Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
The scene is almost biblical. You step down through tall reeds, cross the Orontes River from Turkey in a small rowboat and are received by a local contingent of the Free Syrian Army outside the Syrian town of Darkush. One of them shows you the picture on his cellphone of a Syrian girl who was just taken across the river to Turkey with what turned out to be fatal wounds from a Syrian army helicopter attack on her village. The helicopters, the rebel soldiers say, dropped barrels with nails and explosives on her house. Meanwhile, over here in the mud are three fresh graves with bodies that just floated down the river. Some days it’s just an arm or leg that washes up.
Although this is “liberated” territory, in the background you can hear the low drumbeat of shells slamming into some town over the hills. I ask the rebel local commander, Muatasim Bila Abul Fida, how he thinks all of this will play out. His answer strikes me as very honest. “Without the help of Iran and Hezbollah, he would be gone by now,” he says of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But even after he goes, there will be a great sorting out. “It will take five or six years,” he says, because the Islamist parties “want Shariah and we want democracy.”
In my visit along the Turkey-Syria border, I am struck at how so many different people want so many different things for Syria. It is unnerving. A Christian businessman from Aleppo tells me that if a real election were held in Syria today, the besieged Assad still would win “with 75 percent of the vote” because most Syrians crave the order that he provided and are exhausted by war. But a few hours earlier at an impressively run Syrian refugee camp set up by Turkey outside the Turkish border town of Antakya, I interviewed young Syrian Sunni Muslim men who had fled from the Assad family’s largely Alawite stronghold of Latakiya, just down the coast. They spoke about the deep unfairness of the Syrian system and how Alawites were getting an unfair share of the pie.
“When we first protested to demand reforms, the regime did not do anything,” Yahya Afacesa said, “and then we started to shout and demand freedom, and the regime attacked us. So there was no way to fight the regime peacefully.”
He and his colleagues insisted, though, that the problem in Syria was the Assad family, not the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot from which the Assads hail and which dominates the regime. These are secular young men, and they still took pride in Syria’s multisectarian identity and harmony, which, it should be remembered, has deep historical roots in this region. Indeed, before visiting them, I met with the Chamber of Commerce of Antakya. The chamber’s president proudly displays outside his office a poster of more than 20 different churches, mosques and even a synagogue still operating in his town, which is just a few miles from the Syrian border. I repeat: There are cultural roots for pluralism in this region that a new Syrian government still could fall back on — but there’s also the opposite.
A case in point: In Antakya, I met two Turkish logistics experts. They spoke about the “Arab foreign legion” of Islamist fighters from as far away as Chechnya and Libya who have come through their town and crossed the Orontes to join the battle in Syria. They scoffed at the idea that Syria will emerge as a democracy from a war in which its main arms suppliers are the Islamic-oriented monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The main Saudi and Qatari desire is that Syria shift from being an Iranian-Shiite-dominated country to a Sunni-dominated one. Democracy per se is not their priority.
One of the two Turkish experts has another business in Qatar. To get permission to work and operate in Qatar, he explained, he needs a local Qatari to sponsor his work permit. “If you have a work permit and you want to leave the country, you need your sponsor to give you written permission,” he said. “If your sponsor dies, his son inherits that right.” His Qatari sponsor’s son is very young. Yet, “if he says I cannot leave, I cannot leave. I do business (in Qatar), but I have no rights at all. ... We joke that we are ‘modern slaves’ there. And this country is trying to bring democracy to Syria?”
These stories illuminate for me the enormous number of crosscurrents and mixed motives driving this revolution. Without a strong, galvanizing Syrian leader with a compelling unifying vision, backed by the international community, getting rid of Assad will not bring order to Syria. And disorder in Syria will not have the same consequences as disorder in other countries in the region.
Syria is the keystone of the Middle East. If and how it cracks apart could recast this entire region. The borders of Syria have been fixed ever since the British and French colonial powers carved up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. If Assad is toppled and you have state collapse here, Syria’s civil war could go regional and challenge all the old borders — as the Shiites of Lebanon seek to link up more with the Alawite/Shiites of Syria; the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey try to link up with each other and create an independent Kurdistan; and the Sunnis of Iraq, Jordan and Syria draw closer to oppose the Shiites of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
We could be entering a new age of Middle East border-drawing — the do-it-yourself version — where the borders of the Middle East get redrawn, not by colonial outsiders from the top down but by the Middle Easterners themselves, from the bottom up.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.