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.

Comments (5)

Arnie in NYC said:

Your analysis is very cogent and persuasive but exceedingly grim. The Hobbsean forces driving and perpetuating the Syrian civil war seem (in a fiendish way) to continually reenforce one another. You paint a conflict that seems inevitable, almost predetermined. Either no action is possible, or even if possible is so unlikely as to be essentially impossible. You almost give no brief to Iran and fail to even mention Hezbollah. Since I am a person favorably enamored of Israel, that gives me pause. But still I find myself somewhat persuaded by your argument. What does the any possible impact of Hezbollah matter? They will obviously be ground up with everyone else. But where will it end?

March 9th, 2018, 1:54 pm


Habib said:

This analysis, though thorough, fails to acknowledge the fact that, when coming from western powers and Middle Eastern despots, this moral high ground “principled” steadfastness is just a hypocritical pre-text.

If it had anything to do with reality, the same actors would have reacted much differently when it comes to the current war in Yemen or on the Kurds, or what happened to the protest movements in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

March 10th, 2018, 1:53 am


Jasmine said:

This article is dripping with secterian analysis and scratching the surface of the real issue,fixated on the allawi baathist president who no one in the whole world could get red of him.
It was never about a party or a certain leader from certain sect of Islam,it was about a country who is strategically situated between the East and West,it is about the gaz in the mediterenean sea and the oil in the north of Syria,it is about resource control of the middle East and enslaving those gulf idiots to keep The west rich by selling them arms and stealing their oil,and doing all that by fuelling religious war between vile Wahabism and another distorted form of Islam(Saudi Arabia Versus Iran).
It is about killing a nation who was defiant to Israel and defending Arabism,it was about a nation who didn’t obey the west and never acknowledge Israel.
Syria will heal slowly and rebuild its self,Syrians are resourceful and they have already started their real revolution without the help of the bastion of democracy in the Gulf.
Syrians are very approchable too if the west have decided to have a polite conversation with them:opening their embassy per example.

March 11th, 2018, 6:02 pm


Ghufran said:

Western powers had little to lose when they supported an armed uprising to topple the regime, if rebels win those powers would come in as victors and secure a big slice of the Syrian cake, and if rebels lose Damascus would have been weakened and arms sales go through the roof and that is now the likely outcome. The only inconvenience to those powers was the influx of refugees which politicians in the West are trying to stop by paying Syria’s neighbors. The gulf countries paid most of the bills similar to what they did when Iraq waged a war against Iran.
يا أمة ضحكت من جهلها الامم

March 11th, 2018, 7:46 pm


ALAN said:

Russia has become a rogue state in defiance of the entire international system says FSI director

March 17th, 2018, 2:45 pm