Foreign intervention in Syria: Isn’t it time to admit that the war against the Syrian regime is lost? – By Nikolaos van Dam

Foreign intervention in Syria: Isn’t it time to admit that the war against the Syrian regime is being lost?
By Nikolaos van Dam
Lecture presented at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna
7 March 2018 & published on Syria Comment

Tonight, the 7th of March 2018, it is exactly 55 years ago, that a group of young Syrian Ba’thist officers secretly mobilized their military supporters to stage a coup against the then ruling Syrian regime. They succeeded the following day, the 8th of March 1963, and managed to stay in power for more than half a century.

How was it possible for these Ba’thists to stay in power for such a long time?

Hafez al-Assad (above) standing on the wing of a Fiat G.46-4B with fellow cadets at the Syrian AF Academy outside Aleppo.

In the first place, they had a well-organized secret military organization of ideologically motivated people who were loyal towards one another, at least for some time. Secondly, many of them had a common background, originating from the Syrian countryside, and belonged to Arab speaking religious minorities, particularly Alawis, Druzes and Isma’ilis, many of whom had in the past been socially and religiously discriminated against by people from the Sunni population majority from the cities. Their common tribal, sectarian and regional origins were a basis for mutual acquaintance, loyalty and trust. Of course, there were internal rivalries, but once these rivalries were settled after a whole series of internal purges, the result was that only one military faction became all-powerful in 1970 and ruled the country ever since for three decades. It was the faction of the Alawi general Hafiz al-Asad.

Most of those earlier Ba’thist officers have in the meantime been succeeded in their military functions by a younger generation of Alawi officers, and others close to them, just like Bashar al-Asad in 2000 succeeded his father Hafiz al-Asad as the second Alawi president of Syria.

In order for the coup of the 8th of March 1963 to be successful, the Ba’thists did not act alone, but formed an alliance with other military opposition groups like the Nasserists. This alliance was to be only temporary, however, because once the Ba’thist military were powerful enough to continue without their so-called military allies, they eliminated them one-by-one. They even encouraged the Nasserists to carry out a coup against the Ba’thists themselves, in order to finish them off militarily, as a result of which the Ba’thist military were able to monopolize power in 1963.

This strategy of temporary alliances with the aim of monopolizing power has been repeated on various occasions until today, also during the Syrian War that started in 2011. It did not always matter to the Ba’thist rulers whether they formed alliances with other parties that were not at all ideologically close to them, or even with parties that were in fact their enemies, as long as they could achieve their principal aim, which was staying in power and monopolizing it. It was the end that justified whatever means.

Any threats against the regime by Ba’th Party rivals or others, whether imagined or real, were dealt with in a ruthless way: imprisonment, torture, killings, assassinations, so-called ‘suicides with more than one bullet’, and so on.

Because of the fact that under Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad, Syria was dominated by only one all-powerful military faction with a highly reliable and effective security apparatus (also effective in the sense of severe repression), the country experienced more internal political stability and continuity than ever before since independence. The fact, however, that this continuity was linked to the absence of any political reform or substantial changes in the composition of the ruling political and military elite for a period of more than four decades also implied the future possibility of strong discontinuity and disruption of the regime, once its long-serving political and military leadership would come under serious threat. This so-called stability came to an abrupt end with the start of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011.

If Ba’thist rivals from within the regime system already met with the worst kinds of fate, what to think of non-Ba’thist opponents? Or for that matter of radical Islamist opponents, who not only wanted to eradicate Ba’thist rule, but also wanted to end the prominent position of Alawis, both within the regime and outside of it. Many radical Islamists considered Alawis as heretics, whom, they thought, it was permissible to assassinate, on basis of a fatwa of the 12th century Sunni Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiya. This was not only the position of members of the Islamic State, or Da’ish, which emerged in Syria in 2013 and took over power in bigger parts of the country, but long before that also of a radical offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, who during the late 1970s and early 1980s carried out a whole series of sectarian assassinations against Alawis in Syria, both Ba’thists and non-Ba’thist. These Islamist radicals wanted to provoke a polarization within Syrian society along sectarian lines, between Sunnis and Alawis in particular, hoping to be able to topple the Alawi-dominated Ba’th regime on basis of the fact that the Alawis are only a minority of about 11% of the Syrian population, whereas the Sunnis constitute its vast majority. Whereas the Syrian army is by majority Sunni because it is a conscript army reflecting the composition of Syrian society, these calculations did not reflect the fact that the military key positions and units were under full control of Alawi officers, which turned out to be much more decisive. The Islamist radicals, therefore, stood no chance against the regime, and their actions ended in the well-known bloodbath of Hama in 1982, where not only the Muslim Brotherhood organization was ruthlessly eradicated, but also many people from Hama who had nothing to do with it. It was an irreversible turning point in Syrian history as far as the issue of sectarianism was concerned, and the Hama massacres constituted a ruthless model of suppression which was to be repeated during the Syrian Revolution that started in 2011, this time not in one city, but all over the country.

A brutal dictatorship with such characteristics and behavior as the Syrian Ba’thist regime, could not realistically have been expected to give up power voluntarily as a result of peaceful demonstrations, like those that started with the Syrian Revolution in 2011. Neither could the regime realistically have been expected to voluntarily give up its power as a result of a fierce war-by-proxy on Syrian territory, which was encouraged and militarily and financially supported by regional proxies, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or Western countries like the United States, Great Britain and France. I predicted more than two decades ago in my earlier book The Struggle for Power in Syria – and it was not that difficult to predict – that any effort to effectuate regime change was (and is) bound to lead to enormous bloodshed. And this is what we have seen during the last seven years since the start of the Syrian Revolution and are still witnessing today. Those who did not expect such a huge bloodbath, either did not know enough about Syrian history, or they were suffering from an overdose of wishful thinking, or both.

How could so many foreign politicians have naively expected president Bashar al-Asad to voluntarily step down as president of Syria, after all kinds of atrocities the Syrian regime reportedly had committed against the so-called peaceful demonstrators and, later on, against military opposition groups? They wanted al-Asad to voluntarily sign his own death warrant, because the legal president of Syria, in their view, had lost his legitimacy. It was completely unrealistic, however, in the sense that what they wanted to happen – even though it might have been justified on basis of their views of justice and rightfulness – certainly was not going to happen in reality.

Wishful thinkers hoped that al-Asad would step down or that he might even leave the country in order to help solve the crisis, once enough moral pressure had been exercised by the countries condemning him, but the contrary happened – as could have been predicted as well – if only because dictators generally do not follow the rules of democratic accountability.

We are dealing here with the contrast between democratic systems and dictatorships. In democracies, people are allowed to freely express their thoughts, and they therefore stress how things should ideally be in the sense of justice and rightfulness. Accepting the cruel realities as a fait accompli is often seen as a betrayal of principles and human rights. Turning these principles into reality, however, is something quite different. When a democracy confronts a dictatorship, parliamentarian discussions are not enough. Neither is the issuing of declarations of principle by governments, parliaments or the United Nations Security Council, irrespective of whether or not its contents are justified and right. When democracies confront dictatorships like the Syrian regime, the chance of positive results can be higher by communicating with it than by refusing to communicate with it. The refusal of most Western governments to communicate with the Syrian regime during the past six years (since relations were broken off in 2012) has also been inspired by the idea that such contacts would be rejected by the constituencies of the democratically chosen leaders involved. These leaders were accountable to their electorate which, understandably, generally had a strongly negative attitude towards such contacts because of the regime’s atrocities.

But political isolation of the Damascus regime was bound to be unsuccessful.

The alternative was to militarily defeat the Syrian regime, after which talks would not be necessary anymore. But direct military intervention was rejected in the democracies involved, just as well.

Nevertheless, by way of an alternative, various Western and Arab governments chose to militarily intervene indirectly, by arming, financing and politically supporting the various Syrian opposition groups; but this turned out not to be enough to topple the regime. And I leave out of consideration here whether an alternative regime would have been much better. Most foreign governments claimed that they wanted a political solution, and this was true in principle. But they only wanted a political solution that would lead to regime change, and this turned out to be impossible without sufficient military means. Such military interventions were actually in violation of international law which bars UN member states from supporting military action to overthrow other members’ governments.[1] The results of indirect military intervention have been just as disastrous as direct military intervention would have been: notably almost half a million dead, millions of refugees, a country in ruins and a nation destroyed to a great extent.

Reproaching foreign countries for giving insufficient support to help topple the regime, whereas simultaneously being against any military intervention appears to be contradictory. Let me therefore clarify what I mean. I am strongly against military interventions in general because there are so many examples which illustrate that such interventions mainly lead to disaster. My point is that the countries that encouraged the military opposition to confront the Syrian regime, without sufficiently arming them or sufficiently coordinating their militarily actions, were in practice leading many of the opposition military into the trap of death.

When in May 2011, the Syrian Revolution was not yet two months old, I was asked in an interview, whether it would still be acceptable to have direct contacts with President Bashar al-Asad, because there were already hundreds of dead as a result of the regime’s repressive actions and thousands of people arrested. I answered that this would depend on how pragmatic one wanted to be, and concluded that if one did not want to talk or communicate with president al-Asad, it was not possible either to positively contribute to any solution.[2]

During television programs on the occasion the first anniversary of the Syrian Revolution in March 2012, I argued again that dialogue was key to any solution. Syrian opposition representatives, however, strongly rejected any such an idea. I rhetorically argued that if I had the choice – although it was of course not up to me to make such a choice – I would prefer a 10,000 dead (which was the number at the time) over a 300,000 dead, which might be the number if the war would continue without any communication and negotiations with the regime, looking for a solution.[3] In fact, the number of dead even turned out to be much higher than 300,000, but in 2012 this still appeared to be unimaginable to many.

There was, of course, no guarantee of success with the dialogue I suggested, but rejection of any dialogue was a guarantee for failure, as we have seen over the past seven years.

Most of the Syrian opposition at the time were not able to accept any negotiations with the regime, not only because of their feelings and emotions towards the regime, but also because they still expected to receive strong foreign support, as happened in Libya, which caused the fall and death of Libyan leader al-Qadhafi.

Many demonstrators wanted to attract foreign attention via the media in the hope of triggering foreign help, but the support they wanted did not come as expected.

With some hindsight, and purely theoretically speaking, many Syrians might not have started the Syrian Revolution, had they been aware of the disastrous consequences beforehand. But in reality, things do not work that way.

Mu’adh al-Khatib

In 2013, when the Syrian military opposition forces claimed to have gained control over some 70 per cent of all Syrian territory and were in a victorious mood, Sheikh Mu’adh al-Khatib, the former president of the Syrian Opposition Council abroad, proposed to negotiate with president al-Asad and Russia over a solution, based on a 20 points plan. In this plan, al-Khatib suggested that al-Asad should leave the country together with some 500 of his supporters, to be chosen by him, while handing over his responsibilities to his Vice-President Faruq al-Shar’.

It was not surprising that the regime was not in any way interested in al-Khatib’s proposal because it included the departure of president al-Asad and key figures of his regime. Remarkable, however, was that various members of the Syrian opposition themselves rejected it, and considered it an act of treason, for which Sheikh al-Khatib should be severely punished. In January 2018, Sheikh al-Khatib reminded his former critics of their earlier rejectionist attitude in the light of the fact that five years later on, once the military opposition was severely weakened, various of them went to Russia to negotiate under Russian auspices, which was something they earlier had strongly rejected and criticized.[4]

It appears to be a recurring phenomenon to reject proposals which in a certain period of time are considered to be treasonous, but later on, with some hindsight, should at least have been seriously explored.

This reminds me of the proposal made by Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba, who in March 1965 urged the Arab states to recognize Israel in return for negotiations in the spirit the United Nations Partition Plan of Palestine (adopted on 29 November 1947). He suggested that the Arabs should accept the partition of Palestine and demanded the immediate declaration of a Palestinian state. The reaction of most Arab states at the time was that this was a kind of treason. Egypt’s president ‘Abd al-Nasir declared that Bourguiba’s statements constituted ‘treason against the Arabs and Arabism, that did not serve anyone other than Israel and the Zionist movement.’ Bourguiba replied that ‘what the Arabs can achieve today, they will never be able to achieve tomorrow.’ And he turned out to be right. But at the time, it turned out to be impossible for most of the Arab leaders to accept Bourguiba’s ideas on basis of their genuine feelings for justice and rightfulness.

Israel considered the proposal ‘important and worthy of careful study’, but rejected Bourguiba’s ideas because Israel refused to give up any territories, just as it rejected a similar proposal 37 years later in the form of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. But Israel did not have to bother in 1965, because the Arabs already rejected it themselves and nipped it in the bud within their own circles.

Bourguiba’s initiative of 1965 and that of Mu’adh al-Khatib of 2012 have in common that they were rejected within their own circles and were therefore never given a chance to be seriously explored any further. Both contained a chance that was not even tested and was a ‘road not taken’.[5] What in an earlier period was considered to be treasonous because of authentic existing feelings and emotions about what should be considered as just and rightful, could later on – after years of war, violence and misery – perhaps turn out to have been relatively reasonable and statesmanlike after all. And over the years, authentic feelings and emotions about what is just and right, may be somewhat diluted when measured against the new realities on the ground.

It is as if two worlds existed side by side where the Syrian War was concerned. In one of these worlds perceived feelings of justice prevailed and wishes were expressed as to what should rightfully happen. The possibilities – or impossibilities – of bringing those wishes into reality, however, were not always really fully taken into consideration or accepted. The coveted aim was clear, but not the way leading to it.

In the other, second world, Syria was, and all the time has been, one of harsh and cruel, if not the most brutal, realities. In this second world the issue of political and physical survival of the regime and staying in power has been all-decisive, whatever the costs.

Many Western and Arab politicians still live to some extent in the first world of what Syria should ideally be; not what Syria really is or has become as the result of the bloody Syrian War. It is a world of principled declarations of intentions that are not going to be implemented for lack of military power or for lack of political will to enforce the principles contained in those declarations, whether they are issued on a national basis, by the UN Security Council or other institutions. (Think of Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta).

It should go without saying that those who confront the Syrian regime with a limited will and limited means must also set limited goals if they are to accomplish even a limited amount of what they want to achieve. Yet, even after seven years of bloody war, and well over 450,000 dead, many Western and Arab politicians still tend to be blinded, to some extent at least, by wishful thinking, as a result of which they officially keep approaching the conflict in Syria from a supposedly moral high ground. They have not been prepared to accept the basic reality, that with a limited will and limited means only limited goals can be achieved. Foreign leaders either ignore these basics or pretend not to be aware of them. By continuing to maintain so-called ethically and politically correct points of view concerning justice, without, however, providing the necessary means to help realize their just aims, various Western and Arab politicians indirectly have helped the war to continue with all its dead, refugees and destruction.

And what is the use of moral high ground if it contributes to more death, destruction and refugees, in a war that is not only not being won, and is not on the way of achieving its proclaimed aims of a pluralistic, secular, democratic and civil new Syrian society, but is even going in the clear direction of being lost?

In my view, it would have been better for foreign countries to back off in the Syrian War and stay outside of it, rather than to try to impose a solution with insufficient military means, with the consequences as we know them today.

Isn’t it time to admit that the war against the Syrian regime is in a stage of being lost? And if the outcome is already quite clear, what is the use of continuing it, and shedding even more blood? Or do the countries that have played a role in the war by proxy want the war to be continued with all its dead, refugees and destruction to the detriment of the Syrian people? Would they like the opposition to obtain some bargaining chips in future negotiations at a time when, in practice, there is not much to be negotiated about any longer, taking the military equation into consideration? Or would they want to stay in Syria within the context of their regional competition for power?

Upon hearing such suggestions about ending the war, some will almost certainly be outraged and say – or shout with the greatest indignation – that it is treason to give up now, after all the efforts that have been made to help topple the regime. Others may say that the half-hearted foreign support to the military opposition could be seen as a kind of treason, to the detriment of the Syrian people. Yet others may use the slogan Better Death than Humiliation [6], but they cannot speak on behalf of all Syrians who have been drawn into this war without their approval, or against their will, and have become the victims of it. Giving up the struggle might mean that it has all been for nothing.

Frédéric Pichon has called his recent book on the Syrian War ‘Une Guerre Pour Rien’, or ‘A War For Nothing’[7]. But in fact, it is much worse than that: the war has not only been for nothing, because none of the aims of the opposition have been achieved, but it also brought Syria decades backward in development and caused irreparable losses and social damage.

In the beginning of the conflict that erupted in 2011, it might have been less difficult to reach a political solution than it was later on. Various countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and others, indeed made serious efforts to help finding such a solution. But as from August 2011, various foreign leaders, including President Obama and other Western political leaders started to call for Bashar al-Asad to step aside or step down, and have continued to do so ever since, albeit more recently with some variations and changes.

French President Macron, for instance, in December 2017, almost seven years after the start of the Syrian Revolution, once it had become clear that there was no way that al-Asad was to leave voluntarily, if only because he turned out to be winning the war, Macron stated:

‘We have to talk to everybody … We have to talk to Bashar al-Assad and his representatives,’ … ‘Afterwards, al-Asad must answer for his crimes before his people before international justice.’[8]

While admitting that talks with al-Asad were inevitable, Macron could have been sure that the Syrian president was rejecting the new French position, because of Macron’s call for bringing al-Asad before international justice.

It was the same formula, time and again, which constituted a guarantee that no real negotiations were going to take place. It was a non-starter, irrespective of its merits of justice.

In a similar change of position, the US administration made it known in December 2017, that it was now prepared to accept president al-Asad’s rule until the next scheduled presidential elections in Syria in 2021. At the same time, however, the Trump administration kept proclaiming that it wanted a political process that held the prospect of al-Asad’s departure.

If Bashar al-Asad would from his side have declared that he would accept president Trump to stay on until the next US elections of 2020, it would of course have sounded ridiculous to many, but similar remarks from president Trump were taken seriously, even though the US during seven years had not succeeded in helping topple the al-Asad regime. And depending on the outcome of the US elections of 2020, it should not be excluded that Bashar al-Asad survives Donald Trump as president in office.[9]

The position of Qatar, which has been one of the key supporters of the civilian and military opposition for a long time, changed as well in October 2017, particularly after the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council imposed sanctions against it with the accusation that Qatar had been supporting terrorist organizations in Syria. Former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, in a reaction, confided that the support of Qatar for the Syrian opposition had earlier on been fully coordinated with Saudi Arabia, and that all their common support went via Turkey, where further arms distributions were coordinated with the United States, together with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Shaykh Hamad denied having provided any support to the Islamic State (Da’ish), and that in case it would have ended up in the hands of the al-Qa’ida related Jabhat al-Nusra, which apparently had been the case, this would have been stopped, because that would have been a mistake. Saudi Arabia and Qatar had focused on, what he called ‘the liberation of Syria’, but when the two countries started to quarrel over their common ‘prey’ (by which he meant Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian regime), the prey escaped. Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim added that it would be okay if al-Asad would stay on if the Saudis wanted this. After all, Qatar used to be friends with al-Asad. Shaykh Hamad criticized that there had not been a consequent policy between Qatar and Saudi Arabia but did not mind to change course if past policies turned out to have been a mistake.[10] This change in policy happened after more than 450,000 deadly victims had fallen and was apparently mainly the result of a dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not because of a spontaneous change of views, or special feelings for the Syrian people.

As far as negotiations were concerned, the Syrian opposition has already been communicating with the Syrian regime for several years through the successive  United Nations Special Envoys for Syria, but they did so under pre-conditions that made any serious negotiations impossible, because they demanded as a kind of pre-condition that President al-Asad and those of his regime with blood on their hands should leave and should be excluded from playing any role in Syria’s future and should be courtmartialed. These demands may seem fully understandable, but they were unrealistic, because they guaranteed that any compromise or serious negotiations with the regime were excluded. Moreover, the fate of president al-Asad is not at all mentioned in the Geneva Communique (2012), which is one of the main internationally agreed cornerstones of the intra-Syrian negotiations.

If, after some seven years of bloodshed, some Arab and Western leaders decide to change course and decide that al-Asad should be accepted as staying in power in Syria and would think it opportune to reestablish relations and to reopen embassies in Damascus, they should not expect the Syrian regime to welcome them back. On the contrary, such overtures would most probably be rejected at first, until political accounts are settled, because the regime considers the foreign interference and support for the armed opposition as one of the principal reasons why the Syrian War has lasted that long.

Any international reconstruction aid could only be channeled to government-controlled areas with the approval of the regime. And reconstruction efforts in areas not under regime control run the risk of coming under fire in case these areas would be reconquered by the regime.

What might perhaps have been achieved through dialogue with the regime in the earlier stages of the Syrian Revolution, became more and more difficult later on with all the killing and destruction that has occurred. The longer the war lasted, the more difficult it has become to negotiate and reach any compromise.

One might also argue that the regime has never been interested in any dialogue whatsoever that would have led to drastic political changes or reform but it has – in my opinion – not been tried long enough. The serious efforts in the beginning should have been continued. Sometimes one should even make a serious effort if one is not fully convinced of the possibilities of achieving success.

Considering the millions of Syrian refugees, one would logically speaking expect that most of them will return to Syria, once the war is over, but realities may turn out to be quite different. In particular those refugees who are suspected of having been active against the regime – most of them Sunnis – may not be allowed to return, certainly not in the shorter run when the economic prospects are dim.

Syria expert Fabrice Balanche suggests that president al-Asad even might not want the return of millions of refugees, because Syria was already overpopulated before the Syrian War that started in 2011, and suffered from severe economic problems, water shortages and other issues that helped trigger the Syrian Revolution. Refusing the reentry of millions of Syrian refugees might, according to this vision, give Syria the opportunity of a new start with a smaller population which, in the thinking of the regime, might ‘give Syria some air’.[11] Moreover, it can be expected that refugees wanting to return to Syria may have to prove that they were loyal to the regime and not against it. All this might imply rigorous demographic changes to the disadvantage of the Syrian Sunni population. Fabrice Balanche has convincingly demonstrated that, although various other factors have played a role as well, the sectarian divide in Syria should not be ignored, because it is a key issue, with the opposition areas being mainly Sunni, and the areas numerically dominated by minorities being pro-regime.[12] This divide can have serious implications for the future once the Syrian War would be over.

Remarkable is also that there has not been any compromise whatsoever between the Syrian regime and the opposition inside the country. And some opposition leaders who were originally operating from inside the country, like Lu’ayy Husayn, leader of Building the Syrian State, have been sentenced to long term imprisonment in absentia, making it impossible for them to return.

Prominent opposition members abroad who publicly repented their opposition to the regime and wanted to come back to Syria were refused entry into their home country, although there have been exceptions.[13]

I have hardly touched on the role of Russia and Iran in the conflict and will do so only very shortly. The US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003 has led to a war, the end of which after 15 years is by far not in sight. By removing president Saddam Hussein, they have laid out a red carpet for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The – direct or indirect – foreign military interventions in Syria have caused the position of Russia to be strengthened considerably. The main reason for Russia to intervene was to keep its ally, the regime, in power. Without other foreign interventions in Syria trying to effectuate regime change, Russia would have had no reason to intervene the way it did since 2015.

What is in it for the regime to have a political solution instead of a military one? It cannot stay in power forever, and therefore it is in its interest to help establish a new Syria that is inclusive for all Syrians in such a way that a new revolution or settlement of accounts in the form of revenge is avoided. The regime should have done so long before the revolution started, or directly afterwards, but Bashar al-Asad and his supporters choose the path of violent suppression.

Syria expert David Lesch has suggested that al-Asad hesitated in the beginning of the Revolution between a more lenient approach and a violent crackdown by government forces. It was a ‘fateful decision’ not to have seriously explored the road of reform and reconciliation in the beginning, certainly when taking into account the disastrous aftermath.[14] Nevertheless, it is far from certain whether an announcement in the beginning by the president of reform measures would really have satisfied the demonstrators as long as the Syrian dictatorship persisted. After all, the demonstrators were overwhelmed by enthusiasm as a result of the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where the presidents had fallen.

Now it has become much more difficult to effectuate drastic reform measures. But this in itself is no reason not to seriously try to achieve it. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the regime will make serious efforts in this direction because this could imply undermining its own position, as would have been the case in the beginning of the Syrian Revolution.

Whereas the common sectarian, regional and family or tribal backgrounds of the main Ba’thist rulers have been key to the strength of the regime, their Alawi sectarian background has also inherently been one of its main weaknesses. The ‘Alawi factor’ is hindering a peaceful transformation from Syrian dictatorship towards a more widely representative regime. This ‘Alawi Gordian knot’ should therefore be disentangled in order to establish trust between all Syrian population groups, irrespective of their religious or ethnic background.

I strongly doubt, however, whether the regime would be prepared to cut this ‘Alawi Gordian knot’, because it has always been essential for its survival.

Therefore, even if the regime will win the war, which seems likely, the future prospects for peace in Syria look very grim.


* Nikolaos van Dam is a specialist on Syria who served as Ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. He was the Netherlands’ Special Envoy to Syria during 2015-16. His most recent book is Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017).

[1] Jeffrey D. Sachs, ‘Ending America’s disastrous role in Syria’, Project Syndicate, The World’s Opinion Page, 16 February 2018.

[2] ‘Dictatoriaal glamourechtpaar’, Vrij Nederland, 21 May 2011’. Interview with Harm Botje.

[3], Pauw & Witteman, 7 March 2012., Aljazeerah, 15 March 2012.

[4] 26 January 2018.

‘Madha yatadamman mubadarat Ahmad Mu’adh al-Khatib?’, al-Nahar, 23 May 2012. Facebook page Ahmad Mu’adh al-Khatib, 23 May 2013 (with reactions).

[5] For other examples see Itamar Rabinovich, The Road Not Taken, Oxford, 1999.

[6] Ali Aljasem, Better Death than Humiliation, Master’s Thesis, Utrecht University, 3 August 2017.

[7] Frédéric Pichon, Syrie, une guerre pour rien, Paris, 2017.


[9] Robin Wright, ‘Trump to let Assad stay until 2021, as Putin declares victory in Syria’, The New Yorker, 11 December 2017.

[10] Television interview of Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, October 2017: (with English translation).

[11] Fabrice Balanche, ‘Quel visage pour la Syrie de demain ?’, L’Orient-Le Jour, 30 December 2017. Balanche uses the term ‘Une Syrie « aérée »‘.

[12] Fabrice Balanche, Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2018, pp. 3-30.

[13] Prominent among them was Bassam al-Malik, Zaman al-Wasl, 14 August 2017. Fabrice Balanche, Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War, p. 48, notes that Shaykh Nawwaf al-Bashir, a powerful Sunni tribal leader left Istanbul for Damascus in 2017. By rallying to the regime, he showed that the Baggara tribe had shifted its support from the rebels to al-Asad.

[14] David W. Lesch, ‘Bashar’s Fateful Decision’, in: Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady (eds), The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory, New York, 2018 , pp. 128-140. And David W. Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, London, 2013, pp. 69-86.

Follow-Up and Correctives on Hashd al-Sha’bi Article

By Sylvain Mercadier and Elijah Magnier

After the publication of my article “The militias in Iraq, from popular mobilization to political interference”, Al Rai chief international correspondent and analyst Elijah Magnier commented on the article and provided some additional observations that either supplement or contradict some information presented in it. The following are points provided by Mr. Magnier, with some responses of mine, as well.

1) Organizations such as the Abbas Division and the Ali al-Akhbar Brigade were directly funded and equipped by Sistani himself and not by the Iraqi Army. Now they will merge with the Interior Ministry.

2) A common mistake: Badr, Nujaba’, Asaeb, Hezbollah Iraq… all fought under Hashd flag but never disintegrated within (considered part of Iraq security forces). These kept their own parties and organizations and will detach themselves when ISIS is defeated.

3) The Peace Brigade (Saraya al-Salam) Sadrist movement is not part of Hashd and is based (north of Baghdad) in Samaraa only (Baghdad and south of Iraq).

4) All PMU do not exceed 40-50k.

Mr. Magnier and myself have had an exchange to clarify these questions, which constitute either nuances or discrepancies with data provided by available studies. It is worth mentioning that Mr. Magnier has more than 30 years of experience as a war zone correspondent and in political analysis and risk assessment. Furthermore, he enjoys a close relationship with numerous high-ranked Iraqi Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish personalities and spent over ten years in Iraq.

As I said, there are divergent or conflicting evidence in some of the sources I used in my research and what Mr. Magnier stated.

1) The MERI report that I relied upon specifically claims that Abbas Division and Ali al-Akhbar Brigade are funded by the Iraqi army. Mr. Magnier, who is in regular contact with the Marja’iya (highest religious authority in Iraq), including with Sayed Ahmad al-Safi, the representative of the Marja’iya (the Shiite religious establishment of Iraq) at al-Abbas Shrine in Karbala, was able to confirm to us that the Marja’iya had directly funded and armed the two militias affiliated with Ayatollah Sistani and that the Iraqi army did not play a role in equipping them.

2) In our exchange, Mr. Magnier stressed that the few of the pro-Iranian militias have joined the Hashd al-Sha’bi in 2014 with the aim of fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, but that large portions of these militias (that were all formed prior to the Hashd al-Sha’bi) have kept most of their men outside of the Hashd today. It seems that most of the soldiers that joined the Hashd were instructed to do so by their leadership, but were also attracted by the better salaries and social security that was proposed to them as well as the need for the leadership of these militias to gain legitimacy in their military actions in Iraq. But the independence of these militias remains untouched today and they have indeed refused to merge with the PMU.

3) In my and Araz’s research, we found evidence that conflicts with some of Mr. Magnier’s opinions. Several sources (MERI report, March 2017, p. 21; and more recently a RISE foundation report, Dec. 2017, p.15) claim that Saraya al-Salam (previously known as Jaish al-Mahdi) is part of the Hashd al-Sha’bi and has men operating in Mosul. Mr. Magnier is adamant that these claims are not accurate. He has obtained on-the-ground evidence that Saraya al-Salam’s field of operation does not extend further than Samarra, Baghdad (al-Sadr city), and the south of Iraq (all southern cities including Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniyeh, Amara, Basra, etc.) where it is engaged in securing the holy shrines of Shia Islam. However, Saraya al-Salam, under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr and those who have declared loyalty to the Sadr family, exist in every single city of Iraq. The bulk of the force is based in Samarra.

4) The PMU receive on a yearly basis a budget from the Prime Minister for 45,000 fighters, no more. The Prime Minister’s office confirmed this to me. The previous budget established by the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was above the real estimate when no real organization was put in place in the first months of the creation of the PMU. The euphoric panic of the IS advance made the Iraqi government less careful about the real figures of the PMU. When Abadi took over, the numbers were significantly reduced to 45,000. Furthermore, the numbers today are even less than 40,000 due to over 6,000-7,000 killed among the PMU and many more wounded. Finally, families of Iraqi martyrs and wounded fighters are paid by another department.

The Militias in Iraq, From Popular Mobilization to Political Interference

Iran PMU Hashd al-Sha'bi Iraq Shaabi

Hashd al-Sha’bi militia fighters parading after the liberation of al-Qaim village, Nov. 3, 2017

By Sylvain Mercadier and Araz Muhamad Arash

The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, formed in 2014 following a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, played a major role in countering the expansion of the Islamic State and in bringing about its ultimate demise in Iraq. As the Islamic State was officially defeated in Iraq late last year, the future of the PMU is subject to many debates. An examination of the genesis of these forces and their relationship with the Iraqi State is essential to foresee what Iraq may look like following the parliamentary elections in May.

Sectarian divisions in Iraq have been brazenly instrumentalized by Saddam Hussein, the American administration, and today, Iran. This process exacerbated tension between Sunni and Shia Arabs, the two main communities of Iraq, who were caught up in the rivalries between regional and international powers in the Middle East. As their rivalry grew, Iraqi institutions weakened, which led to the advent of an Islamic “caliphate” occupying more than a third of Iraqi territory. In this context, and following the collapse of Iraqi forces facing the Islamists, the grand ayatollah al-Sistani pronounced his fatwa[1] on June 13, 2014. This announcement occurred a few days after the fall of Mosul and one day after the Camp Speicher massacre, where more than 1,600 Shiites were executed by jihadists. Consequently, several preexisting Shia militias answered the call, and thousands of volunteers enrolled in related factions simultaneously.

Among the main units are the Badr Organization (the oldest, founded in Iran in 1982 and currently led by Hadi al-Ameri), Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Khorassan brigades, the Hezbollah al-Nujaba Movement, and the Hezbollah Brigades (the two latter factions unrelated to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement although sharing a similar ideology). These militias are some of the most powerful military forces within the Hashd al-Shaabi and rely on Iran’s military apparatus for their training and funding. They also share a “Khomeinist” ideology due to their allegiance to the Iranian religious authorities and their ambition to impose the Iranian political system in Iraq. In doing so, they draw their inspiration from Twelver Shia jurisprudence and the concept of Velayat e-Faqih. Iranian influence is rendered even more obvious due to the involvement of Qassem Soleimani, senior military officer of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who directly supervises the military operations of several Shiite militias on the ground in Syria and Iraq in their fight against the Islamic State.

These forces are followed by organizations such as the Abbas Division and the Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, both of which are affiliated with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. They receive funding, arms, and training from Iraqi forces. They are also multi-confessional as they include between 15 to 20 percent Sunni fighters within their ranks. Other units include those close to Imam Muqtada al-Sadr, whose main faction is the Peace Brigade (Saraya al-Salam). The Sadrist movement is characterized by its quietist ideology and its ambition to strengthen central power and Iraqi institutions, as well as including other minorities of the country. This has led it to reach out to leaders and populations in Sunni strongholds of Iraq in a attempt to balance the dominant Shi’i political and military forces that follow a more sectarian agenda.

This range of militias gives us an overview of the ideological variation among different groups that comprise the PMU; from pro-Iranian elements to the Sadrist movement, various PMU factions hold contradictory political visions, which sometimes leads to direct confrontation.


Aware that the Hashd did not sufficiently represent other communities of the country, Iraqi authorities encouraged several non-Shia militias to join the coalition. Those militias include the Babylon Brigades (a militia of mixed ranks, some of whom are Christian), and several Sunni militias including the Nineveh Guard, the Salaheddin Brigade, and the Tribal Mobilization Forces. We also find factions representing smaller minorities such as Yazidis (several local battalions in Sinjar) and Shabak (Liwa al-Shabak). In total, the PMU are composed of roughly 90,000 active combatants between the different factions.[2]

Despite numerous violations of human rights, and even alleged war crimes, the combat efficiency of the Hashd al-Shaabi has prompted the International Coalition, led by the United States (or the Combined Joint Task Force), to train, arm and fund several militias in conjunction with their effort to restructure the Iraqi army. Taking advantage of the political and military vacuum, the PMU soon became the strongest force on the ground opposing the jihadists, which raised some serious questions regarding their relationship to the state. Indeed, according to a Weberian perspective, the state should maintain a monopoly over the use of force. A paramilitary organization composed of several factions, some of them having transnational ambitions, risks threatening the unity and cohesion of the Iraqi State, which has already been seriously eroded by the instability that has prevailed since the U.S. invasion. The sectarian identity of these groups, along with their ambiguous relationship with Iran, has raised concerns among experts observing the situation.

Nevertheless, the election of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in September 2014 has allowed the country’s institutions to strengthen and has challenged the prognosis of the inevitable implosion of Iraq or redefinition of Middle Eastern borders. By a decree in 2016 that integrated the Hashd al-Shaabi within the army, al-Abadi affirmed his dedication to turn Iraq’s military campaign against IS into a national struggle, reducing the risk of future inter-confessional war. Despite this official allegiance, some units, including those who collaborate closely with Iran, have shown their intention to remain independent and have tried to emancipate themselves from governmental authority.


Al-Abadi’s government was fully aware that the militias might try to overstep their mandate once IS was defeated and he therefore insisted that all groups lay down their weapons once victory was announced. He received support from Shiite religious authorities as well as other leaders, including Muqtada al-Sadr. Unfortunately, the militia groups have not complied with his order thus far. Indeed, the victory over IS, officially announced on the 9th of December 2017, did not soften the ambitions of several militias to continue operating freely on the ground, justifying their activities by pointing at the presence of IS sleeper cells or referring to the potential rise of new terrorist organizations. A spokesperson of the Hashd al-Shaabi, Mr. Abu Mustafa Imami, deputy-commander of the Popular Mobilization Force of the Northern-Iraq frontline, also insisted that only a new fatwa from the Grand Ayatollah could induce the militias to demobilize.[3]

Beyond this, prior to rendering their military equipment to the government, many militias would like a guarantee that they will be able to integrate their soldiers into the regular forces or benefit from pensions for veterans if they decide to go back to a civilian lifestyle. It is certain that subsequent compensation as well as a serious integration policy must be implemented to prevent a worst-case scenario like the one that led to the civil war following the American invasion of 2003. Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of the militias are the main challenges that beset Iraq’s future. To be more effective, they must be followed by a reconciliation policy as well as judicial mechanisms for serious cases of human rights infringements. In 2004–2005, the failure of such a process led to the bloody clashes that have affected Iraq in the last twelve years.


Pending this outcome, some militias that are supported by powerful political parties keep trying to interfere in the internal politics of the country in order to ensure their survival. This strategy had already been observed earlier, as when in 2014 a Minister of Interior was appointed who served the interests of some militias. Some PMU are now eyeing the coming parliamentary elections to be held on May 12 of this year. Legally speaking, militias cannot present any candidates, hence many military leaders with political ambitions have resigned in order to participate in the elections. Some have united into an important coalition called the “Mujahiddin Coalition,” later rebranded the Fatah Alliance. It could play an important role in the elections. “PMUs are waiting to see in which direction the wind is going to blow to align themselves with the candidate that has the best chances of representing their interests in parliament,” explains Dylan O’Driscoll, expert and researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.

The temptation is indeed strong for some actors to attempt to interfere in al-Abadi’s policy of strengthening government institutions. Within the Prime Minister’s own party, the Da’awa movement, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has the support of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia against his rivals. Many consider al-Maliki responsible for the exacerbation of inter-sect tensions that led to the disaster of 2014. He also relies on a vast web of patronage relations characterized by its corruption and sectarian nature. Meanwhile, the Sunnis, disorganized by the fighting that marked the areas where they reside, are calling for a postponement of the elections in order to allow for a return of IDPs to ensure that their votes will be included. Some of their representatives are calling on al-Abadi to split his party in two in order to join him in a truly multi-sectarian coalition.[4]

In recent months, political coalitions have formed and fallen at a high rate, sometimes leading to unusual situations: two leaders from the same party are running on two different lists and Shia movements are allying with communists. Recently, Haider al-Abadi’s coalition (having engaged his campaign under the motto of inclusion, strengthening state institutions, fighting for justice, and working against corruption), paradoxically struck a bargain with the Fatah Alliance, producing harsh criticism from Muqtada al-Sadr. But this alliance did not last more than three days, which shed light on the limits of al-Abadi’s popularity. Beyond intrigue, the main issue is to determine whether alliances between the militias’ pressure groups and the politicians will facilitate the PMU’s integration within Iraqi institutions, notably the military, or whether it will have the opposite outcome, generating further instrumentalization of those institutions by actors under foreign influence.

The PMU are henceforth a central piece in the Iraqi political milieu and even more so within the internal rivalries among various Shiite political figures. The victor of this power struggle will be in position to determine the evolution of post-IS Iraq. The question is whether communitarian fault lines can be eased, sectarian militias be demobilized, and institutions strengthened in an inclusive manner. It seems clear that the cessation of foreign interference would be the first step towards such an outcome.


This is the English version of a French article published February 6, 2018 in OrientXXI.

Sylvain Mercadier is a political Science graduate from St-Joseph University (Beirut, 2014), spent many years in Middle East including Oman, UAE, Lebanon, Palestine and currently resides in Iraqi Kurdistan, frequently writes for OrientXXI.

Araz Muhamad Arash is an Iraqi journalist who writes for Iraq Oil Report and Awena, specializing in insurgency movements and paramilitary organizations.

[1] It should be noted that the training of paramilitary militias, a process that was supported by the Iraqi parliament through a decree introduced by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is illegitimate according to article 9 of the Iraqi constitution.

[2] This number was given to us in an interview by Abu Mustafa Imami, deputy-commander of the Popular Mobilization Force of the Northern-Iraq Frontline.

[3] Interestingly enough, this argument is not unanimously shared amongst the Hashd. Another spokesperson that we interviewed, Mr. Sayyid Ali Hashim, representative of the Hashd al-Shaabi in Tuz Khurmato, insisted that the parliament is the legal body that must decide the fate of his coalition. This is even more surprising as they are both from the same militia, the Badr Organization. They also differ on the danger that the so-called “White Flag” organization might represent (a rebel group that appeared recently in the outskirts of Tuz Khurmato). The former sees it as an existential threat to Iraq’s stability, the latter as an inoffensive organization.

[4] Interview with Dylan O’Driscoll.

“When the SDF was shocked”- Azaz Opposition Activist’s Analysis of Russian-Turkish Relations, Afrin, & Why US Will Dump Kurds for Turkey

When the SDF was shocked” – An Azaz Opposition Activist’s Analysis of Russian-Turkish Relations, Afrin, & Why US will Dump the Kurds for Turkey
Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf interviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Syria Comment – Jan 31, 2017

Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf of Northern Storm. (On right, leaning on his elbow) Taken by Aymenn while on a visit to Northern Storm in Dec 2014. See Special Report: Northern Storm and the Situation in Azaz

Translator’s preface [Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi]: Operations by the Turkish army and Syrian rebels against the Syrian Democratic Forces’ [SDF] enclave of Afrin in northwest Aleppo province has brought to the forefront the issue of relations between international powers regarding the Syrian crisis, especially Russia, Turkey and the United States. Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf, a well-connected independent media activist based in the key rebel-held north Aleppo countryside town of Azaz, offers his perspective on these matters. I have known him since 2014 when he was the spokesman for the Northern Storm Brigade, which is presently part of the Shami Front that is participating in the Afrin operations against the SDF. Like many people in Azaz, he is a supporter of the ‘Olive Branch’ operations against the SDF in Afrin. The views expressed in this piece are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect my opinions or those of Syria Comment.

When the SDF was shocked- by Abd al-Qadir Abu Yusuf

The dreams of the PKK- bearing the title of SDF in Syria- broadened when it saw Turkey enter into a great crisis because of its great disagreement with Russia and bringing down Russian aircraft, so it strove to seize half of the north Aleppo countryside through an alliance with Russia that responded to the bringing down of the aircraft by striking the allies of Turkey: the Free Army.

Downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey in Nov 2015

And what increased Turkey’s crisis is America’s retreat to the backseat, the withdrawing of MIM-104 Patriots and the lack of entry of the NATO alliance with Turkey into its crisis with Russia. The pressure also increased on Turkey through the broadening of SDF’s operations in east Syria with absolute American support for operations against the Dawla organization [Islamic State], including the Turkish red line west of the Euphrates: Manbij.

The SDF bet on Turkey’s weakness, its self-preoccupation away from the Syrian portfolio and the American and Russian support for it to weaken Turkey and its allies, and its enmity to Turkey began appearing in the fields of the areas it seized, the most recent being in Raqqa after the celebration behind Ocalan’s photo.

The greatest boon for the SDF came in Saudi support for it militarily, materially and in media, as Saudi aimed for two things:

– Confronting the Iranian expansion through SDF.
– The existence of an ally for it on the borders with Turkey to pressure it as a harsh response to the Turkish alliance with Qatar adjacent to Saudi.

But as an outcome by necessity, Russia realized its urgent need for Turkey to control the Free Army factions through de-escalation agreements to be able to limit the operations to being against the Dawla organization in the depth of the desert, something requiring the entire force of the regime army and its militias as well as seizing Aleppo to be a launching base towards the east of Syria. And this is what happened when Russia gave Turkey a free hand towards the city of al-Bab in exchange for ending the Aleppo file. Here began the first signs of trust returning anew between Turkey and Russia after the completion of the first stage to move to a new stage politically and militarily.

So after the nearing of the end of the operations against the Dawla organization, the forces of the coalition and Russia came to a head in the distribution of influence in the regions of oil and gas, and Russia and Turkey’s interests coincided again to strike America’s influence represented in SDF.

To understand the matter further, we must be aware that Russia’s solution plan comprises the following:

– Making the Russian process (far removed from Geneva and coming to Geneva) succeed with a solution accepted by all sides that compels the UN to implement it.

– Relying on Turkey as a part of the solution of the Syrian portfolio and working with it on the basis that it is the only guarantor for the opposition: something that has granted Turkey wider influence in the Syrian portfolio.

– Distancing America’s hand from the opposition portfolio and opening the Salama-Aleppo road subsequently to begin reconstruction and reinvestment as Turkey is a powerful state economically and the only possible pathway for rebuilding Syria.

– Agreeing that the PKK is America’s hand in the region and that it threatens the security and interests of Russia and Turkey, and giving Turkey a free hand in the matter through withdrawing Russian forces from Afrin and Manbij and not allowing the regime to defend them or stand in the face of the Turkish operation, which is what we have presently noticed.

– Distancing Turkey and its allies away from America to guarantee the lack of repetition of any military operations that harm the positions and interests of Russia in Syria.

And with this Russian-Turkish closeness that has come near to resolving most of the Syrian portfolios, America has realized the danger of the loss of its influence over the factions in Syria and lack of presence of any ability to use the PKK in confronting the regime despite the plans that it put in place to train forces in opposition to the regime on the SDF lands to attack the regime and Russia’s interests.

In addition, we have Turkey’s distancing of the SDF from any view towards the solution in Syria and Russia’s acceptance of this that has led to the SDF’s departure from the political and military labors and its departure from the negotiations as American leverage.

A month ago, America began to realize the error of its policies represented in relying on SDF and neglecting Turkey’s interests that found the counter to it in Russia, so it offered in the beginning for Turkey a safe zone for the north of Syria that would be under Turkish influence, but Turkey rejected it as a result of the lack of its enduring trust in the prior experiences with America and the lack of collapse of what it had reached with Russia. Then America announced that the weapons offered to SDF would only be directed to fight the Dawla organization, and that any use of the arms against another side would lead to the cutting off of support from SDF, followed by its declaring of the PKK’s Syrian wing, at the head of whom is Saleh Muslim as head of the party, as being on the terrorism list.

All this is in the interest of inducing Turkey to realign itself with America in Syria. It [America] has also cleared the way for the Dawla organization to launch stinging attacks on SDF positions in Gharanij in a battle purely of attrition in which there is no loser or beneficiary: that battle in which the SDF has lost up to 300 fighters during days and its ranks have been split as a result of a disagreement between the people of the region who fight with SDF and the Kurds of SDF who accused the people of the area of not sincerely fighting in Gharanij.

In conclusion:

As the SDF is shocked by America and Russia clearly abandoning it in Afrin and Manbij and begins to realize that the battle of Afrin is a losing one, so we see a slacking in military performance on its part in the northern mountains of Afrin, and all it is trying to do today is to buy time for the possibility of a change of the international balances that will perhaps save them in Afrin and Manbij.

The crunch time remains the principal factor in the Turkish and Free Army’s battles in Afrin and Manbij and any delay in the operation will lead to unsatisfactory results.


A Sustainable United States Policy for North Syria, the Kurds, Turkey and the Syrian Government – by Landis and Barber

A Sustainable U.S. Policy for North Syria, the Kurds, Turkey and the Syrian Government
By Joshua Landis and Matthew Barber
Syria Comment – January 24, 2018

This article is a “part-two” to the previous article “U.S. Policy Toward the Levant, Kurds, and Turkey,” which warned that the United State’s decision to back Kurdish nationalism in Northern Syria in an uncompromising fashion would provoke negative consequences. The push-back against this policy has begun. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and campaign against the YPG—the U.S. backed Kurdish militia in Syria—is being launched to counter Washington’s decision to stay in Syria and arm and train a Border Guard for the emerging North Syrian state that the U.S. is sponsoring.

U.S. accomplishments in the region now stand thus: No regime change has been effected in Syria. Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq all have pro-Iranian governments and Iran has more influence in the Levant/Iraq than ever before. By promoting Kurdish nationalism to “rollback Iran,” the U.S. has pushed its ally Turkey into the sphere of Russian influence and caused Turkey’s interests to align with those of Damascus. And finally, even the sole partner the U.S. has in the area—the Kurds—are now upset because they’ve lost one of their important homelands in Syria. Such is the price of a policy based around an obsession with Iran.

Trying to play the game of making the Kurds into an obstacle to Iranian influence, the U.S. has now had to sacrifice Afrin in order to assuage Turkey’s ire; simultaneously, it has to convince the Kurds to exercise restraint and not to allow Turkey to provoke them into a strong reaction. If Kurds fight with Turkey in Afrin, it will give Turkey a pretext to attack and invade Kurdish areas further east; this may very well be what Turkey hopes will happen. The PYD will probably get a message from the U.S. urging them not to resist much in Afrin, but the problem facing the U.S. is not over, as Afrin may not be where Turkey stops.

The purpose of the previous post was to highlight several essential points regarding American interests in the region. The theme here is how we are now witnessing the (hopefully reversible) loss of an important U.S. ally, Turkey. After a long civil war that has ultimately boosted Iranian influence and distanced Turkey from the U.S., the U.S. must now think about what it can salvage in terms of its longer-term interests.

U.S. policy should focus on these objectives:
• Retaining Turkey within its orbit rather than losing it to Russian influence
• Fulfilling our responsibility to the Syrian Kurds in a way that ensures their safety and future while also assuaging Turkey’s concerns
• Positioning itself as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia rather than going all-in on one side
• Promoting the recovery and rebuilding of the region, not keeping it broken and poor

How far will the U.S. go in supporting Kurdish nationalism?

YPG Command Nesrin Abdullah said they dedicated the Raqqa victory to Kurdish People’s Leader Abdullah Öcalan and all the fighters who lost their lives during the liberation campaign.

The U.S. has set up Turkey’s choices thus: either side with the U.S. and the Kurds against Iran and Russia—OR—side with Russia (and thereby Iran) against the U.S. and the Kurds. Of course, Turkey will never compromise on its national interests; the first choice is simply not an option from Turkey’s point of view and the invasion of Afrin underscores that fact. Turkey does not like Iran, but it is willing to throw in its lot with Russia (and by proxy Assad and Iran), in order to protect its own national interests. We are forcing Turkey into the embrace of Russia and Iran; this is the price of promoting Kurdish nationalism to this extreme.

Regarding Damascus’ perceptions, Syria does not want to lose the fertile and oil-rich territories in its northeast. It must rely on those resources to rebuild following this war. A U.S. policy that facilitates the complete secession of Syrian Kurdistan from the state poses a serious risk in the eyes of Damascus.

The U.S. has done the surprisingly unlikely in uniting two enemies against the U.S. itself. Turkey and Syria are not natural allies—they are opponents—yet the direction that U.S. policy has begun taking is driving them together through this shared concern. If the U.S. helps the Kurds take 25% of fertile and oil-rich Syria, we will drive Damascus and Turkey together and they will both oppose Kurdish state-building over the long-term.

In addition to losing our major ally, Turkey, to Russian influence, the fact that the Kurdish project will be opposed on all sides over the long term must be kept in mind. Will this really be the best thing for Syria’s Kurds in the long run? And continuing our current level of support for a Kurdish nationalist project will mean a minimal commitment of 30-40 years, very expensive, with an ongoing presence of U.S. military on the ground. Further, the U.S. will have to be prepared to respond to Turkey militarily if Turkey does not stop with Afrin and continues by bombing other Kurdish areas across the border.

This is a terrible policy and one lacking long-term vision.

What about our responsibilities to the Kurds?

The fact that the U.S. helped the Kurdish-led forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to conquer Arab-majority areas north of the Euphrates has created a dilemma. The U.S. cannot now withdraw from those areas without abandoning the Kurds.

Further, the Kurds were the most important ally in Syria in the fight against ISIS and the U.S. now has a duty to protect Kurds from revenge originating with Damascus.

Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds must be aided in coming to an understanding that will promote stability; the U.S. can broker this and help to guarantee it. In this arrangement, neither Turkey, Damascus, nor the Kurds will gain everything they want, but all three will get more than they now have. Already in places like Hasakeh province in northern Syria, the Syrian government and Kurdish authorities have worked out and respected revenue sharing deals for oil exploitation that have been in effect during the civil war.

The U.S. can help the Kurds make an advantageous deal with Damascus that protects their autonomy. A safe future for the Kurds means a federal region. Of course the Russians and the Syrian government will make demands of their own. Such demands are likely to focus on the economy and sovereignty. The Syrian government is eager to have the main road to Baghdad opened. The U.S. presently blocks it at Tanf in order to stop Syrian trade. The Damascus government will also ask that the U.S. facilitate the opening of the main highway between Damascus and Jordan, which is also blocked by U.S. and Saudi-backed militias. Damascus needs money to rebuild. The U.S. can use its leverage over Syria’s economy to get a good deal for the Kurds. It cannot use that leverage to drive Assad from power. The U.S. does not have enough leverage through control of 28% of Syrian territory to unseat the Assad regime; it does have sufficient leverage to provide security and a useful autonomy deal for the Kurds, who have fought so hard in partnership with the United States to destroy ISIS.

Assad fears and dislikes Turkey, which serves as the main home and advocate of the Syrian opposition. By promoting an understanding between Damascus and the Kurds, the Syrian Kurds would gain a level of autonomy that they did not enjoy before the war. The Kurds will also be able to renegotiate their share of income from Syria’s oil and water from a position of strength.

For its part, Damascus will gain back some of the oil, water, and agricultural resources it needs to rebuild the country and which the U.S. now denies it. It will also ensure the unity of country.

According to this plan, the Turks will gain assurances that the Kurds will not be an independent nation and will not be free to assist the PKK separatists in Turkey militarily. Turkey, for its part, would prefer to stay in the orbit of the U.S., rather than move to Russia’s; an agreement between Damascus and the Kurds that keeps Syrian Kurdistan “Syrian” will allay some of the Turks’ fears, reduce their perceived need to attack more areas inside Syria, and begin to restore Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. Ultimately, all of these approaches will serve the objective of a gradual reaffirmation of the integrity of international borders, which the U.S. has pledged to respect.

By using its leverage to make a deal between Turkey, Syria and the Kurds, the U.S. can maximize its interests in the region. It will guarantee security for the Kurds, promote its counter-terrorism agenda by helping to create jobs and tamp down conflict, and retain Turkey as an ally and friend.

The alternative: the U.S. goes it alone by building a Kurdish state, incurring the ire of all neighbors

The alternative is for the U.S. to trap itself in a “forever war.” If it decides to support the formation of an independent Kurdish state in North Syria with its own military, Turkey, Syria, Russia, and Iran will be forced together despite their usual rivalries in order to expel America and destroy the new state which threatens the interests of them all. The Kurds will be boycotted and kept poor, just as the US will sanction and boycott Syria in order to keep it poor and weak. Both sides will be losers; both sides will commit themselves to destroying the other; and both sides will destabilize and radicalize the region. America will play a divisive and destabilizing role, rather than a constructive and unifying role. This current policy erodes U.S. influence in the Middle East. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin is only the first salvo.

The consequences of the “rollback Iran” policy have now become evident. This policy will continue to be detrimental to long-term U.S. interests in that it will perpetuate the instability of the region. Maintaining the current approach of unrestricted support for a Kurdish nationalist project at the expense of the national interests of two large states (Turkey and Syria) will mean the loss of an important U.S. ally, ongoing sanctions, fragmented states, American troops in the Syrian desert for years, and so forth. This is a miserable, petty, and destructive path forward. This Iran-obsessed policy may serve Israeli and Saudi short-term interests—it may mollify Washington’s anger at failing to dislodge the Assad government—but it does not serve U.S. interests.

American interests are served by the reconstruction of the region. Promoting stability in Syria and Iraq will enhance long-term U.S. interests through preventing the return of ISIS and promoting the success of American counter-terrorism strategy.

What the region needs more than anything else is to revitalize its economy. But the U.S. must recognize that the only way to do this is to unleash the Iranian economy. Iran is indispensable for the restoration of the region’s economy and only Iran is capable of supporting the level of rebuilding needed after these years of war. This is why I said in the previous post that the unprecedented alignment of the governments of all four countries—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—presents a new opportunity for stability and recovery in the region.

The U.S. should help promote prosperity in the region, rather than working to inhibit it. Keeping the region fragmented and poor is a recipe for longer-term instability and extremism.

U.S. policy in the region since 2003 has largely facilitated a shift toward Shi’i ascendancy. America has to recognize that Iran has now come out largely victorious in the proxy conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—and it is the U.S. that has largely helped them win this victory. The U.S. has helped facilitate the emergence of a new level of Shi’i power and has seen Shi’i forces as the champion of American interests, including deposing Saddam Hussein, combatting al-Qaida, and destroying ISIS. Both President Bush and President Obama promoted Shi’i interests, arming Shi’is aligned with Iran to serve in these objectives. The U.S. Air Force pummeled one Sunni city after another: Falouja, Takrit, Ramadi, Mosul, and Raqqa. Now the Shi’is have largely won the battle for preeminence in the Northern Middle East—in no small part because of U.S. support. Washington has built up an army in Iraq that is commanded by Shi’is and is quite sectarian in outlook; consequently it looks toward Iran. It also distrusts Saudi Arabia, which has championed and supported Sunni Arab militias. This is not something that we can undo.

If this region is going to rebuild, the U.S. must recognize that Iran has won this war—and the U.S. must come to terms with the fact that it was its own policies that were largely responsible for that victory. The U.S. will do a disservice to the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon conflict zone if it simply sides with the Gulf States and Israeli interests without long-term foresight. The way forward is to follow the Obama policy of balancing Iran and Saudi Arabia. By doing this, the U.S. can protect Israel and limit any aggression of Iran toward Israel and the Gulf.

Lift sanctions on Iran and proceed with the Iranian nuclear deal. Work to engage Iran. Don’t pursue a policy that alienates our Turkish ally and requires a decades-long commitment for supporting an ethnic-nationalist project that will be opposed by every neighbor of the Kurds—this is a terribly high price to pay in order to gratify Israeli and Saudi interests and a price that Washington will eventually back away from. It will not benefit the Kurds in the long run. They are too poor to stand alone, without a U.S. no-fly zone or a military force paid for by Washington. These expenses are unsustainable. If the Trump administration absorbs costs upholding Kurdish independence that are too high, some future administration will abandon the Kurds, letting them down with a thump. The U.S. must not launch a “forever war.” The moral obligation to the Kurds can be fulfilled by making sure that they strike an advantageous deal with both Turkey and Syria for autonomy and get a healthy share of Syria’s resources. Working for a negotiated solution to Kurdish autonomy, rather than one that alienates the regional powers, isolates Washington, and beggars the Syrian people is in America’s interest.

US Policy Toward the Levant, Kurds and Turkey – By Joshua Landis 

US Policy Toward the Levant, Kurds and Turkey
By Joshua Landis
January 15, 2018

The State Department has turned the page on Turkey for it no longer views Ankara as a reliable US partner. Many argue that Washington will abandon Syria’s Kurds in order to assuage Turkish anger. I doubt this. Washington expects more anti-US actions from Erdogan. Many in DC believe that Turkey’s rising Islamism, hardening dictatorship, and worsening anti-Israel rhetoric will only increase in the future. They do not hold out hope that Washington can reverse this trend.

The US is increasingly falling back on support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump has clearly set his course and reversed Obama’s effort to balance Iran and the KSA. Trump has thrown Washington’s future in the Middle East in with its traditional allies; it is moving to hurt Iran and Assad. It’s main instrument in gaining leverage in the region seems to be Northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Washington is promoting Kurdish nationalism in Syria. Turkey had hoped that when the Islamic State organization was destroyed, Washington would withdraw from northern Syria. In this, Ankara has been disappointed. See my earlier article of Oct 2017: Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed?

By keeping Damascus weak and divided, the US hopes to deny Iran and Russia the fruits of their victory. Washington believes this pro-Kurdish policy will increase US leverage in the region and help roll back Iran. The Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, explained to the Senate on January 11, 2018 that US policy is designed to convince the Russians to see that a new constitution for Syria is written and that fair elections, overseen by the UN, are carried out such that Assad will lose. By denying the Damascus access to North Syria, the US says it is convinced it will achieve these stated ends. I am unaware of any analysts who believe this. It is completely unrealistic. Russia, even if it wished to, cannot force Assad to make such concessions. Most analysts brush off such State Department formulations as talking points designed to obscure more cynical objectives.

Washington recognizes that its pro-Kurdish policy is forcing Turkey into Russia’s arms, but it seems willing to risk this loss. It is not at all clear what good Erdogan can achieve by invading Afrin. It will not hurt or weaken Washington’s relationship with the Kurds in Eastern Syria. Most likely, it will do the opposite. Those in Washington who see Turkey as an unreliable and misguided partner will only have their negative views of Turkey confirmed. The Kurds will be inflamed. The YPG and PKK will cooperate more closely to mobilize the Kurds of Turkey. For this reason, I believe Erdogan will not invade. He is trying to bring attention to his unhappiness, fire up his base, and prepare for elections that are approaching. But I doubt that he plans to occupy Afrin. He may lob cannon fire into Afrin, as he has done these past few days, but I suspect his ire will end there.

What about Syria?

America’s current Syria policy is designed to roll back Iran. This is short sighted. The PYD, or Kurdish leadership in North Syria, is a weak reed upon which to build US policy. Neither Assad nor Iran will make concessions to the US or Syria’s opposition in Geneva because of America’s support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military force that now controls North Syria and which partnered with the US to defeat ISIS. (It has been named and armed by the US and is led by Kurdish forces who answer to the PYD.) The continuing presence of the United States in North Syria will provide only limited leverage over Damascus. By controlling half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land, the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced. Keeping Syria poor and unable to finance reconstruction suits short-term US objectives because it protects Israel and will serve as a drain on Iranian resources, on which Syria must rely as it struggles to reestablish state services and rebuild as the war winds down.

The US should be helping the Kurdish leadership of North Syria to negotiate a deal with Assad that promotes both their interests: Kurdish autonomy and Syrian sovereignty. Both have shared interests, which make a deal possible. Both see Turkey as their main danger. Both need to cooperate in order to exploit the riches of the region. Both distrust radical Islamists and fear their return. Neither can rebuild alone. Syria’s Kurdish regions need to sell their produce to Syria and to establish transit rights; Damascus needs water, electricity and oil. Of course, policing any deal between the PYD and Damascus will not be easy. Northern Syrians will look to Washington to help guarantee their liberties. But helping both sides to strike a deal sooner than later is important. Today, demands are not entrenched, institutions and parties are not established, and borders are not fixed. Tomorrow, they will be.

The US should allow the building of oil and gas pipelines that connect the rich fuel deposits of Iraq and Iran to the Mediterranean. Rather than thwart Syria’s efforts to rebuild, the West should allow them to go forward, if not support them outright. The only benefit to come out of the terrible wars that have waged in the northern Middle East is that today the governments of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran are on friendly terms. This is the first time in a century that cooperation between the four countries is possible. Why not use this happy coincidence to promote trade and economic growth? Why not allow governments to criss-cross the region with roads, communication highways, trade, and tourism? Jordan is eager to re-establish its main trade route through Damascus to Beirut, which remains closed. Several rebel groups are holding onto the border region, over which Russia and the United States negotiated a cease-fire or “deconfliction” zone. The same is true for the main highway that connects Baghdad and Damascus. It is closed due to the US military zone established at the Tanf border crossing.

This US position serves no purpose other than to stop trade and prohibit a possible land route from Iran to Lebanon. Iran has supplied Hizballah by air for decades and will continue to do so. What the US does accomplish with this policy is to beggar Assad and keep Syria divided, weak and poor. This will not roll back Iran, but it will go a long way to turn Syria into a liability for both Iran and Russia rather than an asset. But the problem with such a policy is that it is entirely negative. It is designed to punish and impoverish; it provides not vision for a brighter future. The U.S. will rightly be seen as a dog in the manger.

The reconstruction of Syria should be seen to be in the West’s interest. By allowing Iran and Iraq to build pipelines across Syria to Tartus or Tripoli, the West will ensure that the European Community has gas & oil. The United States would ensure that the Levant looks toward Europe, rather than Asia, in the future. Europe would gain a much needed energy source to compete with Russia. Most importantly, by building trade, the Levant countries and Iran could provide jobs for their young. Nothing is more important for promoting stability and regional health than jobs and a brighter economic future. It would help America’s counter-terrorism goals more than any other single endeavor. All analysts are unanimous in pointing to poverty and joblessness as causes of the Arab Spring uprisings and radicalization. A revitalized economy in the Levant would encourage refugees to return home. The burden on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey of hosting so many millions of refugees would be alleviated. Rather than become embittered as did the Palestinians, Syria refugees could rebuild their lives and see light at the end of the tunnel.

The present US administration is not ready to pursue such a policy. I simply propose it because it makes senses and seems so obvious. The US hopes to gain leverage against Assad by stopping trade and hurting his military. By allowing for economic growth in both the Levant & Iran, the US would provide jobs and hope, not just to these countries, but also to their neighbors that depend on regional prosperity. Such a policy would promote moderates over hard liners. The present anti-Iran and anti-Syria policy will produce more bitterness and years of turmoil, without achieving American goals. It will not cause Assad to break his relations with Iran or to transfer power to the Syrian opposition. It will hurt the US in the long run, as surely as it hurts the people of the region.

Ultimately, the promotion of wealth and a strong middle class in the Middle East are America’s best hope. This principle of prosperity was once the mainstay of US foreign policy; it won the US respect around the world. Today, sanctions and military intervention have become the mainstay of US policy. Free trade, the rule of law, and respect for national sovereignty have been pushed aside. Democracy promotion has become a codeword for hurting US enemies and an cynical instrument of regime-change. Rarely does the US promote democracy to friendly potentates. U.S. foreign policy has slipped its moorings.

Only by returning to the simple truths that prosperity will advance U.S. interests will the US begin to put an end to terrorism, promote democracy, and attenuate the flood of refugees that pours from the region. Democracy, moderation, and the acceptance of liberal values will only come with education and economic growth. There is no quick fix to the regions problems. Ensuring that Syrians and Iranians remain poor in the hope that they will demand regime-change is a bad policy. It has not worked despite decades of sanctions. It has brought only collapse, war and destruction to the region. Dividing Syrians and keeping them poor may ensure short-term US interests; it please some of America’s allies; but in the long-term, it will ensure failure and more wars. Only by promoting growth and unity can the United States advance stability, the rule of law, and liberal values.

Beit Jann: Myths and Reality

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The Syrian government’s recent recapture of the last rebel-held pocket in the vicinity of Mt. Hermon (Jabal al-Sheikh) near the border with the Golan Heights- comprising the three towns of Beit Jann, Mazra’at Beit Jann and Mughir al-Mir- has led to much exaggeration and distortion about the matter, primarily emanating from Israeli discourse and supporters of the rebels. Based on their narrative, one would think that the recapture of this rebel-held pocket was an operation led by Iran/Hezbollah, as part of a strategic goal of developing a front against Israel. In the days leading up to the recapture of the Beit Jann pocket, rebel supporters increasingly played up the idea of an Iranian/Hezbollah-directed operation, such as through using the hashtag #Iran_burns_Beit_Jann (ايران_تحرق_بيت_جن#).

Yet there is little evidence to support these claims. Many outsider observers who began promulgating these claims only seem to have begun following events in the area in the last several days, unaware that the campaign to regain control of this rebel-held pocket had been going on for some months. As a result, context for the operations within the history of the Syrian civil war has been lacking.

An examination of this context shows that the Syrian government itself has been the leading actor in the attempts to recover the Beit Jann pocket. The military operations came about because the Beit Jann pocket repeatedly rejected ‘reconciliation’ whereas neighbouring villages accepted it at the turn of 2017. The villages that accepted ‘reconciliation’ were Kafr Hawr, Beit Saber, Beit Tayma, Hasano and Sa’sa’. The mechanism of ‘reconciliation’ often eliminates the need for an all-out military assault as it formally brings an area back under government control, but it frequently relies on exerting leverage through government control of routes that are vital for commodities/goods to enter a town that is partly or fully under rebel control. In other words, the government may threaten or impose a partial or full siege. ‘Reconciliation’ normally involves the process of taswiyat al-wad’ for rebels who agree to stay, as well as others wanted for obligatory and reserve service. This process allows for a temporary amnesty of some sort rather than a permanent exemption from military service.

Apart from this point, the terms of ‘reconciliation’ and the parties involved in the negotiations can vary from place to place. In ‘reconciliation’ in certain Deraa localities considered to be a wider model for the southern region, a key figure on the government side in the negotiations has been Wafiq Nasir, who is the military intelligence head for the southern region. Further, rebel factions have largely been left intact to manage internal security matters in the towns, though they do agree not to attack government and army positions.

In the villages neighbouring the Beit Jann pocket, the key person involved in the negotiations for ‘reconciliation’ was a female media activist/broadcaster called Kinana Hawija, the daughter of Syrian army officer Ibrahim Hawija. She also played a supervisory/leading role in negotiations over the south Damascus suburb of Darayya and the Damascus countryside locality of Khan al-Shih that lies alongside the Damascus-Quneitra highway. The other notable feature of the ‘reconciliation’ in the villages neighbouring the Beit Jann pocket was the establishment of a local holding force called the Hermon Regiment, largely composed of ex-rebel fighters and affiliated with the military intelligence but also funded by Rami Makhlouf’s al-Bustan Association.

The Beit Jann pocket rejected ‘reconciliation’ and continued to do so for multiple reasons. For one thing, from the perspective of the fundamental cause of the ‘revolution’, accepting ‘reconciliation’ essentially amounts to surrender. Despite fact that the government won a strategic victory in the recapture of Aleppo city in December 2016, many rebels are not prepared to give up on their cause just yet. Indeed, the notion of refusing to give up and continuing the ‘revolution’ is one of the fundamental premises of the jihadist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a successor to Jabhat al-Nusra, which was once Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate. The Beit Jann pocket had a substantial presence of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, unlike the neighbouring villages. That said, this does not mean that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham necessarily constituted the majority of fighters in the area. For example, the Omar bin al-Khattab Brigade was a significant local outfit in the area.

Besides, there have been valid concerns about ‘reconciliation’, especially the question of whether the government will actually fulfil the promises it makes, such as promises to release detainees, allow aid to enter and resolve definitively issues of military service. The concern about lack of fulfilment of promises and the role of that in the persistence of the Beit Jann pocket’s rejection of ‘reconciliation’ became apparent when I interviewed the leader of the Hermon Regiment while the operations were ongoing to retake the Beit Jann pocket.

Further, the government did not quite have full leverage over the Beit Jann pocket, which had access to aid and goods even as the assault operations were taking place. Though it was difficult to get access to people inside the Beit Jann pocket during the assault operations, I did manage to talk to a rebel fighter who was originally from Deir Maker in the Damascus countryside. A fighter involved in the FSA group Liwa al-‘Izz, he had come to the Beit Jann pocket to support the rebels there. He has since left the Beit Jann pocket bound for Deraa as per the deal that brought an end to the fight for the Beit Jann pocket. While he was there during the assault operations, he mentioned to me that there was still an open road to Beit Saber, in addition to aid being brought into the Beit Jann pocket from Israel via donkeys. For this reason, it was impossible for the Beit Jann pocket to be put under complete siege.

That Israel would send aid to the Beit Jann pocket should not come as a surprise, as Israel was likely aware that sending such aid could block prospects of a ‘reconciliation’ agreement for the area. The same thinking lies behind the provision of aid to localities like Jubatha al-Khashab in Quneitra that lies on the border with the Golan Heights. There were also hopes on the government’s part for negotiating a ‘reconciliation’ for Jubatha al-Khashab along with Beit Jann last year, but to no avail.

Thus, having failed to impose a ‘reconciliation’, the government eventually decided to go for an assault on the Beit Jann pocket, beginning in September 2017. Contrary to pro-rebel claims, there is no evidence of a major role for Hezbollah, other Iranian-backed militias and Iranians. Although a Reuters report in late December 2017 cited an anonymous ‘Western intelligence source’ as supposedly confirming a major role in the operations for “Iranian-backed local militias alongside commanders from the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah Shi‘i group,” no indication was provided as to the substance and credibility of that source’s information.

The operations were actually led by the 7th and 4th divisions of the Syrian army, though the 4th division’s leading role became more pronounced over time in contrast with the 7th division. Some contingents of the Hermon Regiment played a minor auxiliary role in the operations. Quwat Dir’ al-Watan, affiliated with the al-Bustan Association, also came to play a role in the fighting. There is evidence of some local Druze militia support that was provided for the assaulting forces, which will be discussed below. The only notable foreign presences in the assault were as follows:

1. The Iraqi group Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, together with its Syrian affiliate group Katibat al-Mawt (The Death Battalion, led by Ali Mousawi) embedded in the ranks of the 4th division. Though Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein has likely received Iranian backing, its involvement with the 4th division does not mean that it was the majority or even a plurality of the 4th division’s forces in the Beit Jann campaign.

2. Hayder al-Juburi serving as a commander within Quwat Dir’ al-Watan, as he himself confirmed to me.

Adnan Badur, head of artillery in the 7th division. Killed in December 2017 in the Beit Jann operations.

The fighter from Liwa al-Izz who was in the Beit Jann pocket denied that Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah and other Shi’i militias had played a role in the operations. Instead, the sectarian angle he highlighted was that of local Druze militia support for the assaulting forces, as some of the villages in the vicinity of the Beit Jann pocket are Druze. In this context, it is worth noting that Mughir al-Mir is originally a Druze village, but became devoid of its original inhabitants in 2013 when rebels captured it, a fact that rebel supporters frequently overlook.

A Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-supporting account from the Mt. Hermon area posting in mid-December 2017: “This is one of the photos that show the participation of the hateful Druze in the battles that are taking place on the hills of Mazra’at Beit Jann, but the painful thing is that you will find alongside these people the sons of the Sunna [Sunnis] and from the sons of your locality and neighbouring localities trying to advance on the points of the mujahideen.” These words are likely referring to the more minor auxiliary role of some contingents of the Hermon Regiment.

A number of fighters from both the 7th and 4th divisions are documented to have been killed during the assault on the Beit Jann pocket. For example, multiple fighters from the 7th division were killed on 12 October 2017. Similarly, one can find multiple ‘martyrs’ for the 4th division from the campaign. In fact, as negotiations for the Beit Jann pocket seemed to have reached a conclusion at the end of December 2017, at least five 4th division fighters from Wadi Barada were killed in a rebel ambush. One can also find instances of Quwat Dir’ al-Watan ‘martyrs’ from the operations.

Those who claim that Hezbollah and Iran played a major or leading role in the recapture of the Beit Jann pocket neglect to note that throughout most of the duration of the operations, the focus of those two actors was on the eastern region of Syria as they aimed to help the Syrian government secure as much of Deir az-Zor province as possible while reaching and securing the town of Albukamal bordering Iraq before the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces could do so. Moreover, there is no evidence that Iran and/or Hezbollah played a role in the final negotiations over the Beit Jann pocket, as opposed to the cases of the rebel-held town of al-Zabadani and the Islamic State enclaves in west Qalamoun.

As the Hermon Regiment confirmed to me, Kinana Hawija was involved in the negotiations over the Beit Jann pocket. Ziyad al-Safadi, the leader of the Hermon Regiment, added the following: “The Hermon Regiment has a big role in the matter [of negotiations].”  He noted in particular that a security coordinator for the Hermon Regiment called Abbas was attending all the negotiation sessions and keeping track of matters.

The negotiations resulted in an agreement that anyone who wished to stay, including those who needed to undergo taswiyat al-wad’, could stay. However, those who rejected such an arrangement were to be transported by bus to Deraa and Idlib. Contrary to pro-rebel claims, transporting the latter by bus to Deraa and Idlib does not really amount to ‘forced displacement’. Rather, many of the rebels simply decided to reject the arrangement and did not wish to stay. As outlined earlier in the article regarding the original rejection of ‘reconciliation’ in the Beit Jann pocket, there are reasons to reject living under government control. For instance, if you were a Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham fighter committed to the cause, would you agree to stay in Beit Jann and undergo taswiyat al-wad’? There is no other alternative for such a person but to go to other rebel-held areas, unless one thinks the government should just kill or detain all those who rejected the final agreement.

As the Liwa al-Izz fighter acknowledged to me, most of the fighters who were transported out of the Beit Jann pocket were from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and originally from outside Beit Jann. As for those with origins from Beit Jann, they mostly decided to stay. As for the holding force for the Beit Jann, he says that the force is to be called Fawj Souriya al-‘Umm (The Motherland Syria Regiment). A source from the Hermon Regiment says it is not clear yet whether the holding force for the Beit Jann pocket will be a group affiliated with the Hermon Regiment or an independent formation. The first thing that needs to be done is taswiyat al-wad’ for the rebels who have stayed.

What are the lessons of the Beit Jann affair? One of them relates to the concept of ‘de-escalation.’ The Beit Jann pocket was apparently supposed to be included within the de-escalation zone agreed for the wider south with Russian mediation. And yet, Syrian government forces conducted an assault that ultimately led to the recapture of the pocket. Where was Russia to put a stop to the assault? Assad and his government are sometimes thought of as mere puppets of Russia now, considering how crucial Russian intervention was to turning the tide of the war, but this depiction of a master-puppet relationship is highly questionable. One is reminded of the case of Aleppo city in late 2016. Despite talk at the time of Russian interest in preventing an all-out assault on the rebel-held parts of the city and a Russian desire to make a deal with the rebels that would supposedly prevent the need for “so many troops to hold the city,” an all-out assault is what happened, culminating in the full recapture of the city by the Syrian government and its allies, with the eastern section largely left in ruins.

More generally, there is too often an assumption that the government’s foreign backers are in the driving seat when it comes to conducting campaigns, and thus developments are primarily framed in terms of what is perceived as their interests. Thus, this campaign to reclaim the Beit Jann pocket is framed as another vital piece in the building of a front by Iran and Hezbollah to attack Israel. Again, such a depiction is not supported by the evidence, even though in general it is clear that Iran desires a permanent presence in Syria and wishes to harass Israel with its clients. It is not as though the Syrian government has no interests in the Mt. Hermon area, such as its general desire to reassert control over what it sees as its own country and preventing attacks emanating from the area on more loyalist communities like the Druze locality of Hadr in northern Quneitra.

A key question is: what can realistically be accomplished in Syria by various actors at this stage? There was little that could have prevented the Beit Jann pocket from coming back under government control in the long-run. The fact is that by 2017 it was an isolated rebel-held enclave largely cut off from the outside world, with a court system influenced by jihadist thinkers. The idea that preserving it would have reduced the likelihood of a future Israel-Hezbollah war is fantasy. The idea that the enclave was crucial to Israeli interests at all is also fantasy.

One article in The Times of Israel on Beit Jann by Avi Issacharoff borders on being laughable. Issacharoff claims that “the Syrians have almost completely retaken control of the border with Israel.” Evidently, Issacharoff needs to work on his geography. Leaving aside Islamic State affiliate Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed’s control of a part of the southern border area of the Golan Heights, the fact is that rebel forces still control most of Syria’s border with Israel, stretching from Wadi Ta’im to Jubatha al-Khashab. It is not as though that situation has been changed by the government’s reclaiming of the Beit Jann pocket, and it is unlikely to change for the near future at least. Israel, hoping to maintain what is partly considered to be a de facto buffer zone along the border, will probably seek to establish new channels of support for rebel forces in those areas as there has been talk of an end to salary payments for fighters through the operations room in Amman that has backed the highly dysfunctional Southern Front.

It is also clear that Issacharoff has not heard of the Hermon Regiment and other means that government forces have to try to pacify areas through recruiting local and Syrian manpower. It is not quite a matter of the government simply being dependent on Iran and foreign militias to hold ground. In fact, there is no need for Iran to have foreign militias stationed in Quneitra if the goal is to harass Israel on that border. There is already a well-established Iranian-backed network of Syrian Hezbollah and the Local Defence Forces, which could be used at least in part to back up Lebanon’s Hezbollah in a future war with Israel regardless of the part of Israel’s northern borders in which the initial hostilities take place.

In the long-run, the only realistic option for Israel is the maintenance and strengthening of deterrence on the northern borders. The deterrence thinking of course is the basis of Israeli statements that conflate the Lebanese state with Hezbollah and threaten to target the state structure in the event of a future war. The deterrence impact of articulating and emphasizing such an approach should not be underestimated.

Update (3 January 2017): A reader highlights a Hezbollah fighter reported to have been killed on 16 December 2017. The fighter is described as a commander. His name was Basim Ahmad al-Khatib (al-Hajj Abu Mahdi) and he was originally from Deir Seryan in south Lebanon. He was killed in Beit Jann. Here is a description of him I found:

This death must be noted. To be clear, the article does not deny that there was any role for Hezbollah and other foreigners on the side of the government forces (two notable cases of Iraqi involvement were noted above). The point is only that their involvement does not translate to having a major role or being the driving force behind the campaign. It is also notable that the date of Abu Mahdi’s death occurs very late in the Beit Jann campaign. Contrast the Beit Jann campaign with the large number of casualties for Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed forces reported in the fight for the Albukamal area (e.g. see here from mid-November 2017).

Reply to Steven Heydemann’s “Assessing Nikolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate” – By Nikolaos Van Dam

Reply to Steven Heydemann’s “Assessing Nikolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate”
By Nikolaos van Dam – @nikolaosvandam 
for Syria Comment – November 20, 2017

The assessment of Professor Steven Heydemann of my lecture of 9 November 2017, published in Syrian Comment obliges me to react. Next to concluding that my new Syria book is “an informed and often insightful diagnosis of the violent conflict that has engulfed Syria since 2011”, Heydemann also maintains that my analysis of the war in Syria “seems”, at times, to be “almost wilfully distorted”. Heydemann moreover maintains that my narrative contains “evident historical gaps and omissions …, tensions and inconsistencies”. He even suggests that I suffer from historical amnesia. In fact, however, the opposite is the case: I do not provide a distorted view of Syrian history; it is rather Professor Heydemann who distorts my views by incorrectly portraying them.

In my book, I have attempted to approach the war in Syria in a non-biased way, following the motto of Albert Einstein: “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”

Those who have been missing some elements in my lecture (that was restricted to a maximum of 20 minutes), should refer to my book Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, in order to find answers to most of their questions.[1] They could also listen to the whole symposium on “Syria: Who Will Win the Future?”, in which Hadi al-Bahra and Ibrahim Hamidi participated as key-speakers, with Karin Wester as moderator.[2]

I do not want to react to all the distortions Heydemann makes of my points of view, neither do I want to allege that he did so “almost willfully”. I would rather conclude that he was blinded by his own preconceived visions, when reading my book, as a result of which the words I put on paper did not enter his mind objectively as they were, but rather in a distorted version.

The reader can see this for himself when carefully reading my book, or my article under discussion.

Let us have a look at some of Professor Heydemann’s remarks.

Heydemann maintains that I claim that:

We were wrong to demand compromises of the regime in the first place.

Did I ever mention such a thing? Not once. What I did say was that in order to reach a solution to the conflict one should preferably have contact with the main parties involved, including the Syrian regime. Of course, any negotiations should lead to a compromise. The positions of the opposition and the regime, however, remain so far apart, that a compromise seems impossible at the moment. In order to achieve a compromise, dialogue is needed, not only between the Syrian parties themselves, but also between the foreign countries that are involved by proxy, with the aim of convincing all sides that a compromise is urgently necessary. Most Western and Arab countries, however, broke off relations with the Syrian regime at an early stage of the Syrian Revolution, and thereby stopped having any potential influence over it. In my opinion, breaking off relations was, therefore, a mistake.

Heydemann writes:

[Van Dam’s] recommendation was for dialog with the Assad regime, on terms acceptable to the regime, recognizing its inherent brutality… This disconnect between appeals for dialogue and a characterization of the regime as uninterested in dialog are one of the essay’s (and his book’s) core inconsistencies.…

In Van Dam’s view, because brutality is the nature of the Assad regime we—the external actors who supported the opposition—should have accepted it as such and tempered our expectations and policies accordingly.

It is not me who said that we should have tempered our expectations, but I quoted people from the regime who “wanted the opposition ‘to scale down its expectations’ to some marginality, whereas the opposition wanted the regime to accept its own disappearance.” (p. 179 of Destroying a Nation). In fact, all parties will have to scale down their expectations, if a compromise is to be reached.

I never suggested a dialog with the Assad regime to take place exclusively “on terms acceptable to the regime”, because then negotiations would not be useful; by definition they could not yield results. The terms should be acceptable to all negotiation parties. I noted in my book that

a compromise has to be found. Thus far, neither side has shown any willingness to make any substantial concessions. In general, negotiations are supposed to end in a compromise, in which neither side obtains all of what it wants. If the aim of both negotiating parties is to obtain almost everything they want, leaving the other side with almost nothing, a compromise is practically impossible. (p. 169).

If Heydemann’s analysis is correct, then any form of negotiations is useless. The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, should (following Heydemann’s analysis) stop his endless efforts. Other negotiation platforms, like Astana, should then be stopped as well, because the parties involved are almost all aware of the fact that the regime is not really interested in dialogue.

My view, however, is that these forms of communication should be energetically continued, in the hope that in the end they will produce positive results. The alternative is doing nothing, which would be a guarantee that nothing positive is achieved, but rather the contrary.

It is for that reason, that I ended my lecture with the words:

Whatever the case, serious efforts should be continued to help achieve a political solution, even if one is not fully convinced that the outcome will be a success. That is why I have ended my new Syria book Destroying a Nation, with the words: ‘Miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them’. (p. 183).

What Heydemann (and some other critics) do not seem to understand is that sometimes – as with Syria – forms of dialogue should be encouraged, even if the prospects for a positive outcome seem distant. On the basis of my experience as a diplomat, I am convinced that in certain situations, serious efforts should be made to achieve a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem; in some cases, efforts that appear pointless lead to success. Heydemann sees this as a “core inconsistency”. I do not. The alternative is “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. All possibilities should be explored. One must always keep in mind the hundreds of thousands of victims.

It is quite obvious that without direct channels of communication, “dialogue” cannot take place. Quite early on in the Syria conflict, most Western and Arab countries cut off their relations with the Syrian regime, presuming that Bashar al-Asad would soon disappear as president. But it turned out to be wishful thinking. Having no diplomatic relations or direct communication with the Syrian regime, implied that these same countries lacked any means of convincing the regime that it should have to compromise with the opposition and implement reforms.

Their only contacts with the regime were through the United Nations or through the regime’s allies, Russia and Iran. But the latter two states had different agendas and conflicts with Western countries (Ukraine and the nuclear file) that made these channels unproductive.

More than six and a half years ago, one month after the start of the Syrian Revolution, I wrote in Syria Comment:

Perhaps there might be a way out through a kind of national dialogue with the aim of reconciliation. But such a reconciliation is only possible if enough trust can be created among the various parties. Why would key figures in the Syrian regime voluntarily give up their positions if they can hardly expect anything other than being court-martialed and imprisoned afterwards? A good beginning could be made by the Syrian regime through essential reform measures by way of an adequate response to the reasonable demands of the democratically and peacefully oriented opposition. Having a totalitarian regime, president Bashar al-Asad should at least be able to control all his security institutions, as well as armed irregular Alawi gangs like the Shabbihah, to guide Syria out of this crisis in a peaceful manner.[3]

The basic message that the regime is not prepared to negotiate its own departure and death sentence, has – even after almost seven years of Syrian Revolution – not yet been fully understood by many observers.

Heydemann writes:

It cannot be overlooked that, in Van Dam’s telling it is they (the opposition and its external backers), not the regime and its allies, which bear the entire responsibility for what has befallen Syria.

This remark is completely unfounded. I criticize most of the parties: the Syrian regime for its severe repression of the opposition and its disproportionate violence, which was bound to create counter violence. I blame the opposition for adapting positions which guaranteed that negotiations were going to be blocked. And I blame Western and Arab countries for creating false hope with the opposition and for prolonging the war by arming the military opposition, but not enough to achieve the regime change they wanted. This contributed to the number of deadly victims going into the direction of half a million Syrians. It also led to a much stronger presence of Russia and Iran in Syria than would have been the case otherwise.

Let me add here that I am strongly opposed to foreign military interventions, because they generally only bring further disaster. We do not need academic studies to convince us that the foreign military interventions in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan have turned out to be disasters. Heydemann, however, would have preferred “the US to align its policies with its objectives in Syria, and equip local fighters more effectively to protect civilians and confront the regime.” In other words, to have regime change through military means.

Yes, I do criticize the Western and Arab countries for creating false expectations and for not supporting the opposition sufficiently to achieve their aims, but at the same time I am convinced that their military intervention would have led – and has led – to disaster.

Heydemann notes that the so-called “abandoned opposition” came close to defeating the regime twice, in mid-2013 and mid-2015, “without a lot of help from the West”. The military opposition groups, however, could never have reached this stage without tremendous help from Western and Arab countries. The opposition was not only fighting with sticks, fists and knives. Heydemann also maintains that the West, and certainly the US, “were marginal players in the provision of arms to the opposition.” The former Prime Minister of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, however, recently confirmed that the military aid of Qatar and Saudi Arabia was channelled to the Syrian military opposition through Turkey, to be distributed from there in full coordination with the United States.[4] I would not describe that as a “marginal role” for the United States. The US role is also well-known from other sources.

Heydemann writes:

the opposition did, in fact, demonstrate flexibility in its positions including on Assad’s fate. It accepted the Geneva Protocol, for example, even though the protocol did not call for the removal of Assad as a precondition. Van Dam ignores that the regime also had unreasonable preconditions, including its refusal to talk with “terrorists,” a category into which it lumped the entire opposition. …

Neither Arab, Western, or UN actors impose on the regime a conception of dialogue based on Assad’s removal from power as a prerequisite—as much as the opposition might have preferred such an approach.

The opposition did indeed accept the Geneva Communiqué (2012) as a basis for negotiations, but, next to that, kept insisting time and again that it was unacceptable for them to share power with President Bashar al-Asad and his main supporters with blood on their hands, who should in their view be court-martialled. Additionally, there is hardly any anti-regime Western or Arab leader who has not declared repeatedly that al-Asad had to leave as president, and that there was no future for Syria with him as president. Al-Asad was, according to most of them, not to play any role in the “interim period” supposedly leading to a political transition in Syria, let alone that he could play a role in future Syria. These positions have never been brought forward as something that was negotiable, and therefore they could hardly be seen otherwise than as preconditions.

I also noted that the regime had unreasonable, if not impossible, demands just as well, by, for instance, calling all members of the opposition delegation “terrorists”. My main point was not that the demands of the opposition were unjustified, but rather that they were unrealistic. (pp. 67, 153, 155, 170, 174).

It should also be noted that various countries have different criteria for who “terrorists” are.

Heydemann writes:

Readers might also be forgiven for perceiving in this account an unsettling sense of historical amnesia. How else to account for Van Dam’s neglect of the many attempts at dialogue, de-escalation, and negotiation that took place early on in the uprising and continued for well over a year, even as the regime’s victims mounted into the thousands.

Has Heydemann read my book?, If he had, he would have noticed that I devoted an entire chapter to the various initiatives undertaken; more than Heydemann mentions. They are described in Chapter 5, “Intra-Syrian talks but no negotiations” (pp. 138-167), and elsewhere. Therefore, I am afraid that it is Heydemann who suffers from historical amnesia here; not me.

This reminds me of a saying my father occasionally used, that “it would be nice if book reviewers would also really read the books they are supposed to review.”

Heydemann writes:

What Van Dam seems to assume is that had Obama not described Assad as illegitimate (in August 2011, by which time more than 1800 protesters had been killed and 12,000 people detained), Syrians might not have arisen at all, or in such vast numbers, or with the illusion that they enjoyed American support. They might have accepted the futility of protest, recognized their cause as lost, and gone back to the lives they lived before March 2011.

But how much difference did Obama’s statement truly make? How many Syrians who were not otherwise inclined to join the uprising did so because of his words? Almost certainly these numbers are very, very small. To argue otherwise is to dishonor the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who took to the streets of Deraa, and Homs, and Hama, and Latakia, and dozens of other towns and villages across Syria to peacefully demand political change, taking hope from one another, and from the discovery that they could, after all, speak, act, and protest, only to be met by the regime’s violence.

According to Heydemann I “seem to assume”! I do not subscribe to such a (fabricated) thesis at all! It also does not contain any logic, because massive demonstrations had already taken place long before Obama’s statement of August 2011. It was not the other way around. Isn’t it elementary for historians to be precise about the sequence of events? I did mention President Obama, however, in relation to his so-called red lines concerning the use of chemical weapons, to which he did not give the suggested follow-up; and Obama’s demand for Bashar al-Asad’s departure, without the intention to enforce it (pp. 126, 133, 171).

In Destroying a Nation (pp. 87-88) I wrote:

Were the demonstrators so naive as to expect the regime to really make any drastic political reforms leading to a more democratic political system and to freedom of expression? Did they really believe that the regime would peacefully give in to their demands, or even that peaceful demonstrations could cause its downfall? It would be unjust to label these courageous demonstrators as naive. They were rather overtaken by their enthusiasm after being inspired by ‘Arab Spring’ developments elsewhere, and they imagined that they were going to be supported by Western countries in achieving their aims for freedom and reform. After all, the ambassadors from the United States, France and elsewhere had shown solidarity with the demonstrators by personally going to Hama in July 2011, thereby openly taking sides in the conflict under strong criticism of the regime in Damascus.

Heydemann notes that “many Syrians today who would, if they could rewind history, stay at home, so horrific has the cost of the uprising been.” I think he is correct in this respect. One might also speculate that if there had been no foreign intervention and no arms deliveries to the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Revolution would have been suppressed much earlier. As a result, many fewer Syrians would have been killed; much less of the country would have been destroyed; and many fewer Syrians would be living in desperation and as refugees. In both cases, however, the regime would have stayed in power.

Whatever the case, one may conclude that the Western and Arab military interventions in Syria, did not bring the people of Syria good; rather they intensified and prolonged the disaster. And if the regime would not have been that repressive, there would probably have been much less foreign interventions.

If no political solution to the conflict is found, those who have suffered at the hands of the al-Asad regime will be more likely to renew their efforts to find a violent reckoning (p. 65). But this is speculation about the future. A political solution is in the interest of all involved parties, including the regime.

Had Professor Steven Heydemann read my book Destroying a Nation without bias, he would have come to different conclusions, and he might even have enjoyed reading it!

*Nikolaos van Dam is a specialist on Syria who has served as Ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. He served as the Netherlands’ Spe­cial Envoy to Syria during 2015-16. His most recent book is Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).


[1] Nikolaos van Dam, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).


[3] Nikolaos van Dam, ‘The Dangerous Trap of Sectarianism”, Syria Comment, 14 April 2011.

[4] Interview with Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani:

Assessing Nikaolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate – by Steven Heydemann

Assessing Nikaolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate
By Steven Heydemann – @SHeydemann Smith College
for Syria Comment, November 17, 2017

Over the course of his long and distinguished career as scholar and diplomat, Ambassador Nikaolas Van Dam, who most recently served as the Netherlands’ Special Envoy for Syria, earned a well-deserved reputation as a deeply knowledgeable specialist on Syrian politics and society. His publications, notably his book, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism, and Tribalism in Politics remains essential reading for students and scholars of the country. In the wake of his most recent diplomatic assignment, Ambassador Van Dam has published an informed and often insightful diagnosis of the violent conflict that has engulfed Syria since 2011, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (I.B. Tauris, 2017).

In the book, the main arguments of which he summarized in his recent essay in SyriaComment, he devoted particular attention to the failures of the West, he devoted particular attention to the failures of the West, and its responsibility for the bloodshed, displacement, and destruction that Syria has experienced. There is much to be learned from his account, but also much that warrants questioning, if not skepticism, and deserves careful and critical scrutiny, precisely because of the weight Van Dam’s assessment is likely to carry. Even focusing on his essay for this website, what emerges from such scrutiny is an awareness of evident historical gaps and omissions in his narrative, tensions and inconsistencies in his views of what might have been, and disconcerting questions about the validity of the underlying assumptions that inform Van Dam’s account. Ultimately, these converge as troubling indicators of a diagnosis that seems, at times, almost willfully distorted in its analysis of the civil war that destroyed a nation.

For Van Dam, the fatal flaw in the West’s responses to the Syrian civil war was its naivete, its failure to understand or appreciate either the cruelty that lay at the core of the Assad regime or the violence it was prepared to unleash to ensure its survival. This misreading was crucial. It stands as the original sin from which all subsequent errors flowed: belief in the possibility of reform; confidence in the prospect of forcing the Assad regime to make compromises, to accept dialogue, enter negotiations, participate in power sharing, and accept a political transition. All of this, the West is said to have believed, could be achieved through a policy of half-measures, limited support for the opposition, and an exaggerated confidence in the prospects for containing the conflict within Syria’s borders.

In Van Dam’s view, because brutality is the nature of the Assad regime we—the external actors who supported the opposition—should have accepted it as such and tempered our expectations and policies accordingly. We were wrong to demand compromises of the regime in the first place, especially since we were unprepared to back up these demands with sufficient force to achieve them. We were wrong to declaim Assad’s illegitimacy. We were wrong to support the armed opposition, and even more at fault for doing so half-heartedly. Not that Van Dam is an advocate of Western military intervention in Syria: just the opposite. His point, rather, is that if the West had properly understood the Assad regime, it would have taken a different tack altogether, and might have spared Syria the horrific outpouring of violence to which its policies contributed.

What might that different tack have been? Van Dam suggests that right from the beginning of the uprising he advocated a different path, but to no avail. His recommendation was for dialogue with the Assad regime, on terms acceptable to the regime, recognizing its inherently brutal nature. One might be excused, given his characterization of the regime in the first place, for wondering how any form of real dialogue would be possible, or what it might achieve. This disconnect, between appeals for dialogue and a characterization of the regime as uninterested in dialog are one of the essay’s (and his book’s) core inconsistencies. Nonetheless, Van Dam chides the opposition and its supporters for demanding regime change as a condition for dialogue in the first place. They should have known better, he tells us, known that the regime would not bend, known the cost they would impose on Syria for the temerity of demanding a political system that offered some possibility – a small possibility, perhaps, but better than exists under Assad – for a government that is less brutal and less corrupt, and less incompetent. It cannot be overlooked that, in Van Dam’s telling it is they (the opposition and its external backers), not the regime and its allies, which bear responsibility for what has befallen Syria.

Readers might also be forgiven for perceiving in this account an unsettling sense of historical amnesia. How else to account for Van Dam’s neglect of the many attempts at dialogue, de-escalation, and negotiation that took place early on in the uprising and continued for well over a year, even as the regime’s victims mounted into the thousands. These include the League of Arab States (LAS) attempts  at dialogue in mid-2011, the resolution it passed in October 2011 calling for dialogue (before the Assad regime’s membership in the LAS was suspended), the LAS peace plan of November 2011 which the regime first accepted then undermined, the near-identical plan the regime accepted the following month and also undermined, the quiet diplomacy between Turkey and Syria before Erdogan concluded that Assad was incapable of reform, and the efforts of the UN under Kofi Anan that led to the Geneva Protocol, as well as the Geneva Process that followed – before it morphed into the zombie diplomacy it has now become. Van Dam was hardly alone in in preferring dialogue to violence, and in ignoring the many efforts to resolve the conflict through dialogue he distorts the historical record.

We now shake our heads – many of us did at the time – at the risibility of imagining that dialogue efforts had any chance of success in the face of the regime’s utter determination to violently suppress the uprising, its total rejection of anything more than the meaningless, cosmetic changes it put forward in the constitutional referendum of February 2012. But even the seemingly inevitable failure of these attempts is worth recalling when confronted with interpretations of the conflict that seek to erase them altogether. They happened. The regime is responsible for their failure to a far greater extent than the opposition—which is certainly not blameless. They certainly merit as much if not more attention than vague and underspecified appeals to the dialogues that might have been, if only . . .

Van Dam’s appeals to dialogue are advanced, moreover, without any suggestions as to how such dialogue might have been organized (that had not already been tried), what might have been a legitimate topic for dialogue – given that real political change would have been off the table because, of course, the Assad regime, with good reason given its nature, would have refused dialogue altogether had it been included – and without a persuasive argument about what we could reasonably expect such dialogue to accomplish. They are also advanced without any apparent acknowledgement of the extent to which the opposition did, in fact, demonstrate flexibility in its positions including on Assad’s fate. It accepted the Geneva Protocol, for example, even though the protocol did not call for the removal of Assad as a precondition. Van Dam ignores that the regime also had unreasonable preconditions, including its refusal to talk with “terrorists,” a category into which it lumped the entire opposition.

Instead, the opposition and the West are faulted for not permitting the Assad regime unilaterally to define the terms of dialogue. Does an experienced diplomat truly believe that this is how dialogue works, or negotiations? Dialogue occurs between parties with opposing views. Through dialogue, differences may be narrowed and areas of agreement and disagreement identified. Yet Van Dam’s view seems to be that the opposition and its supporters were reckless and foolhardy for not accepting the limits on dialogue or negotiation established by the regime. This blaming of the West, or the opposition, for its failure is both unbalanced and a significant distortion. Neither Arab, Western, or UN actors impose on the regime a conception of dialogue based on Assad’s removal from power as a prerequisite—as much as the opposition might have preferred such an approach.

This critique of Van Dam’s discussion of dialogue reflects a broader problem with his account. Much of the focus of his essay, and of his book, is on the mistakes of external actors who supported the opposition. Here too, as in his comments on dialogue, his main critique is that the US and Europe misread and misunderstood the Assad regime, imagining that it was more brittle than it turned out to be.  As a result, he says, the West offered false hope to and ultimately betrayed, both the opposition and the Syrian people by offering them political support, endorsing regime change, but not providing the resources needed to achieve those ends.

Without exonerating external actors, who are, as he rightly states, complicit up to their elbows in Syria’s conflict, the uprising really wasn’t about them, or perhaps I should say, about us.  We, all of us, Arabs, Turks, Americans, Europeans, Iranians, Russians, hijacked bits and pieces of Syria’s uprising for our own, conflicting purposes. In the process we have ensured, as Samer Abboud wrote in 2015, that “the role of international actors in militarily, financially, and politically backing their respective allies in Syria is perhaps the single largest factor explaining the continuity of the conflict, the fragmentation of political and military forces, the failure of reconciliation efforts, and the existing stalemate that is slowly fragmenting the country” (Abboud 2015, 120). These interventions have forever changed Syria, most of all in the human price Syrians have paid. But also in strategic terms. The country is now likely to be occupied by Iranian, Lebanese, and Russian forces for the foreseeable future, governed by a regime that conceded Syria’s sovereignty to ensure its own survival.

What sits uneasily alongside the factual record though, is whether the West in particular played the role that Van Dam assigns to it as the actor principally responsible for these outcomes. To understand why his views miss the mark we need to unpack the central assumptions that drive his critique.  The issues can be illustrated through two counterfactuals.  One is that had the West not intervened, the conflict would have been shorter and less violent. Research on the duration of civil wars offer some support for this counterfactual. But Syria is a tough case in which to prove it, and the actual intervention of the US in the conflict makes it all the harder.

The dynamics that drove the Syrian uprising toward militarization, the escalation of violence, sectarian polarization, fragmentation, and radicalization, were not created by external actors. They were certainly exploited by external actors – regional actors more than their Western counterparts – but the impetus for these trends were largely domestic. As for whether the US was an agent of militarization, recall that it was regularly blamed for standing in the way of arming the rebels, of not providing enough weapons, and not giving the opposition the sophisticated weapons it desperately needed. Instead, the US doled out pitiful quantities of arms, and tried, though often failed, to control their use. Unconscionably, it left Syrian citizens exposed to barrel bombs, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, heavy artillery, and the combined might of Russian and regime air attacks.

Van Dam acknowledges that Western support fell short of Western pledges, yet nonetheless assigns the West the lead role in the destruction that should more accurately be laid at the feet of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons. My own preference was for the US to align its policies with its objectives in Syria, and equip local fighters more effectively to protect civilians and confront the regime. This never occurred. It was only with the onset of the campaign against ISIS, and America’s desperate search for local partners who could shoulder the burden of ground operations that the US unleashed its full destructive power against ISIS and other armed groups, joining Russia in air campaigns that left hundreds if not thousands of dead civilians in their wake.

What Van Dam’s tone of resigned inevitability about the fate of the abandoned opposition also obscures, moreover, is just how close it came to victory—without a lot of help from the West. At least twice, in mid-2013, the opposition came so close to defeating the regime that it forced Hezbollah to abandon its low-level and quiet presence in Syria for a far more extensive role in the regime’s defense. In mid-2015, the regime was widely believed, in Moscow and Tehran no less, to be so close to unravelling that Qasem Soleimani flew to Moscow to orchestrate what became the decisive turn in the military struggle-unleashing Russia’s air force and beginning the slow-motion collapse of opposition forces.

So the West, certainly the US, were marginal players in the provision of arms to the opposition. This fact notwithstanding, Van Dam roundly condemns this limited role as a collective failure—even though he rejects the utility of better equipping the opposition in the first place! What then is the West’s true failure, its most significant moral and political shortcoming? False hope. The West and the US, President Obama in particular, offered the Syrians hope and support, but never provided either.

Here we can pose a second counterfactual. What Van Dam seems to assume is that had Obama not described Assad as illegitimate (in August 2011, by which time more than 1800 protesters had been killed and 12,000 people detained), Syrians might not have arisen at all, or in such vast numbers, or with the illusion that they enjoyed American support. They might have accepted the futility of protest, recognized their cause as lost, and gone back to the lives they lived before March 2011.

Certainly, Obama’s words, as late as they were, did excite some Syrians and reinforce their determination to resist the Assad regime. And there is no question that there are many, many Syrians today who would, if they could rewind history, stay at home, so horrific has the cost of the uprising been. But how much difference did Obama’s statement truly make? How many Syrians who were not otherwise inclined to join the uprising did so because of his words? Almost certainly these numbers are very, very small. To argue otherwise is to dishonor the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who took to the streets of Deraa, and Homs, and Hama, and Latakia, and dozens of other towns and villages across Syria to peacefully demand political change, taking hope from one another, and from the discovery that they could, after all, speak, act, and protest, only to be met by the regime’s violence.

Ultimately, neither the question that Van Dam uses to title his essay, nor the entirely reasonable answer he offers, seems to have much connection with the account he provides of the conflict itself—an account which, as I have tried to show, is marred by troubling inconsistencies, gaps, and contradictions.  Van Dam is right, in my view. In the near future it will be the Assad regime that wins the war. I also share his view that the regime may find it much harder to win the peace—if peace is what we should call the means by which the regime will reimpose its authority over a society that will not soon forget its suffering at the regime’s hands. Fully understanding how we reached this point however, will require a more balanced and more complete account of the conflict’s history than the one provided by Van Dam.

Syria: Who will win the future? – By Nikolaos van Dam

Syria: Who will win the future?
BY Nikolaos van Dam – @nikolaosvandam 
Henriëtte van Lynden Lecture, Amsterdam, 9 November 2017 [1]

We all know that the situation in Syria has become a disaster. And one can ask oneself whether this disaster could have been foreseen and prevented.

I personally am convinced that the main developments in Syria could have been foreseen, certainly as far as the behavior (and misbehavior) of the Syrian regime were concerned. For many observers, however, all the cruelties at first went beyond their imagination; even though they could have been predicted – and were predicted – by some people having a deeper knowledge of the Syrian regime.

There were some essential elements, however, that could not have been clearly foreseen. One of these was the so-called “Arab Spring” that brought many Syrians in a kind of euphoric mood, after political leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya resigned or were toppled with the help of Western and Arab countries that proclaimed that they wanted to support or protect the Arab populations against their dictators or authoritarian rulers.

The peaceful Syrian demonstrators imagined at the time that they would be fully supported by the Western and Arab countries that had proclaimed that they wanted to help them. In the end, however, it turned out that this help was not only insufficient to achieve regime change, but it also contributed to a prolongation of the war with all its destruction and death.

Another element that was not foreseeable at the beginning of the Revolution was that the Syrian military opposition groups were going to receive substantial military aid from foreign countries like the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, enough to start a combination of a civil war and a war-by-proxy, but not enough to bring about the regime change they wanted. In fact, the war was initiated (in reaction to the atrocities of the regime) without, however, sufficient means and planning that this war against the regime could also really be won. Before engaging in the war, the interfering foreign countries should have sufficiently studied the military situation in order to be sure that their Syrian allies had a realistic chance of winning it; but they apparently did not.

The half-hearted military interventions of various foreign countries in Syria have in fact contributed to disaster. Most of the interfering countries (like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, Iran, Russia and others) all had their own strategic interests and motives. These were not necessarily coinciding with the interests of the Syrian people; certainly not if one looks at the disastrous results. Therefore, the question seems justified whether or not the so-called “Friends of Syria” in the end really turned out to be “Friends of the Syrian People”. Those who supported the opposition groups, generally claimed that they wanted a political solution, but this solution in reality was intended to be regime change, if not peacefully – which was not going to happen anyhow – then with military force. But this did not work either, because the option of direct foreign military intervention was written off in 2013.

Russia and Iran intervened militarily because they wanted to safeguard the Syrian regime as an important strategic regional ally.

For Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it was important to remove Syria from the Iranian power orbit. And I have few illusions that it was the priority of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to military impose a political system on Syria that they did not have themselves: notably a secular pluralistic democracy.

The United States, who were never friends of the Syrian Ba’thist regimes, wanted the same as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as far as Iran was concerned, but they also welcomed a weakening of Syria to the advantage of Israel.

And Turkey wanted a like-minded Islamic regime in Damascus.

None of these foreign countries has achieved what they wanted, neither did the Syrian opposition.

Many politicians may have sincerely wanted to help the Syrian population against its oppressive regime, but for the bigger countries strategic interests were at least as important as humanitarian considerations.

It should have been clear from the very beginning in 2011 that the regime of Bashar al-Asad was not going to voluntarily give up its power position and resign. Thinking that al-Asad would step down or aside, as demanded by many Western and Arab political leaders, as well as by the Syrian opposition, may have been well intended and justified from their points of view, but it obviously was not going to happen. Which Syrian dictator has ever given up his position voluntarily, to be imprisoned or executed afterwards? None, of course.

The Syrian War was bound to happen, because Syria had been dominated for more than forty years under presidents Hafiz al-Asad and his son Bashar al-Asad, who managed to stay in power with the support of one all-powerful military faction with a highly reliable and effective security apparatus (also effective in the sense of severe repression). This resulted in a period of internal political stability and continuity, longer than ever before since independence. This continuity, however, was also linked to the absence of any substantial political reform or change in the composition of the ruling military elite, which implied the serious future possibility of strong discontinuity and disruption of the regime, once its long-serving political and military leaders would be endangered or would disappear. This so-called stability of the Asad regime, came to an abrupt end with the start of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011.

More than 20 years ago, I predicted (in my book The Struggle for Power in Syria)[2] – and it was not that difficult to predict – that any scenario leading to the overthrow of the Alawi-dominated power elite, would inevitably be extremely violent. After all, the regime had never tolerated any real opposition, let alone alternative military factions that might threaten its position. Serious opponents were generally put in prison, severely tortured or killed. It was all about maintaining regime power and interests, with the most repressive means.

Whereas the common sectarian, regional and family or tribal backgrounds of the Ba’thist rulers had been key to the durability and strength of their regime, the predominantly Alawi sectarian background of many of them was also one of its main weaknesses. This is because the “Alawi factor” (or the Alawi Gordian knot) is hindering a peaceful transformation from Syrian dictatorship towards a more widely representative regime.

During its rule, the Syrian Ba’th regime became the antithesis of its own ideals. The Ba’thists had wanted to do away with primordial loyalties like sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism, which, according to their ideology, were considered as despicable residues or illnesses of traditional society. But in practice, the ruling Ba’thists achieved exactly the opposite, because their sectarian-tinted behaviour strengthened in particular the factors which they claimed to abhor. Their ideals in the sphere of socialism and social equality could not be fulfilled either, because of the fact that their regime was infested with corruption, clientelism and favouritism. And their ideal of Arab unity could not be realized, because there was not any Arab leader who was prepared to share his powers with others. And last but not least: instead of being a Ba’th Party rule, the Syrian regime has become a kind of dynastic rule of the al-Asad family.

Nevertheless, and irrespective of the basic characteristics of the regime which should have been well-known, many Western and Arab politicians wanted President Bashar al-Asad and his regime to voluntarily step down, certainly after enough “naming and shaming” and “moral pressure” had been exercised by the numerous countries condemning him for all the atrocities the regime had committed when violently suppressing any opposition, including the large-scale demonstrations that took place all over Syria, many of them being peaceful.

But Bashar al-Asad stayed and refused to resign – as could have been predicted as well, if only because dictators generally do not follow the rules of democratic accountability.

The Syrian opposition, just like many foreign countries, however, kept insisting that al-Asad should disappear as president, and that he could not play any role in the “transitional period” leading to a new regime, let alone in the future of Syria; and that he should be court-martialled, for instance before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But Bashar al-Asad was in power in Syria, and therefore these demands rather constituted a guarantee that serious negotiations with the regime were not going to take place. The Syrian regime obviously was not prepared to negotiate its own departure and death sentence, and never has been.

The regime and the opposition have completely different views of what a compromise should look like, and without any form of serious dialogue, a political compromise is impossible. This does not necessarily mean, however, that if such a dialogue would start after all, that it would also yield real and substantial results, if only because the regime considers the Syrian War a struggle for its own survival, or a struggle for life and death.

Only by toppling the regime with military force, it might have been possible to effectuate regime change, but not any country has been able or willing to do so. Moreover, regime change by military force would not necessarily have meant that the situation would improve, taking the experiences in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan into account.

After more than six-and-a-half years, real dialogue is still being rejected by both the regime and the opposition, and the ever-increasing number of dead, the endless destruction and the millions of refugees have only strengthened the rejectionist attitude towards one another. Yes, both sides do want dialogue, but only if the other party does more or less exactly what is demanded by the opposing side, or, for instance, by United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 (the contents of which the regime refuses to carry out).

It is remarkable that the Syrian regime has not even made any serious effort to come to a compromise with the opposition that operates from within the country; and opposition members who have been active abroad and want to return into the so-called “lap of president al-Asad”, have been refused entry into the country.

The opposition, and bigger part of the so-called international community, have claimed time and again that they want a just solution, and therefore want the regime and its members to be made accountable for any crimes or war crimes committed. Taking this as a point of departure, they actually want to be sure beforehand that the negotiations will lead to the regime being court-martialled. In other words: they want to negotiate with the regime on condition that president al-Asad cannot play any role in Syria’s future, and, preferably, not either in the political transition that is supposed to lead to that future.

For the Syrian regime, on the other hand, “political transition” is perceived as a dirty word, because it implies a kind of regime change through a political transition, in which the regime has to share political power with its adversaries, and run the risk of being toppled.

If justice is to be done, it can only be done after a political solution has been reached, not before.

One can safely say that if president Bashar al-Asad wins the war militarily – and it looks that way – this does not mean that he has also achieved a victory in the political sense. Because in fact, all Syrians are the great losers in this terrible war.

The gigantic task of bringing Syria back to normal life in every sense, remains one of the weakest spots of the regime. Once this weak spot comes out more into the open, it should not be excluded that opposition against the regime will also grow from within.

Various Western politicians imagine that they can lure the al-Asad regime into political concessions and reform, in exchange for funding parts of the reconstruction of Syria. This is unrealistic, because it is founded on the same false presumption that existed during the last six years, that al-Asad will voluntarily make political concessions; in this case in exchange for foreign funds. Withholding reconstruction funds may hit al-Asad in one of his weakest spots: the economy. But it will also hurt the Syrian population under his control; and that is something most Western countries don’t want. Undoubtedly, there are other countries, like China for instance, that want to jump into the reconstruction of Syria. Participating in the reconstruction of the parts of Syria under control of the regime, without contacts with the al-Asad regime is impossible.

As a result of the War, there are many millions of traumatized and dissatisfied Syrians. Countless Syrians have lost family members, which has caused wounds that are going to stay, on all sides. Corruption, embezzlement, and local suppression have increased enormously as a result of the war economy. People who were supposed to be loyal to the regime, were not always loyal when it came to their personal and economic interests. To force those people, who have profited from the war economy, back into line, and to put the ghost of intensive social conflicts back into the bottle is extremely difficult, if not impossible without yet another settlement of accounts with those who are considered to be responsible for it. If Syria were a very rich country, it would perhaps be somewhat less difficult, but the fact that the social fabric of society and economic life are in ruins, makes it all the more difficult to restore so-called “normal life”.

Personally, I have for practical – and in my opinion also realistic – reasons been calling for dialogue with the al-Asad regime from the very beginning of the Syrian Revolution, because I saw this as a key element on the way to a solution. Most of the time, however, this position was rejected, because al-Asad was supposed to leave. But he did not of course.

With several hundred deadly victims, six-and-a-half years ago, dialogue would have been less difficult than it is now with the death toll going in the direction of half a million people.

Under the present circumstances, it should be expected that the regime will continue the war just as long as it has all Syrian territories under its control again. Whether or not this succeeds, also depends on the willingness of the foreign supporters of the military opposition to continue their aid, and whether, for instance, the United States would consider it worthwhile enough to risk a military confrontation with Russia over Syria. The territories under control of the opposition are among the few remaining bargaining chips, if foreign support is continued.

It should not be excluded, however, that foreign willingness to support the military opposition against the regime is decreasing, particularly after Da’ish has been defeated.

If you would ask me Who will win the future in Syria? my answer is that in the near future it will be the regime, because it is military the strongest. This does not mean, however, that the regime is bound to win the future of Syria in the longer term. There is always the possibility of a change of forces from within. And as long as there is no political solution, the possibility of a settling of accounts between enemies remains.

Whatever the case, serious efforts should be continued to help achieve a political solution, even if one is not fully convinced that the outcome will be a success.

That is why I have ended my new Syria book Destroying a Nation[3], with the words: “Miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them”.


*Nikolaos van Dam is a specialist on Syria and has served as Ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. He served as the Netherlands’ spe­cial envoy to Syria during 2015-16. His most recent book is Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017),

[1] Symposium on “Syria: Who will win the future”, organized by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Hadi al-Bahra (Political Committee Member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces), Ibrahim Hamidi (Senior Diplomatic Editor of Al-Sharq al-Awsat) and Nikolaos van Dam (former Ambassador and Dutch Special Envoy for Syria) as speakers and Karin Wester as moderator.

[2] Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party (London: I.B. Tauris, 4th edition, 2011)

[3] Nikolaos van Dam, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017),