Syria: Fears and Facts Get in the Way of Sympathy

I really want to care more about Syria but my fears and some nasty facts keep getting in the way. It is secular butchers vs. murderous Jihadists. Look at what is happening to the Kurds.

Gerald A. Honigman,

OpEds  Syrian boy holds toy pistol in Aleppo, where jihadists take over army base
Syrian boy holds toy pistol in Aleppo, where jihadists take over army base

A good friend, Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, is also a major leader in the Syrian Democratic Coalition. The SDC represents the real, more inclusive, non-Islamist opposition to the butchers of Damascus.

He wrote the Foreword to my own book which gets into the very issues we’re seeing unfolding right now in the Middle East--events involving the quest for justice for all peoples in the region. His organizations have met in Washington and elsewhere regarding recent upheavals.

You see, while dubbed the “Arab Spring,” the struggle for human and political rights goes far beyond those involving just Arabs in the region.

Sadly, however (and not by accident), if left to the American State Department, most of academia, and the mainstream media, one would be hard pressed to discover that scores of millions of native, pre-Arab/non-Arab folks have perhaps an even greater stake in the outcome of the current turmoil than the Arabs do themselves.

Indeed, the State Department--with the possible exception of the blatant, openly-affiliated al-Qaeda-type Jihadis--seems to have a love affair with the various Islamist groups, whether in Egypt, Syria, or wherever. The intimate Foggy Bottom links to ARAMCO and the tie of the Saudis and other Arabian Peninsula Sunnis is probably beyond coincidental.

Having been engaged in extensive research involving the Middle East for over four decades now, the anquish that I feel for tens of thousands of Arabs mowed down in the streets by fellow Arabs in Syria is unfortunately offset somewhat by the knowledge of whom is fighting whom over there.

I, too, want to see “democracy” prevail.

But, unless America and others pursue another course, democracy in a post-Assad Syria will likely look like the Muslim Brotherhood's version of it in Egypt today; i.e., it will be far different than what we in the West come to think of by the meaning of that word.

Too much evidence suggests that the tolerance, inclusion, egalitarianism, and broad extension of rights we have come to expect in the West with democracy will simply translate into the rule of the majority in the so-called “Arab” world. And that majority is in a no-sharing mode.

Back in the ’60s, Syrian Arabs launched a major campaign against millions of Kurds in the country. The title of Ismet Cherif Vanly’s book, "The Syrian Mein Kampf Against The Kurds" (Amsterdam, 1968), says it all. Things deteriorated even further until the recent Arab uprisings when the Assad regime acted to grant some formerly deprived rights to the Kurds, in attempt to keep them quiet during the current upheaval. Among other forms of repression, the Kurdish language and culture had been routinely outlawed.

But, to get a picture of what can be expected if the Assad regime of Syrian Arab Alawis – a minority offshoot of the Shi’a, as are the Arabs of Hizbullah in Lebanon and the non-Arab mullahs of Iran – falls to the dominant Sunni Islamist parties who are leading the revolt , like those which toppled Mubarak in Egypt and other despots in adjacent countries, please consider the following episode.

When Kurds in Qamishli rose up against Assad and the Arabist Ba’th in the spring of 2004 and were slaughtered, Syrian Arabs of all stripes remained quiet. There was no mention of the Kurds’ courage in confronting the brutality and repression of the regime, their revolt was condemned, and they were accused of being mere separatists.

New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, can also only manage to call some 35 million truly stateless Kurds by that same separatist word, while repeatedly lionizing the Arabs’ quest for a 22nd state alongside, or instead of, Israel.

It’s that same old subjugating Arab mindset – again, and again, and again.

In the Arabs’ own words, the whole region is simply viewed as “purely Arab patrimony” – and to hell with everyone else who dares to protest, be they millions of Copts, Imazighen/Berbers, black African Sudanese, Kurds, Assyrians, native kilab yahud (“Jew dogs”), or whomever.

Here is how this concept is proclaimed in Syria’s Ba’thist Arab Constitution – an idea espoused by Sunni Arabs now seeking to topple Alawi Arabs at least as much – and probably more – than the latter:

The so-called Arab "fatherland" belongs solely to the Arabs. They alone have the right to direct its destinies. The Arab "fatherland" is that part of the globe inhabited by the Arab nation which stretches from the Taurus Mountains, the Pacht-i-Kouh Mountains, the Gulf of Basra, the Arab Ocean, the Ethiopian Mountains, the Sahara, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.

Now, in case you think that things have changed in light of recent events, please consider that over the past months when the Syrian opposition held many conferences to draw up a plan for Syria’s future, Kurds attended as well. For the most part, they were totally ignored–even by the American State Department, an apparent fan of Islamists of most stripes.

Reports stated, for example, that during the opposition conference in Istanbul in mid-July 2011, the Kurdish demand that Kurds be recognized as a second ethnic group in Syria simply fell on deaf ears.

The Kurds’ second demand – to rename the Syrian Arab Republic to simply the Republic of Syria–angered many opposition leaders who interpreted the Kurdish suggestion as a plan to strip Syria of its “true” (i.e., Arab) identity.

Compounding the Kurds’ Arab problem is the fact that the main Arab opposition parties in Syria are primarily supported by like-minded anti-Kurdish Islamist parties in Turkey and those assorted Arabian Peninsula Sunni Arabs mentioned above. As usual, the Kurds will likely be used and abused yet again by all parties involved – including their own leaders.

In neighboring Iraq, for example, the Kurdish Regional Government has its own hands full playing a balancing act with Iran, Ankara, and so forth and so has not really been constructive in helping out its Syrian Kurdish brethren. Add to this the problems with the militant PKK bogeyman (which would not even exist if Kurds had been afforded basic human, let alone political, rights) -  and the legitimate aspirations for freedom and autonomy of Kurds and other non-Arab peoples in a future Syria  appear distant indeed.

The main problem is that when it comes to what “democracy” would likely look like, the weight of the evidence does not look good for a post-Assad Syria.

Too many Syrian opposition leaders fighting the Assad regime appear to adhere to concepts and policies similar to those of Assad or any of Syria’s earlier Arab dictators. And those wanting something better (like the SDC) are being ignored by the powers that be elsewhere.
Denise Natali, of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at National Defense University, wrote a uselful analysis regarding
a series of meetings in Qatar dealing with this very issue

While a Turk/Arab more preferred Sunni regime would replace the Alawis, non-Arabs such as Kurds or Assyrians in Syria will have no more to look forward to with it than Egypt’s non-Arab Copts now do. All have a history of being subjugated and ruthlessly massacred by their Arab neighbors. The Ba’th in neighboring Sunni Arab Saddam’s Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds over the years as well, both before and during the Anfal Campaign of the '80s.
While there may be more liberal voices in both Egypt and Syria, the power lies elsewhere and those wielding it will likely be no more tolerant (probably less) than the regimes which they toppled.

Having said this, recent events in Egypt--where the Muslim Brotherhood is encountering increasing opposition to its subjugating agenda--are a pleasant surprise. To say that the situation is a tinderbox is an understatement, but those hoping that the powerful military will intervene are probably in for a rude awakening.

There seems to have been a trade-off made between the Ikhwan and the officers--one which safeguards the latters' extensive economic interests in particular. So, forget about a coup toppling President Morsi--especially since more of the officer corps these days have links themselves to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, some may say that since democracy is so new in that region of the world (with the exception of the nation almost everyone loves to vilify), it must be given time to evolve.

Fair enough. America’s own democracy needed time too.

But, the problem with this line of thought is that the ability to evolve into something better requires a tolerance of diversity for “the other”, almost entirely missing from the dominant, age-old subjugating Arab mindset--despite claims to the contrary, the “Golden Age of Spain,” and so forth.

Perhaps Egypt’s best known Copt, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, President Sadat’s Foreign Minister, summed this up best when he met Israeli author, Amos Elon.

In Elon’s "Flight Into Egypt" (New York, 1980, pp. 84-91), he reviewed his encounter with Boutros-Ghali. Here’s some excerpts:

In his office, there is a map of the Middle East on which Israel is still blacked out. Israel must integrate by accepting the nature of the area--that nature that is Arab.

In a tape of a long discourse delivered in 1975 to Professor Brecher he proclaimed that in the vast area between the Persian Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean everyone had to be Arab or risk continuing strife.

Still, Boutros-Ghali felt that there might be a solution. How? Well, Israel could become an Arab country. Most Israelis were (Jewish) immigrants from Arab countries anyway.

Whether a Copt in Egypt, Kabyle/Amazigh (“Berber”) in North Africa, Jew, Kurd, or whomever, the only way for non-Arabs to be tolerated is for them to accept the Arab rules of the game (whether their Arab masters are Sunni or Shi’a) and turn themselves into "Uncle Tom" Uncle Boutroses. All have to accept forced Arabization, to one degree or another.

The problem is really two-fold here – having both religious and racist dimensions – and committed by the same people who lecture about allegedly racist Zionism. You see, unlike the non-Arab Christian Copts or Assyrians, the non-Arab “Berbers,” Kurds, black Africans in Darfur, and others are indeed Muslim -- but not Arab.

Not Arab. That's the key.
Whether Sunni or Shi'a, and no matter how often the former blow each other apart, Arabs won't tolerate what they call "another Israel" being born in what they claim as "purely Arab patrimony." Left up to them, they won't even tolerate anything which might be seen as steps in that direction--such as a federal Syria with autonomous Kurdish and other non-Arab areas. That which exists in Iraq today in the KRG, courtesy of America's overthrow of Saddam, is becoming under increasing threat daily from the dominant Shi'a Arabs now in control in Baghdad. The oil of the millennia-old Kurdish heartland in Kirkuk is the current flashpoint.

What must also be remembered is that up until very recently, for a variety of reasons, Washington and others have largely turned a blind eye to the numerous atrocities committed by the Syrian regime–whether they were directed against Lebanon’s quest for freedom, Israel’s Jews, native Kurds, native Sunni Arabs in the elder Assad’s infamous “Hama Solution,” or whomever.

Indeed, despite all of the above, Israel was repeatedly offered up on a silver platter to the Syrians in exchange for just a bit more cooperation in Lebanon and in Iraq.

There were active plans to force Israel into a total retreat from the strategic Golan Heights which Israel took, at great cost, after it was forced to fight –largely due to Syrian instigation and machinations – in the June ’67 war. Prior to that time, the Heights (part of the original 1920 Mandate of Palestine) were used by Syria to bombard Israeli fishermen and farmers repeatedly. Since that war, Israel has repeatedly offered to exchange the vast majority of the land for true peace – something the Arabs have rejected. As usual, the latter expect that their repeated aggression will come totally cost free. That territory has indeed frequently changed hands all over the globe due to such aggression.

Early in President Obama’s administration, he sent his good friend and Arafat’s bosom buddy, Robert Malley, to the younger Assad with the same offer President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker III, offered to his father--a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Heights in return for some nice gestures towards America and others, but not Israel.

What’s even more disturbing is that, with all that has recently transpired during the so-called “Arab Spring” (and the uncertainty and instability inherent in these events), the American State Department will still expect that the Jews will expose themselves yet again tp such Arab despots or alleged Arab Islamist Jihadi “democrats.”

Even worse, the man now occupying the White House is on record repeatedly stating the Israel would be crazy (his exact words) not to accept the Saudi Peace Plan, the basis of the current non-negotiations.

Among other things, that Saudi “peace” (of the grave) plan calls for a total withdrawal by Israel to its pre-’67 armistice lines (not borders) which made it a mere 9-15 miles wide at its strategic waist–where the vast majority of its population lives. Most people travel further than that just to go to work. The final draft of UNSC Resolution 242, the main post-’67 tool for peacemaking, specifically does not call upon Israel to do this, as has often been noted elsewhere.

So, I have mixed feelings about what is now transpiring in Syria. If replacing secular butchers with Jihadi ones instead is the choice, thanks but no thanks.

One part of me wants to see the bloodshed stopped; but, my other consciousness warns that those now in revolt will be no better to their own perceived enemies than those whom they seek to replace. One set of massacres and victims will simply be replaced by another. And, if anything, as with what is evolving in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, what and who will likely replace the reigning despot in Syria (is there any other type of ruler in the “Arab” world?) will only prove to be even more hostile to Jews, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, and scores of millions of other non-Arab peoples in the region.

Having stated all of this, it is true that another argument could be made for severing Iran’s link to its Hizbullah proxies–who have all but taken over Lebanon and who have scores of thousands of missiles aimed at Israel from just a bit over the border–by toppling the regime in Syria which serves as the primary middle man for such aid.

The problem, however, is that, depite that relative good news, once again, the devil which will replace Assad will very likely be as bad or worse than the current regime itself when it comes to Israel, Kurds, true democracy Western style, and so forth.
And yet, it does not necessarily have to be this way.
If Washington and others can finally muster what it takes to support the truly more inclusive and tolerant elements of the Syrian opposition--like those in the Syrian Democratic Coalition of Sherkoh Abbas--a much brighter future for Syria and all of its neighbors could emerge when the dust finally settles.

Those who still seek to suppress the human and political rights of others may not like this development (such as Turks who still refuse to call Kurds "Kurds," but rename them "Mountain Turks" instead), but the cause of freedom cannot be held captive to such folks.

While most Arabs distrust Iranian Shi’a connections with the offshoot Syrian Arab Alawi and the Lebanese Arab Shi’a Hizbullah (hence their support of Assad's foes), there is no doubt that Sunni Arab attitudes towards the issue of non-Arab rights in the region are, for the most part, as bad or worse. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are Sunni, for example–and all call for the death of Israel and the slaughter of Jews.

The butchers of Kurds during the Arabs’ Anfal campaign in Iraq in the ’80s were Sunnis. Ditto for most of the Arab genocidal maniacs in the Sudan. And so forth.

Again, using Egypt as the model, the same Islamists now in control there, from whom the Hamas rulers of Gaza earlier sprung, will likely be calling the shots (both figuratively and literally) in a post-Assad Syria.

Given this likely outcome, unless there is a major shift regarding what groups receive substantial military and political support, I regretfully find it hard to shed any tears for the tragic events now unfolding in that country.