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.

The West has no Idea how to Handle Islam

ETA: more terrorist attacks have happened since I wrote this. I give up on covering them all.

Most of the world’s ethnic groups divide up pretty neatly–if not into countries, then into distinct groups spread across several different countries. Alliances between countries are normally formally announced, so that you know that if you attack, Japan circa 1942, you’re likely to be counter-attacked by Germany. You don’t have to worry, though, about being attacked by China, or random Chinese people living in your own country, because China isn’t Japan, doesn’t have an alliance with Japan, and the Chinese people don’t particularly care what you do to Japan so long as you don’t do it to them. (In fact, the Chinese were pretty pissed at Japan by that point.)

As long as two countries don’t have an alliance, you can normally attack one without worrying about the other.

Islamic identity seems to function somewhat differently (at least in some cases.)

Americans are used to thinking of religion as a set of beliefs, eg, “God made the world in 6 days,” or “Enlightened people move on to a higher plane of existence,” or “You shouldn’t turn on the lights on Saturday.” Religion therefore falls under our philosophical notion of freedom of conscience, enshrined in the First Amendment.

But throughout much of the world, religion functions much more like ethnicity than like belief. Yes, technically people from different religions believe different things, but as a practical matter, the belief that “We are people who follow the true religion and they are people who follow the false religion,” is more important than the specific details of the religions involved.

If you don’t believe me, just ask yourself what were the theological underpinnings of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland?

It’s a near meaningless question. Knowing that the Catholics have a Pope and the Protestants don’t because centuries ago because King Henry VIII wanted a divorce tells you nothing useful. You just need to know that Catholics and Protestants see themselves as different groups.

Judaism is the only religion Westerners have much experience with and are used to thinking of as operating like an ethnic group. Most Westerners I’ve discussed the subject with seem vaguely confused about what exactly Judaism is, but they understand pretty well that if you start massacring Jews in your country, you should expect a visit from the Israeli air force.

But Jews are a relatively small group, with only one official country which has clearly articulated alliances with others, so there is not too much confusion on the point.

Recent random terrorist attacks in the West have included a Pakistani couple who opened fire at a Christmas party in an Bernardino, CA; a Moroccan Tunisian man who drove a truck into a crowd of French folks celebrating Bastile Day; and an Afghan teenager who attacked a train full of Germans with an axe.

The US is not at war with Pakistan*, France with Morocco, nor Germany with Afghanistan. Random American, French, and German citizens abroad do not, to my knowledge, make politically motivated mass-attacks on their host countries.

*Or is the US? I know Obama has authorized drone strikes on targets within Pakistan, among other countries. It was easy under Bush II to keep track of America’s military engagements, because they were big, declared, and obvious. Under Obama, we are not exactly at war with Pakistan, but we do sometimes kill people who happen to be living in Pakistan, like Osama Bin Laden. It’s confusing.

At any rate, according to Wikipedia, the Farooks were motivated by the desire to be jihadis and allegiance to ISIL, not Pakistan. Riaz Ahmadzai, the 17 year old Afghan, also appears to have acted on behalf of ISIL (though probably not on ISIL’s instruction,) not Afghanistan’s. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian armed with a 19-ton truck, also committed his attack on behalf of ISIL, not Tunisia. Fun fact: “A UN report from May 2015 shows that 25,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” from 100 countries have joined “Islamist” groups, many of them working for ISIL or al-Qaeda.[393]

Picture 4

The US, France, Germany, Russia, India, and probably the majority of the world are, in fact, at war with ISIL, which makes it kind of incredible that it still exists–the rest of the world has forgotten how to conduct wars.

You might think that ISIL draws its supporters from the ranks of the super-devout, but the opposite is most likely true:

“I always thought the people most likely to join a terrorist group were the people praying five times a day with a beard and being very pious and going to a radical mosque,” says Usmani, who is Muslim and was born in Pakistan. He came to the U.S. to do his PhD at Florida Institute of Technology.

But what he found is that they are more likely to go from secular to radicalized. They are often educated online — among the 5,000+ YouTube videos from supposed Muslim “scholars.” Technology has enabled an explosion of content that is far from true Islam.*

Now, this is a rotten pickle. It’s bad enough to worry about about Japanese-Americans when you are at war with Japan; it’s another thing entirely to have to worry about anyone whose parents were vaguely Buddhist.

I am particularly saddened by all of this for personal reasons. This isn’t the world I asked for; I certainly don’t want this conflict.

I assume the solution is to actually defeat ISIL instead of pussy-footing around so that it stops being a problem. But look how well that went the last time we tried to take over a country in the Middle East and replace its government with a more favorable regime.

 

*Phrases like “true Islam” annoy me because as far as I know, there is no Islamic “Pope” who gets to decide what is and isn’t “true Islam.” Nevertheless, it remains a constant in my experience that really devout people (of whatever religion) tend to believe more in principles like “love everyone because we are all God’s children,” than moderate religious folks.