Tag Archives: Syrian National Coalition

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.

Syria’s Solution Depends on Moscow

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 the US, UK, and France 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 Syrian National Coalition 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.

Who are Syria’s “good guys”?

US President Barack Obama decided this week that American weapons will be supplied to the Free Syrian Army under Brigadier-General Salim Idris.  Of course, the announcement was made in advance of next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland to put the US in a better bargaining position relative to Russia with regard to the Syria issue.  This is especially necessary since Russia secured the “in principle” agreement of the Assad government to the “Geneva 2” peace talks originally scheduled for this month, which have now been pushed back indefinitely since the US failed to secure from the Syrian National Coalition.  Amid wide-ranging media speculation about the precise extent and nature of the US military aid, it is important to know a bit more about who will be receiving the materiel in Syria.

Salim Idris (سليم ادريس) is the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.  Born in 1957 to a poor farming family south of Homs, he enlisted at a young age in the Syrian army. He was trained in electrical engineering in Dresden in East Germany from 1977 until at least 1990, earning a master’s degree in 1984 and a doctorate in 1990.  He spent twenty years as a professor of electrical engineering at the Military Engineering Academy in Aleppo.  Previously a brigadier general in the Syrian Army, he defected from supporting the Assad regime to the Free Syrian Army, then under the command of Colonel Riad al-As’ad (رياض الأسعد), in July 2012.

In December 2012, a meeting of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army retained Colonel al-As’ad as symbolic Commander-in-Chief but reorganized the structure to create a Supreme Military Council with Salim Idris at its head and five deputy chiefs of staff under him.  It is not clear to me from the Wikipedia article how these deputy chiefs of staff line up with the nine regional commanders of the FSA reported in the English Wikipedia article, with regional military councils in eight of the fourteen governorates of Syria: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dar’a, and perhaps Latakia and Dayr al-Zawr (the commanders of these latter two provinces are listed as “unknown”).  The army is reportedly based in Idlib province.

In assessing how likely weapons supplied to the Supreme Military Council are to end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida, there are several factors in play.  One is how much of the weaponry will be expended in the war with the regime, but that is difficult to predict.  Another is how much central control the Supreme Military Council has over the use of weapons.  A third is what connections the central command has with al-Qa’ida aligned rebels.  An excellent Reuters article quoted Abu Nidal, a fighter in the Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, to say that while they are not formally part of the Free Syrian Army, they fight “in formation” with the FSA, which presumably involves sharing weaponry.  An earlier Reuters article from the time of the reorganization indicated that at least two of Idris’ deputy chiefs of staff are “Islamists”: ‘Abd al-Basit Tawil from Idlib and ‘Abd al-Qadr Salih from Aleppo.  I have not yet been able to find any additional information about these two and their “Islamist” connections.

Per a reader suggestion, I am constructing a list of military groups in Syria for easy reference, but that will take some time.  I may post unfinished draft versions of that page in the process of development.

 

Lost or Found: Driving a Hard Bargain?

One aspect of Middle Eastern culture which is almost completely foreign to me personally is the culture of bargaining.  Where I grew up, we bargained for baseball cards and used cars, and nothing else.  But in most of the Middle East, prices are negotiable.  You ask the price of an object, you do some quick arithmetic to see how far above what you want to pay that price is, you take the difference off what you want to pay, and you make a counter-offer.  At that point it’s a game between seller and buyer to see who can give up less.  A Middle Eastern friend of mine told me before my first visit to the region, “You can always play the walk-out.  If there’s something you really want, and you can’t get the price you want, just start to walk away.  Don’t worry, the shopkeeper will call you back!”

What I do not know, but very much hope, is whether some of the positions and statements of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian National Coalition are simply posturing in order to secure a more favorable outcome of the Geneva 2 dialogues next month.  It is worth remembering that Russia insisted that there must be no preconditions to these talks, largely as a way of disqualifying the Syrian National Coalition’s previous position of seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad before agreeing to dialogue.  Since then, both the Syrian National Coalition and the Assad regime have made statements that sound like preconditions to Geneva 2, and the question is what these statements are intended to achieve.

On the regime’s side, President Bashar al-Assad has agreed “in principle” to participate in the Geneva 2 dialogues, with the goal of seeking a political solution to the violence (which US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated will create a transitional government acceptable to all parties and thus ensure the removal of Bashar al-Assad).  But al-Assad has also said that he does not intend to step down, but will seek re-election in the 2014 elections.  He has declared that the loyal Syrian Army is defeating the rebels.  He has stated (in a press release for an interview) and implied (in the actual interview) that he has received the first shipments of Russian missiles, although Russian sources contradicted him.

On the opposition side, although the lesser-known National Coordination Coalition has agreed to the talks, the Syrian National Coalition has rejected the notion of dialogue with the regime as long as the “massacres” continue.

This rejection by the Syrian National Coalition seemed short-sighted to me.  Certainly, one can understand the emotional reasoning and the dread of “striking a deal with the devil” in their eyes, since they blame Bashar al-Assad personally for all of the awful things of this war.  But their position seems absurd: they require the regime to unilaterally declare a ceasefire and the president to voluntarily step down, before dialogue can happen at which sides might agree to a ceasefire.

But the interchange regarding the Russian missiles reminded me that not all is as it seems in the Middle East, and words mean different things in different contexts.  If, as seems likely, the Russian sources are correct that the missiles haven’t shipped (and won’t get there for at least a few months), then the president’s claim to the contrary is an attempt at intimidation and indicating a strong position from which to bargain.  He does not need to drop his price very much.  Because the other side of bargaining is that the buyer needs to be willing to pay a price which the seller is willing to take seriously.  From the opposition perspective, since they want al-Assad to go, the opposite counter-offer of his insisting he’ll seek re-election is to insist that he leave from the start.  Are these statements just rhetorical preparation for bargaining at Geneva 2?

I do not know.  They could be, and I hope they are.  That would make a lot more sense of the Syrian National Coalition’s position.  On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad last November vowed to “live or die” in Syria, so it may be that he fully intends not to compromise on his re-election bid.  And the Syrian National Coalition must know that a public refusal to take part in the Geneva 2 dialogues, even only a temporary refusal, is costing them a lot of international support.  The strife of their meeting in Istanbul last week already cost them a lot of support within Syria (here, and here).  If these statements are not driving a hard bargain, the talks can still go on even without the Syrian National Coalition (after all, the National Coordination Coalition agreed to participate), but the Geneva 2 are even more unlikely than they already seemed to bring an end to the Syrian Civil War without some involvement from the Syrian National Coalition.  A lot is now riding on whether the bargaining culture of the Middle East is found or lost in these statements of both the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition.

Found: Syria’s Other Secularist Opposition

First let me say that I know there is bigger news about Syria today, such as US Senator John McCain‘s surprise visit to the Free Syrian Army and the European Union’s decision to end the arms embargo against Syria.  I am not yet commenting on those, as I wait to learn more about what each development will mean.  I also have yet to post regarding the effectiveness of drone attacks, as I still intend to do.

But what caught my eye earlier today was a small article from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua, which reported that Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, the leader of the Syrian secularist opposition group the National Coordinating Body, promised to participate “positively” in the US-Russia backed “Geneva 2” negotiations to seek a political end to the bloodshed in Syria, widely expected to occur some time in June.

Wait a sec, you say?  The Syrian opposition is divided between jihadis (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, Ghuraba al-Sham, and the Muhajireen Brigade) on the one hand, and the secularists in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army on the other, right?

Well, yes, I mean, well, sort of.  The Syrian National Council brings together secularists like George Sabra and non-jihadi but distinctly non-secularist politicians such as past president Burhan Ghalioun, who was criticized for being “too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”  The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (هيئة التنسيق الوطنية لقوى التغيير الديمقراطي, often known as the “National Coordination Committee” or NCC), on the other hand, is a coalition of secularist opposition parties which is not recognized by the Syrian National Coalition, many of whose members suspect that they are a front for regime sympathizers or double agents working for the Assad regime.  It is true that the Assad government is secularist as well, and the NCC did not formally call for Assad’s removal until September 2012.  On the other hand, the NCC is now calling for Assad’s removal, which puts them more squarely with the rest of the opposition, despite the suspicions of other opposition groups.  They have rarely been noticed by Western media outlets, which have tended to focus on the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, perhaps viewing them by analogy with Libya’s National Transition Council.

Why is China picking up on the NCC?  While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition are calling for foreign military aid, the NCC rejects external military intervention.  This accords very well with China’s (and Russia’s) repudiation of “foreign meddling” in Syria, seen in their repeated UN Security Council veto of any UN military action in Syria, and this mutual interest in “non-interference” explains why the NCC has received diplomatic support from both China and Russia.  If China and Russia cannot have the Assad regime, the NCC is their opposition of choice.

The NCC also used to have a number of Kurdish member parties, but those parties have withdrawn to form the Kurdish National Council, which is separatist as well as secularist and leftist.  The KNC is arguing that the part of Syria where Kurds form the majority (in the northeast of the country) should be given full Kurdish autonomy, while the SNC and NCC both are pushing for maintaining Syria’s current borders.

With so many opposition groups to choose from, the Geneva 2 meeting may end up with every foreign country having its preferred Syrian opposition coalition.

Who is George Sabra? (part 4)

The final installment of the series on George Sabra in Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper was published on Saturday, 17 November, 2012 (Arabic text here).  As acting president of the Syrian National Coalition he recently called upon the Free Syrian Army to save Qusayr from being recaptured by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies.  Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul to decide on its response to the US-Russian-backed call for peace talks with the regime, which it has previously rejected in calling for the ousting of the regime as a precondition for talks, and to choose the next president to succeed Mu’adh al-Khatib, since Sabra’s position is only acting (temporary) president of the Coalition.

Here is my English translation of the al-Watan article:

Tales of George Sabra (4)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra continues his tales, saying, “During the period when I was arrested after the outbreak of the revolution in Syria – and I have been arrested twice, once for a month and once for two months, as I have already indicated – the prison was full of all parts of Syrian society, accused of participating in the revolution, and the majority of them were ordinary people.  And because we do not mingle with the ordinary people in normal life, we are ignorant of the valuable metal in them, and I was taken by surprise with the level of morality, humanity, and courage, and the bravery and valor which belonged to these ordinary people among the uneducated.  And I was taken by surprise with their humane character when they find someone to lead and direct them.

“Our number in the ward was three hundred and fifty prisoners, and we had one bathroom.  You can imagine that with this number of prisoners using one bathroom, they were standing in a long line and registering their names so that they could get a turn simply to wash their faces or to go to the bathroom.  And the ward’s capacity was only a few dozen people, so we were stuck together and could hardly move from the force of the overcrowding.  And I was like them when I wanted to go to the bathroom, I would completely surprise those who were ahead of me, and one of them would shout, ‘Make way for the professor, you guys!”  Then they all with generosity and agreement and preference were allowing me to bypass the queue, and all of them offer me respect and appreciation.  And I still remember that in my life I never thought that three hundred and fifty people could exist in this narrow space and use one bathroom.  And despite this they were accommodating one another.

“I remember that when I was convicted this past September, 2011, on the charge of trying to found an Islamic emirate in Qatana, and I am actually a Christian from the Communist Party, my family was attending the trial from the beginning of the day until its end, and they observed the presence of three people who were attending the court in a continual manner.  At first they believed they were from the security forces belonging to the regime.  Then my brother asked them after one of the sessions, ‘Do you have someone inside being tried?’  They said to him, ‘Yes, Mr. George Sabra.’  Then he said to them, ‘Do you know Mr. George?’  They said to him, ‘We know him, but he does not know us.’  So he said to them, ‘I am his brother.’  So they insisted on taking my brother with them to their homes, and they were from a nearby village named Kanakir, and all of them were Sunni Muslims.

“I remember that when I came out of prison, there came women all wearing the veil and with them were men all bearded, and they insisted to me that they should take me to their homes.  This revolution has embodied the national unity in Syria in a deep and unprecedented way.  It is true that the ‘Alawites have made a deep and large problem between them and Syrian society, but the rest of the sectors of the people and specifically the Muslims and the Christians have held together in what they share in an unprecedented way.  Just as the churches have been a target for bombing and destruction from the ‘Alawite regime, so the mosques have likewise been a target.  It has demolished dozens of mosques and churches which reflect the historical, cultural, religious, and social identity of Syrian society for thousands of years, and it is as if the regime is not only killing people and terrifying them, but it is also wiping out the historical and social identity of Syria and its people.  This is one of the greatest crimes in history.”

I asked George Sabra about the strangest thing which happened to him during his time in prison, and he said, “The prison was full of ordinary young men, and I had discovered the inherent metal of these people.  When one of them learned that my charge was the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana although I am a Christian, he was in a state of confusion.  And when he had been around me in the prison he frequently approached me and his astonishment was continual that I was not a Muslim.  And twenty days into our knowing each other, he came with the simplicity and boldness and good-heartedness of ordinary people, and he said to me, ‘Sir, I am amazed.  How I could have been with you twenty days and not been able to bring you into Islam, so that you would become a Muslim?’  So I laughed and said to him, ‘You remain Muslim and I will remain Christian so that this national revolution may continue in which the whole people has risen up.’  Our relationship remained good and we did not stop laughing.  And when they summoned me to release me after international and internal pressure, the young man came up to me in a hurry and said, ‘Reasonable master George, you are about to leave prison before our Lord should guide you to arise and pray two rak’as!’  [Ed. note: a rak’a is a ritual prostration in Islamic prayer.]

“These are the hearts of the Syrians, whom everyone used to believe that the injustice which has been inflicted upon them for decades had killed in them courage, valor, self-sacrifice, and the fight for freedom.

The End.

In this final installment, there are some very important details.  He paints a picture of the naturally noble Syrian people which has, one and all, risen up against the tyrant.  It is certainly true that the Syrian Civil War is the greatest uprising in Syria against the Assad regime.  Sabra is at pains to present a Syrian people united in virtue, and specifically united across the sectarian lines which are being emphasized by jihadi rebel groups and Syrian state media.  This non-sectarian paradise is no doubt conjured for the benefit of potential Western backers, for whom a sectarian civil war is a grim specter.  The reference to the destruction of historical monuments, even before the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque fell late last month, is also probably intended to evoke Western outrage against the regime.

Nevertheless, these accounts do not necessary reflect well on Sabra himself, as they reveal his classism and lack of prior connection with “ordinary uneducated people.”  Sabra also engages in his own sectarianism, blaming the ‘Alawites as a whole rather than the Assad regime (indeed, labeling it “the ‘Alawite regime”) for any sectarian tensions.  It is true that most ‘Alawites have sided with Bashar al-Assad, but a pre-revolution fear of post-revolution sectarian reprisals from other sectors of Syrian society is no doubt part of the calculus for many of them.  Rather than attempting to woo the ‘Alawites away from Assad, Sabra here seems content to emphasize the ‘Alawite-Sunni Muslim sectarian divide in order to downplay the Muslim-Christian divide which is rather more dangerous to him personally.

Nor does he quite succeed in dispelling all fears of Muslim-Christian sectarian hostility.  There is no reason to doubt the stories he tells of being the recipient of kindness and hospitality from Sunni Muslims, but his final anecdote about the “confused” Muslim in prison with him was probably a relatively tense moment, despite or perhaps indicated by the report of laughter.  Sabra as a non-Muslim could not respond with any negative statement about Islam in order to explain his allegiance to a different religion without jeopardizing his politics and perhaps his physical safety, depending on the views of the other people in the room.  Notice that he entirely dodges the issue by postponing any changes of religion until after the revolution is successful.  He was probably not as entirely at ease as his narration presents it.

I hope this series of articles on George Sabra has supplemented the scant data available in English online with additional information, in his own words, indicating his character, some of his background, and his contentions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  This additional information will, I hope, allow non-Arabic readers to form a more accurate and nuanced picture of the Syrian Christian who is currently president of two of the more important rebel organizations in the Syrian Civil War, both the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coalition.

Found Again: Rumor of Abducted Bishops’ Good Health

Yesterday the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reported that, according to ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo of the Syrian National Coalition, the Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji and Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim are in good health after being abducted a month ago.  The original Arabic article is here, and an English translation was posted here.  The Lebanese Daily Star reported the same: Syria opposition says kidnapped bishops ‘in good health’.

Evidently ‘Abd al-Ahad Steifo and the Syrian National Coalition have not had any direct contact with either the bishops or their kidnappers, so it is unclear on what basis Steifo made the announcement of the bishops’ health.  He was even uncertain when the doctor reputedly saw them, indicating that his informant was not the doctor himself.  Steifo was, however, quoted as acknowledging that abductions have occurred on all sides in the civil war: “These kidnappings are sometimes carried out by criminal gangs… other times by the regime (of President Bashar al-Assad) and sometimes by the brigades of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army, who use kidnappings as a way to exchange prisoners.”  At the time of the kidnapping Steifo had ruled out any opposition group according to CNN, but according to the Daily Star two weeks ago, George Sabra told Amin Gemayel of the Lebanese Kataeb (or Phalange) Party the bishops were being held by “a rebel group” without specifying which.  A month after the kidnappings, it is still the case that nothing is clear.

I very much hope that this report his correct, and that the abducted bishops of Aleppo will be released safely and soon.  But in the absence of additional details, the reports of “good health” sound like bland reassurances.