The roads to and from Damascus are drenched with blood these days. The political unrest that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen has yet to unseat Bashar al-Assad from his family-run control of Syria, although the handwriting is on the wall. It was on the proverbial road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus was blinded by a vision of Jesus asking why Saul was persecuting him. Given the work of the Apostle Paul, the converted missionary, Christianity would never be the same. Under the second Islamic caliph ‘Umar, Damascus was conquered in 634 from the Byzantines, soon to be expanded as the capital of the Ummayad dynasty. The next major disaster occurred in 1260 CE when a Mongol army took control of Damascus, but in the same year the Mamluk sultan Baybars retook the city and persevered in driving out the remnants of the crusaders in the surrounding region. Allegiances shifted back and forth, with the final Ottoman control ended as the combined British and Arab forces entered Damascus and Lawrence of Arabia’s Faysal was proclaimed king for a short-lived reign of one year in 1920. Coups continued in the mid-20th century with Hafez al-Assad gaining total control under the banner of his Ba’th party in 1971. Four decades later the stage is set for yet another major regime change.
Serious rebellion started in Syria in January, 2011. One event that galvanized the resistance was on January 26, when Hasan Ali Akleh from Al-Hasakah set himself on fire in protest, following the example of the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi a year earlier. Since the opening skirmishes, which the military and secret police attempted to put down ruthlessly, it has been estimated that over 60,000 Syrians have been killed, mostly non-military. As of January 2013, over 600,000 refugees have fled Syria, beyond the thousands who have been displaced within Syria. The New York Times (January 26, 2013) reports that the number of Syrian refugees has skyrocketed from an estimated 92,000 in July, 2012. The massive influx of refugees, often fleeing with no resources or money, is placing a huge burden on the neighboring states of Jordan, Turkey and Syria. With a cold winter the suffering of those who have fled is unrelenting.
The longer that al-Assad manages to hold on to power, which is diminishing rapidly, the pieces that once made Syrian society stick together will be hard to put together again. There is no single “rebel” force; some are not sectarian and others are extremist Islamic groups. Then there are the Kurds, who seek autonomy for their region. Syria’s relatively large Christian minority population, estimated before the war at around 10%, is understandably concerned about the rise of an Islamic state, especially after the anti-Christian prejudice they can see in Iraq and Egypt. The minority Alawite sect, which the family of al-Assad comes from, is also quite worried about retaliation for years of the government’s exploitation of other sects. Compared to all the other dictator-free states now being rebuilt in the region, Syria is perhaps the most complicated. Not least as an impact is the support given by Russia (and previously the Soviet Union) over the years, making Syria one of the last remnants of Cold War politics.
Soon al-Assad (the “lion” in Arabic) will be dethroned, whether or not he manages to escape into exile or falls victim to an assassination, but the future of Syria at this point is fragile indeed. As the King James English put it to Saul of Tarsus: “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” The “prick” in this case is not what you might think, but actually a pointed goad used by a ploughman to urge his ox forward. If the ox resisted, the “prick” would dig deeper into its skin, thus increasing the pain. Surely there is no more apt metaphor for the crisis in Syria today than this revelation on the road to Damascus two millennia ago.
Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007). He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net), the online journal of the Middle East Section of the AAA. His regular blog is Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East (www.tabsir.net).