Over 1900 years ago, a battalion of soldiers lead by Saul the Pharisee road on the road to the already ancient city of Damascus to rout out a major threat to the ruling hierarchy at that time, the cult of religious extremists known as Christians. Well educated and convinced of the righteousness of his task, Saul determined to deal firmly and resoundingly with the upstarts in a conclusive fashion. Just short of the gates of the city in the presence of his soldiers, Saul was struck from his horse by an unseen force and held paralytic to the ground while a voice heard by all spoke to Saul and revealed to him the error of his mission and proposed the path to his true calling. On the road to Damascus, Saul the Pharisee, destroyer of the breath of life, came to from his interaction with the Supreme Being, blinded but now clearly seeing, converted to his new life, as Paul the Apostle.
No such moment has occurred yet on the modern road to Damascus to another educated man convinced of his own righteousness to violent action, the president of Syria, Bashar al- Assad. Unfortunately the opthamologist from London has rapidly taken on the worst instincts of a base tribal instinct to dominate and destroy other that has brought horrific destruction to a country that has seen too large a share of domination over the ages from many invaders. The city of Damascus may be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, extending as an identified destination back to before 6000 BC. Mentioned in Genesis, the city has seen the rule of Assyrians, Hittites, Canaanites, Arameans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Islamic Caliphates. The most recent period of independence has occurred since 1946 with withdrawal of French overseers, and the country has been left to its own devices since, with tribal fault lines suppressed under a nationalist Baathist civilian structure ruthlessly maintained by the army. Since 1970, the government and army have been dominated by the minority Alawites with the Presidential power first in the hands of father Hafez, and now son, Bashar. The overriding theme of Baathist “progress” in Syria has been the ruthless domination of all other political structures in Syria and the external focus of a belligerent permanent state of war with Israel. The father Hafez laid the template for the dealing with internal opposition with the essential leveling of the uncooperative city of Hama in 1982 with an estimated 25,000 casualties. The son Bashar, the western trained physician, has now set an altogether different standard, sending troops, tanks, and internal security thugs nationwide to destroy the nidus of a unified opposition movement. This is not the Muslim Brotherhood insurrection of the 1980’s. The tenets of the Arab Spring are seen in the demographic of the modern Syrian opposition, and al-Assad’s carefully developed western face as a “reformer” has been exposed as a farce.
The only residual support the increasingly butcher like Bashar has been able to maintain is the traditional Syrian ethnic and religious minority fear of the majority Sunni Islamic population. Christians, Druze, and Shia alike see the religiously nebulous Baathists as their best protection against the other culturally insensitive Sunni tradition. This has allowed Assad thus far to crush the increasingly aggressive opposition with impunity, but the greater Arab world is noticing the effect of his actions potentially on their on restive populations and are no mood to see the Assad “example” grow as a rallying cry.
The role of the United States as a supporter of individual human rights has come to an untenable position in Syria. President Obama’s stated policy of middle Eastern non-interference has been exposed as hypocritical in Lybia, and rudderless everywhere else. The current adminstration’s desire to “lead from behind” has left the door open for other countries to fill the vacumn. Turkey, former home of the Ottoman Empire, and Iran, keeper of the fundamentalist Shia flame find themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict and raise the possibility that the Syrian civil war could expand into a greater conflict. President Obama, who appears progressively tired of the demands of the office, has made no visible moves to stop the Syrian government’s vicious actions, define a position, or engage a plan for the various potential dangerous outgrowths of the Syrian violence. We may be in the midst of the most anti-philosophical foreign policy in American history, who has determined their only weapon of policy or diplomacy is the drone strike or Tomahawk cruise missle.
The suffering people of Syria populating one of the most epic pieces of land in the human story, may unfortunately be the set pieces of a building tragedy that has no answer except pitiless individual demolition. It is sad to relate, that the only potential salvation of the people is the whisper of a chance of a modern miracle occuring on the road to Damascus, this time to the butcher of his own people, Bashar al-Assad.