When the Syrian opposition last year launched a pro-democracy uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it could not have chosen a more symbolic day and place for that act of defiance.
It was on the Ides of March, the date when a famous tyrannicide was carried out in 44 BC: the assassination of Julius Caesar. The place was the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, where citizens in ancient times gathered for the defense of the city. In that vicinity is the tomb of the greatest military leader the Middle East has known, Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, Sultan of Egypt and Syria during the late 12th century, better known as Saladin.
He stopped the crusaders in their tracks and recaptured Palestine from the Knights Templars. The courtesies he showed in honorable warfare were so admired by his European adversaries that when they returned to their own countries they developed a code of chivalry in imitation of his magnanimous ways. The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is a faint echo of the values of Islam as practiced by Saladin that the crusaders adopted and brought back home.
Today, as the civil war in Syria gets more brutal and bloody, as women, children and the helpless elderly are massacred by indiscriminate artillery fire, and as both sides summarily execute prisoners, Saladin must be turning over in his grave. Nobody emulates his example of honorable warfare.
But in these days of terrorist bombings, “shock and awe” devastation of whole cities and ethnic cleansing and other forms of genocide, it may be unrealistic to expect the Syrian civil war to be somewhat civil.
In fact there is some logic to its brutality: the civil war after all is between a ruling minority — the Alawites — and a Sunni majority.
Assad and the Alawites are getting away with mass murder with the complicity of other minorities: the Shiites, the Assyrians, the Maronite Christians, the Greek Catholics and Orthodox and a tiny Sunni elite. They all feel they have no future if and when the Sunni majority takes over. Since the enemy will take no prisoners, they might as well take no prisoners themselves.
In recent days, an exception has emerged among the minorities — the Kurds, who constitute about 10 percent of the Syrian population. They have a different culture from that of the Arabs and most profess pre-Islamic religions. Never a strong ally of the Alawites, they have risen against Assad and driven his soldiers out of Kurdish areas.
But this will complicate matters — because Kurdish Syria is a segment of a large tract of Kurdish land that also covers parts of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. European colonial gerrymandering has apportioned the land of the Kurds to four different states, with not a single square kilometer for the Kurds themselves.
Turkey is anxious that if Syria were permanently fragmented, there would rise an autonomous Kurdistan contiguous to the Kurdish area of Turkey where separatist guerillas have been fighting the Turkish military.
Meanwhile, the government in Baghdad is losing sleep that Iraqi Kurdistan, which has enough oil wealth to function as an independent state, is already behaving like one. The ayatollahs in Iran keep a worried eye on the smoldering spirit of Kurdish separatism on their turf.
Only the wisdom and authority of a Saladin can resolve this muddle. Saladin, incidentally, was a Kurd whose family converted to Islam. That he is a hero not only to the Kurds but also to the whole Middle East speaks of his greatness.
But he is dead and his legacy of chivalry is forgotten. Syria’s only hope for rescue is in the UN Security Council — if its five permanent members can finally agree to enforce peace in that blood-drenched country. Can they?