The Future of ISIS and the Sectarian Response: ISIS has Picked a Fight it Cannot Win

The Future of ISIS in Iraq and the Sectarian Response – by Joshua Landis


ISIS Mass killing Iraq

ISIS purportedly conducting a mass execution of captured Shiite Iraqi army soldiers

ISIS mass killing Shiites in Iraq

A Washington policy analyst asked me what chances I gave to the possibility that Prime Minister Maliki will try to divide Sunnis and isolate ISIS by teaming up with moderate Sunnis. He raised the possibility of Maliki creating a government of national unity with greater power sharing.

My answer:

1. I doubt ISIS will get a foothold in Baghdad. Already, Shiite mobilization in the face of the ISIS advances are fierce and panicky.  I think Shiite religious mobilization now taking place in Iraq will mean very bad things for Sunnis in general. ISIS has picked a fight it can’t win and unleashed the inner Shi’a in their adversary. And it’s not as though Maliki, like Assad, lacks powerful friends with a serious stake in the outcome of the battle.

Rather than Maliki teaming up with “moderate” Sunnis, such as the US did in arming the tribes and cultivating the Sahwa, Iraq’s Prime Minister is likely to respond by using religion as his prime mobilizer. Of course, he will not abandon “Iraq” or nationalism, just as Assad has not.  But just as Sistani has used the sanctity of Shiite shrines as his primary “national” motivator, Maliki is likely to follow suit. He will largely define the nation in sectarian terms. That is what ISIS has done, as well. Sunnis have scared the pants off of Shiites. The photos of mass shootings of Shiite young men dooms a non-sectarian response, I would imagine. What is more, the gathering storm of sectarian mobilization has already reached furious levels in the entire region. The demonization of Shiites as “rejectors” and “Majous” or pagans who are considered both non-Muslim and non-Arab, has spread to such an extent that it has taken on a life of its own. The counter demonization of Sunnis, within the Shiite world, as terrorists, takfiris, and Wahhabi inspired agents is well entrenched.

2. I would not be shocked to see significant ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad should ISIS attack and give the Iraqi Army a run for its money. After all, the Iraqi army is large, has helicopters, sophisticated intelligence capabilities, tanks, artillery and all the rest. They were caught napping and without esprit de corps, much as the Syrian army was. But capable officers will emerge who will strip down the “power-sharing” fat that the US built and rebuild it based on loyalty to Maliki and Shiism, if most of that has not been done already. This is what happened in Syria, when we saw the Syrian Army unravel at the base during the first year of the Sunni uprising. The Syrian military was quickly rebuilt along sectarian and regional lines to make it much stronger and more loyal, with locally recruited Iranian style National Defense Forces modeled on the Islamic Guard. If Sunnis choose to form such local militias and ally with the Shiite regime, so much the better. If they do not and choose to lay low until they figure out whether ISIS can win in their regions, the Shiites will go it alone and assume all Sunnis are a fifth column. That is how the Turks dealt with the Christians during WWI and the war with the Greeks. The 20% Christians in Anatolia of 1914 were cleansed. Jews in Palestine dealt with Muslims in a manner not altogether dissimilar. It didn’t turn out well for Christians in Anatolia or Muslims in Palestine.

3. We are not witnessing power-sharing or the emergence of a particularly destructive brand of religious nationalism in the region. We are witnessing the breakdown of the territorial nationalism that was implied by the borders drawn by Europeans at the end of WWI. The new nationalism, largely defined by religious affiliation, is apparent in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Palestine is a bit of an exception with the new coalition government, but not much of one.

My advice to Obama would be to lay low. This sectarian-nationalist process has been boiling up for a more than a century. It should be seen as part of the breakdown of the Ottoman order and emergence of nationalism. I compare what is going on in the Levant today to Central Europe during WWII. In Central Europe, the great powers drew national borders after WWI, carving up the lands of the defeated empires without rearranging the peoples to fit them. Thus Poland was only 64% Polish before WWII. Czechoslovakia was made up of close to 25% minorities. WWII was the “great sorting out.” (Read: ) Over the war years, the peoples of central Europe were rearranged according to the WWI borders. By the end of WWII, Poland and Czechoslovakia had been reduced to their core Polish and Czechoslovak peoples. They got rid of their unwanted (Jews) or guilty (think the 12 million Germans of central Europe) minorities, along with many others. It was a nasty and brutal nation-building process.

Of course, in the Middle East, the emergence of national identities is bedeviled by competing religious identities, which seem to be stronger than both “Arabism” or “Iraqism.”

I doubt we will see high degrees of Shiite-Sunni cooperation in the coming months. If the U.S. sticks its long oar into this mess, the U.S. will end up with a broken oar. It seems possible that within the next two years, ISIS will largely be destroyed by the concerted action of both Iraqi and Syrian forces with help from Iran and possibly the U.S.  Sunni Arabs will not be pacified so long as they receive scant justice and minimal political representation in both Syria and Iraq, but ISIS cannot represent their needs. It is an expression of sectarianism run amok.

Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Syria – by Fabrice Balanche

Fabriche Balanche SyriaInsurgency and Counterinsurgency in Syria – by Fabrice Balanche


Bashar al-Assad is clearly on the path to victory by way of continuing gains since Qusayr in June 2013. From the spring of 2013, the Syrian army, helped by Hezbollah, has been retaking territories: the southern suburbs of Damascus, the Qalamoun, and most recently, the center of Homs. The Syrian regime is not only massively supported by Iran and Russia (something the insurgency lacks), but Assad also applies a highly effective strategy of counterinsurgency. The rise of Islamists against him provided the ideology that Bashar al-Assad needed, i.e. the fight against Islamist terrorists supported from abroad. By demonstrating his resoluteness, Bashar al-Assad wants to reassure his supporters and win over the silent majority. The latter no longer seek the return of peace, but are falling into line behind the force that can ensure their security and is most likely to win.

Several rapid and symbolic victories, such as the reclamation of Bab Amer in March 2012, provided material that the government could instrumentalize in propagandist argumentation, as they sought to convey to the population that the rebels were responsible for the death and destruction.

The al-Assad regime is now supported by a new civil and military elite, who have been promoted over the course of events, as less competent officers have been eliminated. The regime also benefits from strong Iranian logistical support in counterinsurgency. The military regime’s strategy is clear: to first concentrate the army’s efforts on the usable parts of Syria and on border control, and to then follow by resuming the effort to reclaim disputed territories, once securing greater support from the population for the cause of the regime. The chaos in areas held by the insurgency, with the attendant lack of civil administration (which is also partially due to the regime’s air raids), promotes the attractiveness of government-controlled areas (where the greatest majority of the 7 million internally displaced people are residing), which in turn bolsters the counterinsurgency.


Download the entire article (in French) from Syria Comment, or visit Fabrice’s page.

Religious Groups and Scholars of Islam in the Syrian Revolution – by Issam Eido

Issam Eido Syria University of ChicagoIssam Eido is a Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow and a Visiting Instructor of Islamic Studies and Arabic in the University of Chicago Divinity School. Dr. Eido’s research focuses on the Qur’an in late antiquity, hadith studies, and Sufi and Arabic literary and poetic studies. Graduating with his PhD in 2010 from Damascus University, he also served that institution from 2010-2012 as Lecturer in the Department of Qur’anic Studies and History of Islamic Sciences. In 2012 he was a Fellow of the “Europe in the Middle East/Middle East in Europe” research program at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. At the University of Chicago, he currently teaches Qur’anic Arabic.


Religious Groups and Scholars of Islam in the Syrian Revolution

by Issam Eido for Syria Comment

Clouds of ambivalence and uncertainty have obscured Syria’s religious landscape from the beginning of the revolution. In the particular way that the conflict developed across space and time, every individual affiliated with a religious group became compelled—sooner or later—to take sides. Needless to say, any declaration of alignment in the conflict carries serious consequences, especially for religious shaykhs who are looked to for guidance. If even tacitly supportive of the revolution, the position taken by shaykhs can lead to killings, arrests, or torture by the regime’s officers. On the other hand, a shaykh might lose his followers or be accused of being a spy or in-league with regime intelligence if he exhibits even nominal support for the opposition. Hence, the first stage of suffering was the dreadful obligation to choose a side, something that weighed on ulema everywhere and exacerbated whenever a shaykh’s popularity was on the rise or when there was specific danger in the area where he lived. Accordingly, the way that the conflict developed can help us understand the reason for the declarations of each shaykh at particular points in time, as well as explain (in some cases) why the focus was on one shaykh more than others.

The Syrian revolution has two trajectories: geographic and temporal:

The geographic trajectory of the revolution conferred upon the ulema—the Arabic word for Muslim religious and legal authorities—the responsibility to tell the truth about what was happening in the area where they resided. Accordingly, we understand that the first religious defection to occur was that of the mufti of Dara‘a, and that the first shaykhs who were exposed to killings, imprisonment, and other dangers were the shaykhs of Dara‘a. These were followed by those of the city of Homs whose shaykhs rebelled in their entirety, supporting the revolution from the oldest to the youngest. They subsequently suffered displacement, prison, or evacuation, including such shaykhs as Anas Swaid, Mamdouh Junaid, Adnan al-Saqqa. This city, therefore, didn’t experience the contravention of public expectations by any shaykh who had gained the trust of the people before the revolution. Moreover, some shaykhs of the city were leading demonstrations and giving speeches in public places, such as Shaykh Junaid. The city of Hama was the third city to engage strongly in the revolution, but it lacked prominent religious leaders because most of its significant figures were killed, arrested, or evacuated during the events of the 1980s. Since then, fear of persecution has led most of its shaykhs and students to follow ulema from Damascus and Aleppo.

As for Damascus, the revolutionary activity was divided between the city and its countryside. While the countryside was among the most active regions of the revolution since its beginning, demonstrations in the city were limited to a few mosques such as the al-Hasan and al-Rifai mosques. Therefore, we can understand the great weight of responsibility that the ulema of these places took on. While the countryside of Damascus didn’t witness any support for the regime on the part of any prominent shaykh (in particular in Dariyya, Muddamiya, Doma, and Harasta), the people of Damascus heard vague statements and declarations coming from their ulema. Among the Damascene ulema we do not find a direct and obvious declaration inviting people to demonstrate against the regime, yet most of their statements contained calls for an end to oppression, an urging for justice, and calls for political change and reform. However, the continuity of demonstrations that were occurring at the al-Hasan and al-Rifai mosques exposed their shaykhs to direct harm. Shaykh Kurayyemal-Rajeh was only placed under house arrest (by the Minister of Endowments), but Shaykh Usama al-Rifai was directly assaulted by security forces and armed shabiha on the holiest night of the Islamic calendar (the night of al-Qader, near the end of Ramadan). Then, Al-Rajeh and Al-Rifai departed the country, and founded a new association of ulema about which I will speak later.

As Aleppo joined the revolution later in 2012, most of its ulema avoided overt opposition of the regime. However, most of its prominent ulema did sign statements urging all to end the killing and oppression, and requesting relief for affected people, especially those in Homs. Still, these ulema were subjected to some degree of questioning, but not to the same extent of those in other cities, as the regime sought to give the impression that Aleppo was its spoiled child.

With regard to the temporal trajectory, the Syrian revolution underwent a number of major transitions: The first stage was peaceful protests; these were followed by the defecting of many soldiers from the regime’s army; then there was the establishment of the Free Army; then the discussion surrounding the announcement of Jihad; and finally the present situation with the emergence of civil and militant Salafi groups.

Before delving into the details of this trajectory, I should point out that traditional Islamic thought, which occupies almost all the discourse of Syrian religious individuals, groups and institutions, is generally a conservative form of thought. Namely, it generally conforms to the established traditions and norms, and does not possess a spirit of initiative and change. In addition, it is—in the Syrian case—moderate. Accordingly, its pronouncements are always late and after-the-fact, which causes it to lose its sheen.

In the first six months of the revolution, the religious groups were moderate. They did not prefer change by force and only issued vague statements. But this situation changed during Ramadan of 2011 when the regime used heavy military force in Hama. The revolution’s trajectory quickly began to shift toward an armed revolution, in particular after the first military defection, that of Husain al-Harmoush. Many official persons followed his lead, such as the mufti of Dara‘a and the later striking announcement of defection of young women from the Qubaisyyat, a group for Muslim women that is known for its political quietism.

In examining this trajectory, we see that the structure of the religious groups started to disintegrate and crumble as a result of multiple factors: the defections of followers, the departure of shaykhs from the country, the loss of shaykhs’ popularity, and members adopting a new outlook and changing allegiance to other groups with different ideas about how to manage the situation. The changing structure of these groups was very deep.

We can classify Syria’s old and newly-emergent religious groups according to the following six categories:

  • First: Groups that support the revolution explicitly: most religious groups and their shaykhs in the Syrian countryside around most cities explicitly announced their support for the revolution. Some observers attributed this to a rural reaction against cities and against the official religious and political discourse that for many years had marginalized the countryside. But this analysis does not apply to some groups who worked for years prior to the revolution to develop a moderate or reformist religious discourse concerned with values of dignity, justice, and equality such as Shaykh Jawdat Saedd and Muaz al-Khateeb’s group. In addition, we find that most religious groups and leaders in Dara‘a, Homs, Hama, and most northeastern Syrian cities explicitly announced their support the revolution. There are also some ulema who openly declared their opinion in support of the revolution, such as Shaykh Ihsan Badarani—the religious advisor to the previous president Hafiz al-Assad. Badarani had been marginalized by the Syrian regime and religious institutions throughout Bashaar al-Assad’s reign, and some attributed his support for the revolution to this marginalization.


  • Second: Groups that support the regime explicitly: It is difficult to identify a religious group that supported the regime, except the ministry of endowments’s official institutions, its branches in cities, and some institutions that are associated with the ministry, such as the Abu al-Nour (Kuftaro) Institute. The ministry of endowments strove throughout the revolution to establish new groups and associations under different titles such as “The Association of Damascene Ulema” claiming that ulema actually supported the regime. These new associations often included some imams of mosques and some directors of official institutes like the directors of Abu al-Nour and al-Fateh Institutes, as well as some muftis. But the most prominent figures of these associations were the internationally renowned al-Buti and the grand Mufti Hassoun. While the Hassoun’s attitude was not surprising, al-Buti’s statements, speeches, lessons, and fatwas were surprising and generated many discussions and debates in online forums. This resulted in him losing most of his followers as we see in a record on the internet showing that only 20 to 40 students continued attending his lessons compared with a huge number of students who were attending prior to the revolution. Ultimately, al-Buti and many of his students were massacred during one of his weekly lessons in March 2013 in a well-known Damascus mosque, although there are conflicting reports about who was responsible.


  • Third: Groups that nominally support the regime: Most groups whose attitudes are ambiguous are Sufi groups and the Qubaisyyat (the group for religious Muslim women). While some activists claim that these groups support the revolution, others provide records that prove their support for the regime. In the case of the Qubaisyyat, the regime strove to display them as supporters by means of some pictures that showed them meeting with the president—an event that many said happened under coercion. As for Sufi groups, the ambiguity of their attitude was to be expected, as these groups are concerned mainly about individual and spiritual affairs rather than public ones. This, however, led to many questions about the role of these groups. Ambiguity was the general feature of most Sufi groups in Aleppo, such as the Keltawiyya, some of whose followers leaked a record indicating that their Shaykh Mahmoud Hout supported the regime and insulted the rebels. But afterwards, other followers leaked a record which indicated his criticism of the regime. It would be mistaken to assume that this pattern of ambiguity applied to all Sufi groups, as there were instances that stood in stark contrast, such as that of Shaykh Abu al-Huda al-Yaqubi in Damascus and Shaykh Mahmoud Abu al-Huda al-Husaini in Aleppo whose support for the revolution was explicit early on. Some attributed this to their higher levels of education.


  • Fourth: Groups that nominally support the revolution: Most Damascene and some Aleppan ulema fell into this category during the first year of the revolution. This ambiguity started to change when the revolution reached Aleppo and Damascus. A good example of where we can see this ambiguity is in the Shari‘a faculties of universities where most of the lecturers supported the revolution with indistinct, opaque language. They were reluctant to exhibit overt support because they were suffering concern on two fronts: the fear of the official channels of Syrian intelligence as well as pressure from their own colleagues.


  • Fifth: New groups outside Syria: in the first year of the revolution, some new organizations were established by Syrian ulema, most of whom had already been living outside of Syria before the revolution began. One example is the “Syrian Ulema Association” whose head is Shaykh Ali al-Sabouni and whose vision is basically traditional. This organization issued many statements that are considered the first religious statements against the regime. The “Syrian Islamic Forum” was established in Istanbul by a number of Syrian ulema. These had escaped from the country with a few exceptions like Shaykh Anas Swaid from Homs. Although this institute relies on shari‘a as the source of law, it sees citizenship as a right for all Syrians, and it describes itself as moderate and committed to developing an open and deep Islamic discourse. There is also the “Islamic Organization of Sham (Greater Syria)” that was also established in Istanbul at the end of 2011 by ulema unknown to most Syrians, and which presented itself as an extensive Islamic reformist organization that considered citizenship a right for all Syrians. However, the most important organization founded during the revolution was “The Ulama of al-Sham Association” which was created quite late (Sept. 2012) in Doha by several ulema who escaped from Syria, such as Shaykh Kurayyem al-Rajeh, the association’s head, Shaykh Usama al-Rifai the deputy, Saria al-Rifai, Rateb al-Nabulsi, Mamdouh Junaid, Adnan al-Saqqa, and Abd al-Kareem Bakkar. These scholars aimed to support the revolution through “Jihad al-Kalima”—a jihad through words—to form a religious reference point through which they could advise rebels on how to act according to shari’a, propagate a moderate discourse that dismisses sectarian behavior, and deal with all Syrians as equals.


  • Sixth: New groups growing inside Syria: Most of these groups have been founded in exceptionally violent circumstances, and have generally emerged as a reaction to brutal acts of the regime, or as relief groups and judicial councils in the areas that moved out of the regime’s control. These groups can be classified according to three types: ulema, judges, and armed militants. However, these groups generally have two common features: they are young and rural. Since the armed groups emerged as a reaction to the regime’s brutality, they generally promote extreme attitudes which often adopt the Salafi vision. As for other groups, they are almost all students of Syrian universities, in particular the shari‘a colleges, a fact which bolstered their credibility and gave them a level of trustworthiness. We see this in the countrysides of Aleppo and Damascus in such examples as the Association of Ulema in Jabal al-Zawia and the local judgment council in the countryside of Aleppo.

We can now conclude with several points:

  • Most official religious institutes have continued supporting the regime, in particular the Ministry of Endowments and its institutes, such al-Fateh, Abu al-Nour, and the Syrian Mufti.
  • Most traditional institutes, in particular mosques providing lessons, ceased their activities as most ulema fled to neighboring countries.
  • New groups emerged inside Syria, most of whose ideas are based on criticizing the official and traditional religious and legal discourses, in which most of these growing groups believed that these religious and legal discourses were one of the most important reasons for the continuity of the Ba‘ath regime.
  • However, the traditional ulema still have popularity among Syrian people especially in Damascus where conservative and moderate Damascenes consult the opinions of these ulema regarding every event.
  • The general religious landscape of Syria is currently characterized by two primary views: that of the late prominent Shaykh al-Buti who strongly supported the regime, and that of the many religious groups who believe that the battle represents a religious and sectarian conflict. This fact prompted many wise ulema and groups outside Syria to strive to conduct a non-sectarian revolution that would emphasize a citizenship of greater inclusivity. However, with the continuous brutality of the regime, the lack of any convincing political solution, and the passive role of the international community, Syria continues to be entrenched in sectarian conflict, remaining an ideal environment for the operation of extremists.

Syrians in Lebanon Vote in Presidential Elections


As Syrians abroad have been gathering to vote in the presidential elections at Syrian embassies around the world, Anne Barnard tweeted from the scene in Beirut. These tweets were very interesting, and I am providing them below, along with a few from others. An article on the voting in Lebanon was also published by Anne today, here. These elections began with bids submitted by more than 20 candidates, all but three of which were disqualified by Syria’s supreme court. Not long after, one of the surviving candidates, Hassan al-Nuri, stated that “There are no losers in these elections because we are all winners; as of now I consider myself a winner and the presidential chair is not the goal.” A Press TV interview with candidate Hassan al-Nuri is available here.

Oliver Holmes: Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad vote in early poll 

AP: Assad’s supporters abroad vote in Syrian election

VICE: Polls Open in Syrian Elections, but Real Choices Are Hard to Find

Shweta Desai: In Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, 750 Syrians line up to vote in an election denounced by critics as a farce

Syrians vote in presidential elections in Indian embassy

Voting taking place in environments where one candidate is explicitly promoted – Photo:

The National: Syrian elections put Tehran and Moscow in a fix


In the above tweet, the Arabic of the man’s comment was a bit ambiguous; he could have meant “we had to come,” though being forced seemed to be the sense he conveyed. Regardless, numerous reports have surfaced of many individuals believing they were coerced to vote, or were voting out of fear of the repercussions were they not to do so.

“Deal” should be “seal” in following tweet

Anne relays the account of a Syrian who was jailed for 3 months for having delivered humanitarian aid, who explained to her why he wouldn’t vote:

Think it funny to see photos of one candidate at a polling station?

Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations – By Nikolaos van Dam

Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations
By Nikolaos van Dam*
Delivered at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, 19 May 2014
Discussion series “Understanding Syria”. Discussion 3: German and European policy towards Syria: “Look the other way and wait as a strategy?

In my view there are two main ways of ending the conflict in Syria:

1. Further negotiations between the regime and the predominantly secular opposition groups. (Although I am aware that negotiations with the al-Asad regime may not yield much in the end, I do believe negotiations should be attempted more seriously than they have been so far in a proper effort to prevent further bloodshed).

2. To continue the present internal war until one side can claim victory.
For the secular opposition groups to win militarily, they need to be properly armed, but the West does not provide them with enough military support to achieve this. Al-Asad’s chances of winning the war have increased and Islamic extremist forces are now overpowering the predominantly secular opposition forces. The worse the situation becomes, the more the al-Asad regime starts to be seen as an option to be preferred over the radical Islamic state that the Islamist forces want to establish. If al-Asad does win this war, however, it will not be the end of this drama. For sooner or later there will be a reckoning against the al-Asad regime and its crimes against humanity. Therefore, negotiations are the better option, both for him and the opposition.

The Western approach to the Syrian uprising has from the very beginning been dominated by an overdose of wishful thinking, because precedence was given to supposedly democratic and moralistic ideals over realpolitik. Many Western politicians based their positions on their day-to-day domestic political reflexes, rather than on the long-term vision and result-oriented pragmatism that is needed to work towards genuinely helping to solve the conflict. Most Western politicians became fixated on the idea that the conflict could only be resolved if al-Asad was removed from power. They had clear thoughts about what they did not want, but no realistic ideas of what they wanted in al-Asad’s place. Yes, they wanted a democracy, but a violent deposal of al-Asad could not realistically have been expected to result in such a desired peaceful democracy.

Al-Asad never had any intention to leave. On the contrary, he intends to overcome the revolution and win the battle for Syria, whatever the costs. And the higher the costs, the more there is a will to continue the struggle, if only to prevent all the victims from having died in vain. It appears to be all or nothing for both al-Asad’s regime and the opposition movements; at least for the time being, as long as there is no war fatigue.

We should not expect any mercy in the way al-Asad’s regime deals with its opponents: there will be no pardon for the massive armed revolutionary opposition groups that are trying to topple the regime. It is to kill or be killed. A compromise has, as of yet, not really come in sight because a real compromise between the opposition and the regime, with real power sharing and substantial political reforms could be the prelude to the fall of the Ba’th regime later on.

If the regime were to be toppled, its leaders can expect certain execution, and the key figures of the al-Asad regime which have been recruited from the Alawi community can expect to be in severe danger, just like the Alawi community itself, even though this community contains many opponents to the Alawi dominated Ba’th regime. It would be naive to expect President al-Asad to sign his own death warrant.

By branding the rule of President al-Asad as illegitimate, Western countries may have been morally just, but they thereby prematurely cut off any opportunity they had to play a constructive role in helping find a political solution to the crisis. What should have priority: being morally correct or helping find a solution?

Many Western countries considered it politically inappropriate to continue to directly communicate with the al-Asad regime, since they did not want to be seen as condoning its methods. They did not want to be seen as being lenient or compromising their morality in any way with al-Asad’s forces, who already had the blood of hundreds of lives on their hands during the early stages of the revolution in 2011.

Three years after the beginning of the revolution, however, once it became apparent that the regime was much stronger than anticipated, and more than 125.000 dead had fallen, Western countries conceded that they needed to return to the idea of political dialogue, by helping organize the Geneva II conference in 2014. Iran was not allowed to participate in Geneva II, although it might have played a constructive role in trying to convince the Syrian regime to change its position.

In general, as the examples of excluding the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran from serious negotiations in other conflict situations have shown, it is a grave mistake to exclude main players in a conflict from dialogue aimed at solving it. Such exclusion achieves nothing, and only contributes to postponing a solution and allowing further bloodshed.

Imposing sanctions in the first year of the revolution with the aim of hitting the hard core of the regime, whilst simultaneously wanting to spare the population from its negative effects, turned out to be illusionary, as could have been predicted on the basis of earlier experiences with boycotts and sanctions elsewhere (e.g. in Iraq). The wishful thinkers hoped that al-Asad would step down once enough pressure had been exercised by the countries condemning him, but dictators do not follow the rules of democratic accountability and decency. Additionally, sanctions that are not accompanied by dialogue or communication generally fail to achieve their intended aim.

Most Western countries closed their embassies in Damascus, thereby further cutting off any opportunities they may have had to engage with the regime, and to maintain a good understanding of internal Syrian developments. The closing of these embassies was meant to send a message of strongest condemnation to al-Asad from the European community, but the symbolism was probably wasted on the Syrian President, who is unlikely to have lost any sleep over the withdrawal of the Western community.

I do not want to argue that if Western efforts for dialogue with the Syrian regime had been taken up much more seriously at an early stage, there would have been any guarantee of success, but it should at the very least have been attempted. At an earlier stage, when much less blood had been shed, compromise would have been much less difficult to reach than it is now.

In its seemingly unwavering conviction that the opposition would be preferable to al-Asad, it was also overlooked that the al-Asad regime is supported by a substantial part of the Syrian population, perhaps some 30 per cent or more, including part of the Arabic speaking minorities (like the Alawis, Christians and Druze). This support should not be interpreted as the existence of real sympathy for the regime, but rather as the prevalent feeling among many that an alternative regime could be even worse. Many Syrians for the time being prefer to preserve their livelihoods under the existing dictatorship rather than having their livelihoods, their shops and spare sources of income and belongings destroyed as a result of the internal war, let alone having themselves and their families be killed. Many are just as, if not more, afraid of what the opposition could bring as they are of the regime’s way of ruling before.

Does the West still have options to help solve the conflict?

- Western military intervention with “boots on the ground” seems to be out of the question. There is no political appetite for it. When the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Summer 2013, thereby crossing president Obama’s so-called “red lines”, neither the US nor the UK reacted militarily although it had been suggested they would. This seriously undermined Western credibility and demonstrated that their moral threats had no teeth.

- The West’s declared aim to arm the opposition, thereby strengthening their chances of winning the war, seems to have been restricted mainly to non-lethal weapons. It is, however, impossible to win a war with non-lethal weapons. When the EU arms embargo against Syria had been lifted at the insistence of the UK and France in 2013, there was – contrary to expectation – no real change as far as arms deliveries to the opposition were concerned. It turned out that there was no political will to really arm any part of the opposition, even the predominantly secular side. Questions were raised around which of the many opposition groups should be armed and with what aim, as the West obviously wanted to avoid an Islamic extremist dictatorship at all costs. But was there any guarantee that arms provided to others would not end up in their hands? What the West clearly wants to see is a moderate democratic secular pluralist successor regime, but is such a regime a serious possibility? I don’t think it is a realistic prospect; at least not in the foreseeable future.

- The rationale behind delivering arms might also be to provide a counterweight to the regime, strong enough to help force a negotiated settlement. For that to happen, both sides should be convinced that this would be the best, or least bad option. The question remains, however, whether the party that thinks it can win the battle is prepared to negotiate, except perhaps for tactical reasons. Western politicians may continue to pay lip service to the secular opposition, but as long as they do not provide them with the necessary means to win the battle, their moral support has hardly any value. While clearing their political conscience by expressing support for the opposition, they are, in reality, unintentionally helping al-Asad move towards victory.

- In order to play a role in helping achieve a solution, Western contacts need to be maintained with both sides, not just with the opposition. Syrian National Coalition offices could for instance be welcomed in European capitals, as was recently done in the US. It should be clear, however, that such a move would presently be not much more than moral support. At the same time, direct contacts with the Syrian regime should be continued or reestablished.

- Various EU-leaders have on several occasions called for the imposition of no-fly zones in Syria to protect the opposition and population from air-based regime attacks, but nothing has come of this. This may partly be due to the fact that imposing a no-fly zone implies direct war with the Syrian regime.

-The setting up of humanitarian corridors to help the population gain access to food aid has turned out to be unsuccessful as well. Although the relevant Security Council resolution was passed in February 2014, this has so far been no more than a success on paper.

- Most actions by the West have been reactive, with no clearly defined plan or aim for the future beyond removing President al-Asad and his regime from power. The absence of this type of analysis is surprising, particularly given the fact that a future regime could, for example if it were to be a radical Islamist dictatorship, turn out to be worse than the current regime.

- Most Western policies have been no more than declaratory, with few tangible positive results on the ground for the opposition. Supposedly, the good intentions that were widely expressed, were generally not followed up by concrete actions, because the Western countries had their hands tied politically.

A key question that has run throughout debates around the Syrian crisis has been: do we want justice? The answer is, yes, of course, but at which cost? It is easy to say that president al-Asad should be tried for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. So he should. But does that help us in finding a solution? I would say it does not. Let us make no illusions. The idea that Al-Asad would ever be able to leave Syria alive for such a court case, is extremely unrealistic.

Calling for justice is good in itself, as is the documenting of all the war crimes that have been committed. This has to be done, of course, but not over and above efforts to proactively work towards finding a solution and preventing the further bloodshed that will undoubtedly continue if no serious negotiations are facilitated among Syria’s various clashing factions. The call for justice needs to be a part of wider efforts to create peace, focusing on Syria moving forward, rather than merely focusing on the punishment of those that are guilty for the crimes against the Syrian people committed in the recent past. A solution must be found before justice can be done. It cannot be the other way around.

The West should stop raising false expectations, as it has so often done in the past, and adopt an attitude of result-oriented pragmatism in an effort to really help solve the conflict.

* Nikolaos van Dam is the author of The Struggle for Political Power in Syria and former ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia.