Northern Syria seems to have become a focal point for regional and global players as questions are raised about its future after the handing over of Aleppo.
The town of Al-Bab has become a battle ground, murderous explosions are shaking the town of Azaz, and international alliances are strained and threatened by intersecting and opposing blood-stained ethnic projects, namely a ‘Kurdish Homeland’ and a ‘Turkish Safe Haven’.
Current developments there have brought back memories that are a few decades old. It was during the worst days of the Lebanese War that two couples of progressive intellectuals sought a temporary refuge in my serene mountain village from the gales of extremism blowing in the war-torn country. The two couples had to leave their homes for ideological reasons, but no sooner had they crossed the ‘Green Line’ dividing Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut that they became under fatal sectarian danger.
‘Oases’ of tolerance, diversity
Luckily, however, there were some ‘oases’ of tolerance and diversity still left in the country, like my village, in which they had friends who were extremely happy to welcome and accommodate them until the worst was over.
During their sojourn, one of the two ladies was applying the final touches to her PhD dissertation about Syria’s political history under the guidance of her husband, a prominent academic. From then on, ever since I had a look at some of the original documents she kept with her, my deep interest in Syria’s history and anthropology got much deeper.
I remember well how I was fascinated by the local urban, rural and tribal elites which made up the Syrian Parliament, including of course those of Aleppo Province. In those days, Aleppo Province was much larger than what it is now as the present Idlib Province was still part of it. Thus, it stretched along Turkey’s southern borders from Ayn Al-Arab (Kobani) going west to Azaz and Afrin, then south all the way to Ma’arret Al-Nu’man, including Harem, Kfar Takharim, Idlib and Jisr Al-Shughour.
In turn, the composition of the Syrian Parliament was almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of the notables, clan and tribal chiefs, such as the MPs from Ibralim Pasha Al-Melli’s tribe in Ayn Al-Aran and Jarablous, Sheikh Dhiab Al-Mashi, who was famous for being the longest serving parliamentarian in the Arab world, as he was the MP from Manbij for 55 years (between 1954 and 2009).
As for the cities, led of course by Aleppo itself, its seats reflected the politico-economic city life dominated by the rivalry between the later dominant People’s Party (led by Rushdi Al-Kikhia, Dr Nazem Al-Qudsi, Ma’rouf Al-Dawalibi, Rashad Barmada, Mistafa Barmada and Ahmad Qanbar) and the remnants of the National Party (led by Sa’dallah Al-Jaberi, Dr Abdul Rahman Al-Kayyali and Michail Lian).
Evidently, commercial interests in Syria’s two great metropolises - Damascus and Aleppo - expressed themselves in the political leanings and loyalties of the two bourgeois ‘elite-led’ parties.
Straddling the trade route connecting Baghdad and Istanbul, Aleppo’s interests were thus tied up to the Baghdad-Istanbul ‘axis’, and consequently its dominant party became identified with the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO) during the Cold War.
On the opposite side, Damascus was the political and economic pole in the south, lying on the trade routes between Arabia and Egypt, thus the pro Riyadh-Cairo ‘axis’ National Party was the more powerful here.
Back to the north, throughout the 20th century, the richly diverse communities of northern Syria, Arab and non-Arab, Jewish, Christian and Muslim of various sects lived in peace and harmony. No noteworthy discrimination existed between Orthodox or Catholic Christian Arabs and Christian Armenians and Jacobite Syriacs. The same was true among Arab Muslims whether Sunni, Shi’ite, Alawite, Ismaili or Druze; and Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.
Issues of ethnic-based partition or secession were never raised, in fact the opposite was true when most Syrians of all faiths and persuasions opposed annexing the Syrian ‘Liwa’ of Alexandretta to Turkey (present Hatay Province). In short, despite the beautiful diversity in this area, one the world’s richest in history, almost all were convinced that what united them was far more important than what would set them apart.
Alas, what we see today is quite different. Many of ‘The Defenders of the Homeland’ as mentioned in Syria’s national anthem have been willing to destroy their ‘Homeland’ and tear apart its social and ethnic fabric. The ‘secular’, later ‘socialist secular’, ruling Ba’th which for a while claimed to rise above sectarianism, and fight for the rights of the peasantry ridding them of ‘the yoke of feudalism’, has been transformed into a flimsy cover concealing a monopolistic sectarian and clannish ‘mafia’ crushing its own people with the help of ‘imported’ confessional militias and even foreign regular armies.
As for the much-trumpeted ‘nationalist’ slogans which were supposed to bring people together, they became so ‘chauvinist’ to the extent of alienating non-Arab minorities, hence, encouraging unhealthy isolationist and secessionist aspirations in several places throughout northern Syria.
As a result, the weekly published maps showing the various sectors controlled by different armed groups, give the impression that northern Syria is heading towards the unknown. Indeed, thanks to Barack Obama’s concentration solely on “downgrading” ISIS, Washington has set out its ‘constants’ in Syria, which are:
1- Preventing the Syrian Opposition from acquiring the weapons they have been demanding for years.
2- Refusing all Syrian and Turkish demands of ‘No Fly Zones’ and ‘Safe Havens’.
3- Siding with and aiding secessionist Kurdish militias, despite Ankara’s protests.
‘Constants’ like these are bound, logically, to cause the current state of loss and uncertainty we see throughout Syria, but more so in the north.
The regime and its allies, clearly emboldened by America’s inaction and Iran’s and Russia’s direct support, are now on the attack. While Turkey, the old Cold War US ally has been let down and left in the cold. Finally, the Kurds think that Washington has provided them with a unique opportunity to fulfill their ambitious nationalist dream.Eyad Abu Shakra
The regime and its allies, clearly emboldened by America’s inaction and Iran’s and Russia’s direct support, are now on the attack. While Turkey, the old Cold War US ally has been let down and left in the cold. Finally, the Kurds think that Washington has provided them with a unique opportunity to fulfil their ambitious nationalist dream.
The massive explosion in Azaz yesterday was nothing but a ‘new message’ to Ankara written in blood, after the Istanbul New Year’s Eve and the Izmir attacks.
Furthermore, the bogged down ‘Shield of the Euphrates’ operation around Al-Bab confirms the existence of serious differences between regional and global powers in northern Syria, firstly, regarding ‘Useful Syria’, secondly, the ‘Kurdish Homeland’, and thirdly, the price extricated from Turkey and Iran in order to keep the Kurds, while we the Arabs are nowhere to be seen!
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on Jan. 12, 2017.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.