Last Sunday in Aleppo a 14-year old boy, Muhammad al-Quatta, was selling coffee in his kiosk when he was overheard refusing a customer a free cup with a cheeky refusal that even if Muhammad, peace be upon him, were to come to earth he would not get a cup of coffee unless he paid for it. Three long-bearded men overheard this “insult,” snatched him away, beat him and, as hundreds of people gathered in the square, his mother watching from a balcony, the abductors pronounced him a sinner, pulled his shirt up over his head as a blindfold and shot him dead.
The war is Syria has come to this. The executioners—two of whom may have been foreigners and the third a Syrian—were apparently radical Sunnis who have substantially infiltrated the rebel ranks. The Syrian Coalition, the main opposition group, has condemned the killing as a crime against humanity; but this and similar executions have cooled the enthusiasm of their would-be supporters.
This all started in 660 when Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, at the battle of Siffin was killed by an assassin with a poisoned sword, with the words, “Judgment belongs to God, Ali, not to you.” The Muslim religion, which had been held together by Muhammad’s family, split into the two factions: Shiites loyal to the memory of Ali, who ruled from Damascus and emphasized piety, and Sunnis, a union of other factions later ruled from Istanbul, who emphasized the law and became particularly rigid in modern times.
Thursday’s New York Times depicted Syrian rebels manufacturing their own weapons in primitive shops as their commander pleads for help. Those of us who remember World War II recall Winston Churchill’s plea before Pearl Harbor: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” On this morning’s NPR news (Friday 14 June) BBC interviewed a rebel leader who seemed to be screaming into his mic, “They are coming to get us. They are coming to kill us all.” And in today’s headline after months of caution the Obama administration announced that, in response to President Bashar al Assad’s use of poison gas, the United States will begin supplying the rebels with small arms and ammunition.
Odd, since Tuesday’s Times reported that sarin had been used but, according to an “American official,” we can’t tell when it was used, where, who used it or in what circumstances. Presciently, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson praised the appointment of Samantha Power to the United Nations for her “intemperance in the best of causes: protecting the innocent from violence.” Gerson concludes, “On Syria, the options are flawed and the president is hesitant. But it is absurd to think that personnel is irrelevant to policy... And if worst comes to worst—as it tends to in Syria—there will be people in the room arguing to prevent mass atrocities.”
Some say worst has come to worst. The death toll is now 92,000. Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker (May 13) quotes Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, predicting that Assad will destroy Damascus rather than lose it, the Sunnis, ethnic cleansing the Alawites (Shiite offspring) will pick two little towns and kill everyone. Lebanon will have 4 million refugees and Jordan will close its borders. “The longer the war goes on the more the extremists will gain.”
The most devastating argument against intervention is David Bromwich’s “Stay Out of Syria,” in The New York Review of Books (June 20). He targets New York Times former editor Bill Keller, who also urged our invasion of Iraq. “Getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq,” Keller says. But, replies Bromwich, before we “get over” it, remember that almost 4,500 Americans died and 32,000 came home wounded, and the number of Iraqis who would still be living if the United States had not invaded is incalculable, although a low estimate is 151,000. Meanwhile one has only to read the daily papers to realize the war in Iraq is far from over. It has become a civil war, which was predictable.
Remember that George H.W. Bush refused to pursue the Iraqi army back into the homeland. We had driven them at a high cost out of Kuwait. That was enough. And we were slaughtering a helpless retreating army as they trekked home. That was too much.
About John McCain, says Bromwich, “it is no satire but simple truth to say that he cannot have enough wars.” Zbibniew Brzezinski, on the other hand, has written in Time, that “The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of tiddly winks intervention from the around the edges of the conflict—no fly zones, bombing Damascus, and so forth—would simply make the situation worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically beneficial for the U.S. On the contrary, they would produce a more complex, undefined slide into the worst case scenario.”
Peace talks once scheduled for the near future have been postponed for months. And Russia’s MiG aircraft maker plans to ship at least 10 fighter jets to Syria. Will the United States then supply the opposition with antiaircraft missiles to knock them down? Bromwich suggests that “a good result of negotiations would be a transitional governing body that offers Assad a slow exit, but the obstacles to such an outcome are formidable.”
Because I spent a good part of a summer there some years ago, during the reign of the previous Assad, I have a deep affection for Damascus and especially Aleppo and the people I met there. One day I was in a sidewalk café when some students at the next table, seeing I was reading a biography of Assad, were amazed and excited. They did not know that the book existed and gave me the impression that they would not be allowed to read it. If I remember correctly, I gave them my book. I hope my memory is correct and, if those young men are still alive, that it might help explain the—perhaps final—tragedy of Syria today.