I traveled around Syria back during Ramadan of 2003, photographing all of its major Roman and Byzantine sites. During that month, the U.S. military was in Fallujah, next door in Iraq, busily killing innocent civilians — one of the worst slaughters of the 21st century, so far.
I tried to return to Syria four years ago, but was turned away at the border for being an American, and I couldn’t get a visa from the Syrian Embassy in Amman. All of those lovely archaeological sites have since been demolished by ISIL (I have photos of what they were on my Facebook page if you are interested.)
Just like North Korea, Syria is a necrocasy — a country led by a dead spiritual leader. There are billboards of the deceased President Hafez al-Assad and his living Syrian president son Bashar Assad everywhere — or there were back in 2003. (I did visit the town of Hama, famous not only for its water wheels but also for the Hama massacre of Shiite Muslims at the hands of Hafez al-Assad, back in the 1980s.)
While I was in Jordan a few months ago, once again during Ramadan, I joked to a few of my fellow Jordanian travelers that the U.S. was going to take in around 60,000 to 70,000 refugees and put them to work in small impoverished towns in Idaho and Utah in newly constructed Wal-Marts. They shamed me by pointing out that Jordan had already taken in 1.4 million Syrians and Iraqis in a country of only 7 million people. (Unfortunately, the wealthiest Arab Gulf states, protectors of the religion-of-peace, are not accepting any refugees.)
I find it odd that the media makes no mention of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the immigrants to Europe from the Middle East are Sunni Muslims, many of them representative of the Syrian upper classes, whose children possess an Anne-Frank-type of ingenuous eloquence and sensitivity in English rarely found in American college freshmen. A glance at your TV screen can easily show you that only 25 percent of the immigrants are women and children. Most are healthy young Syrian males. The always-impoverished and somewhat rebellious, ritualistic and intellectual Shiites have been left behind to suffer decapitations and rape.
Many of the original ISIL members were dispossessed soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s army, which was disbanded by the Bush administration after America’s victory in the 2003 war — a terrible error resulting in today’s crisis. Nevertheless, we Americans did not teach the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria to hate the Shiites for the past 1,400 years. No one brainwashed them into believing in the non-Qur’anic end-of-times mythology where both Jesus and a messiah named Mehdi will swoop down and save the world, converting everyone to Islam. This is what ISIL members believe in. Their reality is embedded in their insane religious theology reminiscent of the Bible’s Revelations.
Members of ISIL rant constantly, as did Osama bin Laden, about the early-20th-century’s Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and England to divide up the Middle East along arbitrary lines. They want to destroy not only that agreement, but also any remnant of Western culture, including all ancient Roman and Byzantine sites, as well as any other historical sites and artifacts from cultures they don’t approve of.
Under Sykes-Picot, Syria was controlled by the Alawite minority and Iraq was controlled by the Baathist Sunni minority — a divide-and-conquer strategy. By invading Iraq and disbanding the Baathist Party and Saddam’s army, the Bush administration unleashed the wrath of a dispossessed ruling class, experienced in war, upon an innocent population, a wrath that spread into Syria.
Islam has, since its inception, been haunted by this bloody Shiite-Sunni division, for over 1,400 years. And now the Europeans, after having resolved thousands of years’ worth of their own Christian differences, will be burdened with yet another Abrahamic religion torn by tribal religious hatreds. Hope you enjoy the 21st century.
Daniel Sebold, of Andover, is a Navy Gulf War veteran and Arabic linguist. He is currently an English teacher working for Aramco in Jazan province, Saudi Arabia.