The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned. As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended. Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized. As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.
Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive. The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.
Despite the fact that all the Middle East analysts I have read have concluded that a Western military intervention in Syria would be indifferent at best and disastrous at worst, France, the UK, and the US threatened swift attack on Syria in retribution for the chemical weapons attack which occurred a week ago outside Damascus. The UK and the US governments have announced that that they think they have found a legal justification for attacking Syria: the bad humanitarian situation may justify killing people to prevent a worse humanitarian situation.
It is just as true for governments as for individuals that when someone who wants to do something says “It’s legal,” that legality won’t necessarily stand up in a court of law. The only universally recognized legal justification for military action is self-defense (although the use of that justification has gotten progressive more far-fetched in certain areas). A mandate from the UN Security Council is not exactly a legal justification, but does ensure that the intervention won’t start the next world war.
And does the humanitarian justification make sense? If it could be known that fewer people would die as a result of a military attack than not, perhaps it could be justified in terms of raw numbers. But the best that can be said is that such a justification is unknowable. The worst is that Russia is sending its own navy to the Mediterranean, Iran has threatened Israel, and it sure looks like a Western military strike on Syria would not reduce the war but increase it. That fear is why, although almost all Middle Eastern countries have sided with the opposition against Bashar al-Assad (Lebanon exceptionally remaining neutral), no Middle Eastern country has gotten on board with an outside military strike on Syria. Not even Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, which are supplying arms to the rebels. Indeed, the Lebanese foreign minister warned of the consequences, Egypt has declined to participate, Jordan has refused to be involved, and the Arab League, while condemning the attack and blaming it on the regime, has not advocated an outside attack. I think the humanitarian justification for attacking Syria is a flimsy pretext which will get a lot of people killed.
I agree that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished. But no single country acts as the world judge. The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is charged with finding an end to this conflict, said today that a US-led military intervention without a mandate from the UN security council is illegal. Punishment for the use of chemical weapons is a matter for the international community, represented by the UN and particularly by the International Criminal Court.
It is also not as clear to me as it is to President Obama that the Syrian regime is the only combatant which might have gotten their hands on chemical weapons. In particular, if one of the various al-Qa’ida linked groups or other foreign jihadi rebels got their hands on chemical weapons, I doubt they would feel much compunction about using it. The fact that they would know that Assad would be blamed for the attack would only sweeten the temptation for them. Foreign intelligence services would not necessarily acquire reliable information that jihadis had chemical weapons until after they were used. In other words, the fact that US intelligence does not believe the opposition possesses such weapons does not in fact imply that this attack was perpetrated by the regime.
A Western attack on Syria would also be a significant escalation in the war. While plenty of other countries have been involved in the Syrian Civil War, with only two exceptions that involvement has been in the form of arms or other supplies to the Syrian government or the rebels. The two exceptions are Turkey, which on a couple occasions when Turkish citizens have been killed by spillover fire has returned random fire into Syria, and Israel, which on at least four occasions has conducted air raids on military targets while publicly refusing to comment. No other country has directly involved its military in fighting within Syria. For western countries such as England, France, or the US to attack Syria with their own military, publicly and openly (unlike Israel) and without having come under attack first (unlike Turkey) would be a significant escalation of foreign involvement in the conflict.
This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is considered legal by those attacking (Russia, Iran, and China would disagree). This would be a significant escalation of the conflict even if the attack is of limited duration or with specific targets in mind (although one US policy-maker acknowledged that there will be civilian casualties). Such a significant escalation would no doubt encourage other countries to escalate their involvement. A Western attack on Syria is not a Middle Eastern policy issue; it is a world policy issue. A Western attack on Syria would not save lives.
The situation in Syria is awful, but as one commentary put it, “Outsiders have no tool to fix Syria.”
On Wednesday hundreds of people (some sources say as many as 1400) died in Syria, evidently related to a chemical attack on a rebel-held area north-east of the capital, Damascus. Apart from the scale of the casualties, there is much in this news which is not new or surprising. As usual in Syria, rebels and regime accuse each other of deploying chemical weapons while denying their own use thereof. Internationally, various governments support their chosen factions, as , , and all publicly blamed the Assad regime, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry suggested that rebels staged the attack in order to provoke international intervention. American rhetoric in favor of military intervention in Syria has certainly ramped up as a result of the attack. Nevertheless, the Assad government puts forward a bold face, indicating that an American attack is very unlikely given the current international impasse.
What is more surprising is that Russia also called upon the Syrian regime and opposition to cooperate with UN chemical weapons investigators already in Damascus and permit them access to this fresh site. The Syrian government has reportedly agreed to do just that.
This has put the western governments who have been consistently calling for Assad’s removal in something of a difficult position. Before the Syrian regime announced it would allow UN investigators access to the site, the argument was made that they “must have something to hide.” (The argument, though widespread, is always the argument of the group which controls the courts. As the history of American criminal courts amply demonstrates, one can be found guilty of a crime one did not commit based on being the wrong color.) Now that the Syrian government says it will facilitate the investigation, Western hawks are forced to argue that this cooperation is “too little, too late,” and that an investigation five days after an attack is worthless. This despite the fact that the UN investigators were already in Damascus to investigate attacks from March. If five days is too late for an investigation, it is unclear what good the UN investigators could do in Syria at all.
As Paul Thomas Chamberlin commented on the day of the chemical weapons attack, the US has a very bad track record for intervention in Muslim areas of Asia and Africa, a history of counter-productive intervention spanning decades. The parallels between the proposed US support for rebels in Syria and the US sponsored Mujahhidun fighting against the Soviet-sponsored government in Afghanistan, which reduced Afghanistan to the rubble we see today, are frightening. Of course, the Russians didn’t come out of Afghanistan looking like heroes either.
But the US track record even in the current Syrian conflict does not inspire confidence. Given the long-standing hostility between the US and the Assad regime, a byproduct of Syria’s alliance with the USSR and cold antagonism to Israel, the US rashly called upon Bashar al-Assad to step down as soon as the protests started in March 2011. Thus the US lost whatever positive influence it might have had over the regime (not that it ever had much). With the recognition of the and the progressive revelations how much the SNC has cooperated with the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the US has provided its critics with the easy tagline that the American government is supporting terrorism. When the US and the Russians agreed about the importance of holding peace talks in Geneva “to find a political solution,” the Russians got the Assad government to agree to the talks, while the US-backed rebels refused to participate. The Syrian government is still touting its willingness to participate in Geneva. The US hasn’t mentioned Geneva recently.
I think it would be very foolish for the US to intervene militarily without waiting for word from the UN chemical weapons investigators. To strike at Assad without UN support would convince many in the Middle East of American arrogance and willingness to act as judge, jury, and executioner for a “justice” tailored to suit its own ends. (And although I prefer to give governing bodies the benefit of the doubt, I find myself troubled by the rising prominence of “defending our national interests” in US government statements about Syria.) The mess in Syria will have no easy solutions, and for the US to enter Syria now will simply ensure that the mess which follows the war is blamed on the US intervention. And as media reports almost invariably indicate, the information coming out of Syria could not be verified, meaning we really have little idea who is doing what to whom in the countryside around Damascus.
But I am not a quietist, and I certainly do not believe that the US should just “let them kill each other,” as certain callous Islamophobic westerners are arguing. The US can certainly help now by continuing to provide defensive technology, by providing humanitarian assistance to refugee camps, and by helping the countries hosting the refugee camps provide police presence in those camps. Although media reports have depicted Western politicians repeating the mantra of “no boots on the ground,” if a military intervention is needed, I think putting “boots on the ground” may be the best way to humanize the process, far better than raining terror from the skies. “Boots on the ground” may deliver humanitarian assistance in ways that hellfire missiles cannot.
But in order to facilitate the end of the violence in Syria, and particularly of the secularist vs. jihadi rebel infighting which will inevitably follow Assad’s departure, the US needs to work diplomatically with Russia and wait for the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job. When the US intervenes, I think it needs to do so as part of an international coalition including Russia. Moscow has been much more effective about influencing the situation in Syria than the US has been. If the US can get over its spat that Russia provided temporary asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden (which led President Obama to cancel his state visit to Putin, evidently because revealing that a government is flagrantly breaking its own laws is treasonous), then it just may be able to work with Moscow over how to bring the Syrian conflict to a halt. Now, Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s civil rights record is also a problem, but if Russia can be disengaged from supporting Assad, Iran will not be in a position to hold up Assad, and China is unlikely to invest what Russia has been doing in order to keep Assad in power. That is probably the surest way to ensure that Syria does not turn into an al-Qa’ida stronghold training terrorists for the next twenty years.
A critical component of the rule of law is due process, and due process takes time. That time is costly, as thousands are dying in Syria. But due process is precisely what distinguishes seeking the common good from self-serving bullying. If the US is serious about seeking what is best for Syrians, then it needs to support all Syrians and not just its favored faction, and it needs to allow the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.
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.
Yesterday’s ouster of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi was greeted by jubilant crowds celebrating in Cairo’s Tahrir (or “Liberation”) Square. It was also greeted by tears from Mursi’s supporters staging a sit-in around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية). It was described as a military coup by members of the deposed government, while international heads of state such as US president Barack Obama were hesitant to call it a coup, due to the political ramifications.
So the question is: is the ouster of Muhammad Morsi a return to the dark days of undemocratic military rule under Hosni Mubarak, as Morsi’s supporters allege? Or is it the renewal of the stalled 2011 revolution by the removal of Morsi the “mini-Mubarak”, as his opponents claim? Is the intervention of the Egyptian army to depose the elected president in response to massive public protests a step forward for freedom, or a step back?
This question, like so many questions that matter, is difficult to answer not only because the future is unknown, but also because the question is poorly framed. As it stands, this question presumes that freedom is a thing which can be possessed or lost, or perhaps a substance which one can have more of less of. But freedom is neither, nor is it an agreed-upon concept, but rather notions of freedom vary widely. Even leaving aside Janis Joplin‘s dictum, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” the situation in Egypt throws into sharp relief how one person’s freedom is another person’s tyranny.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood (such as ex-president Mursi) want to be free to enact laws in accordance with the system of government which they have constructed with the mandate, such as it is, of the 13 million voters who voted for Mursi over his opponent Ahmad Shafiq in the run-off election in June 2012. Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood want to be free from the sorts of laws enacted by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. At its most basic form, freedom is always freedom from something or freedom to do something (although it is often, more perniciously, freedom for someone to do what they want at the expense of someone else).
These desired freedoms in Egypt are not compatible, any more than the clash between the French government (founded upon the motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité“) banning the hijab in public schools in the name of freedom of religion, while some French Muslims desire freedom of religion to be able to wear the hijab. Similarly, at the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, Ataturk’s notion of freedom of religion in a secular state involved closing the madrasas which train Islamic religious scholars, while some Turkish (and Kurdish) imams still desire the freedom to attend a madrasa in their own country. The Turkish military staged repeated coups to bring down governments considered too Islamic, although the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have sufficiently curtailed the power of the military through his earlier purges of senior generals on charges of plotting a coup. This is not a problem facing only Islamic society, but a challenge facing all human society: my getting what I wish (my freedom) may prevent or hinder you from getting what you wish (your freedom). In the crass terms of the old saying, “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose.” Nobody’s freedom is complete freedom, and all freedom in actual societies restricts the freedom of other people.
Indeed, some people attack others in the name of exercising their personal sense of freedom. One aspect of both the 2011 and 2013 popular demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo which is only now receiving increased news is the spike of sexual violence in the unstable situations of the protests. Nina Burleigh wrote for CNN a thoughtful opinion piece which argues that the increasing numbers of rapes on Tahrir Square are a political message telling women that they have no place in Egyptian politics. (A small quibble: I accept the feminist critique of the old view that rapes are about excess lust; feminists instead pointed out how rapes are about power. But I doubt the rapists on Tahrir Square are self-consciously using rape as an articulated political tool to send a conscious message. Instead, a culture which encourages sexual harassment of women in public mixes with the heady optimism of successfully ousting the president, leading some men to feel empowered to take whatever they want with impunity, even to the point of raping women.) As Burleigh points out, rapes in the atmosphere of the demonstrations are not merely “an unfortunate byproduct of mob violence,” but a pervasive and culturally condoned crime for which the victim is falsely blamed while the perpetrators go free. But if I analyze the causes subtly differently than Burleigh, the take-home message for many Egyptian women is certainly the same: the freedom of Tahrir Square may be an exclusively male freedom, which comes at great cost to certain women.
So if freedom is not a thing to be had or not had, nor simply a quantity to be increased or decreased, what is it? It is a set of societally and culturally defined parameters by which the society regulates those aspects of individual life which are explicitly allowed to vary. It is, as it were, the regulation on the regulations. Egyptians need to work out what sort of freedom Egyptian freedom will be.
In that regard, it is telling that when Egyptian defense minister ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi read the army’s statement announcing that President Mursi was deposed on national television, among the people shown by the camera as seated beside him were former director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and the Coptic pope Tawadros II. This image of al-Sisi with the seated leaders of Egyptian society sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will be welcoming of secularists and of Christians. The placing of Mursi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders into “political isolation” (an odd euphemism for military arrest) sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will not be welcoming to Brotherhood-brand Islamist policies. The lack of any women depicted in the video of al-Sisi reading the army’s statement (here in Arabic) was hardly a surprise, but itself reinforces the possibility that free Egyptian society may be a man’s world. The individuals depicted in that video, broadcast alive across the country and onto big screens in Tahrir Square, is no accident: the army has taken a stand on what free Egyptian society should look like, who should be excluded and who included, and who should stand at the podium speaking for all Egypt (namely the defense minister al-Sisi himself). It remains to be seen whether Egyptians accept the army’s definition of Egyptian freedom, or rather which Egyptians accept it and to what degree.