I normally like to write the (hi)story of the ancient Persia in the context of the greater eastern backstory and its relevance to the current events, and the need to preserve and protect ancient Near Eastern history and heritage and promote some basic knowledge of it as a part of our common patrimony.
But I got Syria on my mind for over a year now, so let’s leave the historical romance chitchats to another time and jump right into the muddy waters of the current events.
Wondering what the Russian Federation and the Iranian Republic have in common?
Well, other than a (former) long border, a longer history, and all the fish in the Caspian Sea, they are the steadfast supporters of the beleaguered Syrian government that has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since April of 2011.
The media calls it another “armed sectarian insurgency” meaning those “Muslims” are at it again, and there is no doubt some religious warpaint is on the faces of the fighters. But in God’s name in which of the world religions it is OK to catch the poor kids-like small fish in the steely net of war-and torture them to death?
Something God will not forgive and the Syrians will not forget.
If we are going to make another political mistake in the Middle East, let’s err on the side of saving the children.
Syria is derived from a garbled Greek form of Assyria-a once mighty empire (912-609 BCE) that stretched across the ancient Near East. The heartland of ancient Assyria (now in the northern Iraq) was called the Upper Country by the Babylonians.
The Warrior-King Cyrus the Great (Persian: Kuruš, 559-530 BCE) conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, and with Babylon came all the lands that Babylonians had conquered, among them the lush coastal lands hemmed in by the Upper Sea (Mediterranean) that was called ebir-nari (Across-the-river) by the Assyrians, and Athura by the Persians. Whatever it was called, it was a cosmopolitan land-bridge between the great Egyptians and their hieroglyphs in the southwest and the great Mesopotamians and their cuneiforms to the northeast.
The marvelous abstract alphabet, the democratic script of the people, is a useful thing, but no one knows where, when, how and by whom, it was invented. The evidence currently points to what alphabetologists call Semitic proto-alphabet as the starting point, synthesized somewhere along the Syrian coastline in the 2nd millennium BCE. If the Phoenicians didn’t invent the alphabet, they sure helped spread it like wildfire through their seafaring trading partners.
And it was at the ancient city of Damascus (now capital of Syria) where the royal household (mother, wife, children, and concubines) of Darius III, the last Persian Achaemenid Great King (336-330 BCE), fell into the hands of the invading Macedonians (333 BCE) and sealed the fate of an empire when the Macedonian King Alexander III (336-323 BCE) refused to ransom the Persian royal family.
After falling to the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Arabs, that stretch of ancient land became the backwater of the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), and Ottomans were pushed over a revolutionary cliff with a helping hand from the European king-makers of the early 20th century.
After the first world war (1914-1918) until the end of the second world war (1939-1945) the former imperial territories of the Ottomans became Mandates of the then League of Nations, with modern Syria and the surrounding areas governed by the French Republic, bordering the modern Iraq and Levant in the south and west that were Mandates of the British Crown.
Thanks to cracking the code of cuneiform script in the mid-nineteenth century and survival of (some of) the palace and temple (and private) archives from the ancient Near East (preserved on nearly indestructible clay when baked or fired), we now know a little about the history of the region called the Cradle of Civilization where the art of writing was invented, but we don’t know everything.
What we do know is that even thousands of years ago, maintaining the delicate balance of revolving political powers across the region was not a trivial matter. And the continued fighting among the north and south not to mention the hostilities between the east and west and left and right in our time would have not come as any surprise to the ancient Near Easterners.
Syria was finally set loose in 1946, mostly because the French had their hands full with the reconstruction of their own war-torn country after World War II. But freedom was not free and domestic peace became those brief moments in-between military coups in a ruthless game of tribal political power play.
In 1970 the Syrian military seized power, declared the state of emergency, suspended (all) constitutional rights, and called one of their own “Mr. President”. It was good to be president, but it was better to be king, so kingship became hereditary under the office of Syrian presidency.
When the old king died in 2000 and the crown prince (born on 11 September 1965) was swiftly “voted” the new king, Syrian hopes were high that a western-educated king with a British-born queen would (finally) lift the state of emergency after some 30 years and move the country in the direction of democracy.
No such luck!
With the political backing of Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran (and China), the politely soft-spoken Syrian president has proven to be no less ruthless and repressive than his regional counterparts. With oil reserves, vast riches and fast friends at stake, the western-educated royals hired an American PR firm to spin their public image in the media instead, complete with a colorful spread of the fashionable queen in an American (high) fashion magazine (Vogue). It was pulled unceremoniously from their website after strong public reaction.
The “Syrian Spring” that started in 2011 with peaceful public demonstrations for (some measure of) freedom, civil rights, and economic opportunity has turned into a horrific all-or-nothing civil war.
According to various reports by the global humanitarian organizations, the climbing human toll of the war has been upwards of 130,000 dead (including over 10,000 children) and close to 5,000,000 Syrians displaced, with millions of refugees spilling into neighboring countries, and the more affluent fleeing to Europe, UK and US. The actual numbers are not known, but the extent of the human misery is.
Things in the modern Middle East (that somewhat overlaps the ancient Near East) are never what they seem.
It is impossible for us as the outside observers of the Syrian war to sort out who is killing who. To avoid any and all undesirable outcomes (like losing royal control and crown), the government armed forces are not taking any chances-reportedly they are killing the terrorists, by their definition everyone who crosses their path-the opposition. There is no middle ground here to negotiate a peaceful transition of royal power.
The ragtag factious and fragmented rebel forces, however, have to navigate the intricate web of alliances and relations among themselves, while looking like (the first among) the freedom-fighters to appeal to their war-weary western supporters and suppliers of much needed arms.
The political scenario of Syrian al-Assad presidential dynasty eerily follows the story of the ill-fated Iranian Pahlavi royal dynasty. Doesn’t it?
Most of the ancient sites in Syria have not been fully excavated and the volatility and constant hostilities in the region have halted the legal archaeological excavations since 2008.
Along with the Syrians and their children, their brilliant history and heritage are being destroyed indiscriminately by all sides.
Enter the Americans.
The military engagement of the American-led coalition forces in Iraq (punitive expedition for the 11 September 2001 attack on the U.S.) didn’t have the expected outcome of being welcomed by the Iraqis as liberation. Christian missionaries followed the troops and to the dismay of the western allies, Islamic volunteers openly and secretly poured in from any and all directions to repel the crusaders. The unexpected outcome of the war was the formation of a flood of Islamic groups of various sizes, capabilities and motives to rid the pious Muslim world of the infidel western occupation.
One of those groups that was formed in Iraq in the early days of the Second Gulf War (2003-2011) as the Iraqi arm of the notorious al-Qaeda, expanded into the northern Syria in early 2013. Over the years they have learned through trial and error and plenty of bloodshed, and their most recent reincarnation as ISIS seems to be deadlier than what the world has experienced to date.
ISIS-the Islamic State of Iraq and the greater Syria-is headed by a shadowy Iraqi (sometimes called the Ghost) with a PhD in Islamic Studies and a $cool million American price-tag on his head (dead or alive). He prefers the alias of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to his own Arabic name to forge an imaginary direct bloodline to Abu Bakr and signal his single-minded plan of (re)forming a new Arabian caliphate, stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean and Egypt-roughly the former conquered territories of the Muslim Arab Umayyad Dynasty of the 7/8th century CE. Abu Bakr (ruled 632-634 CE) was the father of the infamous child-bride Aisha and the eldest father-in-law of the Prophet, who became the first al-khalifah (meaning successor). He united the warring Arab tribes and set their path toward the Arabian imperialism.
While the (hit and run) strategy of al-Qaeda is to target the West and western way of life, (grab and hold) strategy of ISIS is to build critical mass by moving into war-torn Arab towns and villages and set up shop by taking over governmental functions-like providing food, water, shelter, healthcare, electricity, establishing (Sharia) law and order, and firing squads to carry out executions of the enemies of God almighty-the poor villagers and pretty much anyone else who doesn’t want to join the ghost and his murderous mercenaries.
The one who is hearing the faint footsteps of ISIS loud and clear is IRI-the Islamic Republic of Iran. They see themselves, as the defenders of (Shi‘a) Islam, in the upstart ISIS, the defenders of the (Sunni) Islam- Shi‘a Muslims being roughly about %15 of the greater majority. Posturing against the great west is a game of words, playing with ISIS is a game of thrones. Even al-Qaeda is steering clear of ISIS for now.
Political power is patently paranoid.
I suspect that the new Iranian foreign policy of roses and tweets is probably not so much motivated by a new found yearning to reestablish old diplomatic ties with the wild Wild West, but as a defensive shield against the rise of a whole new breed of enemies (the likes of ISIS with even less regard for human lives and rights) they know they cannot deflect with warm words or defeat with cold swords.
Both sides know the bloody history of the Arab civil wars of the formative decades of Islam when one of the battle tactics of the secular caliphs was tying sacred Qur’ans to their spear points to confuse their (Muslim) opponents and defend their legitimacy to rule over the newly-minted Arabian empire. And the hapless children growing up in warzones without hope will play their part in the reenactment of history-a circular death trap.
Iranians made their political bed when they made an enemy out of their only regional ally with a decent army-Israel-and their best long-distance ally-the United States of America, but now the likes of ISIS are robbing them of a good night sleep by planning to match IRI head for head and verse for verse in a total war for the (re)conquest of the old caliphate. My guess is that the Chinese and the Russians would not want to involve themselves in the messy internal politics of Islam.
Iraq and Syria with predominately Shi‘a governments (at least in theory) are the test grounds and even if (Sunni) ISIS is pushed back by other Islamic factions or governments (or both), the idea of an Islamic re(conquest) of the Middle East is likely to stick around for a while.
So, who will win the prize of presiding over dar al-Islam (House of the Believers)?
That is the proverbial $64,000 question. But if I had to guess, I would say: no one.
There is no one “typical” Muslim view that suits all, nor has there ever been.
Muslims, estimated at about a billion people (and growing) spread across the Near and Middle East, parts of Africa, Central, East and South Asia, Europe and the United States, come in all shapes and sizes and their religious views are shaped by their exceptionally varied cultural, ecclesiastical, educational, financial, historical, intellectual, national, political, and social circumstances.
And the story that one size fits all, that only one system of government and only one religion and only one language suits everyone, is all Greek to me.
I reckon most people just want to be left in peace to live a life of goodness. What they don’t want is to be humiliated and labeled: barbarians, heathens, pagans... and their religions dishonored and disrespected and dragged through multimedia mud.
Various attempts to impose one single ideology and interpretation of Islam across the world by political and theocratical power have spectacularly failed over the last 14 centuries.
The odds are not likely to improve over the next 14 centuries either.
Meanwhile the sweet sound of simple alphabet keeps Syria on my mind.
About the author: A. J. Cave is an Iranian-American writer. Her Book an idol-worshiper’s Guide to god-stan: a trilogy in 7 parts (2012) is the story of cracking the code of cuneiform script in the 19th century and its political and theological aftermath.
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