13 Mar 2013

Well-informed Misreading: A History of Syria with Dan Snow

‘Syria has been at the heart of human civilisation for thousands of years. The violence now raging across the country often seems random and inexplicable but it isn’t. If you want to understand what’s happening in Syria and this region at the moment there’s only one place to start, and that’s in the past. Those fighting for control of Syria nurse grievances stretching back centuries.’

I watched Dan Snow’s documentary ‘A History of Syria’ (BBC Two, 11 March), in which he tried to explain the historic roots of the on-going conflict there. Snow had clearly delved deep into Syrian history and tried to understand the dynamics of what’s happening today, travelling to various parts of Syria and talking to both pro and anti-regime Syrians. Unfortunately, his conclusions were distorted by his overreliance on historic precedents and the extent to which past grievances are dictating what’s happening today.

The documentary is still worth watching, (watch it here), but it’s a missed opportunity to examine the historic aspects of the Syrian conflict without falling into the trap of deterministic sectarian narratives. Snow’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the historic grievances between Alawites and Sunnis are directly responsible for the conflict raging in Syria today.

Snow cites the historic persecution of Alawites at the hand of Sunni rulers and finds parallels with the anti-Alawite rhetoric and the accusations of heresy levelled against them by some Sunni clerics. (He interviews one such cleric in Tripoli, Lebanon.) In parallel, he identifies the bloody suppression of the 1982 revolt in Hama by Assad Sr. as a cause for the Sunni desire for revenge which he argues influenced the path of the Syrian uprising.

No one can deny the sectarian aspect of the Syrian civil war, but like many before him Snow is wrong in attributing cause and effect. Framing the conflict in terms of long-standing sectarian animosities makes it sound like another inevitable episode in a history of violence and revenge. That is a common form of fatalistic determinism among many Middle East observers and analysts. In reality, the sectarian tone, while never entirely absent, became more apparent in response to the violent suppression of the uprising and the subsequent militarisation of the opposition.

This wasn’t inevitable. Sectarian mobilisation and alarmism about existential threats surfaced in the absence of cross-sectarian political narratives and the regime’s response to peaceful demonstrations. But the paralysis of social and political life in Syria for decades was bound to impact on the ability to form such narratives and the ability of new national leaders to emerge and play a role in the uprising. But it’s by no means a rehearsal of an ancient history repeating itself, that is simplistic.

Snow, on the other hand, was right to identify how the Syrian conflict was aggravated by external meddling:
But there’s also another echo from Syria’s long history that’s prolonging the current conflict. Syria is once again at the centre of a struggle involving global and regional powers for control over its future.  Russia and Shiite Iran support Assad’s regime while Sunni Arab states and the west increasingly back elements of the opposition.

The great forces of Syrian history are fuelling a bitter war. East versus west, Sunni versus Alawite, secularism versus religion, democracy versus authoritarianism. The threads running through this conflict mean that there’s no simple solution. All Syrians are now asking what the future holds for their country.

But he over-dramatized the nature of that meddling in presenting it as a replay of past global struggles over Syria. External actors have inflamed the situation, but driven less by those ‘timeless’ struggles than immediate concerns that remain largely ambiguous and confused. Two years on for example and the US is no nearer to formulating a clear policy on Syria. Yet, hapless meddling from all sides has tragic consequences.
At the end, Snow tried to find a ray of hope in Syria’s tradition of tolerance:

But for now there’s no current end in sight for the current violence which has left a military stalemate on the ground. Ultimately Syria’s different communities are going to have to talk and work out a way of living alongside each other again to prevent the country’s total destruction. But Syria’s long history shows that this, at least, is possible.

But that is also a dangerous conclusion, although one that is gaining currency fast. In seeing the conflict between Syrians as one between communities, the solution is increasingly being seen in terms of a communitarian peace deal. (Akin to what happened in Lebanon). That means the political nature of the conflict will be subsumed by a deal that will enshrine communitarianism within Syria’s future.


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  2. Seems like the communitarian, 'confessional' solution mentioned at the end would be a good one. A republic, with also percentage ranges by sect, including 'other'. Lessening the government's direct ownership and involvement in the economy would also be good. Greatly lessening income inequality/unevenness of opportunity. At least, these are things that I would hope for for their country.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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