The Levant is an ancient collective name for the goup of countries of the eastern  Mediterranean that currently includes southern Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Israel.  

Part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, Syria came under French mandate in 1920 and gained independence in 1946. Their ambitions for the "Greater Syria" were dashed when the smaller states of Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan were created by Britain and France in the 1920s.

Following the World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French administered the area as Syria until granting it independence in 1946.  

In 1958 Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic, with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt as president. However in September 29, 1961 Syrian officers in the U.A.R. army carried out an almost bloodless revolt and proclaimed an independence.               



Syria and the forgotten war

The war in Syria is a perfect example of how difficult it is for any political settlement to take place when you have a proxy war between the major powers in the region. Syrian people are paying for it in blood with over 160 thousand dead, millions displaced and currently living in the tent cities in the neighboring countries.

For decades the Arab-Israeli conflict masked the real major problem in the Middle East. It’s a conflict that goes back to 680AD when Hussain, nephew of Prophet Mohammed, was murdered, along with 71 members of his family and close friends by an Umayyad ruler Yazid at the battle of Karbala.

The injustice of that event fostered a lot of anger amongst the Muslims and was one of the main reasons for the emergence of Shia Islam. The Shia believe that Ali, the prophet’s first cousin and son-in-law, was the legitimate successor to Mohammed as he was his closest living male relative. Since Ali’s followers believed in the succession of the title of caliph through bloodlines, his sons were seen as the legitimate inheritors of the title.

The Battle of Karbala was a culmination of the struggle for the title of a caliph of all Muslims that was preceded by two civil wars that ironically took place on the territories of the present day Syria and Iraq. When the peace treaty was signed between Ali’s eldest son Hasan and Muawiyah, the second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, one of the stipulations was that Muawiyah will not nominate any successor.

 Hasan was subsequently poisoned by Muawiyah so he could pass the caliphate to his son Yazid. When Muawiyah died, Hassan’s younger brother Hussein was pressured into claiming the caliph’s role per earlier agreement with the Umayyads. Yazid had no intention of giving away the power and asked Hussain to swear allegiance to him. Ali's faction, having expected the caliphate to return to Ali's line upon Muawiyah's death, saw this as a betrayal of the peace treaty and so Hussain rejected this request for allegiance.

The killing of Hussein, son of Ali, divided the Muslim world into Sunny and Shia, two camps that never truly reconciled their differences. Throughout the middle ages and the Ottoman rule of the Middle East, the Shias who represent only about 10-15 % of the Muslim population, were often brutalized by the Sunny majority. Thousands of Shias were massacred in Syria and in Turkey by Sunny Ottomans. In fact, to this day in many Sunny dominated counties the Shia minorities are treated as second class citizens and often are not even considered to be the true Muslims.

This enmity has become a lot more evident over the last decade, especially with the emergence of Iran as a major power in the region. The fact that Iranians doggedly pursue the development of nuclear technology does not help the matters as it scares the heck out of the Gulf States and the rest of the Sunni world.

The American invasion of Iraq has substantially shifted the balance of power in the Middle East. While the American goal was to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s grip and give the people of Iraq freedom of choice, the unfortunate end result was the division of the country between the sectarian lines, a shift of power from Sunnis to Shias and strong Iranian influence over the former adversary.

 Iran’s influence is also very strong in Syria and Lebanon. Bashar Asad and his clan are Allawites, an offshoot of the Shia Islam. While representing only a small fraction of the population, the Allawites and specifically the Asad family has been ruling Syria since 1971 when Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Asad staged a coup and declared himself president of Syria, a position the constitution at the time permitted only for Sunni Muslims. In 1973 a new constitution was adopted, replacing Islam as the state religion with a mandate that the president's religion is Islam.

The ruling Baath party was driven by Pan-Arab nationalism and socialism while the substantial segment of the country was deeply religious. Hafez al-Asad went into history for being a ruthless ruler, saying no to any Arab-Israeli peace initiative and for Hama massacre. In February of 1982 under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunny Muslims rebelled against the Asad rule. Over 20 thousand people were killed under Asad’s orders in the matter of weeks and the town was bulldozed so no remnants of human existence were left there.

In 1998 when Bashar al-Asad inherited his father’s ruling post, he was seen by many as a reformer, who spent a good portion of his life studying in England, and therefore would be influenced by Western democratic ideas. Millions of Syrians waited for years for the fulfillment of the Bashar’s promises for the reforms and a better life but it never came. Instead he was better known for the decade long occupation of Lebanon and assassinations of the Lebanese politicians who spoke out against his regime.

The most notable was a brazen assassination of the former Lebanese prime-minister Rafic Hariri in February of 2005. Everybody knew who was responsible for the killing and the mass outcry has led to the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and eventual withdrawal of the Syrian troops. The U.N. investigation has followed and found evidence implicating the Asad’s inner circle and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shea movement, responsible Hariri’s killing. Four members of Hezbollah were indicted, but the group swore to never give up the assailants.

When Arab Spring was in the full bloom in Egypt, Tunisia and some other countries in the region, Bashar publicly stated that it could never happen in Syria. His arrogant statements showed how little did he know about the real wishes of the Syrian people. Even the fates of Mubarak in Egypt and Kaddafi in Libya didn’t ring a bell in Damascus. Asad and his clan were in complete denial.

And sure enough the first protest took place in January of 2011. Those were the peaceful demonstrations that included entire families with children and grandparents all dressed up as if this was some sort of big party. Many Syrians must have still believed that Bashar is going to do the right thing and all he needed was just a little nudge.

All he had to do just to give people some minor reforms with promises for major ones down the road in order to calm the situation down and let the people think that they got some concessions. What Bashar did next was the case of utter stupidity. His Secret Police, Mukhabarat, began kidnapping people including the kids as young as 14 years old, mercilessly torturing them and returning the broken bodies back to the families so the rest of the population would not dare to confront the regime.

 As described by some reporters on the ground, the Syrian secret police was “a professional bureaucracy specializing in the production and dissemination of fear. It simply enforces the will of the state, whatever it may be, using any means necessary or expedient”. One wonders if Asad got an advice from his Iranian friends who have an ample experience of dealing with the descent in the most brutal way.

The young Bashar must have skipped a class where they taught the origins of Shia religion and injustices perpetrated against Hussein and his family. If he did, he would have known that people can take only so much of injustice and plain barbarism until they reach a breaking point. Looks like the only lesson Bashar remembered was the one taught by his father 30 years earlier during the Hama massacre.

But the world is a different place today. Most people found out about the Hama only after the fact, while the news about Bashar’s treatment of his people was reported every day on TV and Internet. In the era of the Facebook, Twitter and cell phones that can capture a video not much was hidden from the public eye despite the best efforts of Syrian authorities.

The U.N. tried to issue the resolutions against the Asad regime multiple times, but each attempt was blocked by Russia, a Syria ally, who was protecting their military facility in the Syrian port of Tartus and their influence in the region.

Bashar must have pushed all the right buttons, because what started as a peaceful expression for reforms by the Syrian people turned into the full-fledged resistance movement. Things got really out of control when the Syrian army indiscriminately started using live ammunition and helicopter gunships on their own people killing both armed rebels and civilians in the process.

These ruthless tactics used by the Syrian army only intensified the resistance movement to the point where many experts predicted the imminent downfall of the Asad regime in the near future. But Bashar was not finished yet. We could see in real time how a third world dictator gradually turned into the tyrant and a mass murderer when he pulled Saddam Hussain by using the chemical weapons against his own people.

The international community was outraged at the use of the chemical weapons crossed all the red lines. On August 31, 2013 President Obama announces that he “believes military action against Syrian targets is the right step to take over the alleged use of chemical weapons”. He sends a letter to the Congress requesting an approval of military force "to deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction."

Things started to look really bleak for Bashar and his supporters. But he received an unexpected respite from U.S. Congressmen who spent their energy fighting each other whether to strike or not to strike Syria. While the leaders of the free world were arguing over the response to chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, Russians came to rescue of their troubled friend and offered a solution which the West gladly accepted.

U.S. and Russian negotiators reached an agreement calling for an inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons program and seizing all of its components within a year. The plan includes imposing penalties if Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government fails to turn over its stockpile. Russia was willing to play a role in securing the Syrian chemical weapons. The proposal was quickly embraced by Syrian government officials and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

Since that deal was struck, Bashar’s army used chemical weapons several times. But the world has moved on to the other crises like the missing Malaysian plane and Putin’s grab of Crimea. Against all odds and predictions Bashar has survived. He survived because his friends were more committed to his survival than the friends of the opposition to them.

It did not help the matters the Syrian opposition is not a monolithic unit, but a bunch of feuding groups that a lot of times act independently of each other and could not agree on the place for meeting much less a coherent plan for resistance. That was one of the main reasons the West was hesitant with providing a military support. While the West was contemplating which level of military support to provide to Syrian opposition and which group earned that privilege, the Russians and the Iranians supplied Asad with all the weapons ne needed.

In addition, there are scores of Iranian advisers and fighters involved in the conflict. The Asad regime has received a real boost when Lebanese Hezbollah sent thousands of their well-trained fighters to Syria fighting alongside of the Syrian army. While the Asad regime has been a more secular, pseudo-socialist entity, Hezbollah and the Iranians are anything but. Those are a hard-core Islamists who are fighting in Syria for no other reason but the support of the pro-Shia regime and with a desire of eventually turning Syria into Iran junior.

The face of opposition has gone through the major changes as well. The opposition groups calling themselves a Free Syrian Army were initially getting a financial support from the Saudis and other Gulf States. As the conflict spread and millions of displaced Syrians were crossing the borders into neighboring states additional donors have joined the ranks, namely Turkey and Jordan who are hosting a flood of Syrian refugees.

File:Free Syrian Army soldier walking among rubble in Aleppo.jpg

The support of Asad regime from Iran, Russia, Iraqi Shias and Hezbollah is unwavering and disciplined. Their support is not only military but also political. No meaningful anti-Syrian resolution has ever passed in U.N. and never will. It is the major reason why the Asad regime has survived to this day. And the other reason, emergence of the Sunni Al-Quida inspired groups like Al-Nusra Front and ISIS. With these new players entering the battle field the Western leaders had to rethink their attitudes towards the Asad regime.

Yes, Bashar is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands and for the displacement of a few million of his countrymen, but is he the worst option under the current circumstances? It’s not an easy question to answer, especially in light of the latest advances by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) who has taken over big chunks of territory both in Syria and Iraq.

They are so bad that even Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri disavowed them for excessive brutality. In his words “We distance ourselves from the sedition taking place amongst the mujahedin factions in Syria and the forbidden blood shed by any faction”. Apparently ISIS is fighting not only Asad forces, but a fellow opposition groups as well.

Yes, ISIS is a group of blood-thirsty thugs, but their leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi is no dummy. Most likely he realized that Sunnis in this battle have no coherent military plan with dozens of the of opposition factions operating independently of each other and not producing any results. So he decided to bring them all under his umbrella even by force if needed. He must also know from history that he needs to be more brutal than a next guy in order to gain the respect and instill fear.

He has accomplished that and more as his fighters decorate the newly acquired towns with the chopped off heads of their enemies. Whatever plan Al-Baghdadi has in mind involves not only Syria but also a big portion of Iraq. Some successes that ISIS accomplished on the battlefield somehow struck a chord amongst the Sunny tribes as without their support ISIS would have never gotten as far as Iraqi city of Mosul.

And the reason it struck a chord with Sunny tribes is because current Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki, who happens to be a Shia, completely marginalized the Sunny population and went as far as accusing his own vise-president Tariq al-Hashemi of terrorism and sentencing him to death by hanging. The VPs main crime was being a Sunny and trying to protect the interests of his people. The Iraqi Sunnis just like their Syrian cousins felt that they had enough and joined the first leader that showed the success on the battlefield.

So the ISIS which started out with a couple of thousand fighters has grown into the army of tens of thousands by gaining the followers along the way from the local Sunny tribes. So much for the myth that Islamist radicals represent only a tiny minority of the Muslims.

For all practical purposes ISIS erased the Syria-Iraq border after seizing several major border crossings. It allows them to easily move the fighters and the supplies across the two countries and gives them a stepping stone to their main goal of creating an Islamic state where Sunnis rule and the Sharia in its most ruthless interpretation is the law of the land.

What started as an uprising against the ruthless dictator by regular civilians with no major affiliations and limited resources turned into a bloody sectarian war led by the worst elements of the Islamic movements on the both sides. This conflict is already showing the elements of mass murder and ethnic cleansing and will only get worst.

Bashar al-Asad unintentionally revived the battle of Karbala. It’s the followers of Abu-Bakr vs. the Followers of Ali all over again. It’s Sunny vs. Shia. It’s Iran and their allies vs. Saudi Arabia and their allies. Who would have thought that we will ever see Hezbollah fighting Al-Qaida on the battle field.

 Hafez al-Asad, Bashar’s father, and one of the founders of the Baath Party in Syria must be turning in his grave. He was all about the Arab unity and he ruthlessly suppressed any overly religious movement in his country which is a mosaic of multiple ethnic and religious denominations very similar to Lebanon. He held them together because he instilled fear in his fellow countrymen. His son Bashar mistook that fear for the love Syrians had for Asad clan.  

If Bashar al-Asad could turn the clock back, he would do so in an instant. Only three years ago, he was enjoying the good life and the privileges afforded to the rich and powerful. All his people were asking for him to share just a small portion of that fortune with them. But born and raised in privilege he could never relate to regular people and their daily struggles.  

He acted with such arrogance because of mafia like grip his family had over his countrymen for decades and the powerful friends like Iran and Russia. In his worst dreams he could not have imagined the reality he is facing today. Syria is no longer a country but an entity in control of some of its former provinces. He is living under the perpetual state of war that has a potential to last for many more years. His legacy will be as a failed ruler who tortured and killed at the level not seen since the demise of Saddam Hussein and who was responsible for destroying Syria as a country.

 For Syrian minorities, it is also a nightmare scenario. Many non-Sunni religious denominations are not fighting for Asad because they love him so much, but because of the history of Sunny rule under the Ottoman Empire and their treatment of the people of the different fates. If they needed to be reminded of what to expect from Sunnis, just look to the East and watch what ISIS is done in Iraqi city of Mosul.

 Local Christians were given a unenviable choice: convert to Islam, leave or die. Their properties were confiscated and churches desecrated. In only a few weeks of ethnic cleansing not a single Christian is left in Mosul. No doubt the Christians and other minorities in Syria are watching with trepidation as ISIS curves more territory on the way to the creation of the Islamic State.

So what are the Western countries doing about all this madness? The American president is leading from behind while his European counterparts are not even pretending to be a least bit interested in what is going on in Syria. They have their hands full with Vladimir Putin and his imperial ambitions for the Eastern Europe.

In May of 2013, President Obama told an audience gathered at the National Defense University in Washington, that al-Qaeda is nearly defeated and the war on terrorism has changed since he took office. He also added that after the death of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, al-Qaeda has been decimated, scattered across the North Africa and the Middle East and able to launch only small-scale attacks.

Obviously all of that was just a wishful thinking. Al-Qaeda and Bin-Ladenism never went anywhere, it just morphed into even a more dangerous monster. Nobody can blame Americans for not wanting to engage in another was after sacrificing so much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is very little appetite in this country and even more so in Europe for any military action.  

So the fate of Christian and other non-Muslim minorities in Syria are in their own hands. How pathetic it is that their most trusted protector is a butcher like Bashar al-Asad. Lately the western media talks about Syria in twenty second increments while for hours analyzing the disappearance of the Malaysian jet. In addition, they just found a new/old story to talk about Israel-Gaza war, which for all its drama is a local conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

While the self righteous liberal media is beating up on Israel and the  U.N. representatives are frothing at the mouths at Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas the real threat to the world piece is unfolding right before our eyes. The only problem is that the world puts the blindfolds on and pretends that this danger does not exist. As we painfully learned on 9/11 we can ignore it only for so long but sooner or later it will find us.