The Edmond Sun


June 30, 2012

Syrian regime change no easy matter

OKLAHOMA CITY — The late Anthony Sampson was a British journalist who began his career in the Republic of South Africa in the 1950s when Apartheid was being imposed on the black majority of that nation.

He eventually returned to the United Kingdom and authored several insightful books about the people and culture of the British Isles. In 1977 he wrote a book about the international arms trade that was titled “The Arms Bazaar.” In that work he chronicled how different nations and armed groups had different tastes in the arms that they purchased.

Repressive regimes with urban populations, such as the South African government and the Iran that was then ruled by an iron-fisted shah, were always in the market for helicopters. Sampson explained that helicopters were able to hover over unruly crowds of people and drop tear gas and fire bullets into them in a way that airplanes could not.

And the recent reports of how the Russian government of Vladimir Putin has supplied helicopter gunships to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad may be indicative of the fact that those aircraft are continuing to serve that purpose. Putin’s Russia is one of the main supporters of the embattled Syrian government, and the New York Times recently chronicled one of the reasons why it continues to do so. The Russian Orthodox Church has played an important role in Russian society since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many of its leaders are supporters of Putin.

And as reported in the New York Times, the Orthodox leaders in Russia feel a kinship with the Orthodox Christians in Syria, and the leaders of the Christian Syrians have told their Russian counterparts that they fear that the Assad government could be replaced by a Sunni Muslim regime that would restrict the freedom and autonomy that they have enjoyed under Assad.

Several Russian clerics have met with Putin and conveyed those concerns to him. University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, who is an authority on Syria, recently explained how the Assad government is composed primarily of Alawites, a minority sect of Islam that was subject to discrimination when Syria was part of the Turkish Empire.

And when Assad’s father Hafez Assad seized power in Syria in a coup in the early 1970s, he allowed the various religous sects in that country to practice their respective faiths in relative freedom. The senior Assad also placed fellow Alawites in key positions in the armed forces, which explains why the Syrian military remains loyal to the Assad government, according to Landis. The opponents of the Assad regime include the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that would like to transform Syria into a conservative Sunni Muslim state, Landis reports. And the presence in Syria of Christian and Muslim refugees who had to flee neighboring Iraq after Saddam Hussein was ousted is a reminder to the Syrian people what regime change in their country could mean for them.  


WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.

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