BY NIBRAS KAZIMI
August 3, 2006
Who knew the Syrians were this clever?
But then again, wits are sharpened when survival instincts kick in. Most people, including Israel's strategists, are busy wondering how Hezbollah's actions three weeks ago complement Iran's grand designs. All along, though, the timing and the scope of the melee were being decided in Damascus.
I can imagine a graying general, sitting in his new office in Damascus, one that had just been vacated by a high level defector. The general sits there pondering, while his face is engulfed in cigar smoke, and his fleshy lips are moistened with coffee. He is wearing casual attire, a luxury afforded by advanced age — well beyond that for compulsory military retirement — and stature. To his back is a window with closely drawn velvet curtains and to his right and towering above is a touched-up portrait of the President al-Assad, highlighting the pale blue eyes of an obscure ethnicity. The general's thickset forearms animate large, steady hands that shuffle newspapers around his desk, and prioritize memos to be read by presidential eyes. This general's eyes, peering through gold-rimmed spectacles, have seen their share of history, blood, and mind-numbing paperwork. They would probably rather be looking out from the high perch of an ancestral village unto a luxuriantly green valley far below. But retirement must wait, for there is a regime to save, and an ancestral sect along with it, and to do that, a limited conflict must be unleashed.
This general was born an Alawite, and for a variety of reasons, converted to Shi'ism. He understood that to rule a country, one could not purposely provoke the most basic sentiments of those who are lorded over. Yet, the very existence of the Alawites provoked the hostility of Syria's mainstream Sunnism, which many centuries ago tried to deal with this nuisance through religiously sanctioned mass murder. The "otherness" of the Alawites was much too pronounced, and the obstinate survival of their paganism too unsettling for the triumphalism of Islamic orthodoxy. Like many schismatic faiths, the Alawites took on the veneer of Islam by adopting Shia symbolism; substituting Shia saints for older local deities through a studied subversion of the new monolithic faith. However, through the rewards of power, officers such as our general and Bashar's father had hoped to lure the rest of the Alawites away from their age-old fertility rites to the confines of Islam, by at least turning them into mainstream Shias like the ones in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran — a category more palatable to the Sunnis. But the peasants balked and held on to what they knew.
For several months now, the general has been gravely concerned. He is not worried about Syria's eviction from Lebanon a year earlier, or the international isolation it engendered. The Syrians have played the Lebanese game longer than anyone, and understood it far better than the novices in Washington or Riyadh. It was only a matter of time until they had reoriented their setbacks towards paralyzing their adversaries and then slowly devouring them. They had done it before in the mid-1980s, and were well on their way in gaining back much of what was lost through a very similar pattern. No, the general is worried about those Alawite hold-outs; they are a bleeding gash attracting all the jihadist sharks.
Jihadism had been undergoing a transformation: its tendencies for bloodletting were growing disproportionately beyond the available opportunities for killing Americans and Israelis. A new enemy needed to be created to fill the time and sustain the fervor in between future September 11s; an enemy that was easy to target and kill. A convenient enemy that can take the fall for all the failures that had befallen Islam. Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi did some research and resurrected age-old feuds: "the Shias must be destroyed. They are agents of the Crusaders and Zionists. There can be no total victory without their annihilation." Zarqawi was met with some criticism, for even the most virulent of his ideological ancestors were a little queasy when it came to the wholesale murder of people who were technically fellow Muslims — albeit waywardly so. But there is no gray area when it comes to the Alawites; in their case, the jurors many centuries ago gave the go-ahead for mass extermination. Syria, the seat of Sunni orthodoxy and home to many of its symbols, would be the natural setting for the rebirth of a caliphate, the jihadists are reasoning, and the hated and despised Alawite rule would focus the passions and energies to catalyze the process.
The jihadists' war on the Shias is the gravest threat facing the Syrian regime, and the general resorted to what amounts to a sure bet in deflecting the challenge: Israel is the touchstone issue by which the Alawites can demonstrate to the Sunnis of Syria and the Middle East that they are on the right side of the big issues that matter. Hating Israel is tantamount to supporting motherhood; the emotional buttons are there to be pressed and one cannot lose by starting a little and containable war with the Israelis. The Alawites sense that the only way they can make sense of their otherness is to don the true and tried mantle of Arab nationalism with its Islamic fundamentalist trimmings, and only then they can slip unnoticed into the howling, clench-fisted masses of the Arab street.
Damascus is full of pictures of Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, a superstar of extremism, who came to the fore in the age of satellite TV and a dearth of heroes in the Middle East. The Syrian public has been led to see him as one of Bashar's soldiers, and as such his popularity burnishes that of his master. Nasrallah's presentation is supposed to make him accessible and real: he can't properly enunciate his "r"s and breaks into colloquial Lebanese after delivering the conventional diatribes. And he comes fully equipped with a soppy story; the martyrdom of his eldest son Hadi many years ago in a raid on Israel. Empower him to claim victory, and the combination is unbeatable. But there are also subtle messages in there too — Shia messages: Nasrallah's wardrobe and his rhetorical symbolism is very Shia, and for the last year or so, his public utterances have almost all referred to rising Shia-Sunni tensions in Lebanon and beyond. Like the general, Nasrallah has also been worried of late, but when Zarqawi accused Hezbollah of actually protecting Israel's northern border a couple of months ago — a major challenge to his bona fides — something had to be done.
These Shia fears of standing outside the Sunni consensus on issues such as Israel were the driving force behind Hezbollah's operation. It was a major risk taken by Nasrallah and the Syrians at a time when Damascus was liable to be hit anyway for housing Hamas's Khaled Mashal during the Gilad Shalit crisis. They calculated that the Israelis were behaving erratically through employing overpowering force in Gaza, and would retaliate against Lebanon in a very big way. The calculation proved correct and the dividends for the Syrians were huge: not only was Nasrallah resurrected as the regional superhero, but countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who had been mumbling for some time about those uppity Shias, were forced to backtrack on earlier criticism to keep up with the fervor of their populations. Even Al-Qaeda had to play catch-up, and leave behind the anti-Shia rhetoric they have been honing as of late. The weakening of the Lebanese state was also an added bonus, as well as the increasing chorus in favor of international engagement with Damascus as a major regional player. The inevitable images of dead babies would only reenforce what the Middle East wanted to keep on believing: Israel is the eternal enemy, and must be destroyed.
The Syrians probably even thought that some sort of kick to the groin would come their way, and they were willing to take it. The price was worth it as far as they were concerned. To them, at issue is not Israel or Lebanon or Iranian policy. The war was simply a ploy to buy back some time in the face of the looming Sunni-Shia civil war ahead in the Middle East that threatens their hold on power. So far into this miserable situation, they seem to have done quite well for themselves, and that general must be quietly smiling to himself.
Mr. Kazimi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
August 3, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >