Reflections on Syria


Six years ago this time, I travelled to Syria and encountered the most hospitable and honest people I have ever met. Though culturally distinct, Aleppo, Damascus and desert towns revealed one common thread that unites all Syrians: they love to talk and are friendly AF. It’s hard to appreciate the magnitude of this friendliness unless you have witnessed it on the ground. My apprehension began weeks before I arrived, having booked everything in advance over Skype because (1) I thought it was essential that at every place I stayed someone could speak English, and (2) booking trains and buses between cities was impossible to do online and I thought it would be nice to run through my itinerary with a local just for a sanity check.


Well it turns out for (1), Syrians had a very ingenious way of deciphering English: they asked other Syrians until they found one that spoke it, then all three parties spent as long as it took to answer the foreigner’s question. Additional parties joined the group if we had managed successful translation, but no one knew the answer. These conversations took 20 minutes and 10 people sometimes, if only to fulfil some trivial request of mine such as locating the address of a restaurant. But no one ever shirked or rushed the conversation. I never felt anything other an earnest duty to help myself or my lost Syrian cabbies, with nothing exchanged except pleasantries. As soon as I arrived in Syria, I felt so at ease and my misplaced apprehension melted away. It has been my favorite destination to date, and I shudder to think what I witnessed no longer exists.


And for (2), Syria was a planned economy, so everything ran at every time and there were always seats available.


Why on earth would you go to Syria?

It’s always been a dream of mine to visit ever since I learned about the Crusades as a kid, and reading since then has only kindled the dream. To summarize, Syria is a nexus. It has probably the oldest urban history in the world, both Damascus and Aleppo have decent claim to being continuously inhabited for 8,000 years or longer. To put that in perspective, the advent of writing marks a rough halfway point, and New York is less than 400 years old. Syria has had complex social networks for millennia, and it manifests itself in the networks people belong to today. Every stranger I spoke to wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about Syria, if I had pictures of my kids (I didn’t have kids). It was all about best face forward to guests. In a market of Aleppo I noticed that a boy no older than 10 was following me for a few blocks with an eye on my pocket. I was ready to slap his little hands if they came near, but an old man who had also discovered his intentions shouted stridently at him and he backed off bashfully. The social rules are complicated and strictly enforced, I am tempted to say because cities have existed for so long.


Syria is somehow as old of time but still full of children. Roughly half the population is under 20 years of age, one of the few places remaining in the world where these kinds of demographics persist. Kids there are the wellspring of life, and every adult was expected to help guide and raise them. In big cities, they surrounded nearly every group of adults, being prodded to hurry along across the street. In small towns, they roamed in packs by themselves. A group of boys caught me one evening walking back to the Hotel Ishtar in Palmyra and hurled dirty words in foreign languages, giggling anytime I gave them a response. Stuff like this was common, every little group tried to do something to impress you. Also in Palmyra, a concert for families was being held in the old Roman amphitheater on afternoon. It was brutal watching teens bored out of their mind marching towards what I had taken two long flights to see.


Those days Assad was everywhere. Lest you forgot which Mid East strongman ruled this land, there were pictures on billboards and framed in every hotel and restaurant to remind you. More often than I would have liked, conversations switched to politics, initiated by my curious hosts. Complaints about their government, of travel restrictions, of sanctions, corruption and problems with the economy. At times it felt obvious speaking disparagingly of their country was intended to be a peace offering for the American — an attempt to keep me enticed by the conversation. It’s natural to conclude that Syrians are extremely passionate about hospitality especially to foreigners, but it goes deeper than that. They wanted something from me as well.


Closed borders, open ears

There is some ancient wisdom about welcoming the weary traveler into your home. The wanderer gets a warm reception, maybe some food, a place to sleep, some sense of security. And you get stories from far beyond the horizon. International surveys in 2009 would have told you Syrians had a particularly negative view of America (low teen approval ratings IIRC), but the response to “I’m American” was always smiles and the occasional, “Amreeka greatest country!” Within a few minutes of crossing the border, I could tell that Syria had been isolated for a long time. There were no familiar goods to remind me of home or anything to suggest recent trade with the West. Foreign tourists were limited to French, Germans, British, a handful of Japanese and tons of Iranians. In the markets it was easy to pick up the distinctive wafts of Farsi being spoken in a sea of Arabic. Americans were especially rare; anything else, forget about it. One local wasn’t aware that Canada was a country. I tried to explain it was north of America but he was certain there wasn’t anything between America and Russia.


Syrians want to know what the world thought of Syria, and naturally were looking for opportunities to correct misconceptions. I would come to learn that eventually all conversations crossed this topic. Perhaps affirming their dismay, I informed them most Americans did not give the country much thought. Nearly every person would follow with their pithy comment about what their country meant to them, implicitly hoping that I would repeat it upon returning home. Most mentioned the diversity of the country. They spoke with pride on how Syria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religion, peace-loving country where many flavors of humanity call home. This was before the civil war began, so at the time I wasn’t thinking irony, but how much it sounded like Americans talking about our virtuous heterogeneity.


A majority are Sunni Arab, a relatively new group that was a result of religious and cultural assimilation after the Conquest. But there many other distinct identities: Shia, Alawite, Druze, Syriac speaking Christians, Jews, Circassian, Turkmen and Kurds. Their walled towns and ancestral villages are spread among the remarkably numerous microclimates and ecological niches of Syria, like marbles of different colors on a floor. My first taste of these extraordinarily localized environments came when I entered the country by “taxi” — or more like an impromptu ride-share cobbled together by a few taxi drivers in Amman. Our Syrian driver spoke longingly of getting back to his beloved country which, unlike the arid reaches of northern Jordan we were driving through, is green and abundant. It was hard to believe him until we crossed the border and saw the desert give way to an expanse of productive agricultural land in the midst of being kissed by a sunshower, a gift from the warm Mediterranean. (Keep this in mind when you are reading your Old Testament; in this world a mere miles could transport you from hell to heaven.) These natural enclaves have made it possible for people to remain distinct throughout the millennia.


The heterogeneity takes a time dimension as well. It is impossible for Syrians to speak of their country without mentioning an illustrious history. The Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus had been a Christian basilica in earlier centuries, which had been a Roman temple to Jupiter, which stood on top of the yet more ancient Aramaean temple to a thunder god. Even if most of those cultures have vanished or faded, they are still irrevocably part of the modern Syrian identity. Syria can’t be a country of just the living; it owes too much to the dead.

The living and the martyrs

The war has raged on for four and a half years, longer than either the American Civil War or the American involvement in WW2. But what’s truly unimaginable is nearly half the country has been displaced, forcing that many people homeless indefinitely. The migrant tent communities outside the major cities were big in 2009 but now they are cities themselves, brimming with people that are slowly coming to terms with the reality that they have to reinforce their makeshift dwellings for yet another winter. Imagine having a home somewhere but being forced to camp indefinitely. And then imagine living among those that have lost it all, still paralyzed from seeing their family cut down and everything bombed out before them. Martyrdom is ubiquitous in the Mid East. Every village and every family has martyrs — people who died not for what they did, but for who they were. Some names are carried for hundreds of years, and children made to memorize. They provide a cautionary tale that history goes on forever, so only the fool believes in loyalty outside of blood.

Yet no one in their right mind should think this extreme desperation is in anyway a normal state of affairs for these people. The Aleppine doctor or shopkeeper doesn’t know how to live on the streets any more than a New York doctor or shopkeeper. As Americans we may be tempted to think that whatever is happening in Syria is totally expected because “once a shithole, always a shithole.” But that could not be further from the truth in late 2009. There was so much life, so much abundance and no stormclouds on the horizon. Syrians wanted the world to come see them more than they expressed any interest in seeing the world. My Syrian driver who got us through the border stopped on the side of the highway near Deraa, where his brother-in-law was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Damascus. For him the labors that had taken him to another country had ended, and he was headed home. As they exchanged motorbike for taxi, he drifted off down a dirt road towards his real purpose in life. In Damascus, an antiques merchant chatted with me for over half an hour after inviting me for tea in his small backroom. Drifting clumsily from topic to topic, we covered his occupation and family thoroughly and the items in his store not at all. At the end of the conversation, he offered a British engineer’s sextant circa WW1 for 100, then 80 and eventually $60. Even though I refused, he never even made a face. I should have accepted; I love sextants and that would have given him something like the average Syrian family’s daily earnings. But even being the awkward traveler I was, my refusal barely registered to him. His mind quickly moved on to other things more important than the transaction.

Roman theater being set up for a family event. In 2015 ISIS child soldiers staged the execution of 25 men.
Roman theater being set up for a family event. In 2015, this is where ISIS filmed 25 men being executed by children.

Fragile unity

Saladin, the great unifier, died in Damascus in 1193 and rests in his mausoleum in the old city. In the late nineteenth century a major benefactor of the recently unified Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, took a vacation among his nation’s ailing allies the Ottomans. Sensing what every sensible European knew was an empire on the verge of disunification, he offered gifts of homage to the great Saladin in Damascus. It’s as if this place repeatedly bears witness to the lesson that stability is something easily undone.


Today two world leaders, Assad and Putin, fight in Syria to preserve the unity of their nations. What sort of Frankenstein of a peace they hope to revive is anyone’s guess, but maybe the ideal of unity is still alive in Syrian hearts. But was what they had ever real? In 2009 it certainly felt real, and the war genuinely did catch everyone off guard. And if it was fake, then what America tells itself is fake too. So I don’t doubt that was real, but fleeting — as any life is real but fleeting. It’s a shame that no one travelled to Syria to appreciate what is now gone. If Paris or Barcelona ever erupt as Damascus and Aleppo have, there would be widespread shock and disbelief. With Syria, it’s just ignorance that no one thinks much of it.


Russia on a Pro-Oil crusade in Syria?

So as we know the Russian military has stepped forward from behind its pro-Assad proxies and is operating openly in Syria. In response the Anglosphere media is expressing shock and disgust at being caught off guard, while RT is showing off Russian cruise missile aggression against Syrian targets. Both sides have surprisingly similar narratives, one of Russia playing from a position of strength. But maybe not. Could it be that Russia is in a tight spot and Putin is fighting for survival?

Looking for deep causes to recent history, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than in the past 50 years the stability of Russia has depended on a high oil price. So perhaps expanding the war in Syria is a last ditch effort to raise it again.

Shared interests

Intentions to defeat ISIS and bring back some sort of stability to Syria and the region could be pure (I mean, who doesn’t want ISIS defeated?), but history reveals a Russia that is swayed by factors far removed from altruism. In fact, Russian disrespect for sovereignty in the greater Mid East has been (like so many nations) atrocious. Russia spent the better part of the 17th through early 20th centuries fighting the Ottoman and Persian Empires, opportunistically absorbing chunks of new territory every now and then from the waning Mid East powers. In what is known as “The Great Game”, it split the ‘Stans up with Britain during the 19th century. And in the 20th century, the Soviet Union had a heavy footprint in the region, especially when it co-invaded Iran with Britain in WW2 and after the Suez Crisis propelled it into Cold War Mid East politics. So at least historically, Russia has been willing to fracture the Mid East to suit its interests.

However there is something much more pressing to the Russian state than territory or influence right now: oil is hovering around $50 per barrel. And that’s too low compared to the $100 we had come to expect was inevitable just a few years ago. Among large economies Russia’s is uniquely sensitive to the current and future prices of oil, and this fact is frequently unappreciated by foreign observers. Unlike the American economy which is dominated by consumers that can consume more domestic goods when the oil price is low or falling, Russia produces much more oil than it consumes. It exports so much it offsets the harm done to consumption, meaning its economy rises with the price of oil. Naturally, this aligns it with OPEC and other surplus producer nations that, in aggregate, also benefit from higher oil prices. Conveniently enough, this pro-oil alliance includes Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (that have been anti-Assad). It also includes Iraq and Iran, as well as other struggling countries like Libya and Venezuela. All-in-all we can judge the pro-oil team to be fairly anti-Western and thus increasingly aligned with Russian interests.

And what’s more anti-Western and pro-oil right now as supporting Assad and cornering ISIS back into the oil producing region of Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq? If a $10 increase in oil price corresponds to a 1.5% increase in Russian GDP, this war may easily be self-financing. Furthermore, if the war permanently coalesces these countries into a cartel that can coordinate supply cuts that gets the price near $100 per barrel again, even better for Russia! None of this would be without precedent, shared interests among producers are what lead to the oil embargo in 1973.

An empire resting on an economic fault line

But why does any of this imply desperation on Russia’s part, and why do I think Russian politics is particularly brittle with regards to the oil price? According to former economic minister Yegor Gaidar, a failing oil price was what brought down the Soviet Union (pdf). To summarize when the oil price falls abruptly as it did in 1985 (and now again in 2014), the money to play strongman is suddenly gone.

The Soviet economy was humming along until the 1970’s when it became clear that growth had stalled. By this time, the Soviets had already abandoned their ambitions for the Moon and the entire Soviet system was in decline. That’s why the oil shocks and increased real price of oil from the mid 70’s and to mid 80’s were a blessing to the leadership at the time. An elevated price for the Soviet’s chief export meant they had more capacity to pay for the food they desperately needed to import. Soon after the oil price crashed in the mid 80’s, so did the entire Soviet system.

Even though it is 2015, the Russian economy is fundamentally unchanged since Soviet times. Russian consumers import a lot of basics like food and sustain it by exporting oil primarily. The frailties that doomed the old Soviet economy were never fixed. However until 1 year ago, Putin had never been faced with anything but a positive trajectory for oil. For many reasons, oil is expected to stay closer to $50 than $100, and so with it comes the threat of instability Russia has not had to deal with since the turn of the millennium.

The chess board is set

So can Russia raise the oil price? Certainly, they can try by disrupting the oil producing regions. The Russian military can be a bull in a china shop if it needs to be, Chechnya taught us that. And certainly they have good will from Iraq and Iran, which would benefit from higher oil. In markets driven by expectations, that might be all it takes to scare the oil price up. But it gets complicated because raising the oil price by fighting ISIS in Syria may actually strengthen ISIS in Iraq. We have to remember ISIS itself benefits from higher oil prices too.

The US does not seem to harbor the public support needed for Obama or Congress to engage Russia militarily in Syria (though Turkey and NATO might nevertheless draw the US in). And it is not clear that Russia wouldn’t welcome US military intervention either, seeing as it would probably scare the oil markets and help achieve Russia’s economic goals. However, there are other ways the US can fight without being in Syria. For example, Congress could pass legislation supporting oil producers, with the ultimate goal being to make it economical for US to pump as much possible. There are a number of ways to do this including industry-specific loans or incentives, or subsidizing the myriad of technologies that are increasing fracking output. These legislative and executive measures might work to lower the oil price and negate some of Russia’s gains. A lower oil price would also hurt the long term viability of ISIS in the Fertile Crescent.

As for now, the greatest certainty is this: the Syrian people will suffer because it benefits powerful nations and industrial groups to make them suffer. Teams form around shared interests, and often time the shared interests of war are far removed from the ideological reasons they broadcast. As I hope this post illustrates, it might be to the advantage of some teams to increase the suffering in Syria.