North Africa, West Asia

The once and future Syria

A negotiated peace may be Syria’s only salvation from imminent demise, but internal complexities and strategically incoherent external responses mean it will not be forthcoming.

Issa Khalaf
8 October 2014

Everything crazy about Arab politics and western policy has collected in Syria. Its politics are convoluted, with the many internal, regional, and international players and their agendas creating an environment of intricate, ever-shifting power balances and alliances, and endless conflict.

Syria’s fragile complexity, of which Lebanon is an intimate extension, required, from the outset of troubles in the now forgotten ‘Arab Spring’, a realistic, well-intentioned, cooperative approach from the powerful. Syria needs talk and negotiation, reconciliation and power sharing, political settlement and diplomacy, stability and transition.

Instead, it was subject to a disgustingly cynical exercise in external control, regime divide and rule, and despotic oil regimes ready to fight to the last Syrian to safeguard their rule. There is no end in sight for the war. With the near continuous ‘coalition’ air strikes, it is in fact entering a new phase, transmuting into ever more dangerous levels.

What used to be unthinkable–Syria’s agonizing demise, a horrific thought for those who know it–is now a reality. There is widespread death and destruction, mass dislocation, unspeakable suffering, obliteration of infrastructure and industrial facilities, horrific violence, including crimes by the state and its armed opponents, a preponderance of armed extremists, and fragmentation of Syrian society. Syria is being humiliated. This wonderful, historically and culturally rich country full of talented people is virtually no more. It seems that the Arab nation-state system of the Fertile Crescent is under threat of unraveling.

The US bombing campaign in northern Syria is an attempt at accelerating the destruction of the Syrian regime. In the past year, Damascus had regained most of the territory and strategic towns and cities in Syria, especially Homs and Hama, the heartland of Sunni rebellion.

Those who thought that the Syrian military would simply shrink into an Alawite militia protecting the traditionally Alawite coastal enclave were plain wrong. They romanticized the uprising and ignored the complex reality that millions of Syrians across the regional, communal, sectarian, and class divide supported Bashar al-Assad. They falsely reduced the Syrian army to a sectarian outfit. They did not fully understand the nature and staying power of the Syrian regime.

The air strikes are calculated to halt the impending defeat of the armed rebels around Aleppo in particular, who have been losing ground to a sustained regime operation to eradicate them, including severing their supply line from Turkey.

The core of the ‘moderates’ (non-Islamists) Washington is planning to arm is in the Aleppo region. Since the rebels’ initial gains in eastern Aleppo in the summer of 2012, they’ve been on the defensive. In recent weeks they were facing the Syrian army on one side and advancing Islamic State (IS; also ISIL, ISIS) fighters from the east, on the other. IS, driven from the city in the beginning of 2014 by the rebel factions, is looking to destroy them and retake Aleppo. Aleppo is about the only worthwhile strategic asset that the ‘moderate’ rebels there hope to have.

It does little good to point out the contradictions and hypocrisy of the Syrian intervention. Just think Bahrain. Today, more than ever, law and morality hardly matter as the US in particular goes about undermining the foundations of international law. Washington’s destruction, destabilization, and induced chaos in Middle Eastern states, which began in earnest with America’s emergence as a lone global power after the Cold War’s end in 1989, is a fundamental cause for the rise of horrifically violent, extremist groups overshadowing mainstream Islamist parties.

Al-Qa’ida grew out of Afghanistan, the Islamic State derives from Iraq, IS from al-Qa’ida in Iraq—a continuous cycle. Such groups serve as a pretext for constant intervention. Syria must be bombed, its sovereignty violated, to foil a made-up imminent plot to attack the US homeland by a made-up group.

Damascus is a mortal enemy of IS; however, not only is a regime-rebel alliance against IS nearly impossible, but the regime’s plan seems to be to let IS help with the job of defeating the Aleppo rebels. Despite the air strikes, IS’s strategic advance on ‘Ayn al-‘Arab (Kobane) and its capture of some 325 villages in the Aleppo governorate is undeterred. Defeat of the rebel factions and Kurds in the area may strategically be the breaking point for the Syrian rebellion altogether, after which Damascus would turn its military capacities to fighting IS.

Washington and its Arab allies understand this well–hence the hurry to attack IS in eastern and northern Syria. The aerial bombardment is directed at Damascus as it is at IS, for the IS ‘threat’ opened a back door to advancing Washington’s unwavering objective of bringing down the Syrian regime as part of its strategic plan of defeating the ‘Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis’ and strengthening its hegemonic foothold in the Middle East. The US rejects a Washington-Damascus alliance against IS, and the regime’s bombing of IS positions in east Syria for weeks prior to the start of the US air strikes did not persuade Washington to partner with it.  

Clearly, a negotiated peace is Syria’s only salvation. This will not be forthcoming, if only because of Syria’s internal complexity and the strategic incoherence of the Syrian conflict’s external mayhem-makers. The common refrain from western analysts is that the regime is hell-bent on defeating the rebellion and will brook no compromise.

However, Washington and its Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari allies are not looking for cooperation or compromise between rebels and regime, only the regime’s collapse. They have done everything to undermine the possibility of a political settlement since the conflict began between Damascus and non-jihadi Syrian rebels. Both Damascus and its external enemies have exploited jihadi gains to their advantage.  

Ideally, only a unified Syria under central military command can combat IS and other extremist jihadis. Air strikes will most likely not defeat IS, but will cause more destruction and the loss of innocent life. It may well be that this will increase Syrian hatred and resentment against their external tormentors, boost IS’s international jihadi popularity, and push more Syrians to join IS. The vast majority of the Syrian rebels, mostly Islamist, are against US strikes unless directed at Damascus. They assume that they too are on the target list, certainly once IS is degraded. Most Syrians simply do not want US military intervention.

The image of IS as just mindless barbarity is simplistic, for this organization too is pragmatic enough to form alliances with Islamist Syrian rebel factions, their strategic goal, as was the case with al-Qaida, being to draw the US into chronic, exhaustive war in the Middle East, thereby hastening its departure. It, too, is aware of the need for law and order under its control after the lawlessness, ineptitude, and corruption that Syrian rebels forced on the population, including in Aleppo.

With the rise of the IS phenomenon, questions of political settlement are irrelevant, especially as Damascus’ enemies persist in regime change. No dialogue or any contact with the Syrian government. No cooperation between Damascus, rebels, and external players to combat IS, even in the cause of expediency. Even increasing the probability, let alone certainty, of both combating IS and defeating the Syrian state, requires vast quantities of lethal arms. Washington’s stated goal of training and arming a 15,000 strong army of ‘moderates’ is most probably folly. This and the US air strikes will cause destruction of national assets and unimaginable levels of slaughter and misery.

We always knew the consequences of the regime’s violent demise, even absent IS. The destruction of the Syrian state and all its institutions may mean the unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of Syria will vanish for decades, if not for good. Those who will replace Assad will hardly be tolerant and democratic. What will happen to the Alawites in particular? Will Syria become another Libya?

Washington and monarchic Arab allies keenly interested in forming conservative Sunni Muslim states in the Arab East are responsible for the widespread extremism, border trashing, and ungovernable spaces. One does not ostensibly reconstitute a culturally fragile state by shattering it to pieces, instigating rebellion, abetting extremists, and deluging Syria with funds and arms.  

Syria has passed the point of no return. The Syrian people’s agony is, disturbingly, not over, nor is Syria’s continued dissolution. This was, and is, the only outcome of a militarization and violent destabilization largely imposed from the outside.

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