Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Jerusalem, with Zion (the historic core) in the foreground. Image source: My Jewish Learning

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?

Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.

1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.

The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.

Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.

The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.

They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)

Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.

The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)

While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.

The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.

UN Palestine

The UN’s plan for partitioning Palestine. It never actually happened.

After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.

The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).

Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.

It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.

Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.

The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.

West Bank map

Image source: The Economist

But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.

Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.

For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.

Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.





This is only a rough idea of the potential new borders, but it’s a good start for haggling. Image source: Business Insider Indonesia


Last week, representatives from the Syrian government and the rebels in arms against it sat down for peace talks at the UN base in Geneva. Things got off to a bad start. The 2 sides won’t even sit in the same room as each other and rely on go-betweens to shuttle from room to room with their messages. A previous peace talk sponsored by the UN failed. Previous attempts at cease-fires on the ground failed thanks to Syrian maneuvering at odds with the spirit of the agreements. And the UN privately admits that Syria’s just too dangerous to effectively monitor and maintain any cease-fire or peace.

I am not optimistic about these peace talks, but the sad truth is they’re still probably the best strategy for putting an end to the war. As a previous post should make clear, the war in Syria is extraordinarily complicated and messy: There are multiple actors on the ground, multiple foreign backers on the sidelines (and increasingly on the ground too), multiple agendas, years of mistrust earned through bitter war, and centuries of hatred steeped in religious differences, and they all stand in the way of peace. But the war is at a stalemate; even the much-ballyhooed Russian intervention last September didn’t tip the scales one way or another. And civilians are suffering and dying and fleeing in massive numbers. A negotiated peace seems to offer the best and most realistic exit strategy for this miserable war.

In America, the Republican candidates in the ridiculously long presidential campaign are almost all banging war drums. Refugees from the war zone are considered unsettling and possibly dangerous. The Islamic State’s seizure of Iraqi cities that had been hard-fought for in the ’00s is considered a disgrace to veterans and their sacrifices. And most of all, the recent terrorist attacks in France and California* reminded everyone of the Islamic State’s global ambitions and the lure it offers to any young, hotheaded, and disillusioned Muslim active on social media. The president is a coward, they say. He needs to think more about national security, they say. America needs to “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State, they say, and put “boots on the ground.”

Put aside the fact that these strategies are lacking in specifics and often call for things Barack Obama is basically already doing. Put aside the fact that America has been getting steadily more involved in the war, from stationing more soldiers in Iraq to training and advising fighters in Syria and bombing the Islamic State relentlessly. Put aside what I’ve argued before — that politicians spew hawkish rhetoric mostly to look tough rather than to actually help a situation.

Suppose America (or some other powerful country) did escalate the war effort. Suppose there was more bombing, more death, more stuff blowing up. Suppose the Islamic State’s financial lifelines were cut off. Suppose there were boots on the ground and the Islamic State was wiped off the face of the earth. There are obviously major obstacles to all these supposes, but just imagine if the Islamic State was defeated.

And then what?

Whenever an outside power destroys a government, there is what we call a “power vacuum.” They never last long. Someone has to step in and take charge. Usually it’s best to figure that out in advance or else there will probably be a breakdown in law and order. So who would fill the vacuum? The Syrian government, which has been discredited throughout the Arab and Muslim world for its brutality and duplicity? The Iraqi government, which has been discredited in Iraq for its blatant sectarianism, thuggishness, incompetence, corruption and economic mismanagement? The Kurds, who refused to march on Mosul, the Islamic State’s capital, because it’s outside their traditional territory? An American occupation, which worked so well in Iraq in the ’00s?

What’s most infuriating is that poor long-term planning and lack of proper consideration for the situation on the ground doomed the Iraq War of the ’00s. George Bush was consumed with a desire to finish his father’s mission (or to get the sweet, sweet oil, or spread democracy in West Asia, I don’t want to get into this here) and fixated on the invasion phase of the war without thinking through how the occupation would work. It’s rumored that he didn’t even know that Iraq had a sectarian split until during the war he launched. Yes, America is easily the world’s most powerful country and can blast most of its enemies to smithereens without much effort. But that isn’t really the hard part of fighting a war; the hard part is arranging a political system that won’t fall apart once you leave (and make no mistake, the US is uninterested in long occupations).

This is what makes Obama pause, not any innate “cowardice” or sympathy with terrorists. The situation in Iraq and Syria is extremely complicated and intervening can easily make the situation worse. And frankly, after years of war, deprivation and chaotic violence, the people in the Islamic State need stability, peace and order, not more shooting.

Given the situation on the ground, it’s time for the participants in the wars in Mesopotamia** to think outside of the box. It’s time for them to recognize reality and face the facts. It’s time for them to start considering a strategy which has rarely been discussed and is basically off the table in most peace negotiations: partition.

The wars in Mesopotamia are rooted in deep-seated distrust between the opposing forces, which stems from religious/sectarian/ethnic differences. When Iraq’s Sunnis were thrown out of power in 2003, they never really forgave the new government. Although Syria might have the firepower and manpower and a formidable ally in Russia, it is a minority regime, with a base of support mostly restricted to one part of the country and deeply fearful of most of its people. Meanwhile, the Kurds have been neglected by both countries, which suits them just fine because they would rather be independent.

I believe that after 5 years of war, the best strategy at the peace negotiations is to propose a partition of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State drew support in Sunni Iraq because it at least tries to administer its territory decently and it is seen as a Sunni guardian force against vicious Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. The portion of IS in Syria has historically been removed from the rest of the country, since it’s part of the same river system as Iraq and there’s a desert in the middle. The locals welcome IS because it is rooted in that region. On the other hand, they’re not big fans of its religious zealotry and horrific violence, and a lot of its troops are idiot foreign recruits. Why not arrange for a new country (Assyria, maybe?) in what is now the Islamic State — east Syria plus most of north Iraq? That would settle most of the locals’ grievances with their old regimes and make them more willing to get rid of their current crazy terrorist overlords.

A similar strategy could be used in west Syria, where the war is fiercest. Alawites cling to the Syrian regime because they fear (probably rightly) the vengeance that will fall upon them if the rebels win. Sunnis never really trusted them anyway. The Alawite area has more in common with Lebanon, the multi-sectarian country to the south. Why not agree to create an independent Alawite state with the Assad family in charge? It would mean allowing a hated dictator to stay, but expecting him to leave for no reason when he hasn’t left in 5 years hasn’t worked so far.

Finally, it seems obvious that the Kurds need their own country. They have been oppressed and discriminated against in both Iraq and Syria and speak a different language and have a different culture from Arabs. They have been mostly self-governing since the American invasion anyway, with much better results than in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. An independent Kurdistan would basically formalize the separate flag, government, and army Kurdistan already has.

There are obviously problems with this strategy too. Syrians howled with rage when France partitioned their country along similar lines in the 1920s. The war to preserve the Syrian state will have failed. There are no assurances that any of these countries would be democratic, which is what this war was supposed to be about, at least at first. Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has stayed in power despite a mediocre military record and lots of help from Hezbollah (a Shi’ite militia in Lebanon), Iran and Russia; he remains probably the single biggest obstacle to peace. Baghdad has traditionally been a mixed city, and its status would be contentious, although it’s undergone ethnic cleansing in recent years thanks to the civil war, and I don’t think its allocation to Shi’ite Iraq would be too disputed. Turkey has consistently blocked any move towards an independent Kurdistan; I personally think it should give up, but since NATO politics mean convincing it to do so won’t be easy, maybe it can be assured that a Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria doesn’t necessarily mean a Kurdistan in Turkey?

Commentators like pointing out how the colonial legacy has screwed over countries around the world; one of their favorite examples is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, when Britain and France agreed to split Mesopotamia between them, creating modern Iraq and Syria despite the artificiality of those borders given the ethnic mix and history on the ground. Fine. That partition was a failure. Instead of just complaining about it all the time, why not revisit the agreement 100 years later and carve up Iraq and Syria along ethnic lines?

A lot of people are reluctant to endorse this strategy because it would mean caving in to the toxic sectarianism that is engulfing West Asia. It would mean writing the obituary for the Iraqi and Syrian states, unless the rump states in Damascus and Baghdad want to claim continuity with them. It would be a sad moment of resignation for the Arab world. But politics should recognize reality, and the current reality is that Sunnis and Shi’ites, Arabs and Kurds don’t trust each other. Segregation might not be a pleasant outcome, but it’s preferable to unending bloodshed.

*There were other terrorist attacks too, but these don’t get mentioned as much.

*The term for the “land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates),” or Iraq and east Syria.


Cartoon by Bryant Arnold

Cartoon by Bryant Arnold

So far on this blog, I’ve looked at the Islamic State, complained about American policy in West Asia, and described the influx of refugees overwhelming Europe. Yet somehow I haven’t yet gotten to the crux of the problem: the Syrian Civil War. Well, time to fix that.

Syria is a medium-sized Arab country with a long and interesting history. Most of it isn’t particularly relevant for this post; suffice it to say that it’s had its periods of glory, from the Assyrian Empire in the 1st millennium BCE to the Umayyad Caliphate (empire) in the 600s, but for the most part it’s been under the thumb of various regional empires: Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian, and most recently, Turkish. It also has several major minorities: the Alawites, a secretive, pseudo-Shi’ite sect; the Kurds, a non-Arab ethnicity living in the north and northeast; the Ismailis, another Shi’ite sect; some Christians; and the Druze, an entirely different religious group with roots in Greek philosophy and Judaism. The majority, meanwhile, are Sunni, the orthodox branch of Islam that most of the surrounding countries also follow.

When World War I brought down the Osmanli (Turkish) Empire that ruled over West Asia, Syria was quickly scooped up as a French prize. France was interested in Syria because of old missionary connections on its coast, and to round out its North African possessions with some stuff on the other side of the Mediterranean, but it was never embraced by the Syrians. To prevent uprisings against its rule, France carved Syria up into 5 different colonies, mostly along sectarian lines — the Druze got a state in the south, the Alawites got a state along the coast, the Turks got a state in the northwest (which later joined Turkey). This was unpopular among the locals, who revolted against French rule anyway, with no luck.

Thus, even though the point of the French “mandate” was to prepare Syria for self-rule through the guiding power of French civilization, the Syrians didn’t have much to work with when they finally got their independence in 1946. The new country became dominated by rich Sunni urban families who had been patronized by the French, but a bunch of political parties proliferated and jockeyed for power anyway — Communists, Islamists (Muslims who see their religion as having an explicitly political role), nationalists, socialists, Francophiles. The army, which the French had promoted to keep the whole thing together, was also a major factor, and early Syrian politics were a mess of coups, unstable coalitions, and political bickering. It even united with Egypt at one point to make a point about Arab nationalism. (The union failed, so I guess the point that was made was different from what the Syrian generals intended.)

Finally, in the ’60s, one party won out in the ideological power struggle: the Ba’ath Party. It combines various crowd-pleasing elements, like socialism, concern for the rural poor, Arab nationalism, and hatred of Israel, with a carefully secular focus to avoid offending any of Syria’s religious groups. By 1970, one figure in the regime was dominant: Hafez al-Assad, an air force pilot who had used his base of loyalty in the military to outmaneuver his competitors. He crushed all opposition, established himself as an absolute dictator, and spread Ba’athist ideology to legitimize his rule.

One problem, though: He was Alawite, and not very religious either. Even though Alawites only make up about 12% of the Syrian population, an Alawite cabal soon dominated the military, government, and Ba’ath Party. Assad’s defeat in 2 wars against Israel and his support of the Shi’ite revolution in Iran weren’t popular either. Frustrated at the repressive governance of an infidel, Islamists rose in revolt against him in 1980 and secured control of 1 major city (Hama, in the sort-of center). But Assad called in the army and air force, which took care of it mercilessly. From then on it was clear that Assad was in charge, that resistance was hopeless, and that Ba’athist ideology was a charade to appease the masses. Assad’s real base of support was force and violence, and he was cruel in punishing those who opposed him (or hinted at opposing him). He was basically Saddam Hussein Lite (Hussein, by the way, also subscribed to the Ba’athist ideology).

Hafez's son and heir, Bashar al-Assad. Image source: WikiLeaks

Hafez’s son and heir, Bashar al-Assad. Image source: WikiLeaks

Syria’s malaise had a lot of resemblances to the malaise in other Arab countries: a corrupt, narrow elite, lack of economic opportunity in a mostly state-run economy, a secular regime presiding over religious minorities, the army and ruling party acting as a “deep state” keeping order behind the scenes, and a growing population of discontented youth. It was no surprise, then, that Syria exploded in 2011 with the Arab Spring. Just like in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, angry crowds marched in the street, calling for Assad to step down. 2 questions hung in the air: 1) How would the new Assad react? Hafez had died in 2000, passing the throne on to his son Bashar, a weird-looking and comparatively quiet guy who had mostly dialed back his father’s stifling repression. 2) Would Syria’s combustible ethnic mixture explode under the tension?

Unfortunately, both of the questions were answered badly. Assad opted for token reforms and dialogue first, then reached for guns and tear gas when those didn’t mollify the protestors. He made it very clear that any political reform that threatened his family’s power base was off the table, and protestors were dragged off the streets, beaten and electrocuted, and shot. Faced with these brutal tactics, the protestors armed themselves, and by the summer the protest movement had mutated into a full-fledged civil war, with neither side backing down.

This was going on in Libya at the same time… but it got worse in Syria, and fast. The Syrian army is strong and well-armed. It has a secure base of power among the Alawites and the country’s upper classes. Syria also has a powerful ally — Russia. The alliance dates back to Soviet times, when Moscow hoped to curry favor with disaffected Arabs through military and financial aid. Eager to protect its last remaining ally from that lost cause, and to keep its useful naval base on the Mediterranean, Russia protected Syria in UN debates and supplied it with weapons and military equipment. China also backed up Assad’s retaliation, since China hates rebellions against dictators in general. The rebellion was divided and disorganized — although this was a problem in other Arab resistance movements too — and its leadership was based in Turkey, cut off from the fighting.

The biggest factor in making the Syrian war a total bloodbath, though, was sectarianism. Assad’s bias towards Alawites in the army and security forces morphed into outright prejudice against Sunnis, who tended to defect to the rebellion anyway. The army began carrying out shocking massacres of entire Sunni villages. In retaliation, Sunni militias wiped out Alawite villages outside of the usual coastal zone where the Alawite stronghold is. Iran and Iraq, the two Shi’ite powers, backed Assad. Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militia in Lebanon, intervened in the Lebanese border zone to attack Sunnis. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, all Sunni countries, supported rebel groups with their own money and arms. The idealistic democratic yearnings of 2011 melted away into religious zealotry fired by bloodthirsty rage.

The whole time, Assad dismissed the rebellion as a terrorist uprising. He needed to keep the people under his thumb, you see, otherwise the terrorists would win. He had a point: radical Islamic groups participated in the uprising as well, and jihadists migrated into eastern Syria from neighboring Iraq. But the Syrian army targeted the more moderate and secular rebels over the fanatics. The secular opposition, grouped together in the coalition “the Free Syrian Army,” is hampered by internal disagreements and factionalism. Jihadist fighters have a clear agenda and stalwart foreign backing from pious Arabians: a restoration of the caliphate, the golden age of Islam from way back in the Early Middle Ages (and as I mentioned at the beginning, based in Syria). As a result, the Free Syrian Army did lose ground and jihadists — “terrorists” — seized the initiative.

And so what was once a struggle for freedom from oppression and stagnation degenerated into a jihad. Fired up by Islam’s cult of martyrdom, jihadist warriors surge into the battlefield with little regard for their own safety, proving to be fearsome fighters but at the cost of losing their own lives. Jihadists take grisly photos of their dead with staged smiles to encourage hopeless and/or confused foreign youths to come to Syria and give their lives for God as well. Fanatical Sunnis butcher their opponents, torture them sadistically, and even cut out and eat their hearts to give them strength. The army machine guns entire villages, used poison gas on at least 1 occasion, pounds middle-class neighborhoods with artillery, cuts off food and medical supplies to civilian areas, and mercilessly bombs its cities into submission. By 2013, the war had become a savage shitstorm eclipsing all other wars (currently ongoing, anyway) in its body count and destruction.

As if all this wasn’t enough, in 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most prominent of the jihadist/terrorist groups fighting in Syria, lived up to its name and established an Islamic state in east Syria and north Iraq — Islamic in its opinion, anyway. As my older blog post explained, it’s freaked out the whole world with its mass executions, draconian laws, religious intolerance, and hostage beheadings.

The war has dragged on for 4 years now, yet the situation has barely changed. At times it’s appeared that the rebellion is doomed; at others (including now), that the regime is losing ground. In general the situation has been what it is in the map above: the Islamic State controlling the east, Kurds fending off intruders into their northern territory, an FSA stronghold in the northwest, and rebels fighting it out with the army in the rest of the country, including the 2 big cities, Aleppo and Damascus. There have been a few major offensives — in May, the Islamic State took Palmyra, an ancient oasis in the actual center of the country — but no decisive changes.

The bloody stalemate and carnage has drawn foreigners into the conflict. As already mentioned, Syria has become a proxy for Iran, which funds Hezbollah and advises the Syrian army. Saudi Arabia, always worried about strategic victories for Shi’ites, supports the more conservative and overtly religious Sunni militias. Turkey, which had been making a conscious effort to repair strained relations with Syria, quickly moved into opposition when the war heated up, and provides refuge for moderate Syrian rebels and refugees. Its role in the war has been limited by its hatred of the Kurds, though; most Kurds live in Turkey, and the Turkish state fears a strong, well-armed Kurdish army more than it does a strong, well-armed Syrian Arab army. (A Kurdish insurgency, the PKK, has roiled southeastern Turkey for decades.)

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries have clamored for Western intervention as well. The West, which was mostly optimistic during the Arab Spring and particularly eager to see the troublesome Syrian dictatorship uprooted, has staunchly supported the opposition. Yet for the most part Western countries haven’t intervened in the war decisively. The closest they came was in 2013, when Assad attacked a Damascus suburb with sarin gas. This is considered a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), so America began to beat its war drums again, albeit reluctantly. Britain refused to join it. The American public response was mostly negative. Barack Obama dropped the idea after Russia proposed an intervention to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile instead.

As I have noted before, there has been loud and sustained shouting about Obama’s supposed cowardice in America for years, and some Europeans have claimed it is America’s moral duty to punish the Syrian dictatorship. But the Syrian battlefield is combustible. The Syrian state has deep roots, a solid army, and durable institutions. Having witnessed the chaos that ensued in Iraq when those were pulled out by the roots, Obama is loath to try that again, especially since he prides himself on pulling American troops out of Iraq and America has no stomach for another prolonged occupation. Some fret that pumping more weapons onto the battlefield will merely pile on the corpses and smash more infrastructure without really solving anything.

And, yes, there’s the terrorism issue. The question of how much of the Syrian rebellion were “terrorist groups” (or potential future terrorist groups) was always in the background in the beginning. With the rise of the Islamic State, the question is front and center. If America arms Syrian rebels, would those arms one day be turned against it, a la Afghanistan in the ’90s? Who is America’s real enemy — a hostile if not exactly threatening Syrian regime, or crazed Muslim fanatics? Hawks have always urged the US to fund moderate rebels, but as mentioned before, the FSA is weak and fractious. And would Syrians support American puppets?

Freaked out by the Islamic State, America has nonetheless assembled a coalition to “degrade” it (push back its military and political advances): NATO, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco and Iran have all performed air strikes against it over the past year. The attacks have set back the wannabe caliphate a little, but without a ground assault, it looks like it’ll be hard to dislodge. Although it’s hardly popular in the areas it rules over, many locals (who are mostly Sunni) prefer their strict order to the chaotic carnage of the Alawite government.

America faces a dilemma when opposing Syria, however: it doesn’t want a power vacuum that the Islamic State or other jihadist groups (Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.) could exploit. The CIA is training and arming “carefully vetted” non-fanatical rebels, but they are still minor players in the war. The overly sectarian nature of the war is also repulsive for Westerners: unlike Syria’s Muslim neighbors, they don’t care which religious group takes power, but they are mindful that whichever side loses might get exterminated, with the blind fury of years of violence driving the victors to criminal actions. Without a clear vision for what kind of Syria it wants, and without very strong backing on the ground, America is left “without a Syria strategy” (as Obama bluntly put it last year). Its secretary of state (foreign minister), John Kerry, convened a peace conference in 2013 to try to resolve the conflict peacefully, but to no one’s surprise, it didn’t go anywhere.

Syria, before and after. Image source: Ways & Steps

Syria, before and after. Image source: Ways & Steps

Meanwhile, Russia has an idea: just support Syria. Worried about the Islamic State’s appeal to Muslims around the world and desperate to secure its toehold in West Asia, Russia has stepped into the war last week, thrusting the issue back into the headlines. Although hostile Westerners have claimed that Russia is merely trying to distract everyone from the morass of its war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin points out that the Islamic State is the greater threat, so foreigners should support the regime that opposes it. His arguments are undermined by the fact that Russian planes are attacking the FSA instead and flying in the west of Syria, far from Islamic State strongholds. Although it’s way too soon to tell whether Russian intervention will be decisive in saving Assad, it’s awoken worries of a new Russo-American conflict, since Russian and American military advisers are now operating on opposite sides.

With no end of the war in sight, most ordinary Syrians have packed up and moved out of the war zones, or at least into a safer part of the country. Many have fled Syria altogether, fueling a huge surge in the refugee numbers I wrote about last month. While some have headed for Europe, lured by its safety and wealth, most remain camped in squalid, depressing tent cities in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The latter 2 countries have been overwhelmed by the millions of refugees, and aren’t sure how many more they can take.

Meanwhile, Syrian planes continue to barrel-bomb civilians; soldiers continue to gun down unarmed people; food and medical supplies remain scarce; children are growing up without parents or an education; civilians caught on the front lines are tugged between a dictatorial army and rival sectarian militias, either of whom will kill them for supporting the other; roads, houses, mosques, parks, and stores are shattered by rockets; women and girls are routinely gang-raped; the economy is at a complete standstill; Syria’s precious cultural heritage — medieval mosques, legendary souks (markets), the pre-Muslim temples of Palmyra — is brought to ruin; and the optimistic dreams of 2011, of a free, prosperous Syria, shrivel in the face of fatalistic jihadism, sectarian identities, unbridled hatred and animosity, and the bitter realization that the government would rather destroy the country and massacre its people than cede its power.

God help Syria. It will take a long, long time to recover from this tragedy.