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05TH September 2011

A Line In the Sand - Adventure - Geopolitical - Timeless - Timely

Seriously, Syria?

Errmm, all's well here...

The beatings will continue until morale improves…

That about sums up the Assad’s family strategy for dealing the outbreak of “Arab Spring” in Syrian towns as it continues into “who’s next to Fall, this Fall”.  I think it is a country worth keeping an eye on, though it is very difficult with limited social media permitted.

Fellow Americans know so very little about the little country wedged between Lebanon and Iraq. I know just enough to be dangerous: my trek through the country with Tad Jones gave us a very unique perspective and continues to be the influence for our singular effort to inform our kin with our in-development play, A Line in the Sand. As we’ve said before, the region may look differently if TE Lawrence used twitter. We have tried piecing together Syria’s history enough to understand its future. But we’ve only been noodling it for five years, while they’ve had centuries to create the puzzle. Here’s a few pieces:

First: Syria is a key domino in one of the four big tectonic changes that will define the next generation: access to oil. While they have little oil themselves, they have long been a keystone in the strategic interests of the region, crossing both ethnic and geographic ties. Many of the current conflicts in the region lead back to Damascus, one way or another: Baghdad, Tehran, West Bank, Golan, Beirut, Israel proper, the Palestinian question, etc. etc. The entire region has a long history of being tribal, and Syria has exploited those gaps for centuries.

(for the other three, and a lot more eloquent grasp of geo-politics, see Thomas Friedman and the world’s four ruling bargains): 1) The world’s oil tap is deposing its old regimes, 2) Europe is unravelling as PIIGS spend and Germans save, 3) China’s deliberately undervalued currency and export-led growth keeping the Communist Party’s in power by providing rising living standards, and 4) In America, a credit-consumption-led economy, whereby we maintained a middle class by using steroids (easy credit, subprime mortgages and construction work) and less muscle-building (education, skill-building and innovation).

Second: It’s strategic. because of this  position, the region has been fought over for centuries. Long before there was oil, there were the Crusades whereby the Catholic church essentially invented the jihad, IMHO. Teutonic Knights were promised eternal gratitude and absolution in advance for re-taking Jerusalem and slaughtering anyone that stood in the way. This generally meant Muslims. In support of the thousands that made their way to the Holy Land, huge logistical challenges were met as Hospitallers literally paved the path from France to Palestine with roads, castles, and supporting infrastructure provisions (and became rich in the meantime).  I have personally visited Krak de Chevaliers in Homs and I can attest to the awesomeness of the work as well as the brilliance of the positioning. It was clear the spot was very important and was not going to be given up easily.

Third: Syria is the ultimate state controlled, exterior influenced, family business. Bashar al-Assad is the current president, and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad. Bashar’s prior occupation was ophthalmologist, so it was likely his family connections that got him the job. With very few natural resources and de-minimus GDP (#67 thank you, just beating Oman) sometimes it seems like the whole country gets by playing two rivals against another, or one against the middle. Iran and Russia have deep ties, obviously. The former a result of Cold War support, the latter more like neighborly politics. Syria has been under Emergency Law from 1962, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens, and its system of government is considered non-democratic. Many citizens I know live between terror and resignation. If the Arab revolt continues, hope will replace resignation, but terror will continue.

Fourth: Syria has stunningly rich history. The near future is likely to take inspiration from its past. I had the good fortune to tour just a bit of it, including Jerash which was one of the great Roman outposts and remains today one of the finest of Syria’s 50,000 archeological sites. The Crusaders rolled through a thousand years later and left an amazing collage of castles and fortifications. The French have stuck around for the past millennium in the Levant, and it shows. In this century, Lawrence of Arabia organized the tribes of the dessert into revolt against the Turks by promising Damascus as the prize upon victory. For a people raised in the sands of the deserts, there was no more fertile green imaginable. The bait worked, for at least as long as Lawrence’s promises weren’t already undercut by French-English back-handedness. The West is still reaping what was sown in post WW I Syria it’s no wonder Lawrence is called by one biographer “A Prince of Our Disorder”.  

So, far as I can see, the beatings in Syria will likely continue. It will not fall easily because we have little leverage, outsiders are too interested in the status quo, and the insiders are not interested in anything short of carrying on. Change will depend on those who see the benefits and are willing to risk to consequences of the process. In the meantime, I wish my Syrian friends their safety, peace and a better place than yesterday.

PS: the best damn rose petal jam in the world is served with the french croissants at the Biet al mamlukkka hotel.





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