Syria has been in the news for months. The war-ravaged country has seen over 100,000 people killed and two million more have sought sanctuary in other countries. But how can I explain this human rights tragedy in a country that most people know very little about. I hope this holistic perspective will help shed some light on the intricacies of this drama as it unfolds in real time.
As I mentioned in my last blog, I visited Syria in 2005 and I have followed events in the country with interest over the years. But to explain this complicated process to students and educators is a bit daunting. Therefore, I resort to a metaphor: a bowl of spaghetti. The spaghetti noodles are all intertwined, overlapping, underneath each other and who knows where they start or end. Mixed in with the noodles are various seasonings, a sauce, and cheese. Sounds delicious, but when we use it as a metaphor for the various factions in Syria it is unpalatable.
Let’s start identifying the noodles and see how they are tossed together into this dish.
The first noodle is environmental: a serious drought. One report stated that between 2006 and 2011, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. The drought was caused probably in part by climate change, and also in part by the mismanagement of water resources by President Bashar al-Assad. Under his regime, water-thirsty crops such as wheat and cotton were subsidized. When the drought struck, about 75% of the farmers lost their crops and livelihoods. They drifted to the cities for economic relief. Along with thousands of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees camped in the cities, the mix of displaced peoples made for instability. The battle for scarce resources is never pretty.
More noodles tangled on the plate are those countries that support Assad: Russia, China, and Iran. Syria, a socialist country, has been supported for years by Russia, a former socialist country. China, which favors the regime, has socialist ties as well and has also made sizable investments in the country. The people of Iran, an Islamic state, favor the Shiite branch of Islam, while Assad and the ruling elite of Syria are Alawites, which is a branch of Shiite Islam. Confused yet?
Another noodle is the Arab Spring starting in December 2010, which appeared to be a democratic uprising peacefully demanding more popular representation in many of the typically authoritarian governments in various countries of the Middle East. But a fledgling democratic government is fragile and requires stable institutions, acceptance and inclusion of different groups, and time to develop. Those favoring a democratic Syria first protested against the Assad regime in March 2011. Syrian forces brutally suppressed the protesters. It looked as though it was a simple confrontation between good and evil – the peaceful democracy advocates vs. the brutal Syrian regime. But it got more complicated.
On that same plate of spaghetti are more noodles representing the vague consortium of opposition or rebel factions. The democratic opposition was soon co-opted by a number of different factions affiliating/collaborating to overthrow the Assad regime. One of the significant noodles in the mix was Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Islamic state. They were eager to oust the Alawite elites and set up a Sunni state, particularly favoring their Wahabi version of Islam. Another noodle on the plate is al Qaeda linked forces who are striving to set up an Islamist state, and defying any Western efforts to resolve the conflict.
The United States is yet another significant noodle on the plate. At first, many U.S. politicians supported the rebels and pushed to arm them in their struggle against the dictator Assad. But it was soon apparent that the opposition was not the freedom-loving rebels that are so often near and dear to American hearts. Instead, many were jihadist from around the Middle East intent on usurping Western influence in the region.
The conflict in Syria has turned into a twisted mound of spaghetti that has fallen to the floor. So, what should the U.S. do in this situation? Here are some thoughts from an observer.
President Obama pledged air strikes against the Assad regime in response to their use of chemical weapons against innocent people–a clear violation of international law. But some doubt remains whether or not the Assad regime actually carried out this horrific act. The rebels were also very capable of such atrocities. This was a risky move on Obama’s part that, in my opinion, was destined to backfire. Obama’s brinksmanship thankfully ended with a last minute agreement between the U.S. and Russia to require the removal of Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons in a timely fashion. As yet, we don’t know the outcome of this brokered agreement.
So, I ask, what is the “least bad” faction in this whole ensnarled mess? Perhaps the U.S. administration will say Assad. Although ruthless, he is manageable by a coalition of states led by Russia. The opposition, as far as I can tell, appears unmanageable, volatile and intent on doing whatever they deem necessary to achieve their goals. Stateless societies such as these are volatile and potentially very dangerous, as we have seen in parts of Africa, such as Somalia and also in Iraq. We all know what can happen. The attack on a Western-style mall in Nairobi, Kenya is just the latest example. They can rein terror on civilians in all parts of the world.
When talking about or teaching about Syria, think of that plate of spaghetti and wonder where the next uncovered noodle lies and what will happen when it slithers out into the open.
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