SYRIA: GIVING SHAPE TO A SHAPELESS NIGHTMARE.
By Hugh Graham.
Until this recenty, Aleppo had remained one of the quieter corners of Syria but now Syrian rebels have been launching attacks on the Shabiha militia and a month ago government armoured vehicles fired into a mass demonstration killing ten. But what does it all mean? Does it matter that it’s northwest Syria? Or could it be anywhere?
If anything discourages public outrage about the atrocities in Syria, it is surely the perceived monotony of the events and the violence. For us in the west, one Syrian town seems very much like another and every massacre, however horrible, is coming to look like the last one. We don’t know where the towns are or who lives there, nor do we care. The media’s focus on the horror and the death tolls has made the details seem irrelevant. In the end, it appeals to our hearts but less so to our minds. The result is that Syria, in the mind’s eye, has become like a big, featureless circle with a terrible symmetry in which everything everywhere is horribly the same. The conflict has no shape. Indecipherability leads to monotony and monotony to hopelessness.
It is the Assad regime’s deplorable economic policies and their impoverishment of every region that has made the violence seem so evenly dispersed. For indeed, the foundations of the struggle are economic and not sectarian.
A view Syria’s regions starts to give a little shape to the struggle. It’s actually relevant that Syria is like a right angle triangle with the right angle comprising the Mediterranean coast and with Lebanon on the west and Turkey along the north while the east forms the long slanting side that borders Iraq. It’s relevant because west and east are radically different. The ruling Alawite minority sect lives on the west side in the mountainous northern half of the coast. The major cities, where most of the killing is taking place, are in the narrow “Western corridor,” the string of cities that runs down the west side of the Syrian triangle from Aleppo and Idlib, through Hama, Houla and Homs to Damascus and Daraa in the south. Like the country itself, that populous north-south urban corridor has a Sunni majority. It is also where President Assad’s triumvirate of government, business and security is rooted and where it will stand or fall. The pro-government Alawite areas stretch inward and south from the coast where they are fatally interspersed with the Sunnis in the Western corridor. That’s how many of the massacres begin. The north side of Syria is agriculturally rich. The east side contains Syria’s oil reserves.
In the cosmopolitan Western Corridor, even the wealthier Sunnis have been angered by government control of business through corruption and graft. There too, cities like Hama are surrounded with poor people who have fled the neglect of rural Syria by Assad’s liberalization of the economy and who make up the bulk of the growing resistance. Along the north side, cronies of the Assad regime have stripped this fertile agricultural region of its resources and redirected the water into private hands. On the remote eastern side, the government manipulates the tribes by setting them against one another. Massive oil profits in the east tend to disappear into private hands, also linked to the regime.
Beyond those borders, the geopolitics remain dangerous when it comes to intervention by neighbours and Western powers. But independently of the impotent UN, nations should follow the Gulf States in obtaining a foothold where they can to stop the killing. Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the northwest, the general region of Aleppo where fighting has intensified. It includes the mountainous coastal homeland of the ruling Alawites and their Christian allies. This could make the best prospect for a liberated zone. The Free Syrian Army has made considerable inroads in the northwest, around Aleppo and Idlib; it also has a refuge there, across the Turkish border.
There has been some talk about getting the minorities in the northwest, who normally support Assad, to join the opposition. There are Christians, Druzes and Ismailis in the region who are getting tired of him. And there are many impoverished Alawites, who would abandon their co-religionist Assad if they could be assured of a welcome by the Sunni majority in the opposition.
In the end, a northwestern liberated zone protected by the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Liberation army and made attractive to poor Alawites and alienated Christians might be a start. It would eat directly into Assad’s social base. A territorial initiative would also present the international community, if and when it can begin to act, with a Syria of promising parts and not of a hopeless whole. A place where the nightmare of Homs is balanced by the hope of Aleppo.