Syria and the risk of Somalisation

If the crisis continues, Syria risks not so much division into hostile states as happened in Yugoslavia, but control by warlords who will persecute the Syrian people.

Haian Dukhan
19 January 2013

The declarations of the international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to the effect that as many as 100,000 people could die next year in Syria if a way cannot be found quickly to end the civil war is the most serious warning yet about the crisis in the country.

Among these declarations he included another grave warning about the risk of ‘Somalisation‘- referring to the civil war which has been taking place in Somalia since 1991. Clarifying his meaning, he predicted that if the crisis continued, the country would not be divided into states ‘as happened in Yugoslavia’ but “Somalisation would mean control by warlords, and the Syrian people will be persecuted by those who control their fate”. 

These declarations sparked a wave of outrage among Syrian opposition figures who accused him of favouring the regime, ignoring the suffering of the Syrian people and trying to impose an unacceptable solution on them. Yet, how close are these declarations to reality and what can the international community do to avoid the Somali scenario in Syria?

First of all, the main difference between Syria and Somalia is that the current conflict in Syria came as a result of peaceful protests that contained legitimate demands for freedom and basic human rights, but which evolved into an armed rebellion after months of military sieges, brutal atrocities, arrests and torture.  On the other hand, the war in Somalia started when various factions began competing for influence in the power vacuum that followed a military coup d'état against Barre's regime. Although the root causes of a conflict may be different, the dynamics of conflict have started to show some similarities with the prolonged war taking place in Syria.  The late Somali president, Mohamed Siad Barre and the late Syrian President, Hafez al-Asaad share several traits, such as adopting socialist policies, fostering the growth of a personality cult and establishing an oppressive dictatorial rule, including allegations of persecution, jailing and torture of political opponents and dissidents. While the latter did not live to witness a popular uprising raging against his regime after bequeathing the rule to his son, the former was overthrown in the early 1990s by a coalition of armed opposition groups.

Since the first day of the uprising and after seeing the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, it has been clear that the Syrian regime is pushing the country towards “Somalisation”. The general pro-Assad slogan, "Assad or we burn the country”, that thugs in al-Assad’s forces have spray painted on walls of the cities that they have stormed, is an indication of the spirit of savagery and a bloodthirsty instinct within the regime that otherwise exists only in those that have lost their minds.

The regime and its allies in Iran and Lebanon have adopted particular tactics designed to spread chaos and prevent the opposition from achieving a peaceful transition of power to enjoy a stable Syria after the fall of the regime. It has been reported that the Syrian regime has released more than 60,000 prisoners who have been convicted of unlawful killing, theft and murder. These criminals have been allowed to spread into different Syrian cities and have begun abducting people and asking for large ransoms, robbing banks in certain areas, and committing crimes of murder and rape among the civilian population.

The purpose behind this move can only be to make people regret having started an uprising and wish for the old days of peace and safety. Some of these criminals have formed gangs similar to the Somali warlords, with a great vested interest in prolonging the war for the maintenance of their economic system.

Moreover, to stigmatize the Syrian opposition and frighten the country’s own non-Islamists and minorities as well as the west, the Assad regime has released the alleged terrorist mastermind behind the July 7 London bombings (1) alongside many other extremists to join other fighters coming from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria to form what was afterwards known as Jabhat al-nusra. This group would be the counterpart of Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Striving Youth) which is the Somalia-based cell of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda.

Although Jabhat al-nusra is the most aggressive and successful arm of the rebel force in Syria (2), its brand of ultraconservative Islam through its call to establish a ‘Caliphate’ in Bilad al-Sham (the Levant) and apply the law of Sharia (3) is contradictory to the dreams of many Syrians who hope for a secular future. It would come as no surprise for anyone if jabhat al-nusra were to become involved in future conflicts with other secular groups after the fall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. 

In addition to what has been mentioned here, Shabiha and the security forces are already well renowned for their brutality and rampant corruption and, with the collapse of the Syrian regime, these forces may well support rival warlords who could be supported by Iran and Hezbollah, to prevent any stability in the country.  Signs of Kurdish-Arab conflict have started to appear in the northernmost area of Syria, to which could be added a potential conflict between the Kurds and the Bedouin tribes who were settled by Hafez al-assad in the Kurdish region in order to arabize the area and change its demographic nature.

The regional and the international players in the Syrian crisis do not differ much from their counterparts in the Somali situation. Taking the geopolitical importance of both countries, neighbouring countries have always sought to gain a foothold in these parts of the world, either due to commercial ambitions or to historical dreams of establishing their big empires. The regional powers in the horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya, have played different roles during the Somali civil war by supporting different factions of the conflict to the extent of sometimes sending their troops to participate in military operations. This is very similar to the role that Iran and Turkey are playing in the current crisis in Syria.

Syrians are in dire need of a peaceful, sustainable resolution, but owing to the number of factions involved and the serious human rights violations that have been carried out, an internal resolution of this conflict seems unlikely (4). To avoid the Somali scenario, it is best to remember Kofi Annan's words when he resigned as UN Syria envoy:  “Syria can still be saved from the worst calamity. But this requires courage and leadership, most of all from the permanent members of the Security Council, including Presidents Putin and Obama. Is ours an international community that will act in defense of the most vulnerable of our world, and make the necessary sacrifices to help?” The coming weeks in Syria will tell.



1- Lewis, J. (2012) Syria releases the 7/7 'mastermind’, The Telegraph

2- Ignatius, D. (2012) Al-Qaeda affiliate playing larger role in Syria rebellion, The Washington Post

3- Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad: A Strategic Briefing, Quilliam Foundation, London

4- Austin, E. (2012) Afghanistan and Syria: How History is repeating itself

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