North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Monday, August 27, 2012

Syria's Arab Spring swept aside as conflict degenerates into religious persecution and sectarian cleansing

The conflict in Syria is slowly being revealed in all its brutal complexity, certainly more than the hopeful narrative with which it was first framed. What much of the Western media first described optimistically as Syria's own "Arab Spring" - a rising up of a hopeful, youthful, moderately secular, democratic outpouring of Arab aspirations - has been overtaken, unfortunately by more splintered agendas and hardened factions.

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After the initial Arab Spring narrative that lasted through the first half of 2011, came a Free Syria Army template- a clean patriotic rebellion against an oppressive regime: an armed version of the Arab Spring youth - akin perhaps to the first versions of the Libyan rebels. Turkey early on called for its ally President al-Assad to concede some power through negotiations with the FSA movement regarding its legitimate demands. The UN's peace initiative, led by former UN Secretary Koki Annan also began under this narrative - maintaining the fiction that there two equal rational sides willing to negotiate. A familiar post cold war tension, however, forced its way into the conflict, with Russia and China supporting Syria, while much of the West via NATO supporting the aspirations of the rebels (similar to the story in Libya).

Earlier in the conflict, the UN appointed Kofi Annan to act as liaison between President Assad (shown here) and the opposition.

Any meaningful action by the UN was stymied by Russia. Here US President Obama confers with Russian President Putin.

Later in 2011, reporting acknowledged further complexity of the conflict by noting Assad's shadowy use of the Shabiha. This mafia-type armed militia supporting Assad began to do the dirtier work of executions and oppression that the regime did not want to be associated with. At the same time, mutterings about "foreign elements" being found or involved came more frequently from both Western intelligence and the Assad regime itself. Those fighters - hard core fighters from Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Yemen - were being drawn into conflict for ideological reasons. Elements of Al-qaeda were more consistently being mentioned. What wasn't clear was whether the FSA (Free Syria Army), itself a haphazard grouping of fighters opposed to Assad (never with a centralized command structure or even a political "head"), was allied with these foreign elements, or simply finding itself fighting longside others finding opportunities with an embattled government.

Additional layers of the conflict were added over time with discussions about tribal loyalties - the Assad leadership part of a small Alewite tribe - along with the sectarian Muslim divide between Shiites and Sunnis. The term "civil war" was increasingly used.

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In the Syrian town of Duoma, lives lost await burial.

In the spring of 2012, with the conflict now being more characterized as a civil war, geopolitical references were increasingly cited. Iran's "arc" of influence was somberly noted with the Iranian's President Ahmadinejad strongly supporting Assad, as was Lebanon's Hezbollah repeating Iran's position. Not surprisingly, both Iran and Hezbollah attempted to finger Israel as the fundamental enemy, though in truth, Sunni Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia were viewing the conflict as a counter against increasing Iranian influence. In this sense, the civil war between internal Syrian factions, was also a proxy war, fought locally, but in the background between Sunni and Shiite groupings, as well as Western vs post Cold-War belligerents.

Iran early on voiced support for President Assad, left, shown here hosting a visit by Iran's President Ahmadinejad

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Refugee camps have been erected, and refugees have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan

By early summer this year, with Assad in trouble as evidenced by an assassination of several in his inner circle, both the US and Israel referenced their concern over Syria's apparent mammoth arsenal of chemical weapons. The concern was whether those armaments would be seized and distributed to "unknown" (Al-qaeda or other Islamic extremists) in an anarchy that was looking more and more likely. In early August, the UN initiative came to an end, finding itself lacking any relevance to the actual matters on the ground

Syrian jet fighters now regularly involved, in this case bombing rebel strongholds in Aleppo

And so now nearly 21 months into the conflict, we are seeing the final diverse elements of the country being drawn in to the messy civil war, or proxy war, or both. The BBC reports the more complex situation as one where all sorts of Syrian minority groups are being drawn in: various tribal and religious groupings - the Kurds, the previously mentioned Alewites, Christians, Salafists, and the Druze.

As the BBC describes, "The Druze, who make up 4% to 5% of the population, follow a monotheistic religion drawn on Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam, and like Syria's Christians initially tried to avoid taking sides in the uprising." The article goes on to describe the latest tactic of the Assad regime, "Shabiha, a term used to describe pro-government thugs, started to get armed in the town [one town in Syria where Druze are in the majority], "The security people recruited all the convicted criminals in prison, released them under an amnesty and armed them under the pretext of protecting the area from armed Salafist gangs ..." The result has been indiscriminate attacks on any perceived group not supporting Assad.

A particularly horrific image of a small street pooled with blood

But in fact most of that recent BBC article tracked the increasingly desperate plight of Christians across Syria (about 10% of the population, surrounded by the larger Muslim majority of Shias and Sunnis). A Global Post story notes, "In interviews with more than a dozen Qseir residents, a Wall Street Journal reporter recently discovered a vicious cycle of murder and kidnap between Sunni and Christian families, triggered by claims that Christians were acting as regime spies. Almost all Qseir’s Christians have now fled, with many taking shelter in makeshift tents in the northern Bekaa valley."

Lebanon's border with Syria is increasingly militarized and violent

Religious entities - the Catholic Church for one - are much sharper in their concerns about the Christian communities as August 2012 unfolds. CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK in late August also focused on the town of Oseir .... The leader of the armed opposition (ostensibly the Free Syrian Army) gave an order in early August that Christians had to leave the town. "

People are split as to the reason for the order. While some say that the armed opposition leader is trying to protect them from further bloodshed, others claim that it is just one more example of focussed discrimination and repression against Christians.

A third opinion says that many Christians have openly expressed their loyalty to the state and for this reason the opposition is against them.

The Christian communities of Syria, ancient ones, are quickly being lost. It is a loss for Syria, as well as the whole array of beliefs and traditions contained in Christianity worldwide.

While many have fled, mostly to Damascus, the fate of the around 1,000 who elected to remain in their homes in defiance of the order is still unknown. Fides (the Catholic news agency) says that it has received reports saying that Islamic Salafist extremist groups are strong in the ranks of the opposition and they consider Christians to be infidels, so they confiscate their possessions and carry out executions of Christians."

Reports centering on Christian community persecution occuring under the cover of the larger conflict abound. As the Catholic story goes on, “Many Iraqi Christians fled to Syria after they became targets and their churches were burned. Now the same thing is happening in Syria, ... They are living in fear of what could happen to them and whether or not they are safe. Whole suburbs where Christians lived in Homs have been destroyed,” said Father Rahal Dergham, the chaplain to the Syrian and Iraqi Catholic communities in Sydney archdiocese, Australia.

“Priests have also been killed and others have been seriously wounded. In Homs, the church of Mar Elian is in ruins and Our Lady of Peace is occupied by rebels, and the Armenian Apostolic Church and its adjoining school has been seized and occupied as a base for the Syrian Liberation Army.” Father Dergham was born, raised and ordained a priest in Syria. Two of his brothers and some of his relatives still live in his hometown, midway between Homs and Hama. “In Homs and other cities, no Catholic or Christian who leaves their house is safe. In villages it is also difficult, with Christians, no matter where they live, given no protection against the violence by the government or anyone else,” he says."

So, the point of this sorry post is that within any conflict, middle ground is lost, people must choose sides or flee, and those who stay most often become more radicalized or hardened in their perspective and behavior. A tragedy for this country that is still grinding towards an uncertain conclusion.

1 comment:

Teatree said...

A more articulate article by CNN (August 30, 12) on Syria's civil war