Uneasy times in Syria


PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Joe Hanna would like to send Christmas greetings to his family, but it’s not easy and may be impossible.

It seems a lifetime since, in this space, we took up the matter of Syria. But it was only a year, and many lifetimes have ended. Along the way the world community has decided the fighting there truly is a civil war, as if it makes any difference to the dead — more than Marianna’s 4,000, not yet Morrilton’s 7,000. Except now the death toll has soared past Greenwood’s 9,000 and Mountain Home’s 13,000, climbed past Forrest City’s 15,000 and Van Buren’s 23,000, accelerated past the 26,000 of West Memphis and is closing in on Pine Bluff’s 50,000.

President Obama has declared that the U.S. now recognizes as the legitimate government of Syria the rebel forces which his administration has profoundly antagonized, having given them mostly rhetorical assistance rather than the munitions for which they begged. Mr. Obama’s fear, anything but baseless, was that American arms might come under the control of a rebel segment that carries al-Qaeda’s imprimatur. Another no-win situation for an American president trying to grapple with a distant, roiling region.

It’s also a no-win situation for Syria’s president, the ever-dapper, Western-educated, English-speaking dictator Bashar al-Assad. But he is still in the horrible hunt, and with the biggest guns, the fighter jets and tanks, which daily he unleashes against his own people. Make that, his own countrymen: Syria is many peoples, including the Alawites. An Islamic subset with Christian influences, the Alawites are — no surprise — a minority in Syria, perhaps ten percent of its 26 million people. The Assad’s are Alawites, as are most members of his government, to include the ranking officers of his military. As did his father, as have so many Middle Eastern dictators, Assad saw to it that religious minorities were protected — the Copts in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, for one example; the Alawites of Syria, naturally, another. The price of state-ensured security was unswerving fealty.

Except now there’s division among Assad’s own sect, a stunning dissolution of ethnic unity previously considered unthinkable. Still lacking, at this writing, is confirmation of an Alawite-on-Alawite massacre, with perhaps 150 people — men, women and children, it is said — slaughtered by a militia they had assumed were sent to protect them.

Syria’s Christians, a minority of about the size of the Alawite population, are quivering, fearful of what may befall them should — when, really — Assad departs, be it in a jet with his family and aides and the numbers to the Swiss bank accounts, or on the blood-soaked bed of a dusty rebel pickup truck, a la Qaddafi, late of Libya. The United Nations calculates that to date a half-million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, stressing the capacity of those governments to shelter them (the U.S. is providing some humanitarian assistance) and stoking fears among nearby residents that the fighting will follow them. (In fact there have been some cross-border skirmishes).

For the few Jews of Syria, hiding in their native country or huddled in an adjoining one, Hanukkah will produce no feasts. It will be a harrowing, if not horrifying Christmas for its Christians. And for the displaced Muslims or those still in the line of fire, the approaching birthday of Muhammad will be noted as another day of aerial assaults and another evening of home intrusions and small arms fire. Peace on Earth. Good will to all men.

Whether angling for his impossible survival in power or simply additional time to negotiate his exile with a nation willing to take him, Assad is cornered. Syria’s capital, Damascus, once seemingly impervious to the opposition and its comparatively cosmopolitan atmosphere unruffled, is now rattled, as it should be. The anti-Assad element is essentially at the city’s gates. Assad has thus far kept his suspected store of chemical weapons in reserve, but is firing Scud missiles at his enemies’ positions. Scuds, the “trash” missiles Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used against Israel a score years ago: they fall where they will, killing whomever they fall near.

Important: the Russians, who have been Assad’s primary patron, standing by him and supplying him, have publicly declared him to be on borrowed time.

My dear friend Joe, the son of Syrian Christians who immigrated to our land longer than a century ago, finds it increasingly difficult to reach his uncles and cousins in and near Damascus. Once reliable wire line and cellular service has become erratic. Internet connections, too. There has been no surface mail in weeks.

Once uneasy, now Joe is frightened. Joe, with a toe still inside Syria, is the world.

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Steve Barnes, a native of Pine Bluff, is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.