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Syria: A fractured central power since antiquity

Since antiquity, Syria stretched from south Turkey to actual Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Gaza.  Syria was called “Bilad el Sham” (North of Mecca region) during the Arab/Islam Empires. It was located between the Mediterranean Sea over a stretch of 700 km of coastal shore, starting from the northern mountain chain of Al Loukam (inside current Turkey) to the borders of the Sinai Desert.

The inland of Syria is divided by two parallel mountain chains from north to south. The western mountain chain is barely 100 km from the sea at its widest.

The fertile valley between the two mountain chains stretching for 1,000 km starts from the city of Meresh (Anatolia) to Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Syria had three distinct sets of City-States:

First set of cities along the sea-shore;

Second set of cities in the valley and along internal, non-navigable rivers such as Al Assy, Litany… studded by cities such as Hama, Homs, Baalbek, Anjar, Damascus… and

Third set of cities bordering the desert and the western part of the Euphrates River.

Syria, located between the sea and the desert, attracted land trades coming from rich Yemen (southern region of the Arabic Peninsula) with powerful centers in Moeen, Sabaa, Kotban, Awssan, Hadramout….  These centers of commerce sent forward land caravans toward Syria via strategic trade cities such as Mecca, Thoumud, Medina, all the way to desert City-States in the southern province of Syria.

Kingdoms such as Adomim, Mouabit, Ambat (Petra)…were located in the strategic southern Syrian province, where most land trade converged before heading north to Damascus, or going west to Gaza and Egypt.

For example, the Christian tribe of Ghassassina (originally from Yemen) had expanded over many desert City-States and became almost a prosperous empire during the 5th and 6th century AC.  This tribe paid allegiance to the Byzantium Empire.

By the 7th century, many “Arabic” tribes had transplanted branches or clans to the central Syrian province (Damascus).  These tribes were Tyme, Aamel, Bahrea, Thaalabat

Maritime and land routes converged from three continents.

This land was invaded by almost every war-like empires (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greek, Roman, Byzantium, Arab/Islamic, Ottoman, western mandated powers as France and England).

The main characteristic of Syria is that it is easy to conquer, but hardly any empire managed to administer it.  All these war-like empires relied on third-party tribes or alliance of tribes to collect taxes and maintain a semblance of central power.

When empires with navy powers were at war, such as Egypt and Byzantium, the port cities in Syria suffered trade “embargo” and gave way to higher prosperity to inland cities, and vice versa.

For example, during 11 centuries, the various Arab/Islam empires failed to effectively govern Syria, even the Umayyad Dynasty with Damascus as Capital.

The complex topography of the land inhibited the unification of the various tribes and communities, though it facilitate incursions of foreign powers.  Warrior empires could easily occupy Syria once they crossed the first mountain chains or desert, but they could not administer the land due to the multitude of local cultures and sense of retaining self-autonomy on mountain hills

The social structure of Syria resulted from two natural characteristics:

First, tribes living on mountain chains and hills, mostly labeled “heretics” by orthodox religious sects (both Christian and Moslem) and opposing any central power for administration of their communities. These tribes were armed, warrior, and could rely on support coming from their mother tribes in the Arabic Peninsula.

Second, sedentary peasant tribes, which settled in the fertile valley and along rivers, were mostly cooperative with central powers, regardless how far the Capital was located.

The first kinds of mountain settled tribes exhibited the major problems for any unification and centrally administered empire. They demanded their share from looting expeditions, since they were the warriors.  Consequently, the sedentary cities were frequently harassed and looted, vying for survival means and self-autonomy in customs and traditions. (Read note #1 for further details on various sects and how Syria was administered during the Arab/Islamic Empires).

Every city and its environs was governed by an Emir, the leader of tribe that participated in one of the countless expeditions against another Emir. More often than not, an Emir would bribe juvenile delinquents, seeking some action and food, and constitute his local militia to tame and harass recalcitrant tribes.

As soon as the Emir receive fresh troops from central government, his first decision is to eradicate the local militia, and restore law and order for trades. The “Shabab” militias in Syrian cities, hired by the regime are repeating Syria history: The fate of these militia is pretty gloomy…

During the reign of Mehemet Ali to Egypt (starting in 1805), his son Ibrahim led the army to within 200 km from Istanbul: The Ottoman Empire was ripe to fall to the army of Ibrahim.  The western nations wanted to let the Ottoman Empire survive for some period, and a deal was struck to allow Mehemet Ali rule Syria, in addition to Sudan and the Arabic Peninsula.

The empire of Egypt stretched from the region of Adana in Turkey to all Sudan. It is recorded that Ibrahim said: “I will lead my army as far as people speak Arabic...”  The region of Adana is the most strategic military area: Troops have to cross a tiny treacherous route in order to pass the high mountain chain toward the valley of Syria. Actually, historic Syria included the southern part of Anatolia, all the way to current Dyar Bakr…

Note 1: Ibrahim Mehemet Ali governed Syria for 8 years.  This was the best period of prosperity and security that the Syrian enjoyed in its history.  For the first time in its history, Syria had a central power and administered from Damascus. Still, the Syrian revolted several times because Ibrahim forced upon them military service and forced labor…

Note 2: https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/are-you-curious-how-syria-upheaval-will-unfold-must-know-history-of-syria-between-7th-and-11th-centuries/

Note 3:  This article was inspired by a chapter of “Syria under Islam, (1977)” by late history academics Kamal Salibi, and translated from English to Arabic by Kamal Khoury

 

Curious how Syria upheaval will unfold? Know history of Syria between 7th and 11th centuries

Syria, known as “Bilad el Sham” during the Arabic Empire, was mainly divided into 3 major provinces. The northern, middle and southern provinces.

Labeling Syria as Bilad el Sham (country to the left, or the western side of the Arabic Peninsula) by the Arabic Empire stems from being located in the other direction to Yemen (on the right side).  You can figure a tribe leader standing in Mecca and gesticulating, facing north and pointing his left hand toward Syria and his right hand toward Yemen.

The northern region included the southern region of current Turkey, all the way to the seashore, the western part of the Euphrates River, Aleppo, Hama and Homs. The Al Assy River was a major source of water for the  flourishing agricultural diversity.  The province situated in north-east Aleppo was called the Kannasrine province.

Homs was the most important city in economy, trade, and population concentration. Invading man-of-war Empires had to capture Homs first for supply route before setting siege to Aleppo.  Aleppo was usually the de-facto Capital of the province, its  administrative center (basically where the prince and his entourage resided) and a strategic military location.

From Aleppo, almost all invading Empire extended their possessions toward Turkey, Mosul, and ultimately toward Damascus and Palestine.

This norther region assembled most of the religious sects, which were upset with any religious central power during all foreign occupations. It had the heaviest concentration of “heretic” Christian sects, and “heretic” non-Sunni Islamic sects such as the 4 varieties of Moslem Shias. The Shias sect of the 12th Imam was most of time governing Aleppo, though they were allied to the Caliphs in Damascus or Bagdad.  The Sunni sect at the time didn’t view this sect as a main threat religiously. (Read explanation in note #2)

The main “Arabic” tribe, meaning the tribe that immigrated from a region in the Arabic Peninsula, was named Kilab.  I was a relatively newly arrived tribe and consequently, had strong connections with its related tribes and clans in the Peninsula, and could expect support in man-of war contingents in time of military crises.

By the middle of the 10th century, successive and steady streams of immigrant tribes and clans converged toward the norther province of Syria.  These tribes were from Christian Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan… (regions in southeast the Lake of Kazwin). Why now? (Read note #3)

The warrying “Arab” tribes and leaders in Aleppo, Homs, and Hama demanded support from these newly arriving “foreign” tribes. By the end of the 11th century, Arab tribes in northern Syria didn’t constitute any weight in current political affairs.

(It is to be noted that the new converted tribes to Islam in the Caucasus region and central Asia were staunch Sunnis and refused any interpretation of the Coran.  Arab/Islam Empire in the East diverged from rational thinking, but resumed in Andalusia (Spain till the 15th century).

Middle Syria province was constituted of Damascus, Baalbak, Houran, Golan Heights, all the way to Tiberias (Tabaraya) and Akka on the current Palestinian sea-shore.  Damascus (formerly the Capital of the Arabic Omayyad Empire) was mostly Sunni Moslems.  The sedentary Sunnis in Damascus seek stability and paid allegiance to the reigning Sunni Caliph, regardless of location of the capital of the Empire, or the main power behind the Caliph.  Thus, Damascus was the main thorn toward the expansion of so-called “Heretic Moslem sects” of Ismaili or Karamita. (Read more on these two sects in note 2)

The southern Syria province included all of current Jordan and Palestine.  The city of Ramleh (close to current Tel Aviv) was the capital of the region.  This province had the most strategic trade and military location in all of Syria, (for example the Nabatean Empire with Capital Petra): What used to be known as the Decapolis region was the crossroad to most land trade and caravans and ships crisscrossing the Red Sea.

Gaza and Eshklan were mostly ruled by the power in Egypt.  The main Arab tribe was Tayy: it was newly established and had still strong connection to its clans and branches in the Arabic Peninsula, and could rely on man-of-war supply in critical crisis. (Might expand in later articles)

When the European crusaders invaded Syria, most of the cities with majority “heretic” sects (both Christians and Moslems) facilitated the occupation of their cities by the crusaders.  Aleppo and Damascus (mostly of sunni sect at the time) remained outside the crusaders’ dominion.  It is from these two cities that the counter attacks were concentraded and kicked the occupiers out, a century later.

What’s happening in Syria now?

The people in Homs have been virulent and demonstrating nightly against the regime. Why?

During late Hafez Assad, the socialist central government invested and funneled money into this major City. In the last five years, and the spread of liberal capitalism that pressured Syria to revise its economic and financial laws, the insiders in the central government and Bashar Assad clan opted to invest outside Syria, in Damascus, and Aleppo. Government funding for Homs disappeared.

Hama is virulent for two major reason:

First, Hama has been punished for over 3 decades from serious government investment related to the 1982 mass uprising. Hafez Assad decreed that: “Every Syrian who is found to be a member of Syria Moslem Brotherhood Party will be executed“.  Hafez was very consistent in his position and many Syrians were persecuted and hanged.

Second, Hama want revenge!

Why Damascus is not currently that excited for reform change?

As usual and historically, Sunnis in Damascus give priority to stability and security. Second, merchant class in Damascus is still reaping the advantages of being resident of the Capital.  When the regime shows definite weaknesses, you can be sure that Damascus will take over and lead the “revolution”: They have to maintain and protect their interest, economically and politically.

The people in Aleppo wish that what is taking place is actually a terrible bad dream: They will wake up from just a nightmarish dream. Aleppo is in a situation of “No Win”, regardless of which side to take.  If it sides with the government, Aleppo will suffer the most from a civil war because it is in the middle of the Sunni Kurds in the north and Sunni “Arabs” in the south.

Note 1: Information on the geopolitical structure of ancient Syria was extracted mostly from the book “Bilad el Sham during Arab Empire till the 10th century” by the late historian Kamal Salibi (he died two months ago).  It was written and published in English in 1982.  I am reading the Arabic version.

Note 2: As the Prophet Mohammad died in 631, many tribes opted to revert to paganism. The first Caliph Abu Bakr, and the second Caliph Omar needed 4 years of skirmishes before bringing back the hostile tribes into Islam.  The third Calif Othman was also from the Quraich tribe, the main powerful tribe of Mecca, from which the Prophet and Ali are from. Othman was assassinated in Medina.  Ali was next in line to be appointed caliph, and he was perceived as reluctant to prosecuting the assassins. The governor of Damascus, Muawiyah, was from the same clan of Othman and claimed the right for the position of Caliph and Imam of the Moslems.

Muaweya begged to differ. Ali was the husband of one of Muhammad daughters (Fatima who died 6 months after Mohammad) and whose two sons are consequently direct descendent from the Prophet. At a critical battle where the troops of Ali had ascendency after three days of war, Muaweyah raised the bloody shirt of Caliph Othman and asked Ali for negotiation by putting their hands on the Coran. Ali accepted a third-party decision for avoiding a civil war.

Two groups of Ali’s followers dissented.  The first group was called the Shias, and the second group Al Khawarej. The Shia said: “We didn’t fight with Ali to having a second opinion on his legitimacy as a descendent of the Prophet.”  The Khawarej said: “Enough is enough. We already had four caliph from the Quraich tribe. We don’t care anymore that a Caliph must necessarily be from the Quraich tribe.”  This extremist group constituted the worst anti-Quraich hegemony and received the worst and most sustained persecution. A member of Khawarej assassinated Ali five years later in Koufa. The same day, another member attempted to assassinate Muawiyah.  Muawiyah was wounded but didn’t succumb to his wounds.

The Shia sects are of four kinds.  Two sects are main and two others are branches. You have the Shia believing that the 12th Imam will return on earth to spread everlasting peace, and those who claim it is the 6th Imam known as the Ismailia sect.  The 12th sect is the predominant sect in Iran, Lebanon, and Aleppo region in north Syria. The 6th sect was predominant in North Africa and was called Fatimid when they conquered Egypt in the 9th century; they are currently dominant in India.

The Druze sect is a branch from the Ismailia sect and majority in the Chouf and west Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and in Houran and Golan Heights in Syria. The Alawi or Nussairi sect are also a branch of the 6th Imam and mostly a majority in the western region of Syria (this sect claim that Jesus is the one to return to earth and he didn’t die on the cross…)

Historically, the Karamita were a branch of the 6th Imam but would not suffer a centralized religious system in Cairo during the Fatimid dynasty. The Karamita established their headquarter in Al Ihsaa in East Arabic Peninsula, and expanded their territory to all the Arabic Peninsula, Yemen, Palestine and attempted several times to threaten Egypt.  They are still majority in that eastern part of Saudi Arabia.

Note 3: First, Byzantium Empire was re-expanding, and recapturing lost territories, and the strategy was to empty the re-conquered provinces and send the turbulent tribes toward “enemy territories” to forming a buffer zone.

Second, the newly established Seljuk Empire in Iran, which covered its legitimacy by recognizing the Caliph of Bagdad as Islam (Sunni) religious Imam, prohibited the immigrating tribes to settle on the Iranian borders, and encouraged them to move toward north Syria: A strategy meant for these tribes to becoming the front line for future expansion toward all of Syria. The Seljuk Empire managed to conquer Aleppo and Damascus, a couple of decades before the Crusaders waves started.

Note 4: You may read the differences between the rural and sedentary Islam sects https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/urban-islam-and-rural-islam/

“Palestinian leaders emulating tactics of early Zionist leaders”?

Journalist Gideon Levy wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz: Compare how the current Palestinian leaders and our political leaders are behaving in the world scene. The the current Palestinian leaders are the new Zionist leaders in their step-by step “Take what you can get”.  The current Palestinian leaders are willing forgo their flatulent dreams for pragmatic gains they can obtain now.

After the (assassination of Yasser Arafat by Ariel Sharon PM), the new Palestinian leaders can be compared to our successful early leaders. For example, Mahmoud Abbas is Levy Eshkol PM,  Saeb Oreikat is Aba Ebban, and Salam Fayad PM is Benhas Sabir or Eliazar Kaplan… All that these current Palestinian leaders lack is speaking yiddish, and you won’t be able to distinguish them from our early leaders in snatching opportunities on the ground.

Early Zionist leaders worked pragmatically and managed to establish a recognized State by the UN in 1949 (by a single majority vote). The current Palestinian leaders are about to realize the same feat with vast margin in the UN.  Israel of 2011 is no longer a State that other UN States wish to emulate in any kinds of achievement:  Israeli leaders are sent to jail for corruption or in their way to be incarcerated.  Liberal capitalism encouraged by Netanyahu since the 80’s had split our society between the filthy 1% billionaires and the overwhelming downtrodden classes. Productive State institutes have been privatized, and funding for social programs have been dwindling dramatically.

The Palestinians have been bleeding for 63 years: They have paid the high price. Israel of 2011 is about to start paying its due high price for desisting in stepping down from their high horses.  This incapable and impotent government preferred inaction to grabbing current realities by the horns…” End of translation with a slight liberty.

The late Lebanese academic historian Kamal Salibi (died a month ago) told Robert Fisk in 1983, (during Israel invasion of Lebanon): “The western communities have been under the illusion that the new Israeli society and “democratic” institutions will spread a new mentality in the Middle-East.  Facts demonstrate that Israel succumbed to the region customs and adopted its mentality in its integral reality…”

After the 1967 preemptive wars against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Israel expansionist mentality took roots. As one Israeli Jew set foot on a piece of land he liked, he planted the Israeli flag and reclaimed the land as belonging to the Israeli State (according to the Bible…):  A reminder of European colonial powers since the 15th century, planting the flag and reclaiming the territory as the King property.  Settlements mushrooms, special roads constructed to divert the colons from nearby Palestinian communities, and Palestinian municipalities restricted from expanding on the premise that the neighboring land belong to the settlers…

Robert Fisk, correspondent to the British The Times and covering the civil war of Lebanon for 9 years, wrote in his book “Afflictions of a nation”:  “I was an eye-witness on several occasions of Israeli soldiers looting houses, mainly carrying out electronic equipments, video camera, TV, telephones…After Israeli troops withdrew from the Capital Beirut, I accompanied my British friend to his apartment, which he vacated when the Israeli jet bombing intensified in his neighborhood. The apartment had been occupied by Israeli soldiers and the walls were dirtied with Hebrew words drawn in shit… ”

(Most of the Israeli incursions into Lebanon before 1982 were fundamentally undertaken with tribal razzias purposes in mind:  Soldiers enlisted for the opportunity of looting and bringing back what to furnish their houses…)

Fisk mentioned the revelations of US officials who confirmed that in the war of 1982, 20% of Israeli casualties were of “friendly fires”: Israel Defense Force lacked discipline and training.  Israel police confirmed that many Army depots were ransacked and 4,000 hand grenades stolen, 300 Galilee guns, 45 Howitzers, 200 M16…evaporated (to be sold in the Lebanese market)

Note 1:  The French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur published last week: “Israel Shin Beth (internal intelligence agency) is worried of the good organization of the Jewish terrorist cells in the colonies, or Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.  The Jewish terrorist cells, called “youth of the hills”, adopted Al Qaeda principles in organization and decentralized formations, and have in possession large supplies of military hardware.  They certainly have tight connections in the army and many public institutions.  (How could this happen if the organization and facilitation of these cells are not generated from the Shin Beth itself? The Shin Beth has all the potentials, the means, and the intelligence pieces for these kinds of terrorist activities)

Note 2: Map of countries that will support Palestine’s UN bid for statehood this month.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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