Cathedral Round-Up (ish) #21: Syria

Syrian Alawite Falconer, circa WWII

I got bored of reading my usual list of Cathedral publications (although Stanford Mag did have an interesting article recently about a woman discovering her father’s book he wrote while in a Japanese POW camp during WWII [he was eventually beaten to death by the Japanese]), and decided to see what various universities had to say about Trump’s decision to attack Syria.

From Harvard, we have:

The Gangs of Syria (Harvard Political Review, 2012); Opinion: Bashar al-Assad is Syria’s problem, not its solution (Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center, 2015); Germany and Saudi Arabia: Alliance in Counter-Terrorism (Report by Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, Harvard Scholar, 2016); and A War Apart: Syrians at Harvard (The Harvard Crimson, 2017):

On the first day of shopping week this fall, Nisreen S. Shiban ’17 received a phone call from Syria. She immediately knew that something must be wrong.

It was one of her uncles. His voice panicked, he asked Shiban to get in touch with her father and make sure her mother was not within earshot. He had devastating news to deliver: Shiban’s maternal uncle Makarem, a former veterinarian who had practically raised her, had been killed by ISIS fighters in Aleppo. …

A College senior’s aunt and uncle were beheaded by rebel groups in Daraa.

An Arabic language preceptor often woke up in the middle of the night worrying about her brother and sister in Damascus.

A College freshman lost 13 relatives in the bloodshed. …

A junior volunteered at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in an effort to do something to ease the pain of her fellow Syrians.

A surgeon in Harvard’s Scholar at Risk program helped set up makeshift infirmaries to provide care to a bleeding city.

I didn’t find anything that was both recent and analytical (ie, not a human interest story,) but the bombing did happen only a few days ago and stories take time to publish, so we may have to wait for more reactions.

I also read some relevant articles about the Alawites and Cochran’s still-relevant article, How to Cut the Syrian Knot (2013):

President Obama is asking for Congressional approval of an attack against the government of Syria, in response to that government’s apparent use of nerve gas in eastern Damascus. …

The problem is that this strike doesn’t seem likely to help the United States. At least, that’s a problem for me, and it might even be a problem for some of the players in Washington.

First, we could be wrong. It does seem that a nerve agent killed over a thousand people in eastern Damascus—but who did it? The Syrian government certainly has chemical weapons, but it is possible to imagine ways in which some group among the rebels could have obtained some. Sarin isn’t even that difficult to manufacture. A Japanese nut cult, Aum Shinrikyo, managed it by themselves it back in 1995, killing 13 people in the Tokyo subway. The main objection to the official scenario, where Assad’s people used the nerve gas, is that doing so would have been irrational. …

So the Alawites are kind of interesting. Maybe not as fascinating as the Yazidis (*waves to Yazidi followers,) but still worth learning about and potentially extremely relevant to the situation. You probably already knew this, but Assad and his regime are Alawites, an ethno-religious group that forms about 11% of the overall Syrian population.

According to Wikipedia:

Alawites have historically kept their beliefs secret from outsiders and non-initiated Alawites, so rumours about them have arisen. Arabic accounts of their beliefs tend to be partisan (either positively or negatively).[14] However, since the early 2000s, Western scholarship on the Alawite religion has made significant advances.[15] At the core of Alawite belief is a divine triad, comprising three aspects of the one God. These aspects or emanations appear cyclically in human form throughout history. The last emanations of the divine triad, according to Alawite belief, were as Ali, Muhammad and Salman the Persian. Alawites were historically persecuted for these beliefs by the Sunni Muslim rulers of the area.

So it looks like traditional Alawite religion might have been kind of a mix of Christianity and Islam. This makes sense, given that Christianity was prominent in the area for about 600 years before Islam showed up, and when you leave behind the modern political/ethnic animosities people hold toward each other, both Islam and Christianity are built on pretty much the same base (Muslims even regard Jesus as a prophet.) There are weirder things than regarding Mohammad as just yet another prophet in the long line of Jewish prophets–like Mormonism, which is polytheistic but still gets grudgingly classed as a branch of Christianity. Continuing:

Alawis are self-described Shia Muslims, and have been called Shia by other sources[68][69] including the highly influential Lebanese Shia cleric Musa al-Sadr of Lebanon,[68][70] and Iranian religious and political leader Ruhollah Khomeini.[71][72][73]

Alawite doctrine incorporates Gnostic, neo-Platonic, Islamic, Christian and other elements and has, therefore, been described as syncretic.[15][76]…

Their theology is based on a divine triad,[63][77][78] or trinity, which is the core of Alawite belief.[79] The triad comprises three emanations of the one God: the supreme aspect or entity called the “Essence”[79] or the “Meaning”[78] (both being translations of maʿnā), together with two lesser emanations known as his “Name” (ism), or “Veil” (ḥijāb), and his “Gate” (bāb).[77][78][79][80] These emanations have manifested themselves in different human forms over several cycles in history, the last cycle of which was as Ali (the Essence/Meaning), Muhammad (the Name) and Salman the Persian (the Gate).[77][79][80][81][82]

Other beliefs and practices include: the consecration of wine in a secret form of Mass only open to males; frequently being given Christian names; burying the dead in sarcophagi above ground; observing Nowruz, Epiphany, Christmas[84] and the feast days of John Chrysostom and Mary Magdalene;[85] the only religious structures they have are the shrines of tombs;[86] the alleged book Kitab al Majmu, which is supposedly a central source of Alawite doctrine; and the belief that women do not have souls.[87][88][89][90]

Alawites have historically been kind of isolated, often oppressed and poor, but somehow managed to get control of the country after independence.

Considering that the majority of Syrians are Muslims, as are the majority of people in neighboring countries, the Alawites have good reason to want to be perceived as Muslims. I get the impression that a hundred years ago, the Alawites may have thought of themselves as pretty different from their Islamic neighbors, but today they see themselves as more similar–the push to get others to accept them as good Muslims, plus increased interaction with their neighbors due to urbanization, cars, TV, etc., may have changed their own view of themselves. (This process happened a while ago with different Christian groups–a Methodist would hardly balk at marrying a Lutheran–and is hard at work in Reform Jews, who have pretty high out-marriage rates.)

But as Cochran notes, just because they want to be accepted as good Muslims, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are:

Traditionally, Alawites were considered non-Muslim and treated like dirt—worse than Christians or Jews. You can see how the Sunni majority might resent being ruled by them—indeed, it’s hard to imagine how that ever came to pass. …

So, while the Baath party took over in 1963, the Alawites took over in 1966—and they haven’t let go yet.

The thing is, when you ride the tiger, you can’t let go. Although they have made efforts to build support outside their sect, through nationalist and redistributionist policies, the Alawite government has always faced violent opposition. They’ve put down full-scale revolts, most notably in Hama, 1982, where they leveled the city with artillery, killing tens of thousands. All that official violence means that they can’t afford to lose. Once the Alawites were despised, but now they’re hated. At this point, Peter W. Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia, says “The next genocide in the world will likely be against the Alawites in Syria.”

From A War Apart: Syrians at Harvard:

As the conflict worsened and alliances formed, the war took on sectarian dimensions. President Assad’s family is Alawite, a minority Muslim sect that comprises roughly 10 percent of the Syrian population but has ruled over the majority Sunni country since the 1960s. Prior to the Arab Spring, Syrians across ethnic backgrounds had coexisted in a fragile peace, despite undercurrents of tension.

Shiban—who was born in Syria, moved to Qatar, then settled in the United States when she was 12 years old—comes from an Alawite family. Her family had close Sunni friends in Aleppo before the war. Shiban remembers playing with their children as music floated over the balcony where the adults sat sipping a traditional Middle Eastern drink and smoking hookah.

But when predominantly Sunni rebel groups began fighting for Assad’s overthrow in 2011, they were challenging not only the regime but also long-secure Alawite control. Some used religious affiliation as a rallying cry to mobilize the population against what they considered an oppressive minority. Faced with the very real threat of a take-over by a hostile majority, the Assad regime invoked Alawites’ identity to intimidate them into allegiance.

Swayed by this rhetoric, Shiban’s cousin and uncle left for the front lines. Neither would return.

Meanwhile, Shiban and her family noticed their Sunni friends sharing Facebook posts written by a Sunni religious leader promoting violence against Alawites. “We were very heartbroken. We were confused,” Shiban says. “When you hear about all of the infringements on human rights, constant censorship by the government… you can understand why a war like this would happen, but nobody could see people literally going against loved ones, friends, family.”

I am reminded here of similar accounts during the breakup of Yugoslavia–prior to the war, people spoke warmly of Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state in which people of different backgrounds lived in peace and harmony. Following the Fall of Communism and the Rise of Democracy, Yugoslavia degenerated into civil war and “ethnic cleansing,” a mild euphemism for genocide. Friends and neighbors turned on each other.

As frequent commentator SFC Ton notes, when countries collapse, they tend to do it on ethnic lines–and Syria is no exception.

In The Ever-Evolving Battle for Syria, (Yale Books Unbound, 2016,) Phillips writes:

David Cunningham, an expert on civil wars, has argued that the more external actors are involved, the longer civil wars last. With few hurting significantly as a result of their involvement, these actors rarely withdraw until their independent agendas are met; and the more agendas in play, the more difficult for any resolution to satisfy all players. If these agendas shift over time, resolution becomes even more difficult. Instead, the players act as “resolution blockers” prolonging the war. In Syria, feeding into the mixed agendas of the various domestic players, the six key external players have contributed six further agendas, none of which have remained static over the course of the conflict.

Though I admit that I admit very little about the situation, I am not in favor of US intervention against Assad. It’s not that I like Assad (I don’t know enough to have an opinion of the man;) I just think ISIS sounds much more frightening and have no confidence in America’s ability to make matters better. Remember that time we invaded Vietnam, and lots of people died and Vietnam still became a communist country? Or that time we supported the mujaheedin in Afghanistan and they turned into Al Qaeda and flew some planes into the NYC skyline? Or that time we invaded Iraq, deposed a dictator, installed democracy, and then got ISIS? Or that time we helped France and Britain instal a democracy in Germany, and the German people went and elected Hitler?

Our track record isn’t all bad–Japan is handling democracy just fine, though the Japanese idea of democracy seems to be re-electing the same party every time–it’s just mostly bad.

I started reading about Syria mostly because I found the media reaction to the bombing confusing: why were they so uniformly happy? Weren’t these the same people who were just telling us that Trump is a trigger-happy madman intent on hurting Muslims? Shouldn’t at least some of them be pointing out that Trump is now actually killing Muslims by bombing their country? Shouldn’t someone express concern that we don’t have good information about what’s actually happening in Syria, and so don’t know for sure that gas attack actually happened and was actually committed by Assad’s regime? I mean, “find out what actually happened before you act” is a moral taught in cartoons aimed at toddlers.

My confusion was compounded by the fact that most of the people I know expressed reservations about the bombing; many believe we should be supporting Assad against ISIS and that Assad is basically the “good guy” (or at least the “less bad guy”) in this whole mess.

And I don’t feel like I’m coming from a particularly partisan perspective, here. I don’t think your opinions about Obamacare or abortion or racism are really going to affect whether you think Assad used chemical weapons on his own people and now we should rain bombs on his people (because it is really bad when you die of chemical weapons but totally rainbows and kittens when you are blown to smithereens by a bomb.)

But then I remembered that democracy is America’s religion. Just as Muslims think non-Muslims should all convert to Islam, so Americans tend to think that non-democracies should all become democracies. Unfortunately, multi-culturalism seems to be one of democracies failure modes, as different ethnic groups start trying to vote themselves a larger share of the national pie.

Belgian refugee fleeing violence in the Congo following the end of colonial rule

Assad is a dictator, and in our simple heuristics, “dictator=bad.” The rebels are (or at least originally were) fighting for democracy, and “democracy=good.” Therefore people think Assad is a bad person (after all, if he were a good person, why would anyone rebel against him?) and needs to go. They’re not really thinking two steps down the line to, “If we take out Assad, the resulting power vacuum could allow someone even worse to come to power, like ISIS.”

There are many rebellions in the world. Go read the history of pretty much any African country and you’ll find a bunch. Few of these rebellions actually result in a real improvement in the lives of ordinary people, as the rebels often aren’t idealistic, moral young men who just want to make their country a wonderful place, but rival power factions that want to take the country’s wealth for themselves.

Even the Iranian Revolution began with many groups that wanted to oust the Shah so Iran could be a democracy–and the theocratic state they got in the end looks positively peachy next to ISIS.

A dictator might be bad, but it’s hard to be worse than civil war or ISIS.

12 thoughts on “Cathedral Round-Up (ish) #21: Syria

  1. I’ve been feeling bad that you’ve been so upset about this. I don’t feel strongly either way because I just don’t have enough information. You’ve been doing more emoting on this topic (especially on twitter) than I feel comfortable with, and I’ve been feeling pressure to either agree with you to be nice to you, or else to play devil’s advocate in self-defense. My jury will remain out until it damn well pleases TYVM. ;)

    My actual position is along the lines of, we do not have the wherewithal to play world police and so we should be picking our battles, and I do not have enough information to know if this was a “battle” worth picking. (So we mostly agree, so I’m really trying not to give in to that “defend yourself from the peer pressure! push back!” instinct.)

    Bombing an airbase that’s empty because we warned them…it’s not a serious attack, it’s a message. My first thought was that it was a stunt intended to affect domestic politics (or even, civil service vs. politician politics). But maybe it really was a diplomatic message.

    (When that aired in the ’80s it was an obvious wish-fulfillment tale of “how the UK could’ve headed off the invasion of Grenada.”)

    (Bonus scene earlier on:
    Prime Minister: We should always fight for the weak against the strong!
    Civil servant: Well then, why don’t we send troops to Afghanistan to fight the Russians?
    Prime Minister: …the Russians are *too* strong.
    Civil servant: What was that you were saying about law and justice?)

    As for chemical weapons–at the time of my earlier comment I bought the CIA’s story (that the “chemical weapons use” was an accident). Of course the CIA has recently acted biased; if it had not, perhaps more people might have bought its story too. I’ve since also encountered the MIT guy’s take. In the end…since we no longer have journalists who actually abide by the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, nobody can really be sure anymore of anything they didn’t see with their own eyes. The people complaining about “fake news” get one thing right: Trustworthy and trusted journalism really is very important to a functioning society–and we no longer have that. And we can’t easily get it back.

    Anyway. I’m always annoyed at unauthorized military action. But it was a fait accompli; all that was left was to hope for the story that…in the end we did use: “We did what we set out to do and are now done.”

    Now we’ve got saber-rattling with North Korea. What I now hope for: We could heed China’s entreaties to back down…in exchange for a better trade deal. Trump has in the past been so focused on trade that I’m still holding out hope that might actually happen.

    >the bombing did happen only a few days ago

    Three weeks. It’s been three weeks. If someone wanted to distract you by doing this….they got what they wanted.

    (Orrr that was just written a while ago. ;))

    ANYway. Other events since then: Aforementioned North Korea saber-rattling. Attempts at H1B reform. Freedom Caucus rewriting TrumpCare as it desires. DACA deportation (again affected by the problem of untrustworthy journalism…was Montes wrongly deported and that’s why he was sneaking back in? Or not? Who knows? Border control says he wasn’t, he says he was, journalists can no longer be trusted to do an unbiased investigation…the end). MS-13 murders on Long Island (to be fair, that investigation was ongoing before as well).

    Thugs threatening to drag THE REPUBLICAN PARTY out of an ordinary apolitical parade, with bonus apparently-other thugs claiming that letting one of the two major parties participate in said parade would “legitimize” THE SITTING PRESIDENT…causing the parade to be canceled.

    Yeah, I care most about possibly-long-term-culture-affecting domestic issues. But ye gods. Next they’ll be bringing a rain machine up from Hollywood so that they can *literally* rain on people’s parades.

    I’m extremely concerned and I think it would be best for everyone if these individuals were to choose to cease this barbaric behavior immediately. Rule of law is what allows members of a society with diverse views to get along. When people choose to stop respecting the law and instead to threaten physical force against those with whom they disagree, this leads easily to outright war.

    As in your example of Yugoslavia.

    >I found the media reaction to the bombing confusing: why were they so uniformly happy?

    Because attacking Assad was what Hillary wanted to do and they thought this was proof that Trump was successfully being turned into Hillary?

    I mean. “Trump is successfully being turned into Hillary” has been the media line from the beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aarg, I wrote a response and it got deleted.

      Summary version: No need to be concerned on my account; I’ll certainly be fine. I’d much rather hear your well-reasoned Devil’s Advocacy (or honest opinion) than to sit here imagining dumb reasons for war.

      It’s always hard to know what is going on in a war zone, even without our current problems. People should exercise at least some caution.

      Much agreement on most points; the emergence of modern antifa/street brawling/political violence is quite concerning. We might weather the storm, but it does not bode well.

      One thing people (on both sides) need to remember is that a lot of laws exist not because gov’t thinks the behavior or speech involved is “good” or should be encouraged, but because allowing one group to coerce the other leads to mutual violence and civil war. People want laws to reflect morals, but laws first have to protect peace.

      Perhaps so.

      As always, thanks for contributing!


  2. “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave” was a slogan that originated against the first Assad in the rebellions against him by Sunnis and I think even if it hasn’t been said in the current civil war, the sentiment is there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The US has been an aggressive, imperialist state since the founding of Roanoke. Our Indian wars lasted almost 300 years (1600 to 1900), and since the fall of the USSR we have been on a tear. We have 800 to 900 military bases in nearly 160 countries (out of 190 total), and we are pursuing expansionist programs in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Considering that we are being defeated by the Taliban (Gen. Keane, Ret.), we finally might have over reached. Not a good omen for us, but maybe for the world.

    There is no logical, coherent explanation for our actions other than the lust for domination. We fight ISIS in Iraq, thereby supporting Iran and its allies, and we support ISIS in Syria, thereby fighting Iran and its allies. We overthrow Ukraine’s only democratically elected president, and we support what is an overtly nazi junta. Trump campaigns as a peace candidate, and for 100 days he has been on the war path.

    We live in a sham democracy where elections don’t count. If you want proof of the Deep State and its power, Trump campaign and presidency provide it in spades.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To be fair, I think we over reached in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq 2, as well. We have short attention spans and are bad at learning things we don’t want to learn. We have a large military, so we keep trying to use it…


  4. “I am reminded here of similar accounts during the breakup of Yugoslavia–prior to the war, people spoke warmly of Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state in which people of different backgrounds lived in peace and harmony. Following the Fall of Communism and the Rise of Democracy, Yugoslavia degenerated into civil war and “ethnic cleansing,” a mild euphemism for genocide. Friends and neighbors turned on each other.”

    This makes me wonder if those pre-Fall accounts are missing something. People don’t just up and start killing each other because it seems like a fun thing to do of a Friday evening and there’s nothing good on the telly. Maybe, because of the regime, they were missing tensions that were naturally there, but suppressed, because voicing/acting on them would turn you into political persona-non-grata. How many of the people giving these accounts were children at the time?

    That’s a real maybe, not a sly insinuation.

    My wife, who is in a position to know more than most on the subject, thinks Assad is a cockroach, morally and mentally. I have no way of checking this opinion, but I generally trust her judgment. But, given that this is true, just because the house down the street has cockroaches is no good reason in itself to blast the walls full of holes with a shotgun.

    “Bombing an airbase that’s empty because we warned them…it’s not a serious attack, it’s a message. My first thought was that it was a stunt intended to affect domestic politics (or even, civil service vs. politician politics). But maybe it really was a diplomatic message.”

    Cord Shirt, does this disturb you? I think it should. We’re dropping bombs on other countries and provoking escalation with Russia primarily for its possible effects on domestic politics. Is that not an exemplar of a sick regime? (I’m not talking about Trump; I’m talking about the whole edifice of American foreign/domestic policy creation.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • >This makes me wonder if those pre-Fall accounts are missing something. People don’t just up and start killing each other because it seems like a fun thing to do of a Friday evening and there’s nothing good on the telly. Maybe, because of the regime, they were missing tensions that were naturally there, but suppressed, because voicing/acting on them would turn you into political persona-non-grata. How many of the people giving these accounts were children at the time?

      Oh, I’m sure they were missing something, either the media purposefully picking the people who said everything was fine to record and ignoring the signs that things weren’t actually so rosy, or like you said, people giving the official line because they didn’t want to be ostracized.

      And I think that a lot of people, when there is an official line like that, end up really believing it, or at least, they believe that they believe it, even if on some level they realize that there are problems, like white anti-racists who still mysteriously don’t live in high-crime neighborhoods.

      The people in the interviews weren’t children, no.


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