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The Unrepentant Traditionalist
January 15, 2009

Brokering a Syria-Israel Peace
by Frank Creel

One of the casualties of the Israeli bombardment and invasion of the Gaza strip was the peace talks between the Israelis and the Syrians. When a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is again in place, as it must eventually be, the U.S. should encourage the parties to resume talks and reach an agreement. If, as generally expected, hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu returns to power in February, the U.S. will have its work cut out for it.

The talks, mediated by the Turks, had been going on for about a year. Under the terms being discussed, Syria would sign a peace treaty with Israel in exchange for a return of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Independence for Lebanon (or perhaps annexation by Damascus), restraint of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the regional rivalry between Iran and Turkey are also components of the political dynamic.

The fact that Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad essentially turned a blind eye to the bombings of a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor by the Israelis and of cross-border terrorists by the Americans shows how anxious he is for a deal. He suspended the talks during the Gaza crisis out of political necessity to show solidarity with the Palestinians.

Assad is Alawi (as was his father, Hafiz). Alawis, who comprise only about 10 percent of Syria’s population, are a sect within the Shia wing of Islam. Most Sunni and Shiite Muslims do not even consider Alawis to be Muslim. They are syncretistic (revering Jesus almost as much as Christians and Mary even more than Protestant Christians) in their doctrines. They even think of God as three divine persons; Muhammad; a Persian by the name of Salman; and Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, who is thought of as a bloodied redeemer. Alawis celebrate many Christian feasts, including Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter. They refuse to build mosques and consider the pilgrimage to Mecca to be a form of idolatry. They are insular and secretive, strongly discouraging marriage outside of the sect and practicing dissimulation (taqiya) in their dealings with non-Alawis.

Alawis are not to be confused with the Alevis who comprise about a fourth of the population of neighboring Turkey. The two sects share many doctrinal beliefs (most notably the divinization or near-divinization of Ali), but their historical roots diverge widely.

The Alevis are the newer line. Many are Kurds. Their minority status bestows on them an affinity for secular governments able to protect them against religious discrimination by the Sunni majority. Most Turkish Alevis welcomed Mustafa Ataturk, the founder and first president of the modern — and secular — Republic of Turkey, a man whom some regarded as a “messiah” (mehdi). Their continuing support of secular government is a significant prop for the military’s ability to hold the line against religious revanchism.

Alawis date back to the ninth century. They, too, have experienced persecution at the hands of Shia Islam (the branch from which they broke away), as well as of the Sunni orthodoxy (if orthodoxy is defined as the creed of the largest branch). Thus, Alawis also incline toward secularism as a matter of self-preservation.

The ideology of the Ba’ath Party (unity, freedom, and socialism is its motto) served this interest well. One of the founders of Ba’ath, Zaki al-Arsuzi, was Alawi; one of the others, Michel Aflaq, was Christian.

How did the Alawis come to power in Syria? Primarily through the arrogance and neglect of Syrian Sunnis who, even though they compose almost 75 percent of the country’s population, found the military an unworthy occupation. Alawis considered military education an opportunity to better their lot, and they gradually filled up the ranks. Taking power in 1963, they have been running things in Syria ever since.

Ironies abound. In Iraq under Saddam, a Sunni minority dominated a 60 percent Shiite population; in Syria, a breakaway Shiite sect still dominates a 75-percent Sunni population. Until the American invasion, both governments were Ba’athist, secular-minded, protective of Christian minorities (while Iraq’s Christian population has largely fled in the wake of the American invasion, one in 11 Syrians is Christian).

Meanwhile, that fanatic Sunni fundamentalist, Osama bin-Laden, sits in his cave and waits, despising all secular Arab governments, trying to undermine any that cooperate with the Americans or make peace treaties with the Israelis. He probably wonders why the Americans think they can sort things out.

As anxious as Assad may be for a deal, it will require an American push to make one materialize. Taking Syria off the list of terrorism-sponsoring states may be Hillary Clinton’s first big test, pitting her against the wily and strong-willed Netanyahu, who will be taking office with something like a mandate to avoid such deals.

Still, a peace with Syria resembling the one with Egypt would be a significant diplomatic coup. Reconciling Assad and Netanyahu would infuriate Osama and emit a pleasing fragrance over Obama’s first year.

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The Unrepentant Traditionalist is copyright (c) 2008 by Frank Creel and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

Frank Creel, Ph.D., has been a columnist for the Potomac News, Woodbridge, Virginia. His op-ed articles have been published in the Northern Virginia Journal, the Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, and the New York City Tribune. In 1992, his A Trilogy of Sonnets was published pseudonymously by Christendom Press.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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