Category Archives: News Media

Event Horizons: Turkey’s Military Coups and Varied Trajectories of History

Journalists know that to understand current events, we must put them in context.  The trick is identifying which context is most relevant.  Friday’s failed coup in Turkey was widely reported with a surprisingly standardized context, a canonical list of military coups in the modern Turkish republic since 1960.  While that is surely an important part of the story, there are longer and shorter trajectories of history that are relevant to understanding recent events, even within the specific category of Turkish military coups.

News reports of the coup have been consistently careful to mention the long history of military coups in the modern Republic of Turkey.  The canonical coups, in which the military ousted the civilian government for a variety of reasons and held power for a varying length of time before allowing new elections to be held, occurred in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.  (One article oddly replaced 1997 with 1993, but it is not clear whether that was simply a typo or in fact a reference to the covert coup which some people allege occurred during that year.)  The fact that the first three happened at intervals of a decade was noted, as well as the nearly two decades since the “postmodern coup” (as it is sometimes called) of 1997.  With these coups as a baseline, explanations for the failure of this weekend’s coup attempt illuminate its divergences from previous military interventions in politics.

All of that is well and good, and certainly has its place.  But it is not the only historical trajectory that matters.  This is middling level context, consisting of events within the living memory of most members of society, but Turkey has both a longer and a shorter history of military interventions of politics.

A number of articles initially remarked with surprise on the junior ranks of the apparent leaders of this military coup.  (The enlarging circle of arrests has now included several top military leaders, but that is a revision of the initial story, and it is not clear whether the shift is due to better [unrevealed] evidence or the political goals of the victorious president.)  But this was not the first coup attempted by junior military officers.  In 1908 the Young Turk Revolution forced the Ottoman sultan to reinstate the constitution (which he had been studiously ignoring for thirty years), call together a parliament, and rule as a figurehead, and most of the military personnel in that coup were junior officers who belonged to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).  One of those junior officers was a young man named Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), who in 1916 as a lieutenant colonel was the real hero of the battle of Gallipoli.  Mustafa Kemal, a young general by 1919, led the Turkish forces in the Turkish War of Independence to establish today’s Republic of Turkey in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.  He personally led the new Republic as its first president until his death in 1938, and his political program (“Kemalism”) defined the state for most of the twentieth century.  The Turkish military today sees itself as the last defender of Kemalism in Turkey, and they certainly remember the role that junior military officers can play in military coups.  (It also helps plausible deniability not to have the top brass most deeply involved.)  While no one alive today remembers the Young Turk Revolution, and very few remember Atatürk, military leaders know military history, and this may be a longer-term context in which the coup’s leaders understood their actions.

On the other hand, there is also a much more immediate and indeed personal historical context, which will have an especially strong impact on the fallout of this weekend’s failure.  I have not seen any news reports take serious stock of the increasing conflict between the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, and the military.  Erdoğan was himself banned from politics by the military for a period of five years following the 1997 “postmodern coup.” In 2002 his new conservative Justice and Development Party (known by the Turkish acronym AKP) was voted into power, and Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003.  In 2007, as the ruling AKP nominated its presidential candidate Abdullah Gül for the upcoming election, the Turkish military said on its website that the country’s foundational secularism was under threat, presumably because Gül’s wife wears a hijab, unlike previous presidents’ wives.  Yet unlike the 1997 memorandum, in this case the army’s intervention failed: Gül was eventually elected anyway, although it took several attempts.  The military’s power was clearly weaker in 2007, and by the time of the Sledgehammer trials in 2011, the AKP seemed to have successfully brought the military to heel.  The government likewise used the Ergenekon trials to target military opposition.  Irregularities in evidence and procedure, and the split between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, led to the convictions being overturned in the past sixteen months, but they are clearly part of a general trend of escalating conflict between Erdoğan’s government and the Turkish armed forces.  This shorter term trajectory of conflict between the military and Erdoğan personally will have a strong impact on the government’s response to the failed coup attempt.  Erdoğan even called the coup “a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”

Found: The Birmingham Qur’an (N=1)

It is six weeks since the news first broke of a fragmentary Qur’an manuscript whose radiocarbon dating (95% accuracy) is between 568 and 645.  Early reports declared how much the discovery supported traditional Muslim accounts of the origins of the Qur’an, but this week the news media went abuzz with claims that the Qur’an may in fact predate Muhammad and debunk Islam’s account of its own origins.  (N. B.: The article was first published in the Times of London, but linking to paywalls is unhelpful.)  Some scholars (such as Georgetown Prof. Jonathan Brown) have now published critiques of the counter-claims, and the buzz continues apace.

Before we get too carried away, it’s important to remember that this is a single manuscript.  Statisticians derisively refer to the conclusions which can be reached when the number of data points N = 1.  Such a datum is not “statistically significant.”  While statistical significance is not the only measure of historical evidence (and indeed, most ancient and early medieval history does not achieve statistical significance), it does suggest that we might usefully remember the limits of what we are looking at here. Continue reading

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading

Lost: What’s in a Name?

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that they have shortened their name to simply “the Islamic State,” Western media have had difficulty knowing what to call them, especially because they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  But this name-change is not simply an attempt at re-branding: the terrorist group also prohibits anyone under their governance from calling them by the common Arabic abbreviation Da’ash (داعش, for الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام).  The penalty for using the proscribed, but common colloquial, acronym is 80 lashes.  What’s going on here? Continue reading

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

The Scurrilous Precision of Dates

Dates are reassuring.  They allow one to pin an event to a particular time and give the illusion of order and comprehension.  But sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they simply don’t apply.  Despite historians’ reputation for date obsession, this historian sometimes find they obscure more than they clarify.

While reading around on the new Syrian Orthodox patriarch-elect, I came across a repeated assertion that his particular branch of Middle Eastern Christianity was founded in 452 (e.g. here).  What happened in 452?  Well, plenty of things happened of course, but I cannot think of any significant event relevant to the future development of the Syrian Orthodox branch of Christianity.  The Council of Chalcedon, which was rejected by the Syrian Orthodox, met in 451, and so the source of this date seems to have simply added one to the date of the council.  This is a bad way to date an event.  If one wished to date the founding of the Syrian Orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon, why not upon the completion of the council in November of 451?  Or why not years later, perhaps in 457?

But even more important than the arbitrary nature of the choice of “the following year” is the problem that this is not how many religious groups develop.  If you ask the Syrian Orthodox, their church was founded by Christ and the apostles.  But that can’t be right, some will say, since Christ and the apostles founded “our” church (or at least the variety of Christianity we know better, whether Catholicism or Protestantism), and since the Syrian Orthodox are not that, their history must be shorter.  It always amazes me when even people who pride themselves on rejecting Christian theology adopt such a necessarily theological interpretation of the past.

Like Shi’a Islam, Syrian Orthodox Christianity was not founded in a moment of time by some particular individual.  Rather what was one group with a range of different ideas and opinions before the council in 451 experienced mitosis slowly (over the course of about two centuries), and around about the rise of Islam had clearly divided into two distinct groups.  Speaking both sociologically and ideologically, there was a lot of continuity between each of the latter groups and what went before.  Differences developed within the two sides as they coalesced into distinct camps, and it became progressively more difficult to avoid being one or the other, although as late as the 520s the poet-bishop Jacob of Serug did not find it profitable to address these contested issues.  It was only from the 530s that separate clergy were being ordained for the two groups, and only from the 550s that a complete parallel ecclesiastical hierarchy was created.  And since members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy tend to be pickier about such issues than laypeople, we do not have any very clear idea when the laity considered these groups to be distinct Christian sects.  In any event, the process of religious divergence is almost always messy.  The emergence of the Khariji groups and the various extremist ghulat testify to the same messy divergence within Islam, and even the formation of Islam as a different sort of monotheism from Judaism and Christianity was not a smooth course.  But I do not think historians need be in the business of legitimating one set of heirs over another.

The process of religious divergence is complicated, but in both the Syrian Orthodox case and the early Islamic case the religion is misunderstood if it is characterized as something new.  Both groups took great pains to assert (outsiders would say fabricate) their continuity with what went before.  To characterize the Syrian Orthodox as a johnny-come-lately Christian sect disagrees with their own understanding, and makes it more difficult for the scholar to understand their viewpoint.  Even Islam, with its insistence upon Muhammad as the prophet of God (rasul Allah), taught equally that he was the latest and the last (the “Seal”) of the prophets, teaching what earlier prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had (allegedly) taught.  Traditional Muslim doctrine is that Islam was not a new religion, but the restoration of the original monotheism which had been corrupted by Jews and Christians in recent centuries.

This emphasis on continuity puts historians of religion in something of a bind.  Not all claims to continuity are true.  It is difficult to see how the Syrian Orthodox Church was founded by Christ and yet he was also a prophet of Islam.  On the other hand, for historians to insist on the differences and divergences makes it difficult to understand how members of those groups reasoned and understood themselves.  And yet to speak of these groups sensibly, historians must adopt distinct terminologies and determine when to apply those terminologies or the earlier labels.

In order to resolve these tensions, historians need to practice switching contexts, seeing the world (as much as possible) through the eyes of various historical actors and holding in abeyance the reflexive evaluation of an assertion as true or false (which is not to say that there isn’t a truth value to these assertions, just that our own evaluation may get in the way of our understanding those who evaluate the assertion differently).  But it is also necessary to adopt a more nuanced vocabulary regarding the origin and development of religious groups: instead of insisting that every group was “founded” at some point in time, it is necessary to recognize complex and drawn out processes of mitosis which result in two (or more) groups, while both claim continuity with what went before.  In other words, we must adopt the language of divergence.

(This is true not exclusively of religious groups; ethnic groups also experience mitosis, and new labels are adopted to replace old ones.  In the fourteenth century, the famous Muslim world traveler Ibn Battuta would have been offended if you had called him an Arab; in his travelogue, “Arabs” were country bumpkins and bandits, and had nothing to do with his sophisticated urban self.)

Some may feel that such an approach is too complex.  After all, a journalist is a busy professional who does not have time to describe the entire complex process by which two religious groups diverged, yet readers may wish some orientation to where this group fits in the grander scheme of things.  I have sympathy with this complaint, although as a professional historian I have an obligation to plea for people to slow down and add nuance.  Nevertheless, it is surely possible to do much better than a scurrilously precise date.  The statement that his church “developed out of a fifth-century schism” is no longer-winded than the phrase “was founded in 452 after a schism” as used in the ABC article cited above.  (The article’s statement that the schism was “with the bulk of the world’s Christians” is also questionable, but that’s an issue for another venue.)  There are sufficiently concise ways to speak of the divergences of religious groups without sacrificing accuracy.

Louis Sako on Middle Eastern Christians

A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon.  Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country.  In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law.  It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.

Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading.  In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself.  An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.  When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East?  The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century.  There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula).  Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.

One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war.  When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000).  A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt.  When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto.  The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.

And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East.  Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam.  On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists.  After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police.  That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law.  But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.

What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society.  They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society.  Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past.  And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous.  (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.)  I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.

What America Forgets About Syria

As the US Congress appears to be inclining towards authorizing a unilateral and, by most standards, illegal military strike against Syria, here are some points that seem to be forgotten or overlooked in the news I’m reading:

1. One of the US government’s main concerns with the Syrian conflict has been that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists such as al-Qa’ida.  The presumption that al-Qa’ida does not already have chemical weapons is a crucial piece of the reasoning which blames the Syrian regime for the attack in the Damascus suburbs two weeks ago.  Yet attacking Syria, as President Obama is now proposing, will weaken the Syrian Army’s ability to defend those chemical weapons arsenals.  Since the most effective opposition fighting forces are jihadis affiliated with al-Qa’ida, terrorists are the ones most likely to benefit from any US attack on Syria.  It is worth contrasting John Kerry‘s assertion that “There is a real moderate opposition that exists” and 15-20% of the opposition are extreme with the view of an analyst located in Dubai: “For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist.”  In light of al-Qa’ida’s dominance of the Syrian opposition, a US attack on the Syrian regime will increase the feasibility for jihadis to seize chemical weapons.  In other words, a US attack on the Syrian military will increase rather than reduce the threat of chemical weapons deployment against American civilians.

2. A foreign attack on Syria would be a very significant escalation of the conflict.  As I indicated last week, no foreign country has specifically and publicly attacked Syria during this civil war without first being attacked by Syria.  Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War, both for and against the regime, has been limited to financial and material supplies and the provision of some foreign fighters acting under the commands of Syrian leaders, with only two exceptions.  Those two exceptions are Turkey, which has returned fire randomly into Syria whenever a Turkish civilian has been hit by bullets coming cross the border, and Israel, which has refused to acknowledge its targeted air strikes of what it alleges were rockets destined for Hezbollah.  For the US or any western country to attack with its own military would escalate the war beyond even a regional conflict into a world conflict.

3. When President Obama was first attempting to build support for attacking Syria, he proposed a “brief” or “surgical” military intervention as “a shot across the bow” in order to send a message to Assad without getting too involved.  Now the Senate Foreign Relations committee is recommending the President be authorized for 60 days, two months, for a war of limited duration.  A shot across the bow demonstrates one’s ability to kill without actually killing anyone, and I suppose the parallel case in Syria would be to bomb the uninhabited desert east of Damascus.  In seeking Congressional support, President Obama has also greatly broadened his notion of US engagement in Syria, which is exactly what the American public fears.

4. The Obama administration released an unclassified document outlining why it believes the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapons attack, intended to convince domestic and international skeptics of the obligation to punish Assad.  Most of the evidence cited in this document supports the assertion that chemical weapons were used, without specifying by whom.  Part of the argument is that the opposition couldn’t have done this, but the report treats the opposition as a unified group, and in particular it does not engage with earlier reports that al-Qa’ida has used chemical weapons in neighboring Iraq (here and here, to cite only Western media).  Much of the evidence in the report is only referred to in vague ways (“We have intelligence,” “streams of human, signals, and geospatial intelligence,” and “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate”) which will not convince a skeptic, but perhaps these bits of evidence cannot be revealed without endangering our informants.  That unfortunately leaves the argument largely still in the “trust us” category, which does little to assuage concerns.

There is one piece of evidence cited in next-to-last paragraph of the US intelligence report which could clinch the case against Assad: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.”  If it exists and is authentic, this document should be enough to convince skeptics such as Russia that the charges against the regime are not merely “rumors.”  If this is truly an intercepted communication, then presumably it can be released without endangering the interceptor, who is neither the sender nor the recipient.  It should be reasonably straightforward for an Arabic linguistics expert to authenticate the language as educated Syrian Arabic of a sort likely to be used by senior officials.  And yet this document has not been released, and Russia is not convinced.

5. Although the US (and the British Prime Minister) have declared a potential attack legal, the United Nations has disagreed.  Not only the opinion of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the man tasked with ending the conflict, even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said US military intervention would only be legal in self-defense after UN Security Council approval.  The basis of the legality argument requires either that the United States be declared the universal police officer, which understandably no other country has recognized, or that in general any country can attack any other country if it thinks doing will help some people, perhaps at the expense of others, which is a dangerously low bar to international military conflict.  While a possible attack will not open President Obama to prosecution before the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, this is because the US will presumably use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent the case from being referred to an international court.  The irony is that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is advocating an illegal military action which will be sheltered from prosecution only by his country’s self-interested obstructionism in the United Nations, which is something Western media usually ascribe to Russia and China rather than the US.

6. There has been much talk about American “credibility” in the international community.  But credibility has far less to do with following through on threats and much more to do with holding on to principles even when they are inconvenient.  Since it is clear that the US military used chemical weapons in the Iraq War, the message sent to the international community by a US strike allegedly in response to chemical weapons use is that no one else is allowed to break our monopoly on extreme violence.  Is this the message the US government really wishes to send?  The international community expects US foreign policy to selfishly seek its own narrow interests at the expense of other countries.  As an international friend of mine said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”  The only way to break this perception is to act in accordance with clearly stated principles such as the rule of international law even when it is distasteful and inconvenient, rather than using military means to oust regimes (even heinous and criminal regimes) that we have declared to be our enemies.

The Bottom Line

I believe a US attack on Syria would increase the death and violence of the Syrian Civil War and would escalate the conflict into a world-wide affair.  I do not think that the Syrian regime is fine or that the use of chemical weapons ought to go unpunished.  But I believe that the United States of America is not the body to enforce the chemical weapons ban, apart from authorization by the United Nations.  The fact that Russia and China have been obstructionist in that body does not authorize us to ignore it; instead Syrian blood is on their hands, but we must engage Russia and China diplomatically to break their deadlock.  By attacking Syria the United States will not support the chemical weapons ban, because its attack will be perceived as simply US self-interested foreign policy.

While I have been writing this post, those who stand to benefit from a US strike on Syria have taken the ridge above a Syrian village and shelled the civilian population below.  Does the United States really want to aid these particular rebels?

 

Found: Rumors and Suppositions of the Aleppo Bishops

There is still no solid news of the two metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo who were abducted on 22 April, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, but there are more rumors.  Al-Monitor yesterday published a long article on the subject translating and expanding an Arabic article published on 13 August by the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir (for an English translation of the original al-Safir article, see the blog Notes on Arab Orthodoxy).  The al-Monitor article especially is very detailed, but it is not at all clear what the sources of these details are.  The Lebanese Daily Star also published an article disputing most of those details and suggesting other ones.

If the play-by-play account of the abduction of the bishops by Chechen jihadis working for Abu Omar al-Shishani has any validity, it must have ultimately come from Fu’ad Eliya, the only passenger of the vehicle not abducted or killed, but it is not clear whether the al-Monitor journalist interviewed Eliya.  The detailed account is not in the al-Safir article, and the details disagree with what Hurriyet reported second-hand from Eliya back in May.  Particularly curious is the al-Monitor article’s unsourced reference to “the small message written in Greek and sent by Bishop Yazigi to a friend in Greece and to his brother Yohanna. The message, written in Greek, said, ‘We are being held by al-Qaeda.'”  Where did that information come from?  In light of the obscurity of the information’s provenance, these details must be regarded as unreliable.

Particularly interesting to me was the last portion of the al-Monitor article, which quoted various people who have made pronouncements in the past about the fate of the bishops, including George Sabra, all saying that there is no real knowledge about their fate.  That still seems to be the end of it.

For those feeling that the saga of the kidnapped bishops has dragged on with no real resolution, that is just a microcosm of the Syrian Civil War in total.  Meanwhile, although we still hope the victims will be able to say with Mark Twain, “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” that seems decreasingly likely.

Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

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