — a deal the latter was pressed to abandon by the Bush administration (indeed, where have you gone, Ron Paul?). But Bashar also inherited from his eagle-eyed father a regime ruthless in suppressing dissent (especially if you belong to the Muslim Brotherhood) and rigidly inert to the kinds of reforms many Syrians would like to see. The Ba’athists seem out of step with the new realities thrust upon the Middle East by neoconservatives and “humanitarian” interventionists. Other parties, representing a kind of loyal opposition, have alternative ideas for a renewed Syria, and having served alongside the government forces during this conflict they wait in the wings. Yet, if independent poll results from July 2015 are accurate, Bashar would still likely win an open and fair election.
In the meantime I throw my moral support to the Syrian Army — a force routinely demonized or, perhaps worse, flat-out ignored by Western media. Lacking the manpower and resources to achieve all of the objectives, their country’s fate will be dictated by negotiations between Russia, the U.S., and their respective allies. But the army still seems the only state institution capable of pushing back the Islamists on the ground (evidence their recent victory over ISIS at Palmyra) and restoring a semblance of order to their country.
It is, after all, their country.
*Latest casualty estimates in round numbers: 110,000 Syrian troops, 98,000 opposition fighters, and 95,000 civilians.