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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Understanding The Middle East

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This, from the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor, is very good.

My conversation yesterday with The New York Times’ John Fisher Burns adds more background from the most experienced foreign correspondent in the world.

But Christian C. Sahner’s new book, Amid the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, is a revelation.  He will be my guest today in the third hour of the show.





HH: I’ve also been telling you throughout the day that the other headline is that ISIS is advancing on the Syrian border town of Kobani, which is directly sort of north of Raqqa, which I believe is the capital of ISIS. And it’s so timely, because I told you yesterday as I was talking with John Burns, and I told Bill Kristol the same thing, I spent the last few days with a brand new book by Christian Sahner, Among The Ruins: Syria Past And Present. It’s indispensable. It’s going on the indispensable bookshelf over at next to The Looming Tower and Jake Tapper’s The Outpost. And Christian Sahner joins me. He’s a historian of the Middle East. He graduated from Princeton, and then went off to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and spent a lot of his time then in Syria, and then the year afterwards in Beirut studying Syria from Beirut. And he joins me now. Christian, welcome, it’s great to have you here.

CS: Good to be with you, Hugh.

HH: Among The Ruins: Syria Past And Present is a magnificent book. I don’t know what you set out to do, but what you have done is explain why the Syrian civil war is one of the most intractable, and I don’t know how it plays out, Christian. Every day, you must see more of your writing fulfilled here about the intractability of these problems.

CS: Absolutely, Hugh. It’s funny you mention it. I frankly did not know what I was setting out to write. I knew that, I knew, however, that the deep history of this country was being forgotten as it gained more and more attention in newspapers headlines around the world. And I felt that that was the deep history that you really needed to understand the course of events today. And so I think when I set out to write that book, beginning about three years ago, it was really to recover a sense of tradition, the beauty of Syria, but also as you allude to, highlights some of the intractable problems that have existed in Syria in recent decades, and over the centuries, and how those connect to events today.

HH: Now Christian, when I finish the book, and I want to walk back through it with you, especially the history of Syria, I was feeling pretty hopeless. And it is not possible for me to see how other than a thirty year war, Germany style, 1600s, with hundreds of cities destroyed, it’s an analogy you make in the book, is other, is the only thing that’s in the cards for Syria. I don’t how it gets solved other than perhaps the triumph of ISIS and a deeply Wahhabist religiously fanatical regime.

CS: Well Hugh, I think there are many reasons to be pessimistic, and I am certainly pessimistic looking ahead. But I would say that there are plenty of precedents in European history, and the Middle Eastern history, and the not so distant past for wars that seemed completely intractable, but which do end eventually. I think there are some significant differences, but nonetheless important similarities between what’s happening in Syria today and what took place in Lebanon, for example, between 1975 and 1990. Of course, violent, religious extremism was not as significant a part in the Lebanese civil war, but that same poisonous mix of outside interference, sectarian politics and bloodshed that kept the Lebanese civil war going for fifteen years are also present in Syria. And in the last chapter of the book, I talk about the society that has risen up in Lebanon at the end of that civil war. It is still fractured. There are still problems. And Lebanon remains very fragile. But I think the Lebanese example also gives us reason for hope that what may come to pass in Syria when this conflict is over, that there is hope, and that there may be light at the other end of the tunnel.

HH: Now I’m talking with Christian Sahner. His book, Among The Ruins: Syria Past And Present is linked at And I rank him up there with Lawrence Wright and Lee Smith and Robin Wright, all of whom have attempted to get their arms around the brutal and very difficult history of the Middle East over the last 1,300 years since the prophet, Muhammad, arrived on the scene. But I did not know that he did not enter Damascus, but that he looked upon it much like Moses looking upon the Promised Land. He just wouldn’t go in.

CS: Absolutely. This is an opening anecdote in the first chapter. There is a legend, probably apocryphal, but nonetheless very powerful legend that says that the prophet visited Damascus in his time as a trader, and saw this city from a nearby mountaintop, and he held her beauty, and according to the legend, felt that man was only fit to enter Heaven only once, and so he promptly turned around and headed home. But it’s a nice anecdote, and it tells us a lot about the very, very deep roots of Islam in Syria, the very, very proud tradition that developed in the 7th Century and carries on today. In the book, I talk a lot about this deep past, and also the material record, the buildings that have been left behind in Damascus, for example, the Umayyad Mosque, made form beautiful mosaics.

HH: That discussion of the mosque and its tradition dual purpose of worship center, and how it was actually Christians and Muslims used it for a period of time until the caliph said no, we’re done with that, and boarded it up and changed everything. The architectural emphasis in the book is an unusual blend, but it really brings alive the ancient nature of Syria, which is, here’s my proposition for you, Christian. I think most Americans have not learned much about Syria since because the time I was your age forward, Syria was just Assad, and it was never going to change. You write about this at the end. Observers just say it’s always going to stay the same until you get up close, and you realize this can’t hang together because of the authoritarian nature of it, just like the Soviet Union couldn’t. But I just don’t think anyone paid attention, because it was so rigid, unlike Egypt with the assassination of Sadat and the wars with Israel. Syria was just Assad, Assad, Assad, so no one paid much attention.

CS: You’re absolutely right, Hugh. I’d say there are two things at play here. One is the stability of Syria’s political culture over the past decade, and that’s absolutely right. There’s a sense that nothing could change, that this is a problem, but sort permanent and unchanging problem. And the second thing that I think contributed to this, and this is especially true of the United States, Syria watchers in Washington and elsewhere, is that over the past decade, Syria’s importance has always been derivative of countries on Syria’s borders. In other words, it has been an issue of secondary importance, attached directly to countries – Israel, American interest in places like Iraq, countries like Turkey, energy security more broadly in the Middle East. And so while I think many people would have described Syria as a lynchpin, and rightly so, a connector, it never kind of reached that first rank of issues that could really divert attention and draw expertise in the U.S. government. And I think to some extent, and American universities, too, and so it was dumb luck that I ended up in Syria studying Arabic, studying the history of the country and the years before the civil war. But unusually, it gave me a perspective on a country on the precipice of change. And as I write, and you allude to, was the society that obviously had to change, but you can never imagine that change happening tomorrow or the next day. And so there was this fundamental contradiction at work in Syria.

HH: I want the audience to know before we turn to some particulars, the depth of your time in Syria and Beirut. And by the way, Kobani is under siege tonight. Did you ever get to Kobani or Raqqa in all your travels around the country?

CS: I did not visit Kobani, however I did visit Raqqa. I can tell you literally my worst hotel experience in my entire life was in a cockroach-infested hotel in Raqqa. At the time, it was extremely unpleasant, but I feel blessed that I got to see it when I did, because it’s not clear when any of us are going to go back to Raqqa, at least in the near future.

HH: Not with ISIS proclaiming it the capital of the new caliphate. Or if you go back, you’re not coming back.

CS: Yeah.

HH: So explain for people how the Rhodes scholarship turned into this much time in Syria and Beirut.

CS: Sure, so I received a Rhodes scholarship in 2007, and that gave me the opportunity to study for two years at Oxford. As an undergraduate at Princeton, I had a background in classical languages, and was fascinated by the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, studies Latin and Greek, became very interested in how a pagan world becomes a Christian world, the world of the Church fathers, the world of the Emperor, Constantine. And in the process of my studies, I realize that there was a watershed at the end of this ancient world beyond which everything allegedly changed. And this watershed is of course the Arab conquest, the rise of Islam over the course of the 600s and the 700s, and the realization furthermore that the great heartlands of the ancient world, which is like Egypt, Palestine, Syria, etc., eventually became the heartlands of an Arabic-speaking Muslim world. And so when I went to Oxford, I had the wonderful opportunity to kind of cross that threshold as I had not done before. I started studying Arabic, and in the context of my Arabic studies, started spending a few months every year in Syria. And that began in 2008, and it lasted until 2010, a few months after which the war began.

HH: And then, when you had your fellowship year, or your year with the Damascus Institute, that had relocated to Lebanon because of the troubles, right?

CS: Correct, correct. I was slated to live in Damascus beginning in the fall of 2011, and to situate you, this is about six months after the war begins. March, 2011, uprisings begin in the city of Dera’a, southern Syria, and by September, when I was scheduled to go, it was obvious that even in Damascus, which at that point was relatively calm, it would be impossible. And in deed, that proved true through the course of the coming year. And so I, along with my colleagues, and the rest of this institute, were moved to Beirut.

HH: And for the next year, studied it close at hand.

—- – – – –

HH: Of all the characters you describe in your travels as you give us the history of Syria and of Lebanon, Muhammad, your Arabic teacher, is really compelling, and very sad, actually. I was struck by how he had an abiding hatred for American culture that a lot of people scoff at when they talk about the origins of this crisis, even as he befriended you, and even though you befriended him.

CS: Absolutely. So the person you refer to, Muhammad, was really the man who taught me Arabic over the course of several years in Syria. He and his family now live as refugees in Cairo. And in fact, on a visit to Cairo this summer, I saw him for the first time in four years, and it was a wonderful reunion. So I owe a great debt to Muhammad, and I count him as a close friend. But as I write in the book, his views of the world did not necessarily match up with my own, and this was actually the stuff of much debate and much conversation, and also the stuff of our friendship in those years back in Damascus. And I would describe Muhammad as an individual who was very, very typical of this society. He was a religiously observant Muslim, not someone political in the sense that he was tapped into the regime, certainly, or even dissident groups operating in Syria at the time, but someone who was very upset, for example, with American influence in the Middle East, very upset with what he perceived as the erosion of traditional Muslim values, and the replacement in the culture of Western libertinism as he saw it.

HH: On Page 141, I want people to understand because they’ve heard me talk a lot about Qutb and the Brotherhood with Lawrence Wright and others. He was sort of a Qutbist. He really very much blamed the West for feeding Muslims, “a steady diet of pernicious food, free sex, irreligion, alcohol, dance clubs, consumerism,” according to Muhammad and Qutb. “In the process, the West had destroyed the ability of Muslims to assert themselves politically. For my teacher, the desperate poverty of the Gaza Strip, the humiliations of Abu Ghraib and the cozy relationships between American presidents and Arab dictators were symptoms of a wider problem. You give us your culture, we give you your obedience.” That is, that’s a powerful and almost unbridgeable chasm.

CS: Yeah, absolutely, and as I said, it resulted in many, many hours of arguments and debates when we were theoretically supposed to be studying Arabic grammar and vocabulary together. I think Muhammad’s story is interesting in hindsight in many ways, because when I was in Damascus, memories of the U.S. invasion of Iraq were still very, very fresh. And that, in many ways, as a young American, was the topic of conversation every time I would speak to a Syrian, whether someone on the street or a friend. And Muhammad was no different. But interestingly, I always had the sense that Muhammad’s frustrations with the United States in a certain way began with his own society. They began as the result of living in a society, political system was extremely closed, in which there was little opportunity for him politically, socially or economically to break in, make money, to make his life more prosperous. His wife was comfortable, but he was also stifled by this autocratic regime under which every Syrian toiled. And so I think the U.S. became something of a bugaboo, an enemy in the distance with which you could openly critique without actually dealing with and speaking about your local problems. And to give you a very specific example of this, it was fascinating to meet him again in Cairo this summer when he said to me I wish John McCain had become president. So he was an individual who had, as I said, decried the U.S. invasion, decried U.S. interference in the Middle East, but three and a half years into a brutal civil war in Syria, which in some respects has been exacerbated by the absence of Western intervention, he was now calling for a more assertive, a more hawkish U.S. president to be in the White House other than President Obama.

HH: And two questions about him. You wrote about, movingly, about his little girl. How is she doing?

CS: All things considered, his family is doing well. There are far worse places to be a refugee than Egypt. Their future is, of course, extremely uncertain. If I had to take a gamble, they will probably not go back to Damascus at all, and certainly not in the near future. But all things considered, they’re not doing badly. They’re not living in a tent like the poor people on the borders of Jordan and Lebanon.

HH: That’s part of the Among The Ruins, that you pay attention to what has happened to the Syrian refugees, and how they flooded into Lebanon and the surrounding countries, and the instability that that breeds. We’ll come back to that. Second question, last one about Muhammad, has his understanding of Islam changed at all as a result of his personal fall and tragedy?

CS: In talking about my friend, Muhammad, as someone sympathetic of Islamist groups, I don’t want to give the intent, the impression that he is a supporter of extremist groups.

HH: Right.

CS: You know, there is a wide, wide spectrum of Islamist groups operating inside Syria from the not so great to the extremely bad. And Muhammad’s views of a group like ISIS would probably be not so different from yours or mine, Hugh, in other words, would view this as an abuse of religion, use of excessive violence, etc. So I think he would probably, you know, in a certain way, has been alienated by what’s taking place in Syria. But he, like so many other refugees, is so desperate for change that at this point, if I had to ask him, I imagine he’d say we want Assad out no matter what it takes.

HH: Wow. See, that’s what I’m curious about, because you’ve traveled so extensively in Syria. By the way, do any of the networks call you up? There’s just no one who’s been to Syria. Robert Kaplan’s been, Robin Wright has been, you’re the third, Lee Smith went, but those are the four that I know. And the people that I see talking on and on and on about Syria on the tube don’t appear to me ever to have been there.

CS: Hugh, you’ll be happy to know you are my first book interview. The book came out about two weeks ago, and you’re my first.

HH: Well, I think it’s, you’re going to be finding yourself in great demand when people realize that there’s an American who can speak Arabic who’s lived in Lebanon and Syria, and who is a Princeton academic and a Rhodes scholar, and probably looks good on TV, I think. We’ll have to see how that goes. When we come back from break, we’ll go deeper into this, but would you briefly describe the religious mosaic? We’ve got about a minute and a half to the break, Christian. In Syria itself, I tried to do this on the back porch with some friends smoking a cigar two nights ago, and I lost myself after Alawites, Druze, Christians of six varieties, Sunni, Shia, I mean, it’s just vast.

CS: Absolutely, and it is hard to understand. Syria is a terrifically diverse country. The numbers are as follows. By most estimates, Syria is probably about 75% Sunni Muslims. The Sunnis represent the majority, and relative to their majority in society, are politically disenfranchised. The next largest group are the Alawites at roughly 15%. And this is the sect of President Assad. They are the leading sect in Syria, so they have a disproportionate hold on political power. And this disparity is in many ways what has driven the civil war from the beginning. You have a very large but shrinking Christian minority, estimated at somewhere between 10-5%, concentrated mostly in cities. And then you have a smattering of other Muslim groups, for example, the Ismailis, the Druze, etc. And so its diversity is different in some respects from what you find in a place like Iraq, but the stuff of the diversity, the fact of the existence of difference on the ground, makes it very, very similar, and as a result, also makes the conflict very intractable.

HH: And the history of enormously violent clashes extends back hundreds of years. We’ll talk about that with Christian Sahner when we come back.

— — – –

HH: Of course, Sting only partially captures what Christian Sahner describes as the sometimes haunting and sometimes grating call to prayer that you’ll encounter throughout the Middle East and in other Islamic countries. I’ve heard it most often in Turkey. But Christian Sahner, you found it alternatively both very appealing, but if it was a bad singer, it was horrible. And where was the place that the guy had the awful voice?

CS: Yeah, so I write about it in the book, my experiences living in a predominantly Christian neighborhood in the old city of Damascus, but at the same time, living next to a mosque just outside the walls of this old city that was staffed by a man who may have had the worst voice of all of the muezzins, all of the individuals responsible for making the call to prayer in the entire city. So there was this funny contradiction between having only Christian neighbors and then just on the outside of your neighborhood, having a guy who needless to say did not sound like Frank Sinatra.

HH: That’s a very funny and charming part of the book, but also brings into the details of the mosaic of life, that again, when you go to Beirut, because of the civil war, you find yourself living in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, at Martyr’s Square, though, and surrounded by a deeply-scarred people, that if peace ever comes to Syria, as you write about Lebanon now, the memories aren’t going to go away, and those, the hatreds that erupt as a result of these are forever, actually, embedded in the culture.

CS: Yeah, you’re absolutely correct, Hugh. And what makes Lebanon interesting is not only that it went through this civil war, but that the civil war was in many respects driven by the same clashing, diverse city of sects that you find in Syria. What makes Lebanon different is that there was a much greater balance of power between the sects. Christians, for example, Lebanon was essentially founded at mid-century as a haven for Christians in the Middle East, and specifically the leading Christian sect in the country are the Maronites. You had a large Sunni Muslim population with whom they shared power and an ever-expanding Shiite minority that now, several decades on, has essentially become the leading sect, new leading community within Lebanon. And so memories of this conflict that pitted these different groups together, that featured foreign intervention on the part of the United States, and on the part of Iran, and on the part of Israel, and on the part of various European powers, has left a society that is in some respects stable. The war in Lebanon came to an end when these various sects realized that no one really stood to gain by the conflict going on, that there was not quite a threat of mutually-assured destruction, but that there was little to gain, no matter what side of the fighting you were on. And then the international community coming in and saying look, you guys have to resolve this. I don’t know if that provides a template for Syria, but the parallels between the two countries and between the two civil wars are striking.

HH: That takes me back to 1860. And I did not know about the Massabki Brothers. I didn’t know any of this. And the facile thing for me to say, and say you know, this is just the results of the Syrian civil war, is the imposition of European ideas of country upon tribal lands, and they just don’t work. But in fact, what we’re seeing is a replay of 1860. It’s a replay of many terrible civil wars and conflicts.

CS: Absolutely. The events of 1860 are an extremely interesting and relatively little-known event in the history of the modern Middle East. Historians will often describe it as the major sectarian watershed of modern Middle Eastern history. Essentially as a result of a complex system, series of changes within the Ottoman Empire itself, as a result of intervention and interference by outside powers, specifically from Europe, there is ferocious inter-religious fighting that breaks out in now Lebanon between the Druze and the Maronites, and that violence eventually spills its way to Damascus, and it leads to a terrific massacre of Christians in the Bab Touma neighborhood. And Bab Touma is the Christian neighborhood that I mentioned earlier where I lived, where I spent all my time living in Syria. And the estimates of the number of dead from that massacre in 1860 vary widely from as little as a few hundred to as many as several thousand. At the time, the documentation is not clear, but what is obvious is that it was a great bloodbath. And Hugh, you mentioned the Massabki Brothers. These are saints, new martyrs of the Catholic community of Bab Touma, who were very pious Catholic brothers who were massacred as a result of this terrible violence in the summer of 1860. And it’s the commemoration of these martyrs that first set me onto this, as a historian, that got me interested. Their feast day is in July every year, and to see processions throughout the old city of Bab Touma commemorating these events, it was, in some respects, as if the events and the violence and tensions that sparked everything over 150 years ago had not dissipated.

HH: And what’s amazing about it is most commentators on this who buy into the Europeans did this, like me, are wholly unaware that in the Ottoman Empire, the same sort of outburst occurred, and it had nothing to do with European interventionism. It had to do with the intractable differences of religion.

— – – — –

HH: You’ll learn a lot about Islam, and I’m so glad you packed the history of the religion in. I don’t know if you ever had Bernard Lewis as an undergraduate, but it sort of reminded me of Bernard Lewis’ approach, but perhaps made more accessible to readers by including the Robert Kaplan first person account.

CS: Yeah, the idea behind the book was to do two things. One was to give readers a sense of the deep history of the country, to do the deep dive on the sort of information that doesn’t tend to appear in a thousand word newspaper article or op-ed. So that was the first goal. And the second goal was to give people a sense of the texture of the society. What did this place smell like? Who were the people that I encountered as I lived there? And I did that not only because this had been my own formative experience as a young American abroad, but I also think that kind of personal anecdote and personal experience can make a history go down more easily. And you’ve read the book, Hugh. And I hope the goal, I hope the end result is a hybrid style that people will find both interesting and entertaining.

HH: Very much so, and in fact, my audience has heard Robert Kaplan many times. It is Kaplanesque, only with perhaps even more attention to the historical foundations upon which the current chaos is built. And that takes me to the Alawites and to the Assads, and to the most haunting picture in the book. There are many great pictures that you brought back. I didn’t know that Assad the senior has a tomb in his hometown up in the mountains. A) I don’t want to take that bus ride you took, but B) it’s a weird place, it’s a strange sect, and the Alawites, I don’t know how they could ever have presumed but for the Ba’athists to get there. So I’d like you to just take three or four minutes to describe how the Ba’ath party came about, and how Assad rose within it to put this overlay on a country that is basically Sunni majority, but nevertheless ruled by a coalition of minorities until the civil war began.

CS: Listen, there are two interlocking storylines here, and one has to do with the rise of the Ba’ath party as an entity, and the other has to do with the rise of the Alawite sect as the leading sect within Syria. I’ll start with the Ba’athists. Ba’athism is a political movement, an Arab nationalist political movement that was begun by several people, foremost among them, a Greek Orthodox Christian from Damascus named Michel Aflaq and his Sunni Muslim friend named Salah al-Din al-Bitar. And these two individuals go off to study in Paris, where they are exposed to the latest and the greatest in European political thought. And they bring it back to the Middle East. They bring it back to Syria to Damascus. And the idea behind this is the need to, the perceived need to resuscitate the Arab peoples, the Arab nation, from a perceived period of not just dormancy, but also weakness and neglect, that we need to restore the Arab peoples to their status as a great power as it was in the ancient world, as it was in medieval times. And so the Prophet Muhammad for them becomes a very, very important cultural and historical figure, not per se a religious figure, because Arab nationalism is, at least by the Ba’ath standards, is an adamantly, is an avowedly secular ideology. But the Prophet Muhammad becomes a touchstone throughout history as an example of Arab achievement. This message of a secular form of Arab nationalism, a form of political ideology that is inclusive, that can embrace many different religious groups, not just the Sunni Muslims who constitute the majority in Syria as throughout the rest of the Middle East, is obviously a message that becomes extremely attractive to the minorities of the Middle East, and particularly the minorities of Syria. As I mentioned, Michel Aflaq, who I write about extensively in the book, was himself a Greek Orthodox Christian from Damascus. But the message of the Ba’ath party also found traction in another more important minority community, and these are the Alawites. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, the Alawites constitute roughly about 15% of the population in Syria. They’re concentrated in the mountainous regions in the northwest of the country along Syria’s coastal strip. And they represent the remnant of a Shiite sect that spread to Syria in the middle ages and takes root in these mountainous areas.

HH: Although you note that they, while they’re very, they’re distinct from Shia and Sunni, they tried to mainstream themselves when the Assads rose to power. I think that’s on Page 137. And as a result, they try very much not to be understood as infidels or heretics.

CS: Exactly, exactly. So in the early 20th Century when the Alawites begin to accrue power and influence, they face a problem in the sense that as a result of their beliefs, often termed heterodox, they’re viewed as being marginal by most Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite within Syria. And as a result of their geographic, as a result of their geographic marginalization, they’re also viewed as being on the edge of culture and society. And as a result of the French promoting them through the system of the colonial army and the colonial administration, they begin to accrue power and influence and standing in Syria that they had never had before throughout their long history. And in many ways, the Assad family, who come up, Hafez al Assad, the father of the current president, is the first and the ultimate success of this community. They draw on Ba’athist ideology. They draw on this ideology of secular Arab nationalism, to in some ways mainstream themselves, to override the fact that by dint of their beliefs, by dint of their geographic location, they so to speak belong on the margins. This ideology allows them to vault themselves into the mainstream. And this is something that I talk about in the third chapter. And that’s how we get the marriage between this political ideology, that Ba’athism and the Alawite sect, of President Hafez al Assad and his son, Bashar.

HH: And a pernicious, pernicious partnership. It results in, of course, Hamas rules, where he massacres thousands of Muslim brothers. And the belief at the beginning that Bashar was simply not possible to get rid of him, I mean, that was the consensus, right?

CS: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I think there was a feeling that despite their numerical minority, the Alawites had such a firm control on power in Syria over the decades that it would be impossible to dislodge them. And of course, events over the past few years have repeated that idea. They remain in power. Their power is much more fragile, but they’re surviving.

HH: They’re surviving. Well, we have one more segment with Christian Sahner.

— – – – – –

HH: Thanks to my guest this last hour of the program, Christian Sahner. His new book, Amont The Ruins: Syria Past And Present could be the headlines tomorrow. As I’ve told you, the Secret Service director resigned today. That’s important. The Ebola patient has been known to have had contact with children when he was in Dallas. That’s important. It rages in Africa. That’s important. But the big story tomorrow ought to be whether or not ISIS grabs Kobani, because if they do, this Syrian border town with Turkey, it’s going to be very difficult to stop jihadis from entering the country almost at will. Christian Sahner, we only have two minutes in the last segment, and so I can’t really cover anything, but if you, I know you’re not a prophet or the son of a prophet. But where do you see Syria in five years? How long can this go on?

CS: Well, I don’t think the news is good. The outlook definitely is not positive. I wish I had better news for you, Hugh. There are many ways that Syria can go. I think that with respect to the United States and our government, I think this is an intractable conflict that we are invested in for the long run. I would expect to see an expansion of U.S. military role in the region. I think ISIS will eventually be contained. It may even have its head chopped off. But of course, what is characteristic of groups like ISIS, along with many, many other extremist groups operating in Syria and Iraq is that you suppress one, and two or three pop up in their place. And I think that this is a, this will be a long, long term challenge. One can imagine a situation in Syria where the country is effectively partitioned. I think that process is well under its way now, and may become formalized into the future. You know, I speak as a historian who looks at the past, and this is me looking into the future. And frankly, it’s not clear at all.

HH: Last question, you write often about the Christian communities of Syria and Lebanon, and how they’ve been methodically decimated and drained off over the centuries. Is there a future of Christianity in Syria, at least in the next 100 years?

CS: Again, I don’t think my prognosis is good. For example, in a place like Iraq, I think we’re effectively watching the disappearance, the end of Christianity there, its substantial presence in Iraqi society. And while the situation in Syria is not quite as dire for Christians, what is happening in the Middle East today represents the culmination of a century-long trend, if not older than a century, which has seen the gradual cultural homogenization of the region. And I think Christians, along with Greeks, Armenians, Jews, certain Muslim groups, are the ones who have borne the brunt of this most. And I hate to say this as someone who has spent time among Christian communities in Syria, would love to see them continue to thrive, but this is not headed in a good direction. And I think the picture of Syrian Christianity in a generation will look very, very different than the picture that I knew when I visited and lived in Syria before the war.

HH: Yeah, it was very surprising that it’s only four years ago. So the home of the desert fathers will truly be the apocryphal desert for the Church?

CS: Yeah.

HH: That’s a grim prognosis. Christian Sahner, great book. Among The Ruins: Syria Past And Present. Thanks for spending time with us. I look forward to seeing you on CNN. Someone should be on there who actually knows what they’re talking about on Syria. Christian Sahner’s book is linked at I’ll be back tomorrow, America, on the next Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.


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