By Ellen Michaud
“No hands are clean,” writes former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent Charles Glass. “Syria has become the venue of …`a proxy war’ or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalists over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre-World War I dominance.”
In an age in which much of our national media has closed its news- gathering bureaus abroad to fund a cult of partisan political pundits at home, Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe is a deep breath of straightforward reporting that, line by line, reveals how the Middle East went mad—and how the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Russia, Hezbollah, ISIS, and various freelance jihadis contributed to the insanity that today consumes Syria.
Graham Garner, long-time manager of QuakerBooks, had handed me the paperback last April when I’d visited the bookstore at Pendle Hill. A cross-country move to settle between coastal California and the Nappa Valley had delayed my reading it for months. But now, with Russian bombers tearing apart Aleppo—having killed 200 adults and 106 children in one day alone—and 10,000 Syrian, Iraqi, and Hezbollah troops massed to storm the city’s eastern, rebel-held stronghold, I had unearthed the book from its packing box.
How on earth had we gotten to this point?
Written by veteran Middle East reporter Charles Glass, the book uses the sharp, clear language of reportage to cut through a veil of diplomatic ambiguity, political propaganda, and blatant pretense from all those countries involved that has obscured both the reasons Syria is being systematically destroyed and the people who are taking it apart.
Glass, who was once kidnapped and held hostage for 62 days by Shi’a militants, was ABC News’ chief Middle East correspondent for many years. Today he writes regularly for the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and is the author of Tribes with Flags, Money for Old Rope, The Tribes Triumphant, and The Northern Front, among others.
In Syria Burning, he points to the “Arab Spring” that spread across the Middle East in 2011 that ignited what is now called the “Syrian Winter.”
Syria had escaped the bonds of the Ottoman Empire in 1946, Glass explains, and developed its own parliamentary government. Then came the Arabian American oil company known as Aramco. Its executives wanted to run a pipeline from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon went for it. The Syrian government did not.
Then, as Glass reports, an American CIA agent approached the Syrian army’s chief of staff to arrange a coup. The chief of staff seized power in 1949, and promptly signed an agreement with Aramco. A series of military coups followed until Hafez Al-Assad, current Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s father, seized control in 1970.
The country’s cafes rumbled with dissatisfaction, and rebellion occasionally percolated to the surface. But the Syrian people, Glass writes, were tired of war. Until, that is, the Arab Spring of 2011, when 15 Syrian children in the ancient desert city of Dera, not far the Jordanian border, painted anti-government slogans on the city’s walls. The children were arrested and tortured, and the citizens of Dera took to the streets.
The response of Bashar Al-Assad, who had assumed Syria’s presidency in 2000, was brutal.
ISIS, Hezbollah, freelance jihadis, and most of the countries around the world jumped into the melee that followed. As Glass reports,
On the one side Russia and Iran have supplied weapons, ammunition and diplomatic cover for President Assad. On the other, there is the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, a collection of 107 countries and organizations modeled on the Friends of Libya who cheer-led NATO’s air war in that country.
“No hands are clean,” writes Glass. Crediting Moroccan diplomat Mokhtar-Lamani, the UN-Arab League representative in Syria, with first articulating the new reality, Glass points out that
“Syria has become the venue of …`a proxy war’ or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalists over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre-World War I dominance.”
The cost to the Syrian people has been devastating. Some 35 percent of the country is occupied by ISIS, and, as of five months ago, a report released by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, a think tank originally based in Damascus, reveals that more than 470,000 Syrians had been killed since the citizens of Dera took to the streets, while nearly 7 in 10 Syrians were without food and water. An astounding 10 million people had been forced from their homes—including some 4 million who fled the country.
Who is left to kill?
Ellen Michaud is the editor-at-large for Live Happy Magazine, and the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, which was named the #1 spiritual/inspirational book of the year by USA BookNews. She is also an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer, a past writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion and the former book review editor of Friends Journal.