Posted by Joshua on Sunday, July 31st, 2016
Who is to blame for Syria’s nightmare?
For Syria Comment, July 31
Once the popular demonstrations of the Arab spring brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, many Syrians assumed that they could bring down President Assad just as quickly. Early in 2011, most expected him to last no more than a few months. Five and a half years later, Assad remains president. In the 20th century, more than 30 leaders have ruled for over 30 years. Only 3 of them stepped down voluntarily. Ninety per cent clung to power until the bitter end. Instead of viewing the events in Egypt and Tunisia as a statistical anomaly, Syrians viewed them as the new norm. But as Syrians came to understand that Assad would not leave power voluntarily, they took up arms, hoping that force would succeed where peaceful demonstrations could not. Here too, most opposition members over-estimated their strength and underestimated the resources of the regime. In particular, they failed to understand the damage that the Iraq war had done to America’s appetite for a new adventure in the Middle East.
The White House
President Obama was elected twice by running on an anti-war platform. He promised to bring US troops home from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Military involvement in Syria went against his instincts. Allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had other ideas. Almost immediately after the start of the events in Daraa, they pushed the White House to take a strong stand. Washington resisted for nearly 5 months. This resistance ended on August 18 of 2011, when President Obama made a statement calling for the President of Syria to “step aside”. The statement did not say “step down”. The careful and deliberate debate over every word in the White House amounted to little however once the statement was made. Washington wanted Saddam gone and he was. Ditto for Gaddafi. The consensus in the Middle East has always been that the U.S. controls the region. Because the president of the United States announced that it was time for Assad to go, many believed it meant Assad’s end. Advisors inside the White House, however, were aware of the President’s deep reluctance to act. More importantly, Obama’s reluctance was driven by his belief that the United States has little strategic interest in Syria and his awareness that both Iran and Russia do. They view Syria as an important strategic asset worth fighting for. They would outbid any U.S. escalation. Obama saw Syria as a perilous adventure that the United States would not win. It took years for Assad’s enemies to understand Obama. Perhaps they can be excused to some extent by the president’s confusing statements about Assad and U.S. goals, but on the whole, anyone aware of how minimally important Syria has been to Washington compared to Moscow should not have been confused for long.
President Assad and the Syrian State
There is no denying that six years of fighting have taken a huge toll on the Syrian state. Yes, it has lost a massive amount of real estate. It has also suffered devastating losses in manpower. Syria lies in ruins. While the word “win” is vastly inappropriate here, the Syrian state can claim to have won if it defined wining by the simple fact of its survival. There is no question that this survival was accomplished because the state decided to use every asset at its disposal, often shocking the world with its brutality. Western and Syrian government perceptions this struggle have always been diametrically opposed. Western observers saw a state dropping barrel bombs on its own civilian centers; the Syrian government saw itself as the protector of the country. It was fighting jihadists, terrorists, and and traitors who were conspiring with foreign governments to topple it. Damascus’ survival has been secured by allies that never wavered. This commitment culminated with the stunning decision of Russia to become a direct military combatant in the conflict. Shockingly, early calls for Assad to step aside did not stop after the Russian entry. The new logic seemed to be that Moscow would pressure Assad to leave as part of its diplomatic rapprochement with the U.S. During a recent interview, Assad was asked if Putin had discussed the issue of transition with him. He flatly denied that such a discussion ever took place. Moscow and Damascus have largely identical views on the conflict and how to resolve it. Asking Assad to step down is not part of this calculus. Russian diplomats may claim that they are not wedded to Assad in the course of public and private conversations, but they do not bring this topic up with him.
The Syrian opposition
The Syrian opposition has long argued that it followed non-violent principals early in the uprising. The eventual recourse to arms was made in order to protect civilian lives and honor (aarad) from state brutality. Government loyalists counter that the uprising was armed almost from the beginning. What is indisputable is that between June 4th and 6th, nearly 120 Syrian soldiers and security troops were killed and had their bodies mutilated and thrown in a river around the town of Jisr-al-Shugour. Opposition activists claimed at the time that the dead soldiers were shot by their own superiors as they tried to defect. This was incorrect. According to informed western sources, electronic interception of opposition communication from that day clearly revealed that opposition fighters took responsibility for the murder of the soldiers. The same western source recalls how his capital expected a massive and blistering response from Assad against the city. Instead, they were surprised to see a far more modest attack as military vehicles and tanks took positions on the outskirts of the city in an effort to find the perpetrators of this crime against the soldiers.
In response to the apparent increased militarization of the opposition early in the conflict, I wrote an article for Syria Comment in February of 2012, titled “The Syrian opposition must find a different way”. Here is the conclusion:
What is needed is a smart and innovative strategy that helps spare lives but convinces Syria’s leaders that the old ways of doing business are over. Popular efforts must be spent in writing a new constitution, a bill of rights to calm minority fears, and an economic plan to reassure the business community and workers alike. The standard of living of most Syrians is appalling, so is the education level and health care system. The opposition must channel their energies towards such topics rather than the senseless call to arm the rebels in what is clearly a suicide mission.
Sadly, under the pretext of protecting lives and honor, the opposition instead opened its arms to anyone willing to join the fight. Salafists, jihadists, and Al Qaeda and its affiliates were invited into the country in order to fight the regime and balance the unequal power equation. Alarmed by these trends, I spoke with a leading member the Syrian National Coalition. My concerns were invariably dismissed. I was assured that these fighters and extremist groups were transitory. Once the regime fall, I was told, they would leave Syria or move on.
To be fair, referring to the “opposition” as if it were one movement is misleading. The opposition is best viewed as a spectrum. ISIL and Nusra aresituated on its right while activists, such as Haytham Manaa and groups like his, are situated on its left. The groups on the left had a nuanced solution to the crisis which was largely built on the notion that Assad could stay but on condition that his powers be limited. They wanted him to give up control over the many Syrian intelligence agencies. While the left emphasized non-violent principles, they overestimated their power to influence thinking in Damascus. For the right on the opposition spectrum, Assad’s immediate departure was the overriding demand. Sadly, the U.S. and other western governments threw their weight behind these groups which have by now come to occupy the middle of the rainbow.
The Syrian coalition and military commanders, such as Colonel Abdul Jabaar al-Aqidi, were the principal allies of the west. Pictures of the Colonel standing with foreign jihadists who belonged to the Islamic State during the capture of Kuweiris air base and subsequently standing with Ambassador Robert Ford became iconic of Washington’s confused strategy in Syria. Many accused Washington of indirectly supporting the same jihadists that it sought to destroy. This doomed policy was a result of conflicting goals. The West and its regional allies wanted stability and regime-change at the same time. They wanted to support a Sunni ascendancy in Syria without undermining secularism. On the ground, however, the extreme right side of the opposition spectrum kept moving left and swallowing all others in its path. To date, the main elements of the opposition blame President Obama for the Syrian crisis. They propose a variety of policy alternatives, such as bombing Damascus, destroying the Syrian air force, establishing no-fly-zones, and increasing money, arms, and training for the opposition. These critics are now placing their bets on Hillary Clinton, who promises to be more hawkish than Obama. They hope that she will tilt U.S. foreign policy more decisively in the direction of regime-change. Her campaign advisors suggest that Hillary may indeed move in this direction. But any escalation by Washington is only likely to produce an even stronger escalation by Moscow. Hillary’s campaign promises are likely to be moderated once she is president.
The Syrian opposition members who bet that Assad would be quickly deposed in 2011 are now largely spectators. Their country lies in ruins. Their goal of bringing down the state (Isqat al-nizam) looks as far as ever from being achieved. And Salafists control the fighting on the ground. Like all conflicts that turn armed and violent, the most militant and extreme end up elbowing the more moderate aside. Burhan Ghalioun and Haytham Manaa have been replaced by Caliph Baghdadi and Mohammed al-Jolani. Rebels have been replaced by mujahedin. Without a single exception, every armed group today is committed to ruling by sharia law. This is why Assad and his supporters will refuse to give up and continue fighting. Syrians, unfortunately, have a long fight in front of them. Miscalculation has led to Syria’s ruin.