A civilisation on the brink

Syria is not just another nation, it’s an ancient civilisation which finds numerous references in the religious and historical accounts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

Its history predates Judaism, Christianity and Islam and its war-ravaged cities Damascus and Aleppo also prominently figure in the Hebrew Bible, Old and New Testaments besides Quran. All the three Abrahamic religions share common history with Syria. 

But sadly the long spell of civil war has destroyed its civilisational heritages like Palmyra, Baal Shamin, Jobar Synagogue, ancient city of Bosra, and many more. Is Isaiah’s famous Biblical prophecy about Syria: “Behold, Damascus is taken away from [being] a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap” coming true? Who knows? The Syrian civil war, which followed the Arab Spring, is now in its fifth year. Indiscriminate bombardment and collateral damages caused by the forces loyal to President Assad, the rebel groups, ISIS, Russia, and the US have devastated its cities.

Today the Syrian society stands divided against itself and its fault lines are out in the open. Its conflict has acquired multiple complicated dimensions; it has historical Shia-Sunni schism, ISIS propagated ideology of brutality, deep unrest against the authoritarian state besides mishandling by the Western powers. Problems are identifiable, but do we have the solution? 

In a recent interview to the Russian media President Assad accepted that mistakes have created gaps and weak points in the Syrian society. However, he refused to accept them as an alibi for the ongoing crisis. He said if weaknesses can cause a civil war in Syria, then how do the Gulf States –primarily Saudi Arabia– having no semblance of democracy, remain unaffected? Does it indicate a deeper game plan of perpetrating unrest and then fish in the troubled water? While chaos and devastation persist, close to 2.5 million people have already lost their life so far.

 Not only that, 4.5 million people have fled their homes and 6.5 million have been internally displaced. A large number of young people has been orphaned and is suffering from malnutrition, disease, and mental disorder. Who can guarantee that these innocent children who have only experienced death, devastation, and cruelty, will not become potential jihadi slaves of the various Islamic terror groups tomorrow?

This civil war has created the second biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. So much so that John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who mediated talks between the warring groups in Geneva, accepted that the situation at present is completely out of control and disappointing. The western part of Syria is under the control of Alawite Shia faction loyal to Assad.

 The central part is under the control of the Sunni Islamic group Jabhat-Al-Nusrah connected with ISIS and Al-Qaeda while the northeastern part is dominated by the Kurds. All of them have their own agenda though they all may look the same from a distance. ISIS, which controls almost one-third of Syria and Iraq, suffers from its own contradictions. David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer and adviser to US, UK, and NATO on counterinsurgency points out the factions within Islamic State and the incompatibility of their long term goals. 

Some factions support the idea of a broader caliphate while other want to regain and reestablish Sunni control on a unified Iraq. Another group wants to set up a Sunni-controlled autonomous area in Iraq while some other just wants to uproot the Shia-dominated governments and finish the Iran-backed militia in Syria and elsewhere. In the absence of a common agenda or an integrated world-view, there is just anarchy.

While Syria is facing devastation, there is deep unrest against the growing Islamism in the western world where the Syrian refugees are seeking shelter. After all, who will bear the burden of Syria and why? Islamophobia is the new reality Europe is faced with. It is worsening the condition of millions of Syrian refugees in Greece, Hungary, Germany, and France.

 Alternative for Germany (AfD), the anti-immigration party, is not only strongly opposing the entry of Syrian (and other Muslim) immigrants to Germany but also believes Islamic thought is not compatible with the spirit of their Constitution. It says Islam is an alien concept to them, therefore, it can’t demand equal religious freedom in Germany. On the other hand, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have also hardened their stand against the proposal of the European Union to be sympathetic to the migrants coming from Syria and other Islamic nations. 

The poor Syrian migrants are caught in the crossfire of the warring factions back home and unsympathetic sentiments in Europe. Assad believes European nations are not serious about the problem of migration. They’re shedding tears for the migrants from one eye and from the other they’re aiming their machine guns on them. 

If they’re really serious, they must stop supporting the terrorists. He’s equally critical of Turkey’s veiled connivance with ISIS and the western powers destabilising his country. Assad blames Erdogan, the Turkish President, to be a radical Islamist having intellectual affiliation to Muslim Brotherhood who wants to create an Islamic Sultanate from Atlantic to Mediterranean and become its ruler.

 It may or may not be true. Nevertheless, restoration of the medieval orders of Caliphate, Sultanate, Sharia and their like are the biggest obsession of political Islam where it seeks solution of all the conflicts and turmoil facing the Islamic society. Syria is the victim of a long authoritarian regime, radical Islamic forces, regional conflict, network of global violence and mishandling by the western powers.

 It is sad their conflict is destroying Syria’s civilisational remnants. However, if this regional conflict acquires global proportions we may have to be prepared to write obituaries of many other civilisations around the world.

(The author is a Senior 
Faculty of Interdisciplinary 
Studies at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Views expressed are personal.)

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