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On the Syrian Quagmire

‘And when the Fire is caused to blaze up’---[Holy Qur’an, 81:13

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (sa) as saying: ‘The last Hour will not come unless there is ‘Harj’. They asked: ‘What is ‘Harj’, O Messenger of Allah?’ Thereupon, the Holy Prophet (sa) said: “Bloodshed, Bloodshed, Bloodshed”.--- (Sahih Al Bukhari/Muslim)

The Civil War in Syria

In less than a month, Syria’s horrific ‘civil’ war will enter into its eighth year. Having already lasted more than the Second World War, the internecine conflict in Syria has profoundly impacted the nation and its people in unimaginable ways. The conflict and its aftereffects has virtually reduced the country to rubble. Entire cities and villages remain abandoned, people having no choice but to flee the mindless violence and mayhem, altering the everyday life-world of the common people forever. Even as hundreds of thousands lost their lives, millions of others had to flee their homes and hearths, seeking refuge elsewhere in the country or beyond the borders, in nations near and far. Thanks to the many actors on the conflict scene and their varying  political interests and strategic calculations, the bloodletting in Syria continues unabated with no end in sight till this day. Indeed, the humanitarian catastrophe that has engulfed this already suffering, impoverished nation shakes the conscience of our common humanity.

How do we explain the extraordinarily mind-numbing shift in the fortunes of the Syrian people in recent times? What are the prospects for peace in the land, especially  in view of its complex regional environment? How does the present situation relate to Divine revelations vouchsafed to the Promised Massih (as)? Can we look at the Syrian quagmire as a Divine Sign of our times? These are some of the few questions and concerns explored in the following article.


Syria: the Making of a Totalitarian State

Like so many nations in Asia and Africa, Syria’s modern history is marred by the colonial encounter in many different ways. With the Turkish Empire having lost the first World War, the European powers- France and Briton, with the assent of Russia- decided to partition the Middle East into their distinct spheres of political influence and territorial control through the Sykes-Picot Agreement. As it happened, the Empire’s former provinces, Syria along with Lebanon, came under France. The framework was designed under the League of Nations’ Mandate, making France technically a “trustee” of the world community appointed to look after the Syrian people in the prelude to their eventual national independence. In 1946, Syria became one of the first Arab nations to become independent and inherited  many institutional practices and rule of law from France, the Mandate Power that administered Syria during the period after the First World War.

The progressive Constitution of 1950 notwithstanding, the democratic sentiment and institutional frameworks in Syria came under great strain with the national military increasingly entrenching itself in political affairs in the decades after independence. The political ideology of the State was heavily influenced by Arab socialist authoritarianism. As the military dictators feared freedom of expression and dissent, the ruling elite began to arrogate to itself the sole role in the formulation of national voice and implementation of policies in the pursuit of a Totalitarian State.  In the colossal fight against Israel and other foreign enemies, for a period, Syrian leaders were influenced by the Arab nationalism of General Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. With their brand of authoritarian nationalism in the last half a century, the rule of Hafiz al-Assad (1971-2000) and his son, Bashar al-Assad (2000-2018), in many ways, represent the consolidation of the totalitarian state in Syria, with the free deployment of the military intelligence and security services for the control of the people and their political fortunes.

The Arab Spring and the Syrian War

In many ways, the year 2010-2011 marks a new era in Arab politics. The “Arab Spring” wave of political protests against entrenched authoritarian regimes began in November 2010 in Tunisia. The political mobilization of the Tunisian people forced President  Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down and flee the country in January 2011 after being in power over two decades (1987-2011).  

Within a month of the fall of the dictator in Tunisia, massive protests broke out in Egypt and it forced President Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) to step down after thirty years in the saddle. Inspired by these developments, pro-democracy protests assering people’s rights against dicattorial privileges spread across several nations in the Arab world, including Syria.

In March 2011, the regime of President Bashar-al-Asad sought to quell anti-government protests in the country by unleashing the army on the people. As the iron-fist policy and consequent bloodbath infuriated the common people, the opposition political groups began to engage the military on street battles in several regions. The civilian protests, and parallel armed militias entering the filed, the political situation morphed into a low intensity conflict, initially. With the Syrian Government using disproportionate scale of force to repress the political challenge,  a humanitarian catastrophe unfolded in Syria, with millions seeking to desperately flee the war-torn nation by all means possible.

The emergence of the Daesh (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) under Abu Baker al-Baghdadi on 7 April 2013 and its swift success in running over territories of Iraq and Syria, further complicated the Syrian conflict. It was in June 2014 that Abu Baker al-Baghdadi was elected by the Majlis al-Shura (Shura Council) of the of the Islamic State, to be their Caliph. The Daesh presence in the Middle East, and its ruthless militray operations and wanton killings of cpatured opponents  as well as minortiy groups attracted global condemnation. The defeat and destruction of the Daesh became a priority of the international powers, including the US and Russia.

The Syrian situation became an international crisis of a humongous dimension over the last few years thanks to the involvement and entrenchment of regioanl forces and international powers.  While the US is opposed to Assad's regime and backs "moderate" rebels fighting Syria government forces, it has not really militraily engaged in the conflict. Estimates say that the United States, and its intelligence services, CIA, has spent billions to topple the Asad regime through its covert regional proxies. Since 2015, the governments of Russia and Iran have firmly stood behind the national government in Damascus in taking on the ‘rebels’ or the democratic forces. 

Russia’s decision to deploy its army in support of President Bashar al-Assad's regime in the fight against the rebel forces has now made it the peace–maker in Damascus. While the primary goal of these big powers in Syria was apparently the liberation of the areas under the ‘Islamic State’, now that the objective is achieved, the Big powers are making calculations on retaining their spheres of influence and maintaining their strategic interests into the foreseeable future. While Turkey is seriously against the formation of Kurdish State in the region due to its own domestic considerations involving Kurdish rebels, the Turkish government has been welcoming of the Syrian refugees into its land, seeking to do its part in  addressing the humanitarian despair engendered by the conflict.

Over the last decade, Israel watched its Arab enemy neighbour collapsing through internal strife. Yet, from a strategic and national security point of view, it is increasingly concerned about the volatile situation in Syria becoming  a fertile ground for the alliance building of its enemies- the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Hizbullah of Lebanon and the Iranian Army coming together. While Israel has been carrying on with its stealth, offensive operations in Syria all along- hitting targets at will with complete impunity-, the recent downing of its fighter jet in Syria, and its subsequent response, shows its anxiety around the shifting ground in its neighbourhood.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tough talk against Iran, and the suave response of Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Conference this Sunday (February 18) must be seen against this backdrop, as a clear indicator that Iran's entrenchment in Syria collides with Israel's interests.

Prospects for Peace in Syria

According to close observers of the Syrian civil war, including the UN officials on the ground; more than half of the country’s pre-war population is directly impacted by the conflict; so far, it has claimed the lives of close to half a million people. The humanitarian catastrophe has especially affected the country’s women and children in a disproportionate way. Over five million Syrians have become refugees in various countries, with Syria’s neighbours Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan together hosting over 4 million people. Europe also has more than a million Syrian refugees now. Besides, the refugees, the civil war has also internally displaced six million Syrians and there are hundreds of thousands of people who are in dire need of humanitarian assistance in remote areas cut off from the rest of the world by the internecine conflict. Worse, the long-running conflict is not showing any sign of subsiding anytime soon. In fact, all indications are that the violence and killings and the associated humanitarian suffering will continue unabated.

In an objective assessment, one can only agree that everyone of the politico-military actors on the Syrian soil today has blood on their hands. Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his military has been guilty of unspeakable excesses and horrors, tyranny and oppression in the land- creating the very conditions for the people’s revolt when the time came. On the other hand, those opposition groups who took up arms in resistance, as well as the regional actors and international powers taking sides on both sides of the conflict in Syria, have also mostly ignored the rules of military engagement. Hence, there is little doubt that all warring groups have exacerbated the humanitarian suffering on the ground. The brutality of the conflict and the barbarity of its participants in inducing human suffering is visible from the sense of scale it has already achieved. Sadly, there is no respect for human suffering in this unbridled quest for military control and political dominance; and seemingly, there is no accountability on the horizon, with every actor enjoying virtual impunity for their war crimes and human rights violations.

Thanks to Russian military backing, Bashar al Assad regime can survive the Civil war in Syria. With the defeat of the Islamic State and the virtual decimation of rebel forces from most part of the country, the regime certainly has the advantage in the immediate future. As Russian President Vladimir Putin taking  the initiative to forge a peace accord, it remains to be seen how peace and reconciliation can return to the war-ravaged country and what the new peace would mean to the hapless Syrian people as the nation will grapple with the challenges of post-war reconstruction. 

 A Prophecy on Bloodshed in Syria

It is astonishing to note that more than a century back, an Indian Muslim saint, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian (1835-1908) who claimed to be a recipient of Divine revelations, made certain prophecies pertaining to the situation we are now familiar in Syria. In his book Tadhkirah (a collection of the dreams, visions and verbal revelations vouchsafed to him), Hazrat Saheb mentions about an Urdu divine revelation he received on April 9, 1907:  

“Calamity of Damascus”

This revelation was published in contemporary Ahmadiyya publications when it was originally revealed. [Badr, vol. 6, no. 15, April 11, 1907, p. 4 and al-Hakam, vol. 11, no. 12, April 10, 1907, p. 2; cited from Tadhkirah, p.943, 2009 edition, UK. )

In his Friday Sermon of 13 September 2013, Khalifatul Massih V Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad Saheb speaks on the Syrian civil war and confirms that the Divine revelation of 1907, vouchsafed to the Promised Massih (as), is very much being fulfilled through what is happening in Syria in our times. It is also, however, surprising to note what the Khalifatul Massih left unsaid on the occasion. Knowledgeable Ahmadis would recognize that the Promised Massih (as) famously linked the bloodshed in Syria with the time of a Promised Son/reformer in the Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya. Though the Khalifatul Massih quoted from Tadhkirah on the calamity in Damascus, he did not make a reference to the very important prophecy that was also mentioned by the Promised Massih (as) in relation to the Syrian calamity in the same collection/ book, and I quote:

'Sahibzadah Pir Sirajul-Haqq (ra) narrates that once the Promised Messiah (as) said:

“God has conveyed to me that….. (Then) there will be a great uprising in the world. That would be the first uprising. Kings will invade kings. There will be so much bloodshed that the earth will be filled with blood. The subjects of all kings will also fight fearfully among themselves. There will be universal ruin and destruction. The centre of all this will be Syria.

Addressing Sahibzadah Sirajul-Haqq (ra) directly, the Promised Messiah (as) continued:

It will be the time of my Promised Son. God has decreed these events in connection with him. Thereafter our Movement will spread and kings will become members of the Movement. Be sure to recognize the Promised One'. ---[Tadhkiratul-Mahdi, part 2, new ed., p. 274], Cited from Tadhkirah, pp.1065-66, 2009 edition).   

As they have been taught to think by the Nizam-e-Jamaat, Ahmadis usually know the ‘Promised Son’ Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-Din Mahmud Ahmad (ra), the second Caliph of the Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya. But, like Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad Saheb notes in his aforesaid Friday sermon: “some revelations are fulfilled more than once”. The great Second Caliph himself acknowledged as much when he made the claim of being the ‘Musleh Maoud’ in 1944, and I quote: 

I do not say that I am the only Promised One and that no other promise one will appear till the Day of Judgement. It appears from the prophecies of the Promised Messiah that some other promised ones will also come and some of them will appear after centuries. Indeed, God has told me that at one time He will send me a second time to the world and I will come for the reform of the world at a time when association with God will have become widespread. This means that my soul will, at some time, descend upon someone who will possess faculties and capacities like mine and he will, following in my footsteps, bring about a reform of the world. Thus, promised ones will appear in their due times according to the promise of God Almighty.”

Furthermore, Hazrat Khalifatul Massih II (ra) published the following claim through divine revelations: 

“God has told me that at another period of infidelity He will send me in the world a second time, which means that my spirit at such time will descend on another person who will possess capabilities similar to mine and he will reform the world by following my footprints.” (Al-Fazl, 19 February 1956).

Allah (swt) says in the Holy Qur’an: “We shall soon show these (disbelievers for their guidance) Our signs even in the remotest regions (of the earth) and in their own persons until it becomes quite manifest to them that this is the lasting truth in fact. Is it not enough (for them) that your Lord indeed keeps watch over everything?”  (41: 53).

Like the great French writer Victor Hugo famously stated, “No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”Ahmadis and their present Caliph need to be aware of the times and the signs it heralds within their small community and in the larger world. The Syrian calamity is indeed a Divine Sign for the Promised Son of our times. Now that the Caliph has recognized the Syrian calamity as a sign of the times, it is time the Jamaat and the devout Ahmadis investigate and embrace the Promised Son among their midst as per the Divine Promise vouchsafed to the Promised Massih (as) with humility, open-mindedness, sincerity and above all, God-consciousness. May Allah (swt) bless all sincere truth seekers, Ameen.