In my life I have travelled a fair bit and I also lived in parts of the world for years that are very different from Canada. The difference are social, economic, cultural, linguistic , etc…. So I was able to observed other people and culture from a privilege perch in the diplomatic world. This gave me insight into countries and its people and why they are the way they are.
I become enormously frustrated with the silly narrative found in most media publication or on the news in general. I am also amazed at the lack of understanding the West demonstrates towards the Near-East or Levant. You would think that after centuries of inter-action we would have a better grasp but no we don’t, I speak here of our politicians and governments, I do not include the people because individuals have personal understanding shaped by their lives and experience or lack thereof. As for Asia, the Far-East, countries like China who claim super power status well they make no attempt at understanding the Near-East and do not get involved unless there is important economic, political advantage.
Umayyad Square in Central Damascus near the Canadian Embassy and the Sheraton Hotel.
Damascus had a population of 1.8 million people before 2012.
I think what set me off the other morning was another asinine news report being discussed on Radio-Canada morning radio show called Les Matins d’ici, which always appear to strive for the lowest common denominator. The news item being discussed was the latest spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I just could not believe how mediocre the discussion was between the host and some reporter, neither had any understanding or knowledge of the situation. As these discussions go, the tone used is always one of feeling superior to those little people over there.
Damascus with its mix of old Ottoman Turkish buildings and modern architecture.
The great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, once a Christian Church, a very beautiful place to visit, both Saladin and the head of John the Baptist are buried here. He is venerated by both Muslims and Christians as a Prophet.
So to return to my topic here which is Syria and the region. In 1919 at the end of the First World War, Britain and France had succeeded in destroying the Ottoman Turkish Empire and claimed the spoils of that victory by occupying what we call the Middle-East and reshaping it completely into the creation of various countries we know today. Prior to that the Ottoman Turks had simply ruled the people as one vast entity forming their Empire for the last 500 years. Around 1916 he British had made a deal with the Arab tribes and promised Cherif Hussain of Mecca, kingdoms for his sons in return for military support against the Turks.
The old Souq or Market of Damascus what a fantastic place to shop.
The tablecloths were a big item to purchase as a gift, how many of my colleagues bought dozens of them. Very fine work and really looked good on a dining room table.
So Syria, Irak, Jordan and later Lebanon were created and the story has it, over lunch when Winston Churchill who was First Sea Lord and then occupied various important Government Cabinet posts, took out his pen and drew the map of the region on the tablecloth and the new borders of the new Kingdoms. Of the three kingdoms created only Jordan remains today ruled by the Hashemite Royal family. Irak in a bloody coup killed off its Royal Family in 1958, Syria became a colonial mandate in 1924 and independent of France in 1945. Lebanon was created by secret treaty between France and England in 1926 by separating it from Syria, it was ruled as a colonial mandate until 1943. The people living in that part of the world were never consulted, all of these arrangements were simply imposed on them.
The tea salesman, walking in the market place and you can buy a glass of tea while shopping, a century old tradition.
But my post is about Syria since the beginning of the Civil War the country I knew has been destroyed. Officially Syria had a population of 22 million people, highly urban some 57% lived in cities. Today 3 million Syrians have left into exile or have been killed.
A country of fertile plains, high mountains, and deserts, Syria is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Syrian Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Circassians, Mandeans and Turks. Religious groups include Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis. Sunni Arabs make up the largest population group in Syria. However the dictator Bashar Al-Assad and his family are Alewite Muslims of the Shia branch of Islam.
Unfortunately for Syria, it has seen numerous military coups since independence and then Hafez Al-Assad (father of the current president) and the Baath Party took over in 1961 and have ruled it as a corporate entity belonging to the Al-Assad Family and their friends, sort of a Mafia Police State. Al-Assad (father) allowed many terror groups to establish offices in Damascus under his control. He also cleverly played the Soviets against the Americans in power politics in the region during the Cold War. Though he favoured the USSR because they gave him weapons and political support. Hafez Al-Assad ruled with an iron fist and is responsible for mass murder and other atrocities. He died still holding power in June 2000 and was succeeded unlikely by his son Bashar who lived in London UK at the time and was not destined to become the new dictator. However the Baath Party and the family needed him and he was thrust into the position of President. Many Syrians hoped he would be different from his father, but Bashar was too weak and was manipulated by various factions. Now we have this Civil War that is unlikely to end soon and again Syria is a pawn of the Super Powers Russia and the USA. Other players are Iran who support Bashar Al-Assad, he has been a good ally of Iran for many years. Saudi Arabia who would like to get rid of the regime in Syria if it could be replaced by one favouring Saudi Arabia and block the Iranian influence.
Carpet shops where I spent quite a few afternoons choosing which one I would purchase. The owners would always offer tea or a Seven-up and sandwiches. They could sense a serious buyer.
Jordan is an ally of the USA and wishes to stay out of this conflict to protect itself from the spread of extremism. So far it has managed to remain stable with careful diplomacy and managing carefully the religious question by maintaining that everyone is Jordanian first before anything else. Irak has its own troubles and instability and the current Iraqi government favours links with Iran and has used Iranian troops to fight ISIS within its territory.
I could go on but it gets truly complicated and bizarre as international politics can be sometimes or most of the time. In the meantime the Syrian civilian population bears the brunt of the violence while the great powers play amongst themselves. I was in Damascus for the last time in February 2003 at the time Irak was on the verge of its last war with the USA which would see the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime. The Syrians I met in Damascus then were nervous and afraid, they were ordinary people, café owners, taxi drivers, professionals, etc. who did not want a war with anyone. However the government of Syria was playing a dangerous game as tensions escalated, which was far from neutral in this situation.
What is happening in Syria was bound to happen, you do not annoy the great powers without serious consequences that is the terrible law of international politics, for too many years the Syrian Regime of Hafez Al-Assad was a thorn in the back of the USA and other Western powers. Russia used Syria to advance its own agenda in the region and Syria being on good terms with Iran and many terror groups like Hamas (Palestine) and Hezbollah (Lebanon-Iran) simply made for an unacceptable situation. With the death of Hafez Al-Assad in 2000 the USA, Britain, France and others like Canada hoped for a change in Syrian Foreign Policy more friendly towards the West. But the Middle-East is a place of long memories, resentment and rancour and many cannot forget the Western political manipulations prior to independence in 1946.
Pastry and sweets always fresh
As for the people, the Syrians are long suffering in all of this and they are voiceless like any people living in a dictatorship, who would be foolish enough to speak up in a Police State. The small demonstration of the Arab Spring three years ago were met with police violence. More demonstrations and protests were crushed but this time Western powers were financing some groups and talking regime change. Russia seeing what had happened in Libya with Kadhafi feared the same in Syria and gave full support to Bashar Al-Assad so did Iran to block any idea of regime change, China also had a hand in this discreetly playing obstruction on the sideline. If Russia had not intervened to support Al-Assad, Russia would have lost years of careful influence and alliance building in the region. It would also have diminished its image building as a new Russia retaking the world stage it was forced to abandon in 1990 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain in Europe. Russia has demonstrated it is very keen to retake its lost prestige in the international arena.
Ottoman Turkish Mansions turned into hotels or restaurants
Now the problem with the lingering Civil War in Syria is what to do with Bashar Al-Assad, he is the poisoned apple no one wants, including Russia who does not appear to control him anymore, but Russia cannot abandon him, concede defeat and give up the game to the USA and its Allies. The other crucial question is WHO would replace him and what would come after? Better the devil you know, who is pliable than a wild card. So the Civil War must go on until a solution is found to the Al-Assad problem, there are no easy solution.
As for the ISIS group, they could be easily crushed tomorrow, but at this time they are still useful in the game of power politics in the region. They will eventually disappear. The Powers will decide on action to be taken and wipe them out. No one likes them, including groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. ISIS has no allies and this is its greatest weakness and its eventual undoing. However at the moment they are useful in keeping the region weak on the world checkerboard.
In the meantime Syrians flee, it is estimated by the United Nations that upwards of 5000 persons per day leave Syria for Jordan, Turkey and other points. It is a very sad situation and a true humanitarian crisis. Most refugees are from big Syrian Urban Centres, many are educated, middle-class and have lost everything. They are just civilians caught in a vicious civil war, powerless to do anything that might affect the outcome.
The world media has had a field day branding them terrorists, ISIS supporters, carriers of disease, fundamentalists killers. The media has branded this an Islamic Invasion, our world is in peril, etc. In fact if you read any of the media in Europe or North America there have been very few balance reports. In Canada the former government under Stephen Harper conducted a hate campaign against Muslims in the hope of garnering votes during the Federal National Election, this played very badly for Mr Harper who lost all and ended up as a backbencher in the House of Commons. Tea Party style politics in Canada does not play out well, though Newspaper chains like the Sun and the National Post or the Globe and Mail certainly endorsed him.
The Al-Zaatari Refuge Camp in Jordan, home to 160,000 Syrians. It is the largest in the World, under the administration of the UNHCR.
The French speaking Press in Quebec is anti-Muslim and xenophobic but this has to be seen in the context of the Nationalistic Quebec Politics which has always had strong racial overtones. It is extremely sad to see such ignorance displayed openly. Another example of how we never learn from history, in 1938 when Jews wished to flee Europe it was Quebec who displayed its racist attitudes.
Canada has processed and visaed to Immigrate to this country the 10,000 promised by year end by the Trudeau government, but due to lack of flights from Jordan only 6500 have actually arrived so far in Canada.
Syrian children in the camp in Jordan.
A large portion of the Canadian population is certainly supporting this movement of refugees and many good news stories have appeared. One from the Guardian in Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island and others in Halifax and Toronto, the Syrian families who have arrived are very happy and thankful Canada has extended a hand to help. It is our tradition for the last 130 years. What is good also is the fact that once they actually land in Canada they are automatically Permanent Resident and can simply go about their lives in a normal way. In the end up to 50,000 will settle in Canada. They are ordinary civilian caught in a vicious civil war which displaced them and ruined their lives.
With my knowledge and experience of the region I have no doubt that the Syrians will adapt well and will make good citizens. They certainly bring with them a different culture but also one that values education, knowledge and they will melt into our society and mix with other Arab both Christian and Muslim and Middle-Eastern populations in Canada.
The fear should be from our own ignorance, lack of compassion and understanding of the other.