What Syria Means

NEW DELHI – Syria’s agony has generated a variety of unproductive responses: verbal condemnation of the excesses of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; disagreements about the wisdom of armed intervention; and all-around confusion about the possibility of finding a viable long-term solution. Worse, in this sorry state of affairs, the world may be getting a glimpse of a very ugly future.

First, let us try to disentangle some of the cat’s cradle of ironies and contradictions that are bedeviling efforts to end the violence in Syria. Whereas Syria denies political freedom to its citizens, it tolerates significantly more social freedom than many other Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is leading the charge to oust Assad. Governed by minority Alawites (a Shia sect), Syria harbors a kaleidoscope of distinct groups: Arabs, Armenians, Christians, Kurds, Druze, Ismailis, and Bedouin. 

It is this tolerance of cultural and religious diversity that could be endangered if the Sunni-inspired revolt sweeps the country. And that is why Syria simultaneously generates revulsion at the regime’s atrocities and fear of what might follow if the regime is defeated.

In an ancient land such as Syria, there can be no examination of the problems of the present without reflecting upon the past. History, after all, is always the mother of the present, and geography the progenitor.