Syria: Divide & Conquer (with Diana Darke)
A brief history of one of the oldest habited places on earth.
Syria has been at the center of things since the time of the Fertile Crescent. Its capital, Damascus, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. Centuries before its conquest by Sargon of Akkad in 2330 BCE, the place was the stomping grounds of peoples we read about in the Bible: Assyrians, Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians. Syria was held by Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great of Macedonia, and the Seleucid king Antiochus the Savior, whose name was given to the ancient city of Antioch.
Rome eventually conquered Syria—Rome conquered a lot of places—but by the late second century, Syrians were running the Roman Empire. Julia Domna, wife to the emperor Septimius Severus—and as his chief administrator, one of the most powerful women who ever lived—was born in Emesa, now called Homs. A number of subsequent emperors, most notably Elagabalus and Philip the Arab, were Syrian.
For a brief, shining moment, Syria was the seat of an empire founded by a woman: the Palmyrene Empire was established by Zenobia during the third century Roman Age of Chaos. She conquered Syria and much of the Roman lands in the eastern reaches of the Empire, before falling to the emperor Aurelian in 272.
Syria was held by the Byzantines and then taken by the Arabs, who made Damascus the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate in the mid-seventh century. Centuries later, it fell to the Turks, and remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the Great War, when stuffy European diplomats—Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France specifically—carved up Ottoman territory into European spheres of influence, with nary a thought to the people who actually, you know, lived there. (A lot of the current strife in the Middle East can be traced back to this boneheaded agreement.)
Syria was given to the French, who set up the Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. This proved a disaster. France was brutal in Syria, just as it would be brutal in Algeria. The country gained independence after the Second World War, but by 1970 was a military dictatorship under the canny rule of Hafez al-Assad. It boasts one of the world’s best intelligence services, which keeps an Orwellian eye on everything going on in the country.
Since 2000, upon the death of his father, the eye doctor Bashar al-Assad has run Syria with the aid of his wife, the glamorous, London-educated Asma. This proud country, once the dominion of rulers rightly nicknamed “the Great”—Cyrus, Alexander, Constantine, Saladin, Suleiman—is now ruled by the Syrian Jared and Ivanka.
When the Arab Spring threatened his power in 2011, Assad did what weak dictators do: he came down hard. Homs, the birthplace of Julia Domna, was besieged for years and mostly destroyed. Aleppo was leveled. Residents of Ghouta, Douma, and other cities and towns were gassed to death. The Islamic State emerged from the power vacuum and seized Palmyra, once home to Zenobia; its ruins were razed. During the war, millions of Syrian refugees fled the country, relocating to the neighboring Arab states or to Europe, further disrupting the region.
As it stands today, Syria is a clusterfuck. Assad controls about two thirds of the country. There are a handful of insurgent groups, none big enough or strong enough to take out Assad on its own—and due to the animosity between Turks and Kurds, almost impossible to unite. The electricity is on for a few hours a day, and it is an effort for most Syrians to access basic services—not that you’d know this from Asma’s Instagram page, an inspired piece of propaganda.
Unwilling to commit troops to Syria so soon after the debacle in Iraq, the United States bombed Islamic State targets from the air, but essentially outsourced the eradication of ISIS on the ground to Russian “peacekeeping” forces. Putin used Syria as a template for what he would later attempt in Ukraine. The loss of life, the destruction of property, the displacement of the population, and the loss of dignity in Syria is incalculable.
Moreover, Assad has deliberately turned Syrians against each other. Syria has always been a crossroads, a place where different people and cultures come together. Assad’s strategy is to change that.
“One of the saddest things, to my mind, that’s happened to Syrian society during these ten years of the war,” the author and Syrian expert Diana Darke tells me on today’s PREVAIL podcast, “is that I can honestly say, from 2005 to 2011, when I did know the country extremely well—and I have actually been back seven times during the war as well, so I’ve watched as things changed—what we think of in the West as the whole sectarian thing was really not an issue in Syria. Nobody gave a damn whether you were Sunni, Shi’a, Alawi, Druze. It just didn’t matter. People just accepted—they related to you on the basis of who you were, what kind of person you were, whether you were trustworthy or not. It really didn’t matter.
“But the effect of the war, sadly, has been to deliberately, in my view—I mean, Assad has played on this—he has created the whole ‘divide and rule’ tactic. . . He has set out to turn communities against each other.”
Now that the Ukraine debacle has exposed Putin for what he is, one hopes that Assad, too, will face his reckoning. But it’s been eleven years since the Syrian Civil War began, with no end in sight. The Syrian people have suffered enormously, just as the Ukrainians are now suffering—but their suffering, sadly, has mostly been met with indifference.
Greg Olear talks to the Arabist and cultural expert Diana Darke, author of “Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe” and a number of other books on the Middle East, on the history of Syria, the current situation with the Assad regime, and what Putin learned from Russia’s involvement. Plus: a new film by Stanley Kubrick.
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Photo credit: American Rugbier. Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra, Syria.