The below is an excerpt from my book, the City on the Heights. It might seem odd, but I think few of the region’s local actors are actively dishonorably by their own standards — even Assad and his ilk. I think spanking and threatening Assad isn’t a bad idea, but we should think carefully before we cast him as a man of pure evil. Note: The below is set in a time before the Russians got involved.
The man turned and looked down at Mohammed, still sitting on the floor.
“Do you know what this building is?” he asked.
Mohammed shook his head. “No,” he answered.
“Do you know what a signal box is?”
Mohammed shook his head a second time.
The man sat down again and then spoke. “Over a hundred years ago, this building was constructed as a signal box by the Ottomans. There was a railroad here. It ran from Aleppo to Baghdad. At this place, the railroad had a spur – a sort of railroad tributary – that went to Abu Kamal. So, there was a man who lived in this building. And he would climb the stairs and watch for trains. And he would switch the tracks – sending some to Abu Kamal and some to Baghdad and some to Aleppo. Can you imagine, a railroad connecting all of these places?”
Mohammed had never seen a train before, except in pictures, and he had no idea a railroad had been here.
“No,” he answered, surprised at his fascination.
“Do you know what happened to the railroad?” asked the man.
“No,” said Mohammed, again.
“The Ottomans fell. And the British and the French and then the Americans all made their mark on this land. But they didn’t do what the Ottomans did. These lands were Ottoman lands, and while their empire was both weak and corrupt, they still wanted to develop and tie together their lands. But the French and the British and the Americans just want our oil. They want us weak. They want us fighting each other, instead of building railroads and a powerful society. And so, they play us off against one another. They defended Shia Iran against Sunni and Baathist Iraq in the days of the Shah. And when the Ayatollah came, they supported Saddam against the Iranians. And then when Saddam became too powerful and too successful – when he threatened their oil – they crushed him and replaced him with chaos. Instead of helping us develop this place, which was once the most envied of any in the world, they just want to keep us weak. Our own people, desperate for money and food, demolished the railroad, selling the tracks and the switches and even the stairs that used to be inside this building. They want to keep us weak. Do you understand?”
Mohammed nodded. Of course, he thought to himself, the Shiites and the Sunnis had been fighting long before the British had come.
“I am not Shia,” the man continued, seemingly answering his unspoken question, “And I am not Sunni. I am an Alawite. We are a tiny, tiny part of this country’s population. For years after the modern country of Syria was established in 1946, there was terrible fighting and confusion and dissent. Just like the West wanted. But the oil still flowed. When the Alawites rose to power behind Hafez Al-Assad, we had a single goal in mind. We wanted to the strengthen the nation and empower the people. We don’t need Shiite or Sunni dominance – we aren’t a part of that struggle. We just want to develop the country – like the Ottomans had tried to do in their own imperfect ways. Unlike them, we didn’t want it to simply be a fiefdom to pay taxes to Viceroys in Damascus or a Sultan in Istanbul; we wanted it to be strong in its own right. We wanted it to serve the people under the Arab Socialist ideology of the Baathist Party. We wanted peace and prosperity and justice. But the West has always opposed this. They’ve opposed strong and independent Arab nations. They’ve opposed Socialism. They’ve opposed anything other than weak and dependent leaders who rely on the West for their survival. Because Hafez Assad was not weak and because Bashar Assad is not weak, they have consistently opposed us. They’ve fought the Alawites and their leaders. But we’ve remained strong, which is good for Syria.”
Mohammed nodded, politely.
“You may not realize it,” continued the man, “But the West sustains your terrorist movement. They support the Saudi royal regime – who are themselves imposters. The real Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques are the Hussain family, but they have been relegated to the backwaters of the Kingdom of Jordan. They have been kept weak. The Saudi family, in turn, funds Sunni terrorists around the world – especially those in Syria. But without backing from the Americans, the Saudi family themselves would fall. The West sustains whoever is weak. They pretend it is so that the weak can have justice. In reality, it is so they can keep us all weak. We need to fight them, we need to drive them away. But they are clever. Their efforts hobble us.”
Mohammed couldn’t stop himself from objecting. “You think being strong against the Americans justifies what you did in Hama and Homs?”
The story of these two cities burned in the collective consciousness of Mohammed’s people.
“The Alawites are a tiny group,” the man responded, “If we lose power for even a moment, our enemies in this land will literally exterminate us. And if we don’t have power, the Sunnis or the Shiites will, and they will kill each other like they always have. We need to keep power so our wives and our children can survive. And we need to keep power so Syria can be strong. So, yes, we’ve sometimes done brutal things. We crushed the rebellions in Hama and Homs in the 1980s. Tens of thousands died. You know this. What you don’t realize is that, to a man, we regret what was done. But we also know, if we hadn’t done it, that the West would win, and our ancient people would have ceased to exist. So, Hama and Homs were necessary.”
Mohammed, raised in a stew of hatred for the Alawites, had never known this perspective. It confused him, and he fought back the dissonance.
“Did you know,” the man continued, “that the guards at Tadmur – where your father was – use drugs to get through their tours there? They hate what they do. They hate the torture and the deprivation and the horror. They aren’t callous. They are family men who know their prisoners are family men. In a way, they too are prisoners. We rotate them through, in short stints. Nonetheless, many return to our society forever cursed by addiction and nightmares. The price of that prison is terrible. But it remains necessary.”
“So, what do you want?” asked Mohammed.
“Simple,” said the man, “We don’t want to be your enemies. Our fear of what you will do drives us to do things we hate. If you struggle more mightily against us, I can assure you that there are no boundaries we would be unwilling to cross. But we don’t want this. We want to develop this country and strengthen it. We want to push back against the Americans and the British and the French. And so, we need to end the war with the Sunni Mujahedin. I doubt, however, that you can deliver this.”
Mohammed knew what awaited him, if the man thought he was impotent.
“I can help,” said Mohammed, before he could think of any way of doing so…
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