Syria was an oasis of peace in the troubled Middle East when I visited it in January 2009 as part of an interfaith delegation. The objective of our "citizen diplomacy," sponsored by the Canadian embassy was to foster harmony between Syrian Christians, Muslims and the hundred or so Jewish citizens of Damascus, who likely felt isolated that year due to the raging Gaza/ Israeli war next door.
The Golan Heights were visible from Damascus. I had concerns about my safety there but was assured by officials that Syria is "not like other Middle Eastern nations. Syrians get along. Syrians don't hurt other Syrians and there is religious and sectarian harmony in the country."
That certainly appeared to be the case on the surface. One could never imagine that a cauldron of sectarian hostility, religious discord and pernicious fundamentalism was brewing underneath that deceptive calm.
The world has already witnessed the worst of Syrian on Syrian atrocities. The images of the chemical attack victims are hard to stomach.
The issues we had gone to address were between members of different faith communities rather than the internecine violence that is endemic to Muslim culture. We did not know at that time that it was the trenchant sectarianism that would rear its ugly head merely two years later, rather than any inter-religious tensions. This is not to downplay the threat to Christians after an increased radicalization of Syria's rebels.
Now Assad has bought time with his project to reduce chemical weapons
The G-20 summit in London to discuss ways to end the Syrian war has ended. But the situation in Syria is too complex for a simplistic Western strategy to end the war. What we see in store for Syria is instead a protracted civil war with the potential of an even greater humanitarian crisis.
The outside world is aware of extremist elements fighting against the Assad regime. Regrettably, there is approval for such fighters among the Syrian people, the majority of whom are Sunni, because these radicals are seen as the best fighters and their only hope. Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood providing material support to the rebels. Lost amidst this religious army are the few secularists who prefer a Western style liberal democracy.
The carnage will continue till such time that one particular faction is declared the uncontested winner. If a Sunni government is installed in Syria, most likely the PKK and the Alawites will attempt everything to destabilize it. We have seen enough parallels with Iraq, which has been engulfed in a civil war, now in its tenth year even after the removal of tyrant Saddam Hussain. Egypt too has failed in its attempts to bring about democratic rule.
That is the tragedy of the Middle East. It is simply not as easy to depose tyrants and establish a liberal democracy. Even the vast Sunni majority that considers itself moderate is firmly rooted in orthodox religious precept. And one must leave aside politically correct and spurious distinctions between Islamist or Islamic doctrine. Neither one admits divergence of opinion which is one of the cardinal principles of true democracy.
Pluralism and democracy cannot flourish among people whose sensibilities are firmly rooted in doctrine and dogma. This psyche breeds bellicosity that often transforms into jihadist zeal.
One hopes that secretary of State John Kerry will be successful in forging a negotiated peace. With the rebels in disarray, and with Assad firmly rooted in power, the chances of even a fragile peace are all but slim.
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