Tag Archives: colonialism

Non-Muslim Significance? The Danger of Oversimplification

It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel.  (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.)  But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals.  There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements).  Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.

Nor are all Muslims alike.  Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations.  Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran.  These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam.  Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated.  This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.

When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East.  The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.”  That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region.  In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.

But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole.  Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople.  With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace.  Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian.  Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy).  George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe).  The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.

Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique.  They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation.  Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks.  And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century.  Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey.  Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them.  Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today.  We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250.  That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.

Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century.  Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government.  And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.”  People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity.  For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.

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Who are the Chaldeans?

A friend of mine recently met some Chaldeans in Michigan, and as I am his go-to guy for all matters Middle Eastern and Christian, he asked me who they were.  Here is my response, lightly edited for broader publication:

The subject of Chaldean ethnicity is rather complicated.  Basically “Chaldeans” are Catholic Assyrians,” as these two terms get used in modern Iraq.  The connection with the “Assyrians” of the Old Testament (much less the astrologers of Daniel 2) is debatable.

A more detailed answer must be aware of the fact that Christianity in Iraq has almost disappeared as a result of a very difficult past century.  Widespread massacres in 1915 (better known in the West as the Armenian Genocide, although Armenians were not the only targets) killed large numbers and drove them south into the central Iraqi plain.  At the end of World War I, while the victorious Western powers were meeting in Paris, British officers in Iraq encouraged an Assyrian leader named Agha Petros to try to capture a territory for an Assyrian “homeland” and present the victors with a fait accompli; the attempt was disastrous.  The British Mandate government which subsequently ruled Iraq frequently used the Assyrian Christians as a paramilitary force, which made them deeply unpopular with other groups in the area.  After the British pulled out in 1932, the Simele massacres of 1933 further reduced Assyrian numbers and solidified Iraqi national sentiment against the Assyrians.  Many Assyrians emigrated from Iraq in this period.  Those who remained stabilized as a small minority within Iraq, and pressures to abandon the Assyrian neo-Aramaic language in favor of either Arabic or Kurdish have been intermittently very high.  Saddam Hussein was seen by a few (notably Jean-Maurice Fiey before 1973) as more friendly to Christians (his foreign minister Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic), though his Arab Nationalist Ba’ath party also discouraged the use of Assyrian neo-Aramaic in favor of Arabization.  Assyrians today speak not only of the genocide of 1915, but also of a cultural genocide.  So one must be careful how one addresses the history of an endangered minority.  Nevertheless, history cannot be written to serve present pain.

Most Assyrians emphasize that their ethnic identity has not changed since before the rise of Islam.  So I’ll give you three perspectives: the “traditional” Assyrian view (as forcefully expressed by various Assyrians I have met), the widely held scholarly view, and my compromise.

The “traditional” Assyrian view

Don’t be misled by the label “traditional”; one Orthodox priest used to say that unchanging tradition is whatever your grandmother did.  It need not be older than a century.  But this view says that the ancient Assyrians who ruled much of the Near East from their capital at Nineveh never died out.  Instead they were conquered by the Babylonians (in 612 BCE), the Achaemenid Persians (in the late 500s BCE), Alexander the Great (shortly before 300 BCE), the Parthians (in the 220s BCE), the Romans (briefly in the 110s CE), the Sasanian Persians (in the 230s CE), the Muslim Arabs (in the 630s and 640s), the Mongols (in the mid-13th C), and the Ottomans (in the 1530s).  In the meantime, the apostle Thomas had sent his disciple Addai to Edessa (modern Urfa in SE Turkey), and Addai in turn sent his disciple Mari to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the capitals of the Persian Empire.  They converted the Assyrians among various other peoples, and although they used Syriac in the churches, they continued to speak Assyrian neo-Aramaic.  Assyrians practiced Christianity in large numbers and flourished in the plain around Mosul (founded across the Tigris river from ancient Nineveh), until at the end of the 14th C Timur Lenk (“Tamerlane”) conquered the region and slaughtered them, and many of them retreated to the mountains to the north.  (In the 16th C, many of those left in the plains adopted Catholicism and became “Chaldeans.”)  The “Mountain Nestorians” were the target of American and British missionary ventures in the 19th C, and during the sufferings of the twentieth century, those who could fled to the West (especially Chicago, Stockholm, and Melbourne, but also London, Detroit area, and other places).  Thus they are the ancient Assyrians, who recently have suffered genocide and cultural extermination.

The “standard” scholarly view

A few scholars accept the “traditional” Assyrian view, but most do not.  The skeptics point out that when the American missionaries traveled to the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s and 1840s, they claimed to be the ten lost tribes of Israel!  On the most common view, the term “Chaldean” was not used within this community before the 1700s, being translated from the Latin.  The first use of the term “Chaldean” to refer to a contemporary community since antiquity was in 1445, when a branch of the Church of the East in Cyprus submitted to the Papacy and was called “Chaldean”.  The merger didn’t last long, but in 1553 a monk from northern Iraq traveled to Rome to ask to be appointed “Patriarch of Babylon,” and he and those who followed him were termed Chaldeans in Latin.  In Renaissance Europe, the main dialect of Aramaic which was studied was the one in Daniel 2 (and other biblical texts), which was termed “Chaldean” due to the fact that in the text it is the Chaldeans who first speak it to Nebuchadnezzar.  So when Christians from northern Iraq showed up speaking a (rather different) dialect of Aramaic, they were labeled “Chaldeans”.  The term “Assyrian,” it is claimed, was not used for a contemporary community until the English adventurer/archaeologist (Indiana Jones type) Henry Layard discovered the ruins of ancient Nineveh across from the city of Mosul.  In light of 19th C European theories of racial fixedness and physiognomy, Layard and other Brits after him declared that the Christians of the area were clearly “Assyrians,” from their facial resemblance to the stone reliefs which colonial antiquities collectors were busy bringing back to the British Museum in London.  In the second half of the 19th C, the term “Assyrian” was adopted by the community itself as an importation of European nationalism in order to argue for their right to political autonomy against the Ottoman Empire (just as the Greeks had done earlier).  With the genocide in the early 20th C and the 1933 massacres, ethnic identity assumed primacy over religious identity within this community, especially as they continued (whether still in Iraq or now in the West) to lobby for political autonomy using European terms.  Thus there is no continuity between the ancient Assyrians and the modern Assyrians.

My views

There are various mediating positions which scholars adopt between the extreme view just summarized and the “traditional” view.  A few details: the term “Assyrian” was known and used before 1840, in various centuries.  For example, the 2nd C Christian author Tatian identified himself in Greek as “Assyrios.”  The Armenians used “Asoristan” (the “land of the Assyrians”) straight through the medieval period, and also (though less commonly, perhaps) used the group name “Asorik’.”  The Syriac terms “Athor” (a place) and “Athoraya” (a person from that place) were very rarely used from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.  Additional citations can be found on the Wikipedia page “Assyrian Continuity“.

The difficulty is that proponents of Assyrian continuity typically fail to ask the question what “Assyrian” means in different contexts, but assume its meaning is unchanging.  What Tatian meant, I am not sure, but probably appealed to a Mesopotamian birth (and not all Mesopotamians are or were “Assyrians” in the modern sense).  The eleventh-century Greek historian Michael Attaleiates termed one person an “Assyrios” on account of his having been born in Antioch in Syria, not in Mesopotamia at all.  The Armenian “Asuristan” is clearly a designation for Iraqi Mesopotamia as distinct from “Mijaget” (“Mesopotamia”), which was used for upper Mesopotamia in what is now Syria and Turkey, and “Sham” (Syria southwest of the Euphrates).  The Syriac “Athor” refers to the region around Mosul in northern Iraq, and “Athoraya” refers exclusively to someone from that small region, not to any of the people in other regions (such as the mountains of Kurdistan or Hakkari, or the plain west of the Lake Urmia in NW Iran) whose descendants now call themselves “Assyrians.”  So some memory of Mosul as the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire seems to have survived.

But pre-modern Middle Easterners did not use ethnic names for enduring descent groups, as became popular in modern Europe.  So “ethnic” labels such as “Assyrian” should be understood with reference to places, languages, or religious groups.  (Indeed, the “ethnic” term preferred by 17th C poets who would later be called “Assyrians” was not “Athoraye” but “Suraye” – i.e. Syriac speakers.)  Given the American missionaries’ reports that the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s believed they were the ten lost tribes of Israel, it seems likely that leaders in the community were willing to adopt whatever “ethnic” label would be most advantageous, and one can hardly blame them in light of their subsequent sufferings.  Thus it is simply false to say that there has always been a well-defined ethnic group known as the “Assyrians” to themselves and to others, who preserved the cultural identity of Sargon and Sennacherib and the ancient Assyrian Empire.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that the ancient Assyrians were not exterminated, so the modern Assyrians are probably descendants of the ancient Assyrians.  But the ancient Assyrians are not known to have practiced strict endogamy, so they certainly intermarried with newcomers in the form of Israelite captives, Kurds, Persian conquerors, a small group of Greek invaders, Armenians, Arabs, and finally Turks.  Just as my own “northwestern European” cocktail of ancestry is not distinctively French, English, German, or Irish, much less any specific tribe in any of these areas, so modern Assyrians can count their ancestors from many different groups.  Modern Assyrian culture is probably also a continuous development from ancient Assyrian culture, but again not exclusively, as their Aramaic dialects absorbed words of Persian (in at least two waves), Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish.  So ancient Assyrian culture would be as unrecognizable to modern Assyrians as painting oneself blue is to modern Brits.  In the 15th C, the Church of the East still thought of itself as a universal church, and identified several ethnic labels within its ranks.

But as Christians in the Hakkari Mountains and Iraq encountered European ideas of ethnic persistence and self-determination, they cast about for which ethnicity they could claim, and “Assyrian” seemed a sensible choice which was close to hand.  The problem is that those European ideas of ethnic persistence and physiognomy are demonstrably wrong, and yet ethnic essentialism persists among Middle Eastern Christians still hoping in vain for Western world leadership to live up to Western political ideals of national autonomy and self-determination.

You can see why it’s a sensitive topic.  But the short answer is that “Chaldeans” are Catholic “Assyrians.”

Syriac Christians Between Syria and Turkey

Yesterday the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article on Abuna Yuqin (“Fr. Joachim”) Unval’s effort to restore the monastery of Mor Awgin above the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish border with Syria, and his response to Syriac Christian refugees escaping into Turkey from the Syrian Civil War.

As usual when popular news media speaks on something that I know something about, I liked it, but I kept saying, “But there’s also…” and “But what about…”  (No doubt the reason I do academic writing rather than journalistic writing is that I cannot get to the point fast enough for a wide readership.)  So I thought here I would give a little wider context to this story, from my perspective as an outside expert.

It is probably worth mentioning that Abuna Yuqin’s denomination is the same as Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, one of the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.

We perhaps think of monasteries as communities of monks, but the reason Abuna Yuqin is the only monk mentioned in the article is that he is the only monk at this monastery.  Restoring a monastery is not easy work, and he needs to prove that it is viable to support a monastery in this environment by attracting both additional monks and sufficient donations.

The “distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit” has two panels on the top of the head, with between them thirteen ornate crosses (which from some angles look almost like stars).  I have been told by several monks that these crosses represent Christ and the twelve apostles.  It turns out that it is hard to find a picture of it online or in my own photos (I usually photograph the front of monks rather than their backs), but it is similar to the “koulla” of Coptic monks (depicted here).

The village he refers to is not Nusaybin, the nearest large city, but probably Eskihisar.  Eskihisar formerly had a large Syriac Christian population before 1951, and the ancient village is known in Syriac texts as M’arre or M’arrin (“caves”).  It is frequently linked to the monastery of Mor Awgin in historical texts.  As of a few years ago, the village was entirely Kurdish, so if Syriac Christians are moving back into the village, that is a very significant development.

It is not actually too surprising for Syriac monks to be grateful to Yezidis.  It is true that Yezidis are widely labeled “devil-worshippers” by Muslims and Christians alike, due to their high veneration of Mal’ak Ta’us (“the peacock angel”); the stories they tell of Mal’ak Ta’us closely resemble tales told of Iblis/Shaytan (Satan) in Islam.  On the other hand, Yezidis do not accept converts, and are therefore not a religious threat to other groups, and since at least the nineteenth century Christians and Yezidis have sometimes helped each other in the face of antagonism from the larger populations of Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds.  When I visited Dayr al-Za’faran in April 2012, a Yezidi dressed all in white was sitting and chatting beside a Syriac monk dressed all in black, and the two made a wonderful image.  I wish I had a photo of it.

As to “Syriac Christianity dates back to the third century,” we don’t really know its origins.  In fact a Christian community is probably earliest attested in the city of Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis), on the plain below Mor Awgin monastery, in the Aberkios inscription (in Greek) in the mid-second century, although it is only implicit.  The oldest Syriac Christian texts may be the Odes of Solomon, which are variously dated to the first – third centuries (and are rather strange).  Syriac Christians themselves tell the story of how King Abgar of the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) corresponded with Jesus, who after his resurrection sent Addai/Thaddeus to miraculously heal the king and convert his city already in the first century.  This legend was already rejected in the west by Pope Gelasius in 495.

On the subject of Syriac Christian foundation legends, the story of Mor Awgin as narrated by Abuna Yuqin, that he was a pearl diver who brought the Egyptian monasticism to Syria, is probably a fifth-century fabrication.  It is true that Mor Awgin monastery is really old, but we do not know when it was founded, and it probably is not the oldest.  Syriac Christianity had earlier non-cenobitic forms of asceticism which congealed into cenobitic monasteries in the early fifth century.

Abuna Yuqin also mis-speaks when he says, “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War.”  It is true that large numbers of Christians fled Tur Abdin during World War I as a result of the massacres.  The same massacres which targeted Armenians in eastern Turkey and are therefore known in the West as the Armenian Genocide also targeted Syriac Christians and some Kurds.  Syrian Orthodox Christians refer to those massacres as Sayfo (“the sword”), while the Church of the East calls it the “Assyrian Genocide.”  The survivors of the Syrian Orthodox community of Edessa (modern Urfa) made their way to Aleppo in northern Syria, and are regarded as a distinct community within their own denomination there, with their own traditions of church music and their own carefully guarded manuscript collection.  On the other hand, most of the Syriac Christians within Syria have been there for generations before World War I.  It is very true that the border between Turkey and Syria is artificial, created by European powers to reflect colonial interests (France wanted Syria), and it is equally true that throughout their long history, Syriac Christians have often moved from one region to another if they suspected a different government would be more favorable to them.  They escaped to French Syria from the Sayfo, and now some are escaping back to Turkey from the Syrian Civil War, just as in the Middle Ages they escaped into or out of Byzantine territory depending on the attitude of the Emperor in Constantinople.

My biggest criticism of the BBC article is how it smooths out conflicts with the Turkish government.  On the one hand, when I was in Mardin for a Syriac conference in 2012, I myself heard the governor of Mardin province and the president of the new Mardin Artuklu University (named after a 14th C dynasty which ruled Mardin) publicly call for Syriac Christians to return to the Tur Abdin region.  And since the governor was part of the ruling AKP party, he probably could not have said those things without the permission of Prime Minister Erdoğan.  This call for Syriac Christian immigration surprised me at the time, as it surprises the author of this BBC article.

But this call has a context.  The theme of the conference was Syriac Christianity and cultural diversity, and among the groups acknowledged in the opening remarks to have lived in that region were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians.  There was conspicuously no mention of Armenians, who also lived in Mardin and nearby Diyarbakır until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The BBC article mentions heavy government investment in dams in the region, but does not mention the forced resettling of the Kurdish population whose villages will now be underwater.  I visited Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris, and Kurdish children came up to me and said in English, “Please tell the government not to destroy our homes.”  They were handing out pamphlets to tourists trying to prevent the government from destroying Hasankeyf in the project to build the Ilısu Dam.  The Syrian Orthodox have had their share of harassment: one of the two most important Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Tur Abdin is Mor Gabriel outside Midyat, which has lost property to government expropriation.

(A funny linguistic aside: the road signs to Mor Gabriel do not refer to it by that name, but by the name Deyr-Ül Umur Manastırı.  When I visited, I asked why this was called “Umar’s Monastery,” and I was informed that the “Umur” represents the Syriac ‘umro (“monastery, habitation”), which has been prefixed with the Arabic dayr al- (“monastery of the”), to which has been added the Turkish word manastırı (“monastery”) borrowed from a European language.  So the Turkish name for the place translates from three languages into “The monastery of the monastery of the monastery.”  I think that’s just awesome.)

So what is the government in Ankara doing supporting the opening of Mor Awgin monastery above Nusaybin and calling on Syriac Christians to come “back” to Tur Abdin?  As it was explained to me in Mardin by another foreigner visiting the city, the government knows that even if all the Syriac Christians come back to Tur Abdin, they will still be only a small minority, and therefore not a challenge.  In contrast, the larger Armenian diaspora is making political trouble for Turkey by calling Western governments to recognize the Armenian genocide.  The Kurdish majority of this region is also making international headlines complaining of Turkish nationalist discrimination, for example in the choice of dam locations, to say nothing of Ankara’s fears that the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq (and the de facto almost autonomous Kurdish region in Syria due to the civil war) might fuel demands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.  In other words, what the Turkish government wants is a “model minority” to which it can point to say that they treat minorities well, which would support the Turkish government’s bid to enter the EU.  In the meantime, politics in southeastern Turkey remains a strange game in which ethnic and religious diversity sometimes leads to surprising winners, such as Abuna Yuqin.

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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