The Syrian Rebellion

Book by Fouad Ajami

Article and Review by GlobalMacroForex

Author Fouad Ajami doesn’t point a finger of blame at the United States for the Syrian war.  Instead, he gives a pro-Sunni pro-rebellion view of the origins of the conflict, as well as how it evolved among the existing diplomatic cultural framework.  I would recommend this book if you’re looking for the US government’s side of the conflict; the book paints Bashar Assad in a negative light with little-to-no blame placed on the rebels for their crimes.

efore the rebellion

Bashar-al-Assad is the president during the modern Syrian war.  He’s an Alawite, which is a minority that sides with Shiite in the Sunni vs. Shiite conflict.  The rebels are Sunni.

His father, Hafez-al-Assad, took control of the country in a military coup.  Hafez’s methods were brutally violent, and any dissident was murdered or imprisoned.

his book’s author, Ajami, notes the differences between them. “While Hafez’s peers and rivals fell to assassins [sic] bullets, or perished in Syria’s cruel prisons, dispatched there by Assad himself.  In contrast, Bashar had been the entitled prince, schooled in the best academies in Damascus and with a stint of time in London behind him.”

When Bashar took power, he was a western trained doctor, and it was thought he might be interested in reform.  Although Bashar is an Alawite minority, he married a Sunni, London-born daughter of a cardiologist Fawwaz al-Akhras.  The daughter worked for JP Morgan in London, on her way to getting a Harvard MBA, so both of Bashar and his wife were well educated in the West and exposed to a reform ideology.

Hopes were high that Bashar would be different than his father (and the father’s brutal military rule).  But those hopes were dashed when Bashar murdered dissidents…

Conditions leading to rebellion

Bashar’s father Hafez came to power with Syria’s population at 6 million.  Now after four decades of urbanization, Syria’s population had grown to 22 million, and most of them were young.  Young demographics plus inflation and bad economic situations are historically proven factors that stimulate rebellion.  Syria has extremely young demographics, with 50% of the population being under 19 years old.  57% of those under 25 were unemployed.

Not only were the demographics in favor of rebellion, but other countries in the Middle East were also rebelling.  The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt and Bahrain.  Some believe Arab Spring was sparked by Wikileaks revealing America was funding and backing corrupt regimes.  The Wikileaks releases show how the US didn’t care these puppet dictators were corrupt.

Rebellion’s Spark

The Syrian rebellion’s spark came from some boys aged 10 to 15 from the town of Daraa.  They had painted anti-regime graffiti and made a catchy chant about regime change.  This quickly caught the attention of the local authorities, as there was a military base that housed Alawite officers (pro-government minority) and their families on the outskirts of Daraa.  To set an example, the Syrian government kidnapped the children.  Soon it leaked out that the kids had been abused and tortured.  When the mothers questioned the authorities, the authorities said “Forget your children.  Go home and get new ones, and if you can’t we can send your way men who could father new children.”

This sparked the rebellion; the entire town was outraged, and the word was spreading.  Soon many more protesters came, and the government started to shoot them down.  The violence escalated and both sides began mobilizing for a larger battle.  According to Human Rights Watch, 887 people had been killed — 418 of them in Daraa alone.  However as you can see, because Daraa is so close to the Israeli border, it gave Bashar Assad an excuse to blame foreigners.

Turning point

The rebellion quickly spread to the towns of Hons and Hama.  Hama, in particular, had roots in the Muslim Brotherhood (an Egyptian based pro-Sunni group).  And Hama was where the Brotherhood had tried to stage rebellions in the past. 

Thomas van Linge is a high school student who makes excellent maps of the Syrian conflict.  This version is animated by Vox so you can see the progress made by the rebels, ISIS, and US-backed Kurdish.

As the violence escalated, Bashar earned the title of saffah, which translates into “blood shedder.”  His government continued to crack down, but the “People of Sedition” numbered 64,000.  The League of Arab states was backing the rebellion with weapons, and dead bodies were being brought back to the Arab states to parade around.  This increased the number of young Arabs who wanted to join the fight.

When Bashar gave his 3rd speech, it was a defining moment because Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had also given 3 speeches before the “curtain closed on him.”  Instead of accepting blame, however, Bashar blamed foreign conspiracies (both Western and terrorist). 

There were three types of people Bashar said were out on the streets — “those with legitimate needs, the lawbreakers, and those with an extremist ideology, which the country has faced for decades.”  But the people had already heard these types of arguments before from him, and it only put fuel on the fire.

Complex Syria/Iraqi relations

This book does an excellent job of highlighting the unique and complex relationship Bashar Assad has with Iraq’s leader.  Originally when the United States invaded Iraq, Bashar thought he would be next on the US target list (and he was right).  So to prevent America from successfully overturning Iraq, he helped fill Iraq with rebels.

During the years of vulnerability for America’s Iraq invasion (2003-2008), Bashar helped to inspire and transport massive amounts of Sunni rebels into Iraq to fight Americans.  Now, this is a complex situation because Sunnis are his ethnic enemy.  So in other words, Bashar was letting his ethnic enemies run rampant to fight Americans because he feared American influence more if they were successful in Iraq.  Some speculate Bashar released Al-Qaeda extremists from prisons to delegitimize any rebellion against him so America couldn’t back the rebellion.

Ironically these are the same Sunni insurgents that would grow to rebel against Bashar.

In 2003, Bashar had the highest Syrian religious authority, Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro, declare “jihad” against the Americans in Iraq, as the Syria-Iraq border became the new crossing point for jihadists.  Syrian intermediaries escorted jihadists from all over the world entering via the Damascus airport to the border with Iraq.

This next part might be confusing so let’s start with some basic background from this simple timeline:

Basic Timeline Review:

-Sunnis fight Shiites (and Alawites/Syrian president Assad sides with Shiite)

-Saddam Hussein is Sunni

-America invades Iraq and overthrows Saddam

-America puts Shiites in charge of Iraq

-Bashar Assad (Alawite) helps Sunni rebels cross border Syria/Iraq to fight Americans

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the American backed Shiite leader of Iraq

Before taking over Iraq, Maliki spent 17 years in exile in Syria, on the run from Saddam Hussein.  This situation is complex because even though Maliki sides with Assad on an ethnic and personal level, Assad allowed Sunni rebels (enemies to both of them) to cross into Iraq to fight Americans (and thus kill Shiites).

Despite this complexity, Maliki does side with Assad and Syrian Alawites.  In fact, he prefers Assad over Iranian influence.  So as other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, was withdrawing their ambassadors from Damascus, Maliki was signing trade deals and allowing for amicable relations with Assad.  As you can imagine, America was angry because they had put Maliki in power.