On August 22, 2012, two news items related to Syria converged into an unprecedented escalation in the ongoing tragedy. The first was a statement made the day before by Syrian Vice President Qadri Jamil; he said that Damascus is willing to discuss President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. He said that “all problems can come up during negotiations, and we will be willing to discuss this issue,” rejecting thus the resignation condition imposed by the rebels. Repeating arguments openly alleged by Russia last November, he rejected the U.S. President’s warning that the use or deployment of chemical or biological weapons in this conflict would constitute a red-line for the United States, arguing that the West is looking for an excuse to act militarily against Syria, as it did in 2003 in Iraq. He also claimed that such a military attack would extend beyond the country’s borders. Reading this, one would immediately assume that Israel was implied in the statement. Yet, on the following day, violence overflowed Syria’s borders into northern Lebanon, when eight people died and 75 were wounded in Tripoli. The war entered a new phase; unlike what happened in Libya, it is deteriorating into an ethnic war.
The complex situation in Syria includes two main struggles. The most obvious one is between the Syrian Army and the West-backed Free Syrian Army. In parallel, there is a violent conflict between the Alawite minority-closely related to Shia Islam-and Sunni Arabs. The Alawite comprise roughly 12% of the population and hold the power; the Assad dynasty is Alawite. The Sunni are 74% of the population and are attempting to use the ongoing mayhem in order to gain power. The ethnic conflict is conducted by paramilitary organizations trying to evict each other from their respective territories. The most visible result of this conflict is the gathering of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the incessant reports of massacres of civilians. The Syrian Army-where Alawites enjoy a privileged position-favors the Alawite population, thus the ethnic struggle is a tie despite the unequal forces involved. Now, the ethnic struggle has overflowed into Lebanon.
Last night was the second night of fights between Alawites and Sunnis over the control of Tripoli; Lebanon’s second largest city after Beirut. This event is a surprise because Alawites are a very small minority in Lebanon. Lebanon’s ethnic mosaic is as complex as the Syrian one; however, it is quite different with an insignificant percentage of Alawites as the estimations in the maps below show. No census has been taken since 1932, thus there is no reliable information on the exact composition of this society. Moreover, the almost constant state of violence this small country has experienced since then makes evaluations difficult as the graphs below show. Lebanon had been unstable for a long period of time, with a civil war that took place between 1975 and 1990. The Syrian army occupied large parts of Lebanon between 1975 and 2005. Israel violently occupied much of its south from 1982 to 2000, and a short war took place between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. All these have caused population shifts that have not been completely quantified. Eventually, it reached a new stage when gunshots were exchanged yesterday between the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbana and the Alawites Jabal Muhsin, and caused the abovementioned deadly result. This is a direct consequence of the violence in Syria. Without the events in Syria acting as a trigger, yesterday’s violence couldn’t have been possible. Moreover, last week, Lebanese Shia kidnapped dozens of Sunni Muslims in reprisal for the seizure of a Lebanese Shia man by Syrian rebels in Syria.
Seldom can one witness poetic justice in a sufferable amount of time. Yet, in the recent events concerning Syria we see how an international attempt to bring regime change in Syria is deteriorating, overflowing the country’s borders and becoming ethnic in nature. This is bad news for some of the countries supporting the rebels, mainly Turkey, which is by far the major recipient of Syrian refugees and itself suffers serious ethnic issues with its Kurd population. Lebanon and Jordan are also bound to be clear victims of the process, which bears no good news for existing national entities. The caricature reproduced here was drawn in 1918 by John F. Knott and was named “It Shoots Further Than He Dreams.” Militarism is shown there as targeting itself from around the globe; a century later it reaches us fresher than ever.
“Never believe something until it is formally denied by the state,” I was told many years ago. I remembered this when reading about the offer made by the abovementioned Syrian Vice President. Is the Syrian regime trying to cut its head by itself? This is hard to believe; more significant is its refusal to make any changes in the regime without a negotiation process. This is bound to be lengthy; this is the reason for the offer. Bashar al-Assad is trying to gain time while preparing something else. It is too late for its resignation; the conflict has gone international and ethnic.
For many years, Syria supported the Kurds in Turkey, giving them a haven in mountainous areas across the border. It was less benevolent towards the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Since colonial times, Kurds seek a state that would be geographically centered on the triple border among these countries. In recent months, Bashar al-Assad offered certain benefits to Kurds living in Syria. Thousands of them finally got their citizenship after many years. In recent weeks, the Syrian government withdrew troops from the northeast and sent them into the areas controlled by rebels (see map above). The safety of the move may have been underlined by further promises to the Kurds. In a state transformed into an ethnic mosaic run by local warlords, these alliances mean everything and may provide a glimpse of the future. Is disintegrating Syria planning to hit back at Turkey by promoting a Kurdish State? Is Bashar al-Assad planning a dramatic escape through Kurd-controlled areas into the relative safety of Shia areas in Iraq or Iran that may grant him refuge? He still owns a mighty army. A bullet was hit by the West; it began what is now called the “Arab Spring.” It went all around, its ricochets hit here and there, almost at random. It even hit Mubarak, one of Uncle Sammy the Shooter’s best friends. Steadily losing momentum, it almost completed its way around the world, showing Uncle Sammy the Shooter that militarism leads only to a very cold grave