Syria’s Tragedy: A Different Narrative

Beyond all the reporting about Syria’s conflict and carnage and the fall of Aleppo to government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are important backstories and narratives that seldom, if ever, make it into print. Some of them provide background, content, and perspective supportive of Dr. Imad Harb’s recent essay for the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Analyses and Assessments series.

Dr. Harb took issue with President-elect Trump’s allegations that Syria has no strategic significance for the United States. Beyond the numerous rationales to the contrary that Dr. Harb so effectively provided – his line of reasoning is powerful and persuasive – the following are further considerations.

Taken individually, these phenomena do not equal the force of the zeroed-in strategic perspective that is a feature of Dr. Harb’s essay. Considered collectively, however, it would be hard to argue that, beyond the immediate and dire humanitarian issues that cry out for an effective rescue and relief response, Syria, for so many additional reasons, is not of immense strategic importance.

Humanity’s Treasures

The classical and modern day country that is, or at least was, Syria – which for the longest time was one of the world’s richest open-air museums and which brims with archaeological treasures – remains at once immense and diverse. Buried in its lands are the relics and remains of those who paved the way before modern peoplehood came to be and whom those with ancestries rooted in the so-called West are the descendants of, including the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Elamites, Nestorian Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans, and many, many more.

In my sixteen visits to Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, one curator of its treasures after another declared that, of the nearly 450 archaeological sites in the country, the number that had been opened was only forty. When the dust of the rebels’ defeat subsides and a sense of normalcy returns to the country, it would seem fair to ask what, therefore, awaits humanity in the gems of insight into human history and heritage that lie beneath Syria’s lands?

With the devastation visited upon Syria these past five years still unfolding, the ensuing losses to knowledge echo the tragically near identical earlier and continuing ones tossed to the winds next door. Indeed, they bear an indelible footprint from the ongoing American-induced chaos – in Rafidain, or historical Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers – in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Palmyra, northeast of Damascus in the Syrian desert, contains the ruins of one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. Standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, its art and architecture married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. Palmyra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It has suffered significant damage during periods of occupation by ISIS. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

In one of the first acts accompanying America’s trampling of Iraq’s sovereignty and ending its political independence in 2003, U.S. soldiers, ordered to seize control of the Ministry of Petroleum, sped past the country’s unsurpassed historical museum. In so doing, to the delight of vandals, they left not only the museum, but also the priceless remains of numerous other Iraqi archaeological sites, together with numerous weapons depots, unguarded.

The world’s immediate and lasting response was massive and pervasive disbelief. As if in one voice, many asked: “How could such a powerful America be so mindless of the moral and humanistic obligation to protect one of the world’s richest storehouses of knowledge and understanding related to humankind’s destinies and its earliest achievements and limitations since time immemorial?”

What awaits humanity in the gems of insight into human history and heritage that lie beneath Syria’s lands?

To humanity’s sorrow, countless valuable lessons from the past that lie beneath Syria’s and neighboring Iraq’s lands remain unknown for no other reason than the perpetuation of these two conflicts that beg to be settled and ended. Not least among the disheartening results is a matter of no small moment. It is that the resultant further planting and acceleration of anti-Americanism has risen to heights unprecedented since U.S. complicity in the tragedy inflicted by Israel in 1947 and 1948 upon Palestine’s Christians and Muslims.

Here and There Within the Country

With this as but one among other lesser reported phenomena within Syria, beyond its strategic and other importance, what more might there be? For one, what about the plight of Syria’s Arabs and Armenians? What about its Jews and Kurds? What about its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees? Syria is home to all of these ethnic and religious groups.

With regards to Syria’s Kurds in the northern and northeast corners of the country, as they gaze through the bloodshed, are they not uplifted with the thought that for once, in their minds possibly very soon, if only the battleground chips of fate and fortune can be made to fall in their direction, and neighboring Turkey with its own Kurdish minority were to agree to live and let live, they might be free to be and live in a de facto sovereign and independent state among their own ethnic kin?

If so, could this possibly be realized with or without greater bloodshed than has occurred thus far? Could it be expected to transpire with or without the intervention or obstruction of the Turkish government, on one hand, or their neighboring kindred in Turkey, on the other? If the tensions arising between Ankara and Washington merely over the latter wanting to enlist Syria’s Kurds in the fight against ISIS and Turkey’s seeming insistence on having a saying in the future of Iraqi Kurdistan are any indication, don’t count on it.

What of the thousands of Syria’s Christians and other minorities who by choice or otherwise have long since concluded that their present and future remain linked to the Assad regime in Damascus? What would be the fate of these Christians if the Assad regime were to fall?

There and Here in the Neighborhood

Across Syria’s borders, and long before the onset of the current conflict, the country’s territories were severely truncated by powerful foreign interests, namely France and Great Britain and, more recently, Israel. The country is thus a veritable goldmine for studying the dynamics of ancient and modern history as well as international geopolitics.

Syria could therefore be a case study. On the one hand, its museums, like the country’s history practically everywhere one looks or conducts research, are exquisite examples of what humankind can produce, enjoy, and benefit from whenever there have been extended periods of peace.

The Krak des Chevaliers in Syria was built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271, with further construction by the Mamluks in the late 13th century. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, it ranks among the best-preserved examples of fortified architecture relating to the Crusader period. The hilltop castle has suffered damage in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Photos: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

On the other hand, the flip side is replete with illustrations of how people with more forceful military might, resolve, leadership, and powerful foreign protectors have continuously prevailed over their lesser-armed, ill-prepared, and unprotected victims whose lands and resources were forcibly, illicitly, and unjustly taken and exploited.

Take Lebanon as but just one example. Few other countries in the past century have successfully seceded from a larger entity as it did, with a mighty assist from France, from Syria. To be sure, there are others that have done the same. For example, Singapore withdrew effectively from the Federation of Malaysia, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia, millions of Central Asians freed themselves from the rule of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Hong Kong has avoided coming under the direct control of neighboring China. But no one doubts that, during the nearly five hundred-year rule of the Ottoman Empire, Beirut was clearly part of and beneath the governance of Syria proper.

No longer, though. Were truth and the realpolitik of Paris known, Lebanon, aided by Great Power connivance less than a century ago, was effectively halved off from Syria’s sovereignty. To this day, it has remained so. Few Syrians whom this writer knows would say that is the end of the story. As such, what are the implications of this for American interests and for what will likely be the Trump administration’s key foreign policy goals regarding the eastern end of the Mediterranean and beyond?

In addition, there are enormous implications to the armed intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime by non-Arab Iran’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah. The Obama administration’s leadership in securing a nuclear agreement with Iran while failing to address, let alone curb or stop in its tracks, Iranian-directed insecurity and instability in most of the GCC countries and elsewhere in the Arab world has hardly been without consequence.

Like Obama’s non-implemented “Red Line,” which some non-Arab intruders interpreted as a “Green Light” to intervene in Syria, America’s reticence has redounded to Damascus and Tehran’s mutual benefit. More specifically, it has rewarded Iran’s politically-controlled government in Baghdad.

Israel’s Thefts

If this is not complexity enough, there is also the matter of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s destinies. In the remaining days of the Obama administration and in the new Trump administration, how much courage, if any, will the Obama administration have to do the right thing in the right way with the right people at the right time for the right results?

For example, with a view to restoring a semblance of impaired credibility to its stated support for the rule of law and accountability, will the United States be willing or able to do anything effective to redress and reverse Israel’s stealing and colonizing of the Syrian and Palestinian people’s lands and vital life-sustaining natural resources? If this is not a missing backstory, then what is?

With a view to aiding in the effective rehabilitation of Syria’s devastated people and the country’s destroyed infrastructure, some ask, will the United States be able and willing to set aside even a fraction of the ninety-six dollars a second its taxpayers have transferred to Israel since 1979? Close watchers of America’s foreign policies and relations would conclude: don’t count on it.

Why, one might ask, should people think this? The answer many provide is that, in every one of the opportunities the United States has had to reverse Israel’s thefts and return the land and water it has stolen to its rightful owners over the past half century, to America’s discredit in the eyes of Syrians and the rest of the world Washington has scarcely lifted a finger.

In this regard, how truthful, many ask, has Washington been in its sanctimonious posturing about support for accountability, the rule of law, and enforcement of the UN Charter dictum of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force?” Not very has been the widespread response.

Nearer to the truth, the record would reveal, is that Washington in this instance has not said what it meant or meant what it said. Indeed, in violation of the Charter and of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the United States has not only opted to protect and represent the scofflaw – America has rewarded it.

A flattened house alongside barbed wire fences that mark the edge of Israeli-occupied Syrian territory in the town of Quneitra in the Golan Heights. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

The evidence? Under the cover of massive American diplomatic, military, political, economic, financial, and technological protection, Israelis by the thousands have moved to the illicitly-occupied land to settle in what no one questions is not Israel’s land but Syria’s.

With Washington officialdom’s acquiescence, and with local and U.S. as well as other foreign investors, including supporters of President-elect Trump, Israel’s only ski resort and its premier wine producing industry sit on stolen Syrian territory.

Might a Trump administration see to it that the legitimate Syrian owners of the land are provided adequate compensation? Might this be but one among other sets of lenses through which to gauge the veracity of the President-elect’s pronouncements about “making America great again?”

If so, where, if at all, might Israel’s U.S.-aided transgressions against Syrian sovereignty rank on the Richter scale of the incoming administration’s foreign policy priorities? As but one among other backstories to the Syrian conflict, is this the end of the narrative as far as Israel and Syria are concerned? Don’t count on it.

The Ottoman Empire’s Ghost

Adding still further complications to the Syrian saga is NATO member Turkey. Its long southern border, delineating the geographic space and the geopolitical area between Ankara and Damascus, carries significant implications for Syria. For starters, to a far greater extent than Iraq, there are numerous Syrian minorities that inhabit the boundary between the two countries.

Ponder the consequences for a Trump administration even trying to make sense of it all. In the view of many American, Syrian, and Turkish analysts, managing and predicting the dynamics of cross-border security between the two countries can be extraordinarily difficult.

Indeed, rare are those on either side of the boundary who, faced with complexities that are rooted in one or the other of the two countries, or a mixture between the two, can forecast with accuracy in each and every instance the side on which the loyalties of these peoples might lay the most. What a Trump administration analyst could make of these Syria-related realities on any given day is therefore anyone’s guess.

Nowhere does this appear to be the case more than with regard to Syria’s Kurds, who, like their Iraqi and Turkish kinfolk, long to be free in a land of their own. What Trump-appointed national security, defense, and diplomatic officials’ positions might be with regard to the complexities that this phenomenon poses would hardly be easy to formulate.

No less complex is to fathom how a Trump administration in reality, notwithstanding its leader’s strong rhetoric about what he would be inclined to do or not do, would sort out how best to deal with the hardly identical interests of Ankara, Syria’s Kurds, Iraq’s Kurds, Turkey’s Kurds, Iran’s Kurds, and the al-Assad regime in Damascus, on one hand, and on the other, the so-called Islamic State known as ISIS – whose members continue to administer a level of violence and wanton cruelty unsurpassed in the modern era.

Matters of Faith

Intermingled with these challenges are myriad other ones in unpacking Syria’s deeply and pervasively embedded religious forces, factors, and related phenomena. At present there remain important implications to consider regarding Syria’s ruling class, based on the Alawite Shia ruling elite, which comprises perhaps thirteen per cent of the country’s population yet appears determined to continue its dominant position over the other eighty-seven per cent.

There is also the matter of Syria’s Sunni Muslims. The Trump administration will be confronted with needing to finesse Egyptian Sunni President Sisi’s support for the Assad regime, especially when this pits him against the policies and positions of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

The incoming administration will have a quandary on its hands. It must consider Sisi’s fears that, were Syria’s majority Sunnis to come to power, they would likely represent an unacceptable variant of the same Muslim Brotherhood that overthrew the Egyptian government before the one that he replaced.

This is no small matter of concern. The Trump administration must weigh the interests of the United States with the Sisi government of Egypt, whose people constitute more than a quarter of all the world’s Arabs, when it conflicts with other important U.S. interests.

Instead of supporting the Syrian rebels striving to rid their country of a brutal government, Egypt has viewed the situation differently than others. Cairo’s nightmare is that, were they to have the slightest chance, the Sunni members of Syria’s strong and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood would at a moment’s notice replace the Assad government in Damascus with one of their own. Whether such a perception is realistic, and its possible implications for Syrian, American, and other countries’ interests, remain to be seen.

Whatever the answer to that might be, the Trump team will be challenged to balance the American national need, concern, and interest regarding Egypt with others. An example is the U.S. imperative of maintaining especially close relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These hold starkly different positions than Sisi regarding Syria.

There will also be implications for America’s relations with the three other GCC member states, which, together with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, represent around thirty percent of the world’s proved crude oil reserves and around twenty percent of the world’s proved gas reserves, which drive the engines of the world’s economies.

The Dead, Displaced, and Despairing

The Syrian government, the country’s violent extremists, and the influx of foreign fighters that have flocked, on one hand, to the regime in Damascus, and on the other to its opponents, have killed untold numbers of defenseless civilians indiscriminately. Yet all along for months on end amidst – or, rather, beside – the sieges and unrelenting bombardments, together with murderers on all sides, have been so-called moderates together with unabashed pacifists.

One example is Syria’s White Helmet safety and medical volunteers. Another is the Syrian Observatory Group in London that, among other things, tries to keep an accurate track of Syria’s casualties. These non-governmental groups exist amongst the victims of heinous attacks against unarmed civilians.

Whatever vantage point one’s perspective may be, there is no denying that the social impact of the Syrian conflict is staggering. As of December 2016, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 6.3 million people have been internally displaced by violence while another 4.8 million people have fled the country.

Based on Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million people, this means that more than half the Syrian population – mothers, fathers, children, and everything in between – has been forced from their homes in search of safer places to live or better living conditions.

What grasp a Trump administration might be expected to have on these phenomena and their implications for the Syrian people, the United States, and many other countries regarding the millions of Syrians upended by the chaos unleashed by the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian uprisings that commenced in 2011 remains to be seen. So too does the question of where these items might appear on the new president’s foreign policy agenda.

More than half the Syrian population – mothers, fathers, children, and everything in between – have been forced from their homes in search of safer places to live or better living conditions.

In the interim, what is clear beyond the hundreds of thousands killed is that the millions of displaced Syrian people are in suspended animation. As poignantly expressed by an undocumented regional source, “They have nowhere to go. Where they were they are no more.”

From afar, these casualties of the Syrian tragedy may seem but segments of a vast societal flotsam tossed into zones of the unknown. A U.S. equivalency would be over 160 million of America’s 320 million people having been uprooted from their lives. This immense disruption to the Syrian people – arguably once the most thriving, robust, and dynamic of all Middle Eastern countries and societies – will no doubt reverberate for decades to come.

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense rescue children after an air strike in the al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, in June 2014. Photo: REUTERS/Sultan Kitaz.

Given just these numbers, without the human personalities behind each and every one of them, how can one begin to comprehend the realities and meaning of what has happened to Syria and its people? Many of the proud citizenry among the Syrian people now bear the stigma of refugee status.

While the U.S. media coverage of Syrian refugees has focused on those seeking asylum in European countries, the majority of those who have fled the conflict are hosted in Syria’s neighboring countries. The language of the Turkish and other volunteers assisting these Syrians differs from those they are trying to help.

As a result, in the nearly five-year absence of schools for millions of Syria’s children, there is a rising specter: the risk of an entire generation reaching adulthood without the benefit of a formal education. When the guns fall silent in Syria, what that will likely mean for the nature and orientation, let alone the quality, of the succeeding Syrian generation also remains to be seen.

The Irony of It All

For Americans and America’s allies, there is an irony in all this. Remember that when the United States illegally invaded and forcibly occupied Iraq in 2003, this caused 2.5 million of Iraq’s best and brightest to flee for their lives. Where did most of them flee?

First and foremost, they fled to Syria, the one Arab country more than any other with which the Iraqi people have the most in common. It was not long ago that Syria immediately took in 1.5 million Iraqis, Jordan 700,000, and Lebanon, the GCC countries, and Egypt hundreds of thousands more, all as the result of U.S. aggression.

Granted, some find it difficult to empathize with the plight of their fellow human beings. Even so, here’s as dramatic and compelling an example as any of where it is important to try. Consider, for starters, that none of these involuntarily uprooted Iraqi souls came with – or were required to have in their possession – a visa to enter Syria. How could most have possibly made it to the Syrian embassy or a consulate from which to obtain one?

Would Americans act differently were millions of Canadians fleeing horror suddenly to come streaming into the United States? This is a question few in the Arab and Islamic worlds ask, for most know the answer. And none of these U.S.-induced fleeing Iraqis bound for Syria had to submit to humiliating questions as to who they were or why they were coming. For the welcoming Syrians, it was enough for them to know that the distraught and devastated Iraqis, like them, were Arabs.

Family is family.

That these Iraqis flocking to Syria were fleeing from the consequences of an American-inflicted horror, which thanks to a courageous international media was there for all to see – and but for which tens of millions would not have known – was in itself enough for their admission to safety in a fellow Arab country.

Compare this with the following. In the five years following the invasion and occupation of Iraq the number of Iraqi refugees allowed into the United States by the government of the armed forces that had made them flee for their lives was fewer than 20,000.

The situation regarding Syria is little different. Indeed, in the eyes of many, it is worse. For example, beyond Germany’s extraordinary humanitarian response to Syria’s refugees, which in modern times is almost unprecedented, there is Canada’s. With a population barely a tenth the population of the United States, America’s neighbor to the north has taken in nearly seven times the number of Syrians that Washington officialdom has allowed in.

As of 2015, the number of Syrians allowed into the United States was fewer than 3,000. These are not typographical errors.

What this says to the self-image many Americans have of their country being historically the most welcoming on earth to humankind’s less fortunate might perhaps be better left unsaid. Not to paint too melodramatic a picture of this situation, but among the millions of Arabs who have studied in the United States and know America’s history inside and out with regard to immigrants, there are those who believe that, were it possible for the Statue of Liberty to shed tears, it would.

The Christian and Muslim Concern

Aside from reporting on the defenseless fleeing Syria, there are concerns of a different nature as to what’s in store for its people. Take, for example, Syria’s Christians. Many outsiders find it counterintuitive that most of the country’s Christian minority has long been aligned with its fellow, albeit different religiously oriented, minority-ruling Shia Alawites. The reason, from both sides: lest their separateness possibly seal their respective dooms.

Indeed, but one among other little-reported backstories is how millions of Syria’s Christians, who have extraordinarily close ties to their kindred faith in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world, lived in overall mutual peace, tolerance, acceptance, and respect with their fellow citizens who were Muslims until as recently as less than half a decade ago.

Who are these particular Syrians? They are the country’s Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Roman Catholics, and Maronites. They are Syria’s Russian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic Christians. They are the Syrian Orthodox, the Nestorians or Chaldeans, and the Anglicans.

They are the country’s Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and still other Protestant denominations – in all, 17 Christian sects. They are the descendants of Saint Paul, born and raised a Jew, who along the road to Damascus was transformed and became a follower of Jesus Christ. They are the fellow citizens of the holy order of sisters and priests of the village of Maaloula and its environs east of Damascus, where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken.

But Syria, too, is no less an important religious sanctuary and of sites that tug at the hearts of its Muslim faithful, like the resting place of the great early Muslim fighter, Khalid Ibn Walid, a Sunni, in Homs. There is also the tomb of Salah ad-Din al-Ayubi, or Saladin as he is known in the West. His tomb lies with other Syrian Sunni notables in a small building beside one of the world’s most renowned Sunni religious sites: the Umayyad Mosque in the heart of Damascus.

Yet another religious site of enormous importance is one, little known to most Americans, which many of the country’s Muslims revere and to which pilgrims come from far and near. Situated in a mosque six miles south of Damascus is the tomb of Sitt Zaynab, the sister of Hussein and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque and Shrine is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam outside of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and a prominent place of pilgrimage. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

This writer, who has been to all of these memorable monuments numerous times, can attest to how Syrians hold them dear. The Christian sites are to the country’s citizens of the faith what Saint Peter’s Cathedral is to Roman Catholics. They are comparable to what Jerusalem – to which all three of Syria’s main religious groups associate some of their most basic beliefs – is to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Among my dozen and a half visits to Syria with high school and university students in the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ study visit programs, one of the most powerful experiences for everyone has been to spend a few hours seated quietly and unobtrusively in a corner inside the mosque of Sitt Zaynab.

It is extraordinarily special to contemplate and be an eye witness to the scenes of the poor and ragged pilgrims who have come on foot or broken down buses from Iran, Lebanon, elsewhere in Syria, and Turkey, and to ponder the meaning and implications of what is right in front of one: the pathos of the blind, the lame, the halt, the barren, all clamoring to climb above Sitt Zaynab’s tomb, rubbing their hands over any part of it, stuffing what little money they have through the wrought iron grill encasement and uttering prayers. The unloved begging to be loved, the disabled wanting to be healed, the forlorn hoping to be forgiven, still others pleading to conceive a child, all the while tears flowing down their faces.

With this enlightening and emotionally riveting exercise under their belt it has always been extraordinary for the National Council study visit participants this writer has brought to Syria to attempt to explain what they think about Islam and its adherents in comparison with what they thought the faith of Muslims was and was not before they left the United States.

Few empirical educational activities can match such an experience for increasing one’s information, insight, knowledge, understanding, and capacity for reasoning and learning about what an important aspect of modern day Syria – and of Arab culture and Islam, the faith of a fifth of humanity – has been and is to many.

Still Other Factors and Forces

Iran

Alongside these ongoing dynamics there is the matter of non-Arab Iran and the implications of its intervention in Syria. The presence on the ground in Syria of thousands of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard members, its militias, its Hezbollah allies from Lebanon, and the Shia fighters it has recruited from Afghanistan, who have all provided forceful assistance to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Ponder the implications of the result. Tehran’s support has produced an uninterrupted corridor of Iran holding the dominant political position, direction, influence, power, and control from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean.

Tehran’s support has produced an uninterrupted corridor of Iran holding the dominant political position, direction, influence, power, and control from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean.

As a direct result, many Arabs ask: “What are we supposed to do about this? What possible leverage do we have to peacefully and effectively incentivize Iranians to disgorge themselves of such extraordinary regional gains at our expense – strategic advantages and potential economic benefits on a scale that none among their country’s living men and women have ever experienced?”

If such a development does not constitute a matter of strategic interest and concern to the United States, then what would?

Russia

With regards to Russia, during his campaign, President-elect Trump suggested that he might be willing and able to make a deal with Moscow regarding Syria. If so, what kind of a deal might that be, and what are Russia’s needs, concerns, and interests regarding Syria?

In this writer’s talks with Russians, what is clear is that Moscow wants to retain its access to Syria’s Mediterranean seaports at Lathakhia (Latakia) and Tartus. In no other Arab, Middle Eastern, or Islamic country does the Russian Federation have such an asset, although its port calls in southern Iran of late have notably increased. Such an access has been a Moscovian, Saint Petersburgian, and now and again a Russian dream since the reigns of Catherine the Great and Peter the Great.

American lack of empathy in the sense of placing oneself in the situation of someone else in this instance is not without consequence. It has underscored a tendency to overlook the importance that Russia attaches to maintaining such an asset.

Likewise, Moscow recognizes that its access to and use of Syria’s ports – one need but look at a map – turns on the favor of the government in whose sovereignty these windows onto the Mediterranean Sea are rooted: namely, the government of Bashar al-Assad.

So too is the armaments sector of the Russian economy dependent upon the perceived need to render strong support to the same head of state. To ignore such matters from an analytical and assessment perspective is to miss altogether a core Russian incentive for and undeniable established interest in supporting the Assad regime.

Syrians walk over the rubble of damaged buildings, while carrying their belongings, as they flee clashes in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail.

For Russia, too, there is the matter of international image, prestige, and perception as regards Great Power steadfastness in support of one’s friends, allies, and strategic partners. For what it is worth – and in the eyes of many it is worth a lot – America’s longtime Arab ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was seen throughout the GCC region as unceremoniously “dumped” by Washington officialdom in 2011 in favor of, no less, the electorally victorious Muslim Brotherhood.

Non-U.S. ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in contrast, was and has been backed to the hilt – and thus far successfully and effectively – by Moscow. The comparison, to many, is striking. In the eyes of many observers, it is not at all in America’s favor.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and crisis is important from yet another perspective. From the beginning, it reckoned that, on balance, most of the cards for prevailing in the conflict should it degenerate into civil war, which it did, would be on the side of the government in Damascus.

In this, Moscow believed from the outset that, with relatively little difficulty, it could outperform the United States. Without prejudging what is likely to be the ultimate outcome, is it not fair to ask: up to this point has it not done so?

Russia, in empathetic alignment with Assad, reasoned as follows. To begin with, Syria’s rebels had no fighter aircraft, no tanks, no armored personnel carriers, and nothing remotely comparable to the munitions and resupplies in the national government’s arsenal.

Neither did the rebels possess the government’s important surveillance and hi-tech listening devices that could be and were deployed by the government to detect the rebel’s communications. That the Assad government had all of these things and the opposition had none of them provided the government a decisive strategic edge and operational advantage that the rebels came nowhere near to matching.

More fundamentally, what few seem to have recognized from the outset is that the Syrian government had been planning and gaming for such a scenario of a rebel uprising broadly similar to the one that occurred for more than a quarter of a century. In essence, the rebels, in comparison, were – and their remaining numbers still are – new to the game.

The distinctive waterwheels of Hama, also known as the Norias of Hama, are large wooden wheels on the banks of the Orontes River. They lift water from the river into aqueducts and other channeling systems at the summit of the wheel’s rotation. Early iterations of Hama’s norias date back to at least the 5th century, though the 17 that remain today date mostly from the Ayyubid period and were rebuilt and added to in the Mameluke and Ottoman periods. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

Moreover, it has been embarrassing to say the least that whereas the United States initially was led or chose to believe that the entry of Russian aircraft into Syria would be for the purpose of fighting ISIS, and that this would be in keeping with an American objective, the opposite occurred.

No less embarrassing than Russia’s aircraft bombing of the Assad regime’s opponents was its role in devastating the rebel’s last remaining formidable stronghold – Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and, before the conflict, its most bustling and successful center of trade and commerce.

Whether fairly or unfairly, the record of how the United States and its GCC Arab allies’ reacted and failed to respond to the rebel uprisings in Syria is undoubtedly certain to be debated long and hard by many. However, in the here and now it seems indisputable that America’s response to Syria’s tragedy has been and will continue to be judged by many to have been a failure.

The Arab East

Turning east, what have been the six GCC countries’ roles regarding Syria? The GCC’s member states share with Americans the fact that they backed the losing side in the rebels’ fight against the entrenched government in Damascus.

In an important way, however, the GCC countries have been treated differently and harshly by segments of the U.S. and other international media regarding the way in which they have treated the Syrians fleeing their country. Indeed, these countries and their governments have been falsely faulted for their alleged failure to come to the rescue of many displaced Syrians.

Americans and others who should and do know better have wrongly scapegoated the GCC countries for their alleged unwillingness to provide succor and asylum to the many Syrians who would rather find a home among their fellow Arabs in Arabia and the Gulf than seek one elsewhere.

In an important way the GCC countries have been treated differently and harshly by segments of the U.S. and other international media regarding the way in which they have treated the Syrians fleeing their country.

For context, consider the following. In the European countries that have taken in refugees, the displaced Syrians, desperate to work, often agree to toil for little compared to what a European worker might be paid.The result has been hardly difficult to understand: it has underpinned other reasons as to why the United Kingdom, for one, and perhaps others yet to come, wanted to leave the EU, if only in part so as to mitigate a major economic grievance fueling the angst of a significant segment of its populace.

As a consequence of not understanding and appreciating the implications of the differences between Europe, on one hand, and Arabia and the Gulf, on the other, many Americans and others have engaged in flawed and grossly unfair judgment of the GCC countries regarding the nature and extent of the assistance they have provided their Syrian ethnic kinfolk. This case marks yet another example of large numbers of Americans’ deficit of empathy as to the customs, mores, and values of peoples in other countries, cultures, and societies.

The blindness of many Americans to the GCC region’s reality has caused them to miss the fact that the GCC countries have approached the matter of helping Syrians fleeing their country from a different and more humane perspective than the United States and other nations.

For instance, unlike the situation elsewhere, there has been no corralling into tents and refugee camps of Syrians fleeing their homeland. Neither has there been a requirement that the Syrians register with one or another of the United Nations agencies tasked with aiding refugees.

Instead, the GCC countries have done something profoundly different that has apparently proven difficult for many Americans and others to comprehend: they have allowed Syrians to enter their countries freely like any other Arabs in comparable desperate circumstances.

Who would argue that the GCC countries have not administered a far more liberal visa and overall much greater and more effective welcoming process than America’s? The GCC countries’ goal has been to allow the fleeing Syrians to retain what all human beings wish to retain if at all possible: their dignity and self-esteem, for themselves and their families. If this is not a quintessentially much more humane and charitable response to the less fortunate who come one’s way, then it is hard to know what would be.

In this regard, how many are aware that Saudi Arabia alone has taken in 2.5 million Syrians without requiring that a single one register as a refugee? Or that the Syrian entrants have been and are allowed to work wherever they can find employment, to benefit from the Kingdom’s housing and health care services, to receive support to alleviate the costs of rental arrangements they may have to accept in order to house their families, and to place their children in the Kingdom’s schools alongside the Saudi Arabian children?

The raison d’etre for addressing the needs of the Syrian people in this bold and compassionate manner is to enable them and their families to live a decent and dignified life until the situation in Syria is brought to an end and they can return to their homes.

Ending the Slaughter and Non-Arab Intrusions

That the Syrian civil war has continued for as long as it has may well go down in history as one of the early twenty-first century’s most traumatic tragedies. Apart from the sheer agony and heartbreak inflicted upon countless millions of individuals, the tragedy is the more profound for the fact that, among the 22 Arab countries, the 28 Middle Eastern states, and the 57 Islamic nations, few if any have carved out as meaningful and purposeful an existence and contribution to humanity for millennia as Syria.

Nor have very many countries’ history, culture, society, and vibrancy tugged at the hearts of millions in quite the same way as Syria’s in spite of the country’s conflict and disarray. Indeed, if there is any credence to the allegation that Americans at all levels have grown weary of the those parts of the world where Arab Christians and Muslims live, and Arab culture has long been as rich and varied as anywhere, Syria is certainly one place among others where such fatigue is at once inexcusable and unacceptable.

The Church of Saint-Simeon in northwest Aleppo was built in 490 CE and is the oldest remaining Byzantine church. It was included among the eight archaeological parks that were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria) in 2011. The Church of Saint-Simeon suffered severe damage caused by an air-strike in May 2016. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

Like few other countries, Syria for these and other reasons cries out for other people and their national leaders being accurately and adequately informed. To this end, much of the Syrian people’s altogether legitimate hopes – despite their having collided with present day realities, for which many of the roots lie in past misguided U.S. policies and decisions – are rooted in the belief that leaders possessed of compassion, moral courage, incisive insight, knowledge, understanding, and a capacity for reasoning effectively regarding the major issues, questions, and challenges of our day will do the right thing.

In this instance, the right thing, from any ethical and humane perspective, now that the more horrific dimensions of the slaughter appear to be nearing the end, is for such leaders to do everything possible to move as quickly and effectively as possible to attend to the manifold humanitarian and related needs of the Syrian people.

Yet many would emphasize, not so fast as to be unmindful of another need. This one is hardly unrelated to the horrors that have occurred and show every sign of intending to linger. It has to do with non-Arab Iran’s intrusion into what Arabs from Morocco to Muscat agree are quintessentially Arab affairs.

From a geostrategic and geopolitical perspective of avoiding still further wars and human suffering in the future then, it can be argued that of related and overriding importance in ending the miseries inflicted upon Syrians is this feature of the conflict that is just as important if not more fundamental.

The cost of not ending such intrusions, many argue, will continue to be unacceptably high. Without such a termination, it is contended, there will be – to no one’s benefit but Iran’s and its allies, among them, as in this instance, possibly a resurgent Russia – no end to regional insecurities and instabilities. And in tandem with these realities and prognostications, neither would there be the near and longer term opportunities for lasting security, stability, peace, and the prospects for prosperity that the vast majority of the region’s people long for and contend that, as much as any other peoples, they deserve.

How or perhaps even whether the Trump administration will be able to analyze, assess, and address the implications of the varying dilemmas outlined here, each with profound implications for the Syrian people, the Arab world, the U.S.-Arab relationship, and for humankind in general, on one hand, together with, on the other, the issues, challenges, and complexities addressed in this essay, it seems trite to say – but even trite sayings have their place and relevance – “remains to be seen.”

From a Syrian perspective, whatever one’s analysis and assessment of the back narratives recounted herein, and whether they might be considered synonymous with even the near term end of the overall Syrian story, it would be best not to count on it.

Author: John Duke Anthony

Dr. John Duke Anthony is the Founding President and CEO of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. Based in Washington, D.C., the Council was established in 1983 as a non-profit and non-governmental organization. Its mission is educational. The focus of the Council's work is broadly on Arab culture, society, economic development, foreign relations, geopolitics, geoeconomics, and regional dynamics. Its quest is to continuously strengthen and expand the positive ties between the American and Arab peoples. In June 2000, on the occasion of his first official visit to the United States, Moroccan King Muhammad VI knighted Dr. Anthony, bestowing upon him the Order of Quissam Alouite, Morocco's Highest Award for Excellence. Dr. Anthony is a Member of the U.S. Department of State's International Economic Policy Advisory Committee and the Committee's Subcommittee on Sanctions; a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations since 1986; the only Westerner to have been invited to attend each of the GCC Ministerial and Heads of State Summits since the GCC's establishment in 1981; and the only American to have served as an Official Election Observer in all of Yemen's Presidential and Parliamentary elections.