From Arab Spring to Mideast Winter

COMMENTARY BY:
WILLIAM PARENTE, PH.D.

Among the many insights in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is this neglected one: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abandoning the Forms to which they are accustomed.”

Syria today is a case in point. Having risen up in righteous anger against the autocratic Assad regime, Syria has now suffered the loss of more than 100,000 dead with five thousand being added monthly to this toll. Two million refugees — in a population of 22 million — have already fled to such neighboring countries as Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. There they have been ostracized by the locals for aggravating the unemployment problem in these countries, all of which already have suffered catastrophic losses in their tourist industries. Even before the Syrian revolution broke out, Jordan was burdened with the fifth largest number of refugees in the world — 450,000 Palestinians — and now that number is nearly doubled with Syrians.

I pass over the irony that the Arab Spring first blossomed in Tunisia with an unlicensed street vendor’s ticketing by a policewoman. President Ben Ali was a relatively benign autocrat: Tunisia’s per capita GDP of $8,000 was one of the highest in the Middle East and his foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel and America and European tourism and investment enlightened. Civil liberties in Tunisia were generous for that part of the world.

The ongoing civil war in Syria, which is now two years old, is fundamentally a religious war of the sort that divided Christianity in the 16th–19th centuries. Of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, 85 percent are adherents of the Sunni denomination with perhaps 12 percent belonging to the Shia. Think of them as the difference between Catholics and Protestants. The two Muslim groups notably argue over who was the proper successor (“caliph”) to Mohammed back in the 7th century. While the Arabs constitute only 15 percent of the world’s Muslims, 90 percent of Arabs are Sunni; most of the Shia are non-Arabs, Persian-speaking and concentrated in Iran and Southern Iraq.

In Syria, Sunni are the vast majority (75 percent) of the population, but the ruling Assad regime are mostly Alawites (12 percent), a heretical offshoot of the Shia. Thus, the Arab League — almost all of its 22 members being Sunni — are opposed to Assad, with Saudi Arabia and Qater being the most vocal in supporting military intervention. The ruling Alawite regime is supported by Iran and Hezbollah, both Shia entities. Russia supports Assad, has supplied weapons and now has sent its ships into the Eastern Mediterranean as a deterrent to an American strike. The rebels in Syria are almost universally Sunni with Al Qaeda units that are especially active and have weapons supplied by Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Arab League members.

Finally, there are the beleaguered Christians accounting for perhaps 10 percent of the population. These assorted Christian churches include Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Monophysite and Protestant communities as well as Latin-rite Catholics and such Eastern-rite Catholics as Melkites, Armenians, Syrian, Maronites and Chaldeans. In addition, there are about 30,000 Jews and a significant number of Druze, the one Muslim denomination which is allowed to serve in the Israeli army — and thus hated by other Muslims.

A rebel victory in Syria would presumably mean the persecution and perhaps extinction of most of these non-Sunni groups, which historically have been protected by the Alawite-dominated government and military. In addition, the Kurdish ethnic minority in northeast Syria — Persian rather than Arab — is also in jeopardy of “cleansing” operations if the Sunni rebels with their Al Qaeda units take control of Syria. Then there is Syria’s Golan Heights, which is now occupied by Israeli troops: would this enclave be threatened by a rebel victory and Israel proper in danger of an invasion?

The situation in Egypt is similar: for centuries the Coptic Christian minority (l0 percent) in Egypt has been relatively protected by both the monarch and then by the military regimes which replaced the monarchy in 1952 — Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. Since the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi’s appointment of Brotherhood governors in 17 of the 25 provinces of Egypt, the persecution of the Copts has accelerated: churches burned, businesses vandalized, homes looted, women raped.

In Libya, we have tribal anarchy following the fall of Khadafi; in Tunisia, the leader of the secular, liberal opposition has been assassinated; in Turkey — a non-Arab state — the former secular regime established by Ataturk in the 1920s has been displaced by an Islamist political party led by Prime Minister Erdogan. The party has suppressed democratic demonstrations in Istanbul and reversed Ataturk’s secular reforms: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”

Contact the writer: william.parente@scranton.edu

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