The unmaking of Syria: beneath the fog

One can no longer say that Syria is a moderate, pragmatic, stabilizing and secular regional centre keeping extremism at bay - a natural function of its geography, relatively diverse ethno-sectarian make-up, as well as the political sophistication of its people.

Everything about Syria is steeped in miasma: is this conflict politically and sociologically definable as a civil war? Has it become a sectarian war? How strong and widespread is the Salafist (and global Jihadi) presence? Was militarization wise or did the opposition have no choice in this regard? Are the armed groups able to defeat the regime’s forces or will there be a perpetual, bloody stalemate whose only certainty is Syria’s complete physical destruction and long-term division? Is a negotiated outcome, that is, a political solution the only possibility, or is it uninformed to speak of political solutions at this stage of the conflict?

Despite this fog, there are, in my mind, several certainties. One, Syria is not a clear-cut case of bad regime versus good society, for that society is not at one regarding the violent overthrow of the state. This is not a mass, democratic revolution but a Sunni rebellion. Any spontaneity to its genesis, including the goal of non-violent resistance, came to a speedy end, provided with a significant impetus by the flow of foreign arms, money, and intelligence, including from the US. A substantial ‘silent’ majority desperately wishes to avoid Syria’s disintegration because they simply love their country, not the regime or armed rebels, and prefer reform and a negotiated settlement.

Two, it is false to equate, as the regime portrays it, every Syrian’s opposition to the Ba’athi state with acting on behalf of Zionists and imperialists, and equally false to suggest that advocating a negotiated settlement equates to buying into the regime’s self-narrative of an indispensable anti-imperialist frontline.

Three, foreign powers, especially Washington, several of its NATO allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the latter essentially monarchic police states, are violating international law in pursuing subversion and violent regime change, and share primary responsibility for the radicalization, destabilization, and horrific violence inflicted on the people of Syria. Washington is interested in regime change, not in ensuring that neither side prevails to force a settlement.

Four, the fundamental truth is the Syrian people’s case for dignity and freedom, rights brutally denied and violated for so long by fearsome regimes such as the Syrian Ba’ath. The revolt against the Ba’athist regime, despite its now tainted nature, is not a conspiracy.

Five, despite Syria’s social diversity and divided loyalties, the fact that the regime has many supporters, and that a majority desires peaceful change, calls for the Syrian socio-political system to become no less than a civil, human rights-respecting, citizenship-based state. Still, Syria’s internal complexity and regional role requires special care and objective realism. Take Aleppo as a microcosm of Syrian complexity, the largest Syrian city containing some 82% Sunnis. Listening to the western, Qatari, or Saudi media, one would think that the city erupted into spontaneous rebellion and from the beginning was fighting a heroic war against the regime’s military and security forces. By objective accounts, however, Aleppo’s denizens supported the Damascus government by a large majority, many of them paying the price of Free Syrian Army reprisals. Now, since the penetration of armed groups and the violent zealotry of Salafists and foreign Jihadis, with their suicide bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings, looting and rape, as well as heavy, indiscriminate government firepower leading to the slow obliteration of this great historic and commercial city - one wonders what has happened to its people and their loyalties.

We only know that government forces and loyalists still hold the city, minus a couple of districts, as they do most of the country. Countless people have fled, many of their empty homes looted and ransacked by their would-be liberators, fearful of returning to rebel reprisals. Aleppo’s Islamist leaning al-Tawhid Division, ostensibly part of the FSA, contains numerous-armed factions, including many Salafi Islamists, who, themselves, are varied, ranging from Brotherhood types to al-Qaida-like extremists. There is also quite noticeable and significant Salafi literalist influence among the armed rebels generally. The disparate factions that make up the FSA are largely Islamist-dominated. Its battalions contain thousands of fighters of the Salafi/Jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, a mainstay of the al-Tawhid in Aleppo.

In a situation of decentralized and disparate commands, such people are there at the front lines. All these groups, including the FSA, have an uneasy, distrustful relationship with the newly minted National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, as they previously did with the now discarded Syrian National Council, and as they have with the western powers. Fortunately, Syria does not have a tradition of extremist political Islam. On the contrary, given its pluralist diversity, its geostrategic location, and secular nationalist history, Jihadi-type extremism does not fit in Syria.

The chaos and physical destruction, the ever-present danger of the regime-Sunni war transmuting into a sectarian civil war are deeply worrying, and the Salafists thrive on such an environment. No question, though, in its militarist, violent manifestations, this is essentially a rebellion of the Sunni Muslims, at core from the regions of Hama and Homs, and battle-tested foreigners, including Salafis, supported by the Sunni autocracies and wealthy donors of the peninsula. It is unlikely that a literalist Salafist regime will come to power, much less global Jihadis, but likely that a Sunni-Brotherhood dominated regime, sidelining the National Coalition, will.

The defunct National Council’s main obsession was arming without a clear political programme. The new National Coalition has got itself political recognition as a sort of provisional government—even as Syria remains a member state of the UN led by the al-Assad government—from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, and Turkey, followed by the US, which, however, consigned one rebel group, the Jabha, to its terrorist blacklist. (This prompted all the rest of the armed rebel groups to declare their support for the Jabha.)

Western support is predicated on the promise that the Coalition will unify the opposition, at least act as an umbrella, and be a better watchdog that presumes to undertake the impossible, even inane, task of vouching for and endorsing those groups deserving of armed support, which Washington reckons amounts to two-thirds of the fighting groups and their commanders. These parties essentially cajoled through the expansion of the new Coalition’s membership to three times the previous Council’s size and which includes most of the old Council’s members. The new body’s composition is a safeguard to dilute Islamist influence.

Washington in particular rejected the Brotherhood-dominated Council because it could not deliver unity, or control or exclude extremist Islamists, even though Council members did what the US wanted most of all: they talked about peace and good relations with Israel.

Whether the US is willing to advocate a negotiated solution is in my view not an open question. Its apparent caution in providing advanced, or heavy, weaponry, unlike the reckless monarchic allies it shakily controls, is due to its fear of uncontrolled, unmanaged violence leading to an incompliant, even hostile, Islamist regime. The Obama administration’s ambivalence stems from the tension between aggressive regional allies and its recognition of several realities: the proliferation of extremist groups, the possibility of a bloody stalemate that will destabilize the region, and the potential that an armed group will get its hands on chemical weapons.

Thus, Washington’s most urgent and immediate goal, when not obstructing UN peace and dialogue missions, is to pressure the Coalition to construct a centralized military command and political unity and ferret out the extremists, supposedly one-third of the armed rebels. Its version of a negotiated solution is not genuine internal talks between Damascus and the rebels, but Assad’s departure, which Washington defines as a ‘transition’, but which is actually a precondition.

This, the US imagines, would avoid the concomitant augmentation of Salafi extremist power caused by protracted violence and keep international law and Russia out of the equation, ensuring an obeisant Coalition’s rule. Washington’s conception of ending Syrian suffering is not via morally, legally, diplomatically urgent negotiations between rebels and government. Instead, it repeatedly stresses Assad’s inevitably violent downfall, as only he is responsible for his people’s calamity, thereby absolving it and its allies of complicity in Syria’s torment and prolongation of this horrific upheaval.

Yet the foreign arming of the rebels - that is, the militarization of this conflict - has been Syria’s worst affliction. For Syria does not need lethal arms and war, but a coherent, truly representative opposition built without interference, and ready to find a negotiated political solution to violent conflict. This requires internal Syrian national agreement on a transitional regime change through supervised elections. This at least is the ideal, though not the reality; for everyone, from assorted rebels, hell bent on acquiring advanced weaponry to Coalition members to Washington to local Gulf regimes, wants Assad’s head. The Alawite core of the regime not surprisingly sees this as an existential threat.

What prevails in Syria today is maddening ambiguity and galling hypocrisy on all sides: of the relationship between the Coalition and armed rebels, the craziness of inter-Arab politics, Gulf and Turkish hatred of the Shi’i Alawite Syrian regime—which I call the Sunni Syndrome—nation-destroying French and British actions characterized as advocacy of democracy, and single-minded US control of Syria couched as constructive, responsible diplomacy.

With multiple external players violently pursuing their own agendas supporting multiple factions with their own visions, such as these are, the chance of Syrians reaching a negotiated political solution, much less a compromise leading to such, is virtually nil. In reality, the Ba’ath, the Syrian regime, al-Assad, the socio-political system that prevailed in Syria for nearly a half century all have ended, or at least will not be restored. This in itself is extraordinary. Ultimately, the horrific violence and terrorism from both the state and its opponents is the responsibility of the regime, for it chose to let the country go to hell, and unwittingly invited outside intervention, rather than peacefully oversee a democratic transition in the early phase of the rebellion.

This is an enduring quality of Arab ruling regimes, mostly because they lack fundamental legitimacy and rule over divided societies. One can no longer say Syria is what it used to be, a moderate, pragmatic, stabilizing and secular regional centre keeping extremism at bay. This political role is a natural function of its geography and relatively diverse ethno-sectarian make-up, as well as the political sophistication of its people. Under radically changing circumstances, most importantly, a weakened and fractured Syria, it may not be able to play that role again for decades to come. The west and their autocratic Middle Eastern allies are destroying one ruling group in exchange for another dominated by Brotherhood Islamists. And those Salafists/Jihadists on the front lines will not only want a share of power, but some of them may continue post-Assad violence and insurgency, to the continuing danger of many Syrians.

About the author

Issa Khalaf, a Palestinian-American, has a D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies from Oxford University