IS Chief Killed — Is United States the ‘Best’ Ally Syria Can Have?

A Syrian businessman asked Akhil Bakshi, “Why does US work overtime to create conditions for fundamentalism?”

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A banner blasting Israel and the US at the entrance of Suq-al-Hamidiyah bazaar in Damascus, Syria. Image used for representational purposes.
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(This piece was originally published on 12.09.19, and has been republished in light of Islamic State chief al-Baghdadi’s killing by United States forces.)

That Syria is a conservative country bent on spreading Islamic fundamentalist ideology across the world – seems like a politically-inspired disinformation campaign being conducted by the West. Before the fighting erupted in 2011, things sure didn’t appear that way in Syria.

One summer evening, a few years before the mass exodus began, I crossed a wide stretch of no man’s land from Turkey, and entered Syria at the Salame border, bypassing a chaotic queue of Iranian pilgrims on their way to worship at the Shi'ite shrines. As I drove to my hotel in downtown Aleppo, my eyes popped out of their sockets. Smart, fashionable ladies packed the roadside cafes and strolled the wide tree-lined roads, a mellow moonshine glinting on their fair faces.

Aleppo Citadel dates back to 9th century BC
Aleppo Citadel dates back to 9th century BC
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

Aleppo Exuded the Flavour of France

When I walked the streets at night, I heard rock and roll, not the rhythmic chanting of prayers. Aleppo exuded the flavour of France in broad boulevards, sidewalk cafes, bakeries selling French-style breads and the fashionable women. “We were a French colony between 1925 and 1945,” said Mansour, my guide, a student at Allepo University. “The French withdrew in 1946, leaving behind their fashions and breads.”

The honey-coloured citadel is Aleppo’s showpiece. Its stones were old when Genesis was new. Sayf al-Dawla (944-967 AD), the first Hamdanid ruler of Aleppo, built the fortress over Roman and Byzantine ruins, dating back to the 9th century BC. As a bridge between the East and West, waves of conquerors stormed through Syria from all sides. It has been ruled by Egyptians, Aramaeans, Hebrews, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Nabataeans, Romans, Byzantine, Arabs, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and French. Everyone aspired to capture this fort – but it yielded only to one.

Window shopping in Suq-al-Hamidiyah, Damascus.
Window shopping in Suq-al-Hamidiyah, Damascus.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

In 1400, Timur, the ruthless Uzbek, filled the citadel’s moat with his fallen soldiers. Stampeding over their dead bodies, he captured it and cut it to size. Today, the battle-weary citadel sits lonely on a hilltop, looking down at the city, recalling its past glory.

Black-veiled women sat like crows on the stone railing of an arched bridge that led to the citadel’s gateway. I meandered through the fort, jumping over wounded walls and crumbled boulders, admiring the throne room, the patterned gateways and carved lintels, and walked past groups of ladies wearing the all-encompassing burqa alongside women wearing western attire. Syria has a liberal dress code. You can wear what you like, though you cannot always say what you want.

“Syria is Actually the Best Ally US Can Have”

I took the liberty of drawing a suave Syrian businessman, who had befriended me on the citadel’s terrace café, into a conversation about a possible US attack. As the US administration worked to reshape the Middle East, Syria was on the spot, as the only country still bearing the torch of Arab nationalism, sheltering Iraqi Baathist officials and openly supporting Palestinian militant groups.

Syria, under intense US pressure, was forced to withdraw its military from neighbouring Lebanon, effectively ending 29 years of armed presence in the country. Syrian President Bashar Assad had politically been targeted as the godfather of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. There were talks in the US of bombing Syria back to the Stone Age.

View of 5000-year-old Aleppo, world’s oldest continually inhabited city.
View of 5000-year-old Aleppo, world’s oldest continually inhabited city.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

Looking down into the tightly packed city, I joked with the businessman that this fort could not possibly protect the city from an American or NATO assault.

“You think Iraq can be repeated here?” I asked.

“Perhaps. But it would be sad. Syria is actually the best ally US can have,” he remarked, throwing me off the railing.

“We, Arabs, Have a Serious Anger Management Problem!”

“Then why did they encourage Arab fighters to battle the Americans at the start of the Iraq war?” I inquired.

“It was a way to get rid of the extremist elements in Syria. Better send them to die in Iraq. They were sent there in the hope that the Americans would liquidate them. But the Americans, typical of them — not in tune with reality and local politics —panicked. They set up a military base on the Syria-Iraq border. Instead of sealing the border, they should have let in the extremists, rounded them up and shred them to pieces. US should be working together with Syria to finish Islamic fundamentalism.”

St. Simeon’s Citadel near Aleppo. The 3rd century monk spent 42 years of his life here, standing atop various pillars, preaching and giving advice and creating a huge cult following.
St. Simeon’s Citadel near Aleppo. The 3rd century monk spent 42 years of his life here, standing atop various pillars, preaching and giving advice and creating a huge cult following.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

“But I thought Syria was supporting these guys. Muslims here torched the Danish Embassy on the issue of Prophet’s cartoon. Everyone thinks that the Syrian government was behind the attack,” I retorted.

“I don’t think so. It was a spontaneous reaction from the public. We Arabs have a serious anger management problem. Setting things on fire provides us an emotional outlet.”

I laughed.

A painting in Hama commemorates the massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Syrian government in 1982.
A painting in Hama commemorates the massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Syrian government in 1982.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

“Syria Is Staunchly Secular”

“We are a staunchly secular country,” he continued. “A Muslim Brotherhood rebellion was ruthlessly crushed in Hama in 1982. Even the Air Force was sent in to bomb the rebels into oblivion.”

“But later the state co-opted Islam as state religion, and encouraged building of mosques and religious schools…” I butt in, always eager to find a hole in someone’s statement.

“Yes. The ruling Baath Party encouraged people to go to the mosque in order to keep them away from politics.” A tall woman with a colourful headscarf came and put her hand around his shoulder. “Meet my best ally – my wife. She is an American,” he said, winking. Bidding me khudah-hafiz, they disappeared, holding hands, into a crowd of veiled women.

An ancient water wheel in Hamas.
An ancient water wheel in Hamas.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

“Syrians, Like Indians, Enjoy Best of All Worlds”

A few days later, at a diplomatic reception attended by envoys from the ends of the earth and by representatives of intelligentsia and media, a Syrian journalist, high on champagne, latched on to my ear, wanting to know my impressions about his country. I told him that I was bewildered with the coexistence of liberalism with conservatism, and the apparent absence of fundamentalism.

The author on a hilltop above the urban sprawl of Damascus. It is said that Prophet Mohammed, looking upon the city, refused to enter it because he wanted to see paradise only once – upon his death.
The author on a hilltop above the urban sprawl of Damascus. It is said that Prophet Mohammed, looking upon the city, refused to enter it because he wanted to see paradise only once – upon his death.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

“True,” he said, locking his arm on my shoulder, using it as a handbrake to slow down his swaying frame. “Syrians, like Indians, enjoy the best of all the worlds, including holidays. Last week we were closed for Latin Easter. Next week we will be closed for Orthodox Easter.” We had a good laugh. “Oh, yes!” he continued. “We have existed peacefully with all religions since centuries. Ever since the Arabs took control of Damascus from the Greeks in 635 AD, Christian churches and Christian rights have been protected in this city. But France, a Christian power, bombed the daylights out of us between 1925 and 1945. After they left, we fell in love with the Americans. And look, where this has got us. The Americans call us fundamentalists and are itching to invade us.”

A banner blasting Israel and USA at the entrance of Suq-al-Hamidiyah bazaar in Damascus.
A banner blasting Israel and USA at the entrance of Suq-al-Hamidiyah bazaar in Damascus.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

“Why Does US Strive to Allow for Fundamentalism?”

“Perhaps it is the leadership here that has a fundamentalist outlook,” said I, prolonging the conversation.

He gave me a long, indignant look through his glasses. “Leadership? There is no leadership here. In its first 24 years of independence from France, we saw 23 changes in government, 15 by military coups. Since 1970, only the Assad family has been ruling. First, Hafez Assad. After his death, his son, Basher-Al-Assad, a medical doctor.”

The 2nd century AD Roman amphitheatre at Bosra. It was in Bosra that a Nestorian monk revealed to young Mohammed that he would be a future prophet.
The 2nd century AD Roman amphitheatre at Bosra. It was in Bosra that a Nestorian monk revealed to young Mohammed that he would be a future prophet.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

Suppressing my laughter, I looked around to see if anyone was listening. All the guests were in high spirits and having their own boisterous conversations.

“Don’t worry,” said the journalist, noticing my concern. “Let them all go to hell. Now – do you know – this Assad family that has been ruling us for 36 years are Shias! And majority of Syrians are Sunnis. Yet our people condone them. Is that not tolerance? And I tell you, they belong to a demeaned, despised, historically marginalised sect called Alawi. We don’t consider them Arabs or even Muslims.”

 The tomb of John the Baptist inside Umayyad Mosque, the showpiece of Damascus.
The tomb of John the Baptist inside Umayyad Mosque, the showpiece of Damascus.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

He continued, “For one thousand years they lived in their mountain hideouts in impoverished villages of northwest Syria. They turned the mosques that were built for them into horse stables. They do not fast during Ramzan or go for hajj to Mecca. These Assads were originally called ‘Wahsh’, meaning ‘beast’. They changed their name to ‘Assad’, meaning lion. They may be vicious power-grabbers, but they are certainly not fundamentalists. Then why is it that democratic America works overtime on ousting liberal Arab leaders and creates conditions for take-over by fundamentalist forces?”

A handloom weaver in Bosra.
A handloom weaver in Bosra.
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

“That isn't a million dollar question,” I said, calling it a night.

(An author and explorer, Akhil Bakshi is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA and Editor of Indian Mountaineer. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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