Tag Archives: Syrian Civil War


            The civil war trudges on.  With possible multi-national negotiations in the wings, President Bashar Assad has been pressing for an image of success in the on-going civil war. The entrance of Hezbollah gave the sagging regime a new lease on life. Rather than being pushed out the back door, the Assad establishment reversed their losses and appeared to be back on top. However, the picture is not as secure as they would like to represent.

The situation remains a “give-and-take” struggle.

Government forces recently pushed rebels back from a number of suburbs just outside Damascus. Around the key northern city, Aleppo’s rebels are now on the defensive. Because the United States backed away from  its proposed missile attacks, Assad has avoided the serious upheaval that could have tossed him to the back of the bus. He is certainly in a better position from where government troops were a year and a half ago.

Before anyone runs up a victory flag, a second look reveals anything but a winning solution in sight. In Tadamon on the southern edge of Damascus, the government found that it took them weeks to push invading rebels back just a few hundred yards. The government army remains stretched thin.

One of the government’s problems has been their failure to make progress on the gains they have already made. Significant divisions within the Assad government have weakened their ability to respond. Some officials seek to moderate the fighting in hopes of obtaining local cease-fires. Part of their strategy is to present the government as seeking peace should they sit down at a negotiating table. Another portion of the government team wants the opposite and presses for more aggressive action. While these two sides disagree, the crisis in the country only deepens.

The influx of Hezbollah fighters has now bottomed out and other radical jihadists elements continue to cross the borders to fight against Assad. The rumor is that these foreign fighters from across the Muslim world can be bought for $3,000 a head. While the war continues, the number of Syrian refugees also continues to increase. This past week more victims fled Syria and poured into the Bekaa Valley over the border in Lebanon.

The bottom line? Nothing is going nowhere.

The rebels insist no talks are possible until Assad leaves. Assad says he will run for president next year. The world’s nations only jawbone and do nothing. People keep on being killed.

Sorry. Just another day of ongoing chaos.

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          The Syrian civil war affects many on the outside of Syria.

          An Israeli charity has just delivered 70 tons of sanitation items, 670 tons of food, as well as 20 tons of medications to Syrian refugees. Because of the traditional hostility of the Syrian government, the organization cannot be named. Nevertheless, 1,200 Israelis continue to serve the victims of Syria’s civil war. They have been fund-raising to purchase 3,000 special protection kits for Syrian medical teams now working in 14 towns in Syria.

Israeli relief groups recognize the danger that they could come from Arab attacks. However, they believe they are at the right place at the right time making a significant difference.  Rather than retreat because of fear, they believe not recognizing the impact of indifference also has its own way of killing.

Jordanians struggle with different concerns. Even though they are a small country, Jordan hosts a huge number of refugees. Because the civil war seems endless, they fear many omigrants are settling in for a long stay. Because of the influx of large numbers of Palestinians fleeing the Israeli war of Independence as well as the Yom Kippur war, they know that such numbers can upset the fragile demographic balance. The Jordanians had to eventually run Yasser Arafat and the PLO out of their country. The war in Iraq sent tens of thousands into Jordan. In a country of six million, the new presence of 600,000 Syrians produces a new challenge to the balance of power.

With a common language and racial background, the Syrians quickly adapt to their Jordanian surroundings and settle in. Obviously, schools and water supply are stained by the sudden increase in population. However, the balance in population is also affected by the influx of outsiders. The original population of Jordan came from Bedouin tribes previously known as the “East bankers.” However, his group, (that the monarchy depends on) has slowly been losing their influence as previous wars have brought more immigrants into their country. East bankers and the indigenous population fear they could become a minority and guest in their own land.

A government minister recently noted that the influx is the equivalent of the United States absorbing Canada overnight. The cost of hosting these Syrian refugees is now at least a billion dollars a year. To add to the strain, low-skilled Jordanians often lose their jobs to Syrians who work for less and are generally better trained.

A Jordanian recently said, “We’re not against the Syrian refugees, but we want them kept inside the camps.”

No end is in sight except to build more camps.

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            Let’s continue our examination of the potential for the Syrian civil war to turn into a sectarian conflict. For most Westerners, it is difficult to make any sense out of why Sunnis and Shi’ites would be on the verge of all-out conflict. The entire situation seems like the Baptist shooting at the Methodist because one sprinkles and the other demands total immersion. In many ways, this analogy is an apt comparison,  but the context is completely different. Westerners live in a world that has experienced the impact of secularism which has pushed religious questions to the back burner as well as creating an atmosphere of tolerance.

The Middle East is part of a context that has firmly resisted the impact of secularism and sees such an emphasis as evil. In contrast to the West, religious questions are the major concern in the East (outside of money). Tolerance is often not considered a virtue. Even though most of the issues between these Moslem groups happened centuries ago, the resentment continues.

Decades ago when I visited Israel for the first time, I was surprised to discover that distrust and animosity over the Crusaders continued. Christian Crusades occured a millenium ago but the fires still burned. For the first 300 hundred years of their existence, Christians were pacifist, by the Middle Ages that position had been swallowed by concepts that supported war. The history of Islam is quite different with warfare existing from the beginning while Mohammed fought with a sword. The rapid spread of Islamic faith was further spawned by the sword. These two contexts have a direct bearing on what is occurring today.

In the seventh-century a war broke out in Islam over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad. These battles gave rise to the existence of today’s Shiites. In the warfare, the prophet’s granddaughter Zeinab was captured and taken to Damascus. Today Shiites believe she is buried beneath the gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab. Currently, Shiite fighters help the Syrian government control the area around the burial sight. Consequently, Damascus has not fallen.

Here’s another dimension of the current struggle. Many Shiities see the Syrian civil war as the fulfillment of a Shite prophecy predicting the end of time. A devil-type of figure called Sufyani will raise an army in Syria and march into Iraq to kill Shiites. The leader of the town of Qatar has become the chief backer of Syria’s Sunni rebels. Consequently, Shiities have come to see the Qatar leader as Sufyani and are expecting the worst. This belief sets in motion a migration of young soldiers going to Syria to protect the variety  of Moslem faith that they hold.

Secular Westerner tend not to take these prophecy stories seriously. And that may be a serious mistake. Religious beliefs provide extraordinary power in an armed conflict. While we do not often speak of it in these terms, Nazism was fundamentally a religion as well as a political system. Rational Germans acted irrational because they believed Hitler was a quasi-god. As Nazi leaders were hung at the end of World War II, often their final words were “Heil Hitler.” Even if prophetic pronouncements  are immediately discarded, they must be respected as prime motivation tools in a war.

These convictions are rising to the surface with new power in the Syrian conflict. They provide a dangerous context for what may be ahead.

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            Current United Nations reports indicate that somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 Syrian citizens have been killed during the Syrian civil war. President Bashar Al-Assad spoke a couple of days ago for the first time in months and essentially said nothing of substance. The most recent data indicates rebels are closing in on Damascus and Assad’s days are numbered. Of course, this same prediction was made months ago. Cutting through the spin and misinformation, here is what I’m finding behind the clouds of smoke and fire.

            Russia appears to have finally backed off. Foreign minister Sergev V. Lavror released a statement saying that there was no possibility that Assad would leave Syria. Lavror also said that the rebels insistence that Assad leave as a precondition for peace would only result in more loss of life. In recent weeks, Russia has been steadily retreating from support for the Assad regime. While they backed away from Assad, they acknowledged the loss of government held territory. The Russians now realize their unyielding support of Assad has resulted in a loss of face, trust, and prestige in the Arab world. They are on the losing end and hustling to attempt to regain prestige in the entire region. Unfortunately, they have waited so long that they have helped create the mounting death toll.

Attempting to set the stage for forward momentum, Russia also announced a trilateral gathering in a few weeks involving the United States in an attempt to restore some stability (while making Russia appear positive to the Arabs).

The bottom line is that Assad is not only seeing his top leadership defect, but has lost his major source of support. Iran must also be worried. Will Assad flee? One must factor in Assad’s Islamic faith that could allow him to die a martyr while fighting in a battle for what he might conclude involves his faith. We have seen plenty of evidence that the Islamic world has no hesitance in such suicidal actions. On the other hand, Assad could have an airplane waiting in the back yard. Apparently, his most faithful supporters in Russia have concluded they can’t second guess him.

In the midst of the killing and chaos, a bright lights does still exist inside Syria. Recently I received a report from journalist Alessandra Nucci on Trappist Nuns living in Aleppo and telling the world Merry Christmas. This contemplative order celebrated Christmas in the midst of war by reassuring the world that nothing has quenched the light shinning in the darkness. Their New Year’s message was a prayer for peace, reconciliation, dialogue, and mutual forgiveness The members continue to intercede for a faith that nurtures and transfigures. From the midst of the tragic conflict in Aleppo arises a renewed hope in the midst of despair.

Tragically, we are not likely to see those prayers answered quickly. I believe the civil war will continue well into 2013. In the post-communist era we learned that repressed societies need to recover a motivated populace if they are to become politically viable again. Suppression by totalitarian governments takes decades to be repaired. The state is set for continuing upheaval long after the Assad regime disappears.

Let us hope that someone in authority listens to those Trappist nuns.


Filed under Syria, United Nations, Violence


While election news and excitement has captured American attention, important Middle Eastern eruptions continue to boil over. We can’t let current political events keep our eyes off the shifts in this important part of the world. Pushing Halloween aside, let’s take the mask off Lebanon.

As reported earlier, I have been in Lebanon a number of times and have a son who taught at the University of Balamand in Tripoli. Events in this country remain close to home.  And it should. Dr. Todd Wise and his five children could hear shooting in the streets of Tripoli. Not a good place for kids to play!

The assignation of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of intelligence for domestic security, has ripped the scab off long and old festering wounds. Al-Hassan was not only a Sunni but had challenged Syria and their ally the Shiite militant organization Hezbollah. This sectarian terrorist organization has become the most dominant force in Lebanon. Al-Hassan’s role had been a threat to both Syria and the Hezbollah leadership.

Hassan’s funeral erupted in political violence sending waves of  chaos across the country. As Al-Hassan was being buried in Beirut’s central Martyrs Square, thousands of mourners took to the streets. At issue was the contention that Prime Minister Najib Mikati was too close to Syria and the Shiite militant Hezbollah. Citizens wanted immediate change. Damascus’ hold on Lebanon slipped in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Public outrage forced Syrian forces to withdraw from the country. However Syria’s Al-Assad managed to maintain influence through groups like Hezbollah. Citizens know Syria has bloody hands in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s history has been filled with wars and destruction for decades. After World War I, France gained control of a large area then called Syria, containing the Beqaa Valley that is now in Lebanon.  The Jordanian Civil War kicked Yassar Arafat and the Palestinian refugees out of Jordan and into Lebanon. From l975-l990, the Lebanese Civil War spread destruction across the land. It is feared that the death of Brig. Gen. Al-Hassan could again ignite the fires that have ravaged the country so often.

What can we conclude?

  1. The Syrian civil war continues to spill over into Lebanon. The highly volatile  situation can effect the entire region. The United States must pay careful attention to its option. The current Obama administration has been wise in avoiding sending troops and staying on the sidelines. America’s options are still evolving and it is a time to keep US cards close to the chest.
  2. Syria is ultimately responsible for the assassination. The Washington State Department has sent FBI agents to help investigate. Possibly, nothing conclusive will ever be proven, but no one doubts that Syria is still working its options even in the midst of a civil war.

Far from over, the Syrian Civil War has not yet removed Bashar Al-Assad from power although world leaders still believe he ultimately will fall. In the mean time, the Syrians have not taken their eyes off of Lebanon.

We cannot afford to either.

Question: How do you think America should play its options in Lebanon?

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