What is Really Going on in Syria?

When the conflict in Syria broke out some two years ago, most ordinary Australians who followed the media reports and typically have only a vague idea of the motivations driving the deadly conflicts in the Islamic world, would surely have gained the impression that Bashar al-Assad was the big baddie in the conflict. I deliberately use the word ‘baddie’ because the media often represent such conflicts in the simple terms of a Saturday matinee western. Who the baddie is and who the goodies are in the matinee often depends on what the leftist class voice has decided.

Because the Syrian conflict was pushed forward as part of the ‘Arab Spring’ – a revolution to overthrow an illegitimate oppressive authoritarian regime – it should come as no surprise that the general media judgment went against Assad and his government. That judgement is in line with many of the foremost voices in Australia’s Islamic community some of whom are vigorously calling for Muslims in Australia to travel to Syria to give active support to the rebels – which obviously means indulging in a whole lot of violence.

Now any revolution is going to be of interest to the Burkean conservative. After all, Edmund Burke was the first to reason about modern revolutions from which a clear critical theory of revolution can be abstracted – as Jesse Norman has written in his recent book, Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician and Prophet. Burke applied the same reasoning process and enduring political principles to the American Revolution – with which he sympathised – and the French Revolution – which he strenuously condemned. There was no inconsistency in his reaction, however much his modern enemies regurgitate the long disproven two-centuries-old accusation of inconsistency. The question for a Burkean conservative is whether on the basis on Burke’s approach to revolution our judgment would be in support of the rebels and thus their Islamic supporters in Australia or condemn it – which is not to give uncritical support to the Assad regime.

The starting point for a decision about the justification for a rebellion is a close review of the concrete circumstances in which the troubles are taking place. I must say that in general the media are providing little coherent historical and cultural background about the conflict and not much more about the rebel groups, though recently more is appearing about the latter, most particularly about their barbarous behaviour – frequent beheadings and summary executions. As an example among many, a fifteen-year-old boy was shot in the face by a rebel group for alleged blasphemy. A gruesome picture of the boy’s blasted face with a gaping hole was posted on the internet.

In contrast with this paucity of information, Fr Paul Stenhouse PhD, an acknowledged expert on the Middle East, has expressed sharp disagreement with the prevailing media view that condemns Assad and his regime. I am providing a link to Fr Stenhouse’s latest article in Annals Australasia, ‘Syria: Truth, Half-Truths And Lies’, which gives some substantial historical and cultural background to the conflict and puts it in a light that has a decidedly different colour from what we’re being fed. I will follow this with some earlier Stenhouse pieces on the Middle East. These build on the picture and provide some substance on which to base a judgment about the merits of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions.

Gerard Wilson