The Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) Expansion in Syria – By Jesse McDonald

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) Expansion in Syria
By Jesse McDonald – @JJMcDonald10 
For Syria Comment – April 22

What does the future hold for political groups operating in the Syrian theater?  The plethora of loyalist militias and whether they fall under the central governments authority is something to monitor.  However, there are forces also politically represented who have remained obedient without straying too far outside the regimes orbit.   One group in particular developing quite rapidly at the grassroots level is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which the remaining of this article focuses on.

Now, there is a faction of the SSNP which initially joined the opposition, including its leader Ali Haidar, who is currently the Syrian Minister for Reconciliation (an extremely important ministry).  This split, known as the intifada bloc, never caused too much of a headache (as evidenced by Ali Haidar’s appointment).  In fact, Haidar is quoted as saying he is opposed to a complete break with the regime since that also entails a break with its popular base.  As a result, SSNP headquarters in Beirut and Haidar in Damascus seem to have reconciled, an act needed considering they are united on standing with Assad.

This paper will highlight the SSNP’s sudden influence in Syria since the war began, in part due to their relationship with both the Assad regime and Ba’ath Party.  It explores the possibility of some form of cohesive partnership between the SSNP and Ba’ath in the years ahead.  A partnership generated by the necessity to maintain and hold allies during this delicate phase.  Then, showcasing several areas in Syria where the SSNP has flourished will be presented, before ending on the party’s connections to Hezbollah and Russia.

SSNP’S STRENGTH

Ironically, one of the characteristics which hurt the SSNP in the past, namely competition with the Ba’ath, may in fact be a great asset looking to the future.  The two parties have always been close (going back to the 1940s), but it was the SSNP ultimately banned in Syria from 1955 until 2005. Previous competition stemmed mostly from similarities opposed to outright hostility based on solid discrepancies rooted in their core.  Both competed for members who often switched party lines.  For lack of a better term, these feuding cousins appear to have sued for peace during Syria’s current turbulent environment.  War can bring historical political rivals closer together when allies are desperately needed.

The Assad’s have always been closer to the Syrian nationalism side of their Arabism vision compared to one focused on a traditional Michel Aflaq –type Ba’athism.  Additionally, and more importantly, numerous Syrian political groups with initial SSNP leanings eventually merged into the Ba’ath Party.  One example being Akram al- Hawrani- a leading figure in Syrian politics and one of the SSNP’s first members.  Akram helped found the National Youth Party, becoming its leader in 1939.  Negotiations for cooperation with the SSNP failed, so Hawrani turned the National Youth Party into the Arab Socialist Party in January 1950, before merging with the Ba’ath Party in 1953. 

MORE OVERLAPP

Ghassan Jadid, a leading member of the SSNP in the 1940s and 1950s, rose to the position of defense chief for the party in 1954.  His brother Salah, first paid his allegiance to the SSNP before switching over to the Ba’ath in the 1950s.  Salah Jadid was one of the five members of the secret Military Committee catapulting the Ba’ath to power in Syria.  Hafez al-Assad was another one of these five members.

Hafez al- Assad was married to Anisa Makhlouf al-Assad, Bashar’s mother, who was an active member of the SSNP before her marriage to Hafez.  Anisa’s brother, Mohammad, was also a member and one of his sons, Rami Makhlouf, recently declared he was a party member in 2013.  Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s first-cousin, is considered the wealthiest man in Syria with vast influence over multiple sectors of Syrian society.  It goes without saying his addition would be a major boost to the SSNP’s role in the years ahead.  A declaration of support by a figure of Rami’s magnitude would have been unfathomable years ago.

BA’ATH / SSNP UNION?

As somewhat touched upon above, such a shift of allegiance is not staggering considering the two parties interests overlap in many ways.  Championing secularism, espousing anti- Zionist views, attracting minorities, and passionately defending the integrity of the Syrian nation are a few common attributes that have brought these two closer.  Melting together behind a matching vision for Syria, and considering the ease both have targeting similar support networks, enables the SSNP and Ba’ath a certain degree of flexibility to join forces.  Any potential ‘merger’ works for the Ba’ath in this regard while simultaneously allowing the SSNP valuable time to attract followers and reestablish themselves in society after fifty years sitting on the sideline.  High ranking officials in the Assad / Mahklouf camp have an avenue, by working together more with their SSNP allies, to preserve their status without disrupting any assets or the day-to-day affairs of running the country.  A smooth transition could very well occur even if no formal announcement or legal procedure makes it official.

Active in Syria since the 1930s and sharing a long history with the Ba’ath Party puts the SSNP in a unique position.  This is a party whose rich literature coupled with an abundance of educational publications available to Syrian’s provides a foundation to cultivate future generations.  Entrenched in the political landscape with a structural organization already in place has allowed the party to accelerate their outreach to Syrian communities.  Not only is the regime aware of their activities, they actively join in some of the SSNP’s celebrations.  Such events include, honoring Syrian soldiers who have died, culture seminars, opening offices and publicly teaching SSNP ideology, which will be explored below.  Notwithstanding, Ba’ath Party officials direct participation in these events, exhibits a level of understanding between both parties.  Trust is further solidified following years of the regime fighting together with the SSNP’s militia- Eagles of the Whirlwind.

SSNP SPREADS ITS WINGS

Over the last couple years (2014-present), the SSNP has significantly increased its presence throughout Syria, particularly in Homs and Hama, but also in Latakia, Damascus and its suburbs.  Their growth in these governorates primarily centers around towns and cities inhabited by minorities but this should not take away from the fact that the party is indeed expanding.  Becoming the second largest party in Syria behind only the Ba’ath.  It appears the SSNP is able to accomplish this in coordination with the regime, not in spite or because of any rebellion due to regime weakness or inability to act.

The following are several displays of the SSNP’s activities in Syria, beginning in Homs.

The SSNP’s stronghold in Homs is located in the city of Homs’ Old City neighborhood.  Here, SSNP members are in full control of certain areas, even conducting security checks and manning checkpoints.  Vehicles are checked for bombs by local SSNP men and party celebrations are guarded by armed members. These acts point to confidence in the regime and the local population.

 

SSNP HOMS FB POST on 3.13.16 OPENING A NEW OFFICE IN THE OLD CITY PART OF HOMS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN OVER 50 YEARS. SSNP LEADER IN HOMS-NIHAD SAMAAN ADDRESSED THE CROWD.

However, such overwhelming freedom from a party banned until as recently as 2005 does not seem to be threatening the regime.  The regime is instead delegating authority to a trusted partner who as of now does not challenge Assad or circumvent his authority.  In fact, the two parties participate together at speeches, rallies, seminars and anniversary events in the city.

SSNP HOMS FB POST 11.17.17 CELEBRATING WITH THE BA’ATH PARTY ON THE SSNP’s FOUNDING ANNIVERSARY.

The SSNP has a big following in Wadi al-Nasara (‘Valley of the Christians’) in western Homs and also in the towns of Sadad and al-Qaryatayn- members are most likely gelled with NDF or SAA units in these two cities.  However, there are indications Sadad is completely controlled by local fighters in the SSNP.  Nevertheless, the SSNP’s freedom to operate, often with members of the Ba’ath Party, is quite striking.

In Hama, the SSNP is most visible in the towns of Marhdeh, Suqaylabiyah, and Salamiyah, with fighters participating in battles on the provinces eastern countryside front.  Marhdeh and Suqaylabiyah, in northern Hama, have been on the front lines for years and SSNP fighters were with government troops spearheading assaults on rebel positions stationed in adjacent towns (such as Halfaya).   The city of Salamiyah (birthplace of Fatimid Caliphate) has witnessed its share of attacks with local Isma’ili men joining the SSNP to defend their town.  Consequently, since fighters with the SSNP in these three cities are often locals, as danger recedes, the SSNP is already fairly entrenched to carry out municipal administration.  As recently as last November the party opened a radio center in Marhdeh but have had offices serving local needs for a couple years at these three locations.

SSNP Hama FB post on 8.1.17 showing SSNP members handing out candy to Syrian troops in Marhdeh

SSNP Salamiyah FB post on 12.1.17 celebrating the party’s founding anniversary.  Syrian Peoples Assembly member and SSNP figure Mazen Azzouz (who was born in Salamiyah) attended along with a member of the Ba’ath Party in Hama.

The SSNP is also very active in the city of Latakia, hosting sporting matches, excursions for the youth, and training seminars.  The province of Latakia is an Alawite, and subsequently Assad stronghold, so the SSNP’s activities in this area is something to pay attention to.  Lastly, the countryside and suburbs of Damascus with an SSNP presence are the cities of Maaloula, Zabadani and Saidnaya (Eagles Whirlwind fought in all three cities) located outside the capital, with an office also in Damascus.  The SSNP’s flag openly waiving in Damascus, even if solely for visual effects, is significant for a party beginning to taste freedom under Bashar’s regime.

SSNP FB POST SHOWING A YOUTH TRAINING FACILITY IN LATAKIA

SSNP DAMASCUS FB POST ON 6.11.17 SHOWING MEMBERS DISTRIBUTING FOOD AS PART OF A SOCIAL WELFARE PROGRAM IN THE CAPITAL

SSNP DAMASCUS FB POST ON 3.22.17 SHOWING MEMBERS IN THE CAPITAL HANDING OUT SWEETS TO PEDESTRIANS ON MOTHERS DAY

The regime forming local committees or delegating security still ensures movements and decisions are under the watchful eye of the central government.  Changes, such as conceding room for organizations like the SSNP to maneuver, have been imposed out of necessity.  The Assad regime is aware that on their own they will not be enough to guarantee its power.   Weapons provided to the SSNP or sensitive decisions ultimately rests with high level regime officials.  This might explain why the SSNP is able to: stage rallies; open media centers and headquarters throughout several cities; hold seminars, conduct training sessions in party ideology as well as fitness exercises; hand out leaflets to civilians informing them of the parties message; and organize blood drives for Syrian troops (the list goes on).  All of the above suggest regime trust in the SSNP.  If Rami Makhlouf is indeed a SSNP comrade, and considering his families history of allegiance to the party, coupled with an overlapping interests between the SSNP and Ba’ath parties, such developments might be an early indicator of a new alliance.

High ranking officials will head to the party which preserves their interests while ambitious individuals with the means will follow in search of prosperity.  For decades the Ba’ath was the only option.  Consequently, people joined.  The situation in Syria might not allow for the Ba’ath to continue as it did before the war.  Hence, gravitating, or blending in with various elements of the SSNP could be a viable option to safeguard their status moving forward.

SSNP FB POST SHOWING NEW MEMBERS BEING SWORN IN ON 8.26.17 IN HAMA

Distributing leaflets in Homs city on anniversary of SSNP’s founding FB post 11.17.17 

SSNP’s ALLIANCE WITH HEZBOLLAH IN SYRIA

Given Hezbollah’s vital and dominant position in Syria’s war, the organizations link to the SSNP is relevant when analyzing what role the SSNP could play in the years ahead.  Upholding a Syrian nationalist attitude, re-establishing control of cities (SSNP fights with SAA and Hezbollah to do this), maintaining and even expanding economic hegemony and not upsetting support coming from Damascus to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon remain priorities for Assad.  The SSNP is not, for the moment at least, deemed a threat in the matters mentioned above.  There aren’t sweeping reports of looting, violence, or insubordination (plaguing many regime militias) in the areas they have most clout.  Perhaps this signals a degree of comfort on the part of the regime to allow SSNP added freedom.  Garnering the trust of Hezbollah also certainly helps.  Moreover, the SSNP is in a political alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon (March 8th) and the two sides fight together at times in Syria.

SSNP FB POST SHOWING SSNP FLAGS ALONGSIDE HEZBOLLAH’S AND LEBANON’S FLAG

EXAMPLES WHERE THE SSNP & HEZBOLLAH FOUGHT ON THE SAME FRONT IN SYRIA

There are not many independent Syrian forces fighting with the SAA and Hezbollah, certainly not while also representing a political party.  Below features several strategic Syrian cities and provinces where Hezbollah and the SSNP fought together.  This section is not going to delve into every front or town, but rather, inform the reader on areas of higher interest that witnessed a more sustained presence of fighters.  Let’s begin with the historical town of Maaloula near Damascus.

A delegation from SSNP’s leadership presented condolences and congratulations on the death of three reporters from al-Manar crew in Maaloula Syria on March 14, 2014.  Asad Hardan was part of this delegation while head of SSNP’s political bureau, Ali Qansu, expressed his condolences on behalf of the SSNP in a statement to al-Manar (showing the strong partnership with such high level representation).  It is important to remember that when fighting erupted in Maaloula in 2013, Hezbollah was fighting with the Syrian army and members of the SSNP for control of the ancient Christian town.  In September of that same year, allied rebels alongside what was then al-Nusra, briefly took control of a section of Maaloula.  However, Hezbollah and their allies mentioned above were able to regain control and drive the rebels out.  It was at this time, when residents and media outlets began to investigate what had just occurred, al-Manar’s crew was ambushed and killed.  Such instances of cooperation however further strengthen Hezbollah’s and the Assad regime’s argument that they are the protectors of minorities.  Bashar paid a visit to Maaloula, where residents still speak Aramaic, the following Easter and Hezbollah has the ability to demonstrate their bodyguard role for Christians in Lebanon as well as in Syria.

Other examples of Hezbollah fighting side by side, or at least in the same town, as the SSNP:

The mountains of Latakia province have been a particularly deadly area for the Eagles of the Whirlwind.  The Kurd Mountains (Jabal al-Akrad) and also the towns of Kabani and Kinsaba are several hot spots where members of Hezbollah and the SSNP found themselves fighting on the same front.  According to Fars News Agency, in 2016 large number of reinforcements from the provinces of Tartous and Homs were sent to the Northwestern battlefields where many were to replace the Desert Hawks (Liwa Suqour al-Sahra) in Jabal al-Akrad.  The SSNP were one of these groups tasked with protecting captured territory.  Besides holding territory, SSNP fighters have been very active as part of offensives in the countryside of Latakia over the years.

In addition to fighting with Hezbollah in Latakia countryside, SSNP fighters were also stationed together in the Qalamoun region along the Syria-Lebanon border, primarily in the battle to retake the town of Qaryatayn.  The following is from one report out of Fars News Agency: The Syrian army’s 81st and 120th brigades of the 2nd Division- in close coordination with the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP), Dara’a Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield), and Liwa Suqour Al-Sahra (Desert Hawks Brigade)- liberated several sites from ISIL near the strategic city of Quaryatayn in Homs provinces’ Southeastern countryside. Homs province is another part of Syria with a heavy SSNP presence.  Speaking with members based in Homs city, the party plays an overwhelming role in security, checking for car bombs, and making sure vital services are running properly.

In 2015 the Syrian army pushed to gain control of the strategic town of Zabadani.  According to several media reports, the units involved were from the Syrian army’s 63rd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division, in coordination with Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (NDF), and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).  The Eagles Whirlwind were mostly stationed in the eastern sections of Zabadani acting as a bulwark against attempts by forces from the FSA, Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham to infiltrate into the city.  While the SSNP’s forces were stationed in the East, Hezbollah alongside the Syrian army, were spearheading the advance in the western sections.  Similar to reports coming out of Latakia countryside, indications point to the Eagles of the Whirlwind acting more as protectors of a secured territory as opposed to a force on the front lines of an attack.  Perhaps such a maneuver is strategic from the Assad regime or perhaps this simply comes down to a lack of experience / manpower from those fighting under the Eagles emblem.

To close this section, both parties are also present in Hama province.  Specifically, in the northern countryside of the province, with the city of Mahrdeh being a focal point.  The strategic town sits along a highway connecting the provincial capital and is considered one the largest Christian cities in Syria.  There is a definite SSNP presence with a growing local party office, along with a local NDF unit.  When offensives were launched from Mahrdeh, particularly on the town of Halfaya, SSNP forces were on the front lines alongside (reports of) Hezbollah fighters.  Hezbollah’s presence in Mahrdeh was addressed thanks to a letter by a group calling themselves ‘Syrian Christians for Peace.’

RUSSIAN CONNECTION

Russia’s military intervention certainly changed the dynamics of the war.  In addition to conducting airstrikes, Russian generals are stationed on the ground to assist with reconciliation deals.  This aspect of the war, local committees engaged in dialogue, as well as peace talks held in Astana and Sochi, witnessed members of the SSNP partner with the Russians.  Ali Haidar (mentioned above), leader in the SSNP and long- time oppositionist to the Assad regime, now is Syria’s Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs, inevitably putting him in contact with Russia.  It is also highly likely both sides would have interacted due to the Eagles of the Whirlwind and SAA fighting together.

Recently, a delegation composed of three members of the SSNP held talks with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow.  The talks zeroed in on the conference in Sochi and Turkey’s military maneuvers near Afrin.  Additionally, Ali Haidar has been working more closely with the Hmeimim – based Russian Coordination Center as one team, to boost local reconciliations throughout Syria.  He was recently seen with Russian General Victor Bankov from the coordination center meeting members of local reconciliation committees.  Moreover, fighters with the Eagles of the Whirlwind have received medals of excellence from the Russian Ministry of Defense.  Further evidence of the growing alliance between the SSNP and another power with influence over Syria’s affairs.

SSNP EAGLES OF THE WHIRLWIND MEMBER RECEIVING A RUSSIAN MEDAL OF EXCELLANCE

ANOTHER SSNP FB POST SHOWING AN EAGLES OF THE WHIRLWIND FIGHTER RECEIVING A RUSSIAN MEDAL

CONCLUSION

Syria is increasingly under the stewardship of a new class of businessmen with ties to the Assad’s and Makhlouf’s.  Reconstruction deals favoring these connected individuals will only benefit them at the expense of Syrian citizens.  While still operating under the Ba’ath Party guise, it is uncertain how the party will emerge through the scars of war or restructuring due to possible peace deals.  Regardless, the SSNP has a deep-rooted history with many of these power brokers, which is worth paying attention to when analyzing the party’s potential cushion in absorbing Ba’ath party officials.  Such a scenario might paint a picture of revamping the political establishment, while in reality nothing much would change, at least in the short term.

The SSNP not only has a close relationship with the Assad’s and Mahklouf’s, but also more so recently, with the Ba’ath Party.  Meaning, members are familiar with one another’s vision for Syria, which is currently geared around stabilizing the Syrian state and cohesion of Syrian society.  The party is also in a position of strength negotiating reconciliation deals with rebels through Ali Haidar’s ministry.  Assad relies on Haidar’s (and the SSNP’s) image as opposition figures to appear more neutral during negotiations.  Moreover, the party has an active fighting force (Eagles of the Whirlwind), and a long record of political involevement in Syria, helping cement its position in towns across the country.  Figuring the parties intimate friendship with Hezbollah (thus factoring in Iran), and now Russia into the equation, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) is in a favorable spot during this critical moment of Syria’s history.

 

–Al-Akhbar. “Hezbollah military investigation reveals who killed Al-Manar TV crew.” http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/19459

-Al-Akhbar. “Syria’s Ali Haidar: Both Sides Have Extremists.” http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/9716

-Fars News Agency. “Hezbollah Hits ISIL’s Military Positions in Lebanon’s Al-Qalamoun Region.” http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13950121000473

-Fars News Agency. “Syria: Thousands of Fresh Recruits Joining Army’s Imminent Operation in Idlib.” http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13941221000333

-McDonald, Jesse. “The SSNP’s Military: The Eagles of the Whirlwind & Their Emblem.” Syria Comment. www.joshualandis.com/blog/24853-2/

-Pipes, Daniel. “Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition.” Page 102.

-SANA. “Minister Haidar: We work with Russian coordination center in Hmeimem as one team to boost local reconciliations.” http://sana.sy/en/?p=121734

-Seale, Patrick. “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.” Page 63.

-Syria Times. “SSNP Politburo Member to ST: Sochi Congress Must be Based on Current Military Developments in Syria.”  http://syriatimes.sy/index.php/editorials/opinion/34516-ssnp-politburo-member-to-st-sochi-congress-must-be-based-on-current-military-developments-in-syria

-Syrian Christians for Peace FaceBook post on April 3, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/syrianchristiansforpeace/

-Zaman Al Wasl. https://www.zamanalwsl.net/index.php?url=news/article/47283

 

Trump May Be Right – By David W. Lesch

Trump May Be Right
By David W. Lesch
For Syria Comment – April 17, 2018

In the wake of the recent US targeted attack in Syria, President Trump’s comments a couple of weeks ago that the US needs to get out of Syria as soon as US-backed forces mop up the remnants of the Islamic State has run up against elements in the administration who want a sustained US presence in the country. They believe a couple of thousand troops and some military bases supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are needed in the country in order to assure that ISIS is defeated and does not re-establish itself, to provide some leverage vis-à-vis the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus regarding any sort of political settlement, and to contain Iran, which many fear is well on the way to creating a strategic land bridge from Teheran to Beirut. There seems to be a real battle in the administration over the direction of Syria policy.

But let’s examine these goals a little more closely.  What exactly is the US doing there? Certainly the Kurds are not counting on a continued US presence, especially not after Trump’s remarks; indeed, they have long been striking deals with the Syrian government and the Russians to hedge their bets.  Frankly, once the US leaves, Damascus would then be free to negotiate a modus vivendi with the Kurds regarding autonomy over something less than the 27% of Syrian territory now under their sway, which could then ameliorate the Turks, who might feel secure enough to pull back from northern Syria.

Staying in Syria in order to ensure the defeat of the Islamic State is laudable.  But what does “defeat” look like? ISIS still holds pockets of territory along the Iraqi border, but it seems to be reverting to what it was before, i.e. a terrorist organization carrying out attacks against perceived enemies. It appears that eliminating those last bastions of ISIS control, in order to protect Iraq as much as Syria, will do the trick in terms of satisfying Trump.  This can be facilitated with a Turkish-US modus vivendi that will allow the SDF to re-focus its attention to the east rather than be diverted to protect its Kurdish comrades fighting Turkish forces in the northwest. The Turks, probably giddy with Trump’s desire to get out, might just let the Kurds resume anti-ISIS operations knowing that a US departure would facilitate their Kurdish objectives in Syria.

Over the long term, however, only stabilization efforts in the cities and towns abandoned by ISIS will prevent it from re-establishing a presence or finding safe havens in which to brew it special brand of chaos. Stabilization will only seriously occur once there is a political settlement. However morally repugnant, this means that the government of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, will ultimately be responsible for stabilization. Russia and Iran did much more to help Assad stay in power than the US and its allies did to remove him.  So, to the victor go the spoils, and that includes putting Syria back together again and all the challenges that it entails.  Political and economic opportunity meet target on one’s back.  Trump does not want that target to be US troops. In any event, if the EU and regional Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia, can stomach Assad staying in power, perhaps the spigots of reconstruction aid will open up in a way that will help stabilize the country. Syria still has a functioning central authority that retains a certain amount of legitimacy which can, with international assistance, prevent it from falling into full failed state status, which is exactly the terrain in which ISIS operates.  We already have too many Yemens and Libyas in the area.

Regardless, the US is on the outside looking in on a political settlement.  That ship has sailed for all intents and purposes.  The Russians, Iranians, and Turks are setting the table, and the Syrian government at the moment is not entertaining any serious concessions of the kind the US and various Syrian opposition groups have been clamoring for. How can we lose leverage when we never really had it? Yes, the US-supported SDF hold the vast majority of Syria’s oil wells in the east, which the Syrian regime desperately wants back—this is potential leverage.  But the regime will be patient.  It has already proven its ability to extract the necessary resources from its population and its allies to stay in power. It will just wait a little longer.

Finally, the Iranian corridor:  well, folks, it’s already there, and there is not much we can do about it short of going to war with Iran. Teheran has already achieved most of its strategic objectives in Syria, first and foremost by keeping Assad in power.  Besides, there is a much better deterrent in the region than the US to keep Iranian influence in check:  Israel.  The Israelis have already sent a very strong message to Iran (and Assad) through its forceful military response to the Iranian drone that was shot down over Israeli territory earlier this year.  In fact, many believe Iran’s relatively low profile in the Syrian government’s retaking of Eastern Ghouta over the past few weeks was in direct reaction to this.  It doesn’t want to bait the Israelis to intercede even more forcefully.  This apparent passivity just means that Iran already has what it wants.  Keeping it at that level will be the job of the Israelis and also the Russians, who are keen to not let the Iran-Israel dynamic ignite a regional war. We can expect an Israeli-Iranian dance in Syria in coming months, if not years, to determine exactly where the red lines are.

Although awkwardly expressed in a manner that telegraphs our intentions and diminishes our diplomatic leverage, Trump’s assertions are consistent with how he has viewed US involvement in Syria from the beginning.  His initial tweets in response to the chemical attack on April 7 displayed anger and exasperation.  It was almost as if Trump was saying to Moscow and Damascus: “I told you I was getting out, but you guys keep doing stupid stuff that pulls me back in.” The limited nature of the response suggests that Trump’s view on Syria still holds for now, as long as the the Syrians behave—or at least get the Russians to control their client-state (good luck with that).

Ironically, maybe getting out of Syria will in the end save the most lives in the country by eliminating the regional and international tug of war that Syria has become and creating space for a political settlement. An imperfect peace is better than the wars—actual and potential—in Syria.

*David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author or editor of 15 books on the Middle East.

Creating a New Syria: Property, Dispossession, and Regime Survival — by Erwin van Veen

bulldozers removing barriers from a road in the town of Harasta, east of the capital Damascus, Syria, Saturday, March. 24, 2018, where thousands of opposition fighters and members of their families are expected to use to head to northern Syria. The planned departure toward northern Syria comes a day after an agreement was reached between Faylaq al-Rahman and the Russians to evacuate the second of three pockets held by opposition fighters in eastern Ghouta. (SANA via AP) Hafez Hafiz al-Assad Asad

Bulldozers remove barriers from a road in Harasta, east of Damascus (SANA via AP)

 

By Erwin van Veen

While all eyes were fixed on the US-led military response to the alleged chemical attack in East Ghouta, a little-noted event occurred that could potentially have a much greater impact on Syria’s future. About 10 days ago, President Assad’s regime passed Law no. 10. The law foresees the creation of local administrative units in each district of regime-held territory that will be in charge of reconstruction efforts. All Syrians will be required to register their private properties with these units by providing proof of ownership, in person or through legal representatives. This must be done within roughly the next two months. The risk of noncompliance is that the Syrian state will take possession of the unregistered properties.

With half the Syrian population displaced and many property transfers prior to 2011 having been done informally, this will be a mission impossible for many. Depending on the implementation and enforcement of the law, its most likely consequence is that the Syrian state will acquire a substantial amount of property in the near future—land, buildings, and other immovable assets—within the territories it currently controls. The real implication here is twofold. Most importantly, President Assad’s regime will lay its hands on the assets it needs to finance the country’s reconstruction and reestablish its power base, preserving its long-term viability and independence. Moreover, it will dispossess hundreds of thousands of Syrians—possibly millions—who escaped the fighting or forced recruitment. Law no. 10 is a Faustian masterstroke—both in its injustice and its ingenuity.

The background is this: The World Bank has estimated the tab for reconstructing Syria at upwards of USD $200 billion. The Syrian regime has been broke for some time, kept financially afloat by the Iranian Central Bank and assorted Lebanese banks. Russia and Iran have neither the will nor the funds to finance Syria’s reconstruction. The Gulf countries, United States, and European Union have made it clear that likewise they will not carry Syria’s reconstruction without a “meaningful political transition”—a reference to their desire for real political concessions in the future governance of Syria. Most who are familiar with the conflict expect such a transition to happen when hell freezes over.

And yet, reconstructing Syria is essential to President Assad’s regime. This is not because it cares about restoring basic services like healthcare and housing to a decent level, or about the return of Syrian refugees. Figures like Syrian Major General Issam Zahreddin (since killed in battle) made it abundantly clear some time ago that returning refugees should not count on a warm welcome.

No. Rather, reconstruction is essential to the regime’s survival because it must reward the networks of businessmen, military, and militia leaders that helped it win the war. Reconstruction is also vital to the regime’s autonomy because it must re-establish its powerbase and independence vis-à-vis its international backers who will expect the future loyalty of a faithful Syrian ally when this conflict is over. Iran, for example, is already working to establish a long-term social, religious, and military presence in the country.

The imperatives of regime survival and autonomy mean that its reconstruction logic will echo its warfighting logic: indiscriminate punishment of disloyalty to impose fear, selective co-optation, and deal-making with opposition groups where this offers a low-cost solution on regime terms and safeguards core regime interests. Initial urban reconstruction efforts of the regime in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, on the basis of Decree 66 (2012), already show how the regime uses high-end property developments to generate funds and reward loyalists through forcible dispossession below market rates, as well as the use of regime-linked real estate and construction companies. The nationalization of property enabled by the closely-related Law no. 10 will take this approach to a new level.

An additional consequence of Law no. 10 is that it will enable large-scale demographic engineering by reallocating appropriated property to new owners. This will not necessarily be sectarian in nature as the majority of both Syrians and regime-loyalists are Sunni. Rather, it will create large loyalist urban centers to underpin the regime’s power base and limit the return of refugees, who are largely not perceived as supporters of President Assad.

In addition to remaking urban centers as areas of repopulated loyalist concentration, the strategy will probably also involve undoing the existence of impoverished Sunni-belts around Syria’s main cities from which so many rebels were recruited. Insofar as these poorer suburbs are currently depopulated due to rebel recruitment, casualties, and flight, the regime is likely to use Law No. 10 to appropriate the land (in many such areas, property rights were not well established even before the war) and to then prevent their resettlement if and when refugees return. Any Sunni populations that have not fled but are still living in such suburbs at present will also be at risk of forced displacement and dispossession commensurate with the extent of their perceived disloyalty to the regime. It is clear that the regime has no problem initiating displacement on a large scale when it suits regime interests. Dealing with the suburban belts in this fashion will remove a source of resistance against the regime once and for all.

Though these are the primary aspects of the strategy, Law no. 10 may very well additionally facilitate small-scale sectarian demographic engineering in a few strategic areas. The “four-town deal” that swapped the population of two Sunni villages with two Shi’i ones west of Damascus suggests that the Syrian-Lebanese border could be such an area. Incidentally, this particular deal was enabled by Qatar as the price for release of their captured royal hunting party in Iraq.

If the re-entrenchment of the Syrian regime was not already a sad enough finale, the emerging parallels with the plight of many Palestinians are uncanny and will constitute a further source of international concern. Not only is the relative size of the Syrian diaspora growing fast, but Law no. 10 may well have an effect similar to the Israeli Absentee Property Law, which effectively nationalized Palestinian lands whose owners had fled after November 1947. The Israeli/Palestinian problem still haunts the world’s conscience 70 years later, though apparently not enough to end its neglect and resolve the problem.

In 2017, Pearlman quotes Talia—a fleeing TV correspondent in Aleppo—regarding a sad but remarkably poignant moment: “I waited for the driver outside. I kissed the walls on the street, because I knew that I was never coming back to them.”

Law no. 10 just brought this scenario one step closer to reality.

___________________________________________________________________

Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. Follow on Twitter.

Addendum: “Displaced Syrians ensnared by new property law stand to lose everything” by Bahira al-Zarier & Barrett Limoges for Syria Direct, 17 April 2018.

Law 10 gives property owners both in Syria and abroad just 30 days—starting April 11—to present their deeds to local council offices in the country. Otherwise, the state can liquidate their titles and seize their holdings. Once the registration window closes, “the remaining plots will be sold at auction,” reads Article 31 of the law.

For citizens living abroad like Muhammad, family members as distant as a second cousin may present the documents in their stead.

However, the millions of Syrians impacted by Law 10 include refugees and internally displaced people without family back home to assist with registration, as well as people whose deeds were lost or destroyed during the war.

Perhaps most ominously for opposition supporters, all property owners wishing to register their lands must first obtain approval from state security officials, a lawyer in Damascus familiar with the law told Syria Direct. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

“Without this approval, they will not be able to prove ownership of the property,” said the lawyer. “Therefore, it would be sold at auction or claimed by another person.”

“Herein lies the seriousness of this decree,” she added.

The need for security clearance could exclude large swathes of the Syrian population inside and outside the country with outstanding arrest warrants or known anti-government sympathies from registering their property.

Muhammad is one of them. Although he still has the deed for his house and land in the south Homs village of al-Buwaidah a-Sharqiyah, he says the Syrian government has issued an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

“I am wanted by the regime on charges of incitement and attending demonstrations,” says Muhammad. “I understand that the regime means to take our property with a legal text, creating new laws to suit their interests.”

These two clarifications were tweeted by “Syria Law Journal”

Syria, Deterrence of Chemical Weapons and U.S. Policy in the Middle East – By Joshua Landis

Syria, Deterrence of Chemical Weapons and U.S. Policy in the Middle East
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – April 12, 2018

President Trump has been provoked into action by the terrible videos coming out of Syria. They are horrifying. He can uphold the Obama policy, which is to stand by the international norm of prohibiting the use of chemical weapons if it is proven that Assad used chemical weapons. It is the policy that he has already adopted following the use of Sarin at Khan Shaikhun. The mistake of both Obama and Trump has been to allowed the use of chlorine gas to slip under the radar. It was not originally proscribed in the 2013 deal, and though added to list later, it has not been acted upon. Trump can probably deter further use of chlorine gas in Syria by hurting the regime with a missile strike. But such a strike will be a narrow response, unlikely to change the course of the war. Some 1,900 Syrians have been killed so far by chemical weapons. Further missile strikes will not address the deaths of close to half a million Syrians.

Opposition members, Sunni states, and Israel will again be disappointed and critical of Washington when a narrow exercise of deterrence doesn’t alter the balance of power in Syria or signal the beginning of a US war against the Assad regime.

Trump’s instinct to keep the US from establishing a permanent role in Syria is fundamentally correct, in my estimation. 

The US would be committing a grave mistake should it try to build a viable state in North Syria for the Kurds. Northeast Syria is a poor part of country that is beset by many problems. Kurds and Arabs have diametrically opposed national ambitions in the region. The tribes are at each other’s throats after years of war and being forced to join one rebel force after another. Blood feuds abound. Social services and the foundations for a state are practically non-existent in the region. Kurds number about 2 to 2.5 million in population. For US policy makers to be arguing that Northeast Syria is the right place for America to build a viable policy in the region that can roll back Iran, bring about regime-change in Damascus, and reestablish American credibility in the Northern Middle East is frankly incredible. Those who espouse such a policy probably know little about the social and political realities of the region and do not appreciate the commitment and great expense that such an effort would entail, not to mention that it is likely doomed to failure. It will be even more difficult than building a viable central state in northern Iraq that would include Kirkuk, etc.

But the US does not have to abandon the Kurds of Syria to the predations of Turkey or the Assad regime.

The US should be helping the Kurdish leadership of North Syria 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. Washington has the leverage in Syria to make such an agreement last and to help the Kurds; it does not have the leverage to depose Assad or roll back Iran. Today, demands are not entrenched, institutions and parties are not established, and borders are not fixed. Tomorrow, they will be. The US can help the Kurds get a better deal on resource sharing than they have had in the past.

To build an independent or quasi independent state in North Syria that has its own army and that can defend itself in the face of Turkish, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian efforts to destroy it will require a commitment of decades, not years. It will need billions upon billions of dollars and a real nation-building effort, not simply a stabilization program.

If the US wants to get out of Syria in the next few years, it cannot tell Kurds that it will remain in the region for the long-haul to promote a viable statelet in North Syria and make it an instrument of an ambitious U.S. policy to hurt all of its neighbors.

The US has failed in its effort to produce a US-friendly and democratic Northern Middle East, where Sunnis and Shiites power-share and emulate US forms of governance. Turkey has turned to Russia and authoritarianism. Iraq is a Shiite-dominated state that needs decades to build reliable institutions that will allow it to turn away from dependence on Iran. Assad’s authority has survived in most of Syria, and Hizbullah is more powerful than ever in Lebanon. For the US to believe that it can reverse this history of political failure and misspent millions by launching a comeback in North Syria is nothing short of laughable.

To promote US policies of counter-terrorism, refugee return, and stabilization, not to mention economic revival for future generations, Washington should admit its losses and stop further efforts to defeat Iran or Russia in the region. It should allow these powers to rebuild the region. The US does not have to cooperate with Assad in rebuilding or spend its own money on the effort, but it should allow the region to stabilize and revive on its own, finding help where it can. Blocking highways, withholding oil resources to punish Assad, and building up yet more militias will not further long-term US objectives. It may gratify our allies, who want the United States to roll back Iran. It may also satisfy those who want to turn the region into a quagmire for both Russia and the Iranians, but it is neither wise nor humanitarian.

The US has the dominant position in the southern Middle East – the Gulf, Egypt and North Africa – where oil wealth is plentiful. It can do without the northern Middle East and should recognize the new security architecture of the region, where Iran has influence in the North. The US can help Israel and Saudi Arabia deter and contain Iran without a launchpad for power-projection in north Syria.

Only by returning to the simple truth 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 region’s 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. Instead, sanctions have brought collapse, war, and bitterness to the region. Dividing Syrians and keeping them poor may ensure short-term US interests, 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.
End
Addendum II: The fact that Chlorine is not listed as a Chemical Weapon in the Chemical Weapons Convention does not constitute a “loophole” in the 2013 agreement. “The of any toxic chemical as a weapon of war is banned under the CWC,” wrotes Amy Gordon, who helped negotiate the CWC for the U.S. and led the substantive input to the Senate for its ratification. Here is her nice note of correction:

Dear Josh,

I follow your site faithfully and think it makes a huge contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the complex issues unfolding in Syria.
One small correction, however.  Regarding chlorine. The fact that it is not listed in the schedules of the CWC does not mean that it constitutes a loophole in the 2013 agreement. The use of any toxic chemical as a weapon of war is banned under the CWC. The lists are simply meant to capture a range of the most toxic chemicals descending from those which have no commercial use to those which have some or mostly commercial applications. Nothing further needed to be done to establish the illegality of the use of chlorine as a weapon of war.
You probably don’t have time to read the link, but here’s the OPCW’s authoritative description of chemical weapons.  https://www.opcw.org/about-chemical-weapons/what-is-a-chemical-weapon/
The real question regarding chlorine use, therefore appears to be political, not legal. Unfortunately, I can’t say why the CWC parties have been relatively sanguine about chlorine use and exercised about nerve agent, except to say that the effects of nerve agent are more severe and dramatic, creating a public reaction that makes official indifference more difficult.  No doubt events on the ground in Syria are contributing as well.
Best, Amy
Research Professor: Institute for Security and Conflict Studies
Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University
gordonae7@gmail.com
Addendum: A friend asked: “Can you tell us what we do if ISIS reconstitutes itself to a degree in Syria?”
Landis:

I wouldn’t envision the US leaving Syria for another year or two and not before it could help the Kurds and Arabs of the region get on their feet and restore essential services such as water and electricity to Raqqa. By that time, I would imaging that the Kurds and Syrian military as well as the Iraqi military will be able to police the area. The reason ISIS was able to spread in eastern Syria was that the Syrian army withdrew in 2011 in order to try to control the cities in the west. The Syrian Army handed authority to the Kurdish forces in the region that became the YPG, but they were too primitive and few in number to take control of the region. Salafist militias pushed aside the more moderate local clan based armed units that at first emerged in villages and towns across the region. Al-Qaida in Iraq was able to spread out into Syria and eventually split into two factions: Nusra led by Joulani and ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq. It will become increasingly hard for ISIS to make a come back with central authority restored in Iraq and Syria and much tougher militaries in both countries.

The Syrian situation is far from good. But I do not believe that the US will be able to impose itself in the region over the long-haul, as those who argue for remaining in north Syria argue. My hunch is that some president will want to get out, probably pressured by a public that suffers from sticker shock and sees no long-term interest for the United States in Syria.

I think Israel can protect itself by laying down a red line, as it is doing with its present strikes against Iranian and Hizbullah forces and interests in Syria. This Israeli strategy worked with Hizbullah in Lebanon. There is no reason to believe that it won’t work in Syria. Syria’s leaders have seen no interest interest in war with Israel since 1973. The sooner stability in Syria is restored and the sooner the government regains control over the situation, the less likely it will be that Iran can force Syria into an aggressive action against Israel that goes beyond self defense. 

Peak Fragility: Why The Middle East Is Doomed — by Ehsani

By Ehsani

The Mideast is doomed. Egypt alone needs to create 700,000 jobs every single year to absorb the new job seekers out of its 98 million population. A third of this population already live below the poverty line (482 Egyptian Pounds a month, which is less than $1 a day). The seeds of the vicious circle that the Mideast region finds itself in today were planted at least five decades ago. Excessive public spending without matching revenues was the catalyst for a faulty and dangerous incentive system that helped to balloon populations beyond control. A governance system that was ostensibly put in place to help the poor ended up being a built-in factory for poverty generation. Excessive subsidies helped misallocate resources and mask the true cost of living for households. Correlation between family size and income was lost.

Successive Mideast leaders are often referred to as evil dictators. I see them more as lousy economists and poor users of simple arithmetic, unable to utilize an excel spreadsheet to help demonstrate the simple, yet devastating power of compounding. Unless you are a Gulf-based monarchy enjoying the revenue stream from oil and gas that can postpone your day of reckoning, the numbers in nearly every single Arab country don’t add up.

It is important to note that excessive population growth is not the only issue here. Japan and many parts of Europe are suffering from too little population growth. The problem in Arab societies is lack of productivity stemming from weak private sector and overburdened, bankrupt public sector. As students of economics know, “Potential” Economic Growth of a country is derived by adding the growth rate of its labor force to the growth rate of the economy’s productivity. High labor force growth therefore ought to be a plus for the “Potential Growth.”

The Arab World’s problem is that it suffers from shockingly low levels of “productivity.” This may seem like a fancy word but the concept encapsulates everything that Arab economies and societies suffer from. Why does the Arab world have such low productivity? The answer lies in everything from the excessive size of the public sector to subsidies and overbearing regulatory systems that lead to corruption. As public sector liabilities grow, funding for education, healthcare, and infrastructure suffers.

Why is the size of the public sector—coupled with excessive subsidies—the problem? Because what starts as the noble cause of helping the poor ends up masking the true costs of increasing family size. Governments soon go broke. Services suffer. Anger rises. We know the drill now.

Population in Syria and the costs of raising a family

The average cost of raising a child until age 18 for a middle-income family in the U.S. is approximately $245,340 (or $304,480, adjusted for projected inflation). That is about $15,000 per child per year for a two-parent family with median annual income (college costs excluded).

Growing up in Syria, I can still recall the “Family Booklet.” The more dependents you had on that booklet, the greater was your allocation of subsidized rice, sugar, tea, edible oil, etc. Your home electricity was also subsidized. So was your diesel. Schooling? Free all the way. Not only were almost all your food staples and energy use subsidized, the Syrian state also used to give a prize (nishan) to women who gave birth to 12 children or more. Syria at that time had about 6 million people (and produced 300,000 barrels of oil a day and had plenty of water).

Without having to pay full price for bread, sugar, electricity, tea, fuel, or education (all the way to college) and with the state becoming by far the largest employer (job guaranteed), the Syrian population doubled every 22 years. Imagine the pressures on the state coffers.

There’s no need for much imagination as to how the Syrian state fared as its population doubled every 22 years while its oil reserves and production dropped by 50%. It was still expected to offer all those freebies to a populace that never once asked how the state was to pay for all this. Not only did Syrians never ask how their state could meet those obligations while their numbers doubled every 22 years, but the state itself never explained it. It is debatable that the state was even aware of the power of compounding and what effect it has in the outer years (50 years ahead).

As state finances (revenue minus expenses with little to no borrowing program) suffered, so did the services. Schools, hospitals, and municipal services became insufficiently funded. They were examples of Paul being robbed to pay Peter (subsidies & a losing public sector). As the state could not increase salaries alongside inflation, real wages and standards of living suffered. Even Mother Teresa would have had to accept a bribe if she had 5 kids and a salary of $150 a month.

Corruption is an inevitable by-product of a broken system

When the state can’t meet its built-in obligations, services suffer and corruption becomes rampant. The public’s anger grows, fingers start to point at anyone and everyone who is getting a bigger slice of the cake—and the cake is not growing anywhere near the number of mouths it needs to feed. In the end, governments that start off by offering more than they can sustainably afford in the long run end up being criticized and even toppled for seemingly not providing enough to a population that grew beyond the capacity of the system to handle.

When governments spend, they can fund their expenditures in three ways: 1) collect taxes; 2) borrow (assuming lenders are available); or 3) print money (assuming the central bank is not completely independent of the government). Without a sustainable tax base, it is unlikely that lenders will be willing to fund governments unless the latter are asked to pay unsustainably high interest rates. Similarly, printing money will soon lead to the debasing of the currency and rampant inflation.

What about collecting taxes?

Inscribed over the front door of the US tax office (IRS) are the words “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” As someone once also said, “Countries that don’t have a properly observed tax regime usually fall into chaos and corruption.”

Growing up in Syria, avoiding taxes was akin to breathing. It had to be done. Often times, tax rates were impossibly high (the top marginal rate was once over 70%). Not paying taxes is not just the fault of citizens but also that of the government which needs to accurately calibrate those rates. Regardless of underlying factors behind poor tax collection, the fact is that the Syrian government was expected to provide services, run losing businesses (public sector), and offer generous subsidies without matching tax collection or borrowing. Something had to give, and it was the quality of services.

As spending increased with the rise of the population, government investment in schools, hospitals, roads, municipal services, civil servant salaries, and human capital suffered and even froze. The public had the right to complain but the public didn’t want to know how the government was funding itself. “When the children come, God will deliver their fortunes along with them”—this is what we grew up hearing from families whose incomes did not seem to support the number of children they had. People would laugh it off as a joke. Sadly, this was Syria’s ticking time bomb.

On my trip to Syria few months ago, a young gentleman at my hotel explained to me how he was finding it hard to resist the pressure from his extended family and friends to stop having children at 5 kids. His father had 11 kids. His brothers had 8-9 kids. Having only 5 kids himself was insulting to his manhood. Like most Arab countries, Syria’s peak fertility (average number of children per woman) occurred between 1975 and 1980. The world’s highest in that period was Yemen at 8.7. Syria ranked 9th in the world at 7.47. It was in the company of Senegal, Malawi, Niger, Kenya, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Gaza.

Even by 2005-2010, Syria’s population growth rate was still among the top 10 in the world at 3.26%. It also had one of the world’s youngest populations with a median age of only 15.4 years (only 4.8% of the population was over the age of 60; these statistics are from the UN’s World Population tables).

Egypt did embark on a strong population control strategy

Over two decades and by early 2000, Egypt’s population growth rate dropped from 3.5% to 1.7%. Large billboards were used in rural areas. An expanded use of contraception programs was also effective. Sadly, success didn’t last, and by 2007, complacency had set in. Mubarak also started pushing back against international NGOs administrating the programs. Once he was overthrown and Morsi came in, all contraceptives were banned. Before long, the growth rate was back up to 2.55%, taking the country’s population to nearly 100 million.

While Egypt at least tried its hand with family planning, Syria never did. But this article is not about the merits or problems of population growth—it is about fiscal pressures and what this dynamic inflicts on state budgets in a world of high subsidies, excessive public spending and limited resources.

The Syrian government was either not fully aware of the unfolding dynamic or was aware but found it politically difficult to embark on a serious family planning program. Was the religious minority status of the leadership a factor in terms of trepidation as to how the majority religious establishment would react? Whatever the motivations or excuses were, the fact remains that no steps were taken to match the baked-in future population numbers with revenues or resources. The only way forward was to make cuts in government investment, freeze public salaries, and watch the quality of services decline.

Many have blamed the current Syrian leadership for a long list of governance shortfalls. No one (including Assad himself) can claim otherwise. What this long explanation seeks to highlight is that—at least empirically speaking—Bashar al-Assad inherited a near-impossible economic dilemma.

The Corrective Movement

Ironically, when Hafez al-Assad took over, he wrestled the Ba’ath party to the right as he fought off the more leftist wing that had initially taken power along with him. He immediately embarked on his “Corrective Movement.” I recall American cars being allowed in as imports (yellow Dodge taxis).

Older members of my family still refer to the period between 1970 and 1976 as Syria’s golden period. Merchants saw their businesses boom as foreign trade was relaxed and the Corrective Movement quickly became seen as a tilt to the right from an earlier ultra-leftist leaning. Regardless of your politics, Hafez al-Assad was a larger-than-life figure in modern Syrian politics. Soon after taking over, he powered forward in building a top-down centralized state (Syria was part of the Soviet camp during the Cold War) that would come to dominate Syria’s future.

Merely six years after Hafez took over, sporadic, anti-government assassinations became widespread. Syrians would later find their government at war with the Muslim Brotherhood, which culminated in Hama in 1982. This six-year battle between Islamists and Damascus left its mark on Syria’s DNA thereafter.

Having been a nearly existential crisis, the Syrian leadership abruptly reversed the trends of 1970-1976 (when it had opened the economy and relaxed international trade) and instead moved in almost exactly the opposite direction. The old eco-Corrective Movement was frozen. Security now reigned supreme.

Between 1982 and the year 2000 (when Bashar took over), the Syrian leadership spent most of its energies making sure the Islamists and Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) movements would never see the light of day again. Being charged with belonging to Muslim Brotherhood received the death sentence by law. Add in the collapse of the Soviet union (Syria was a big victim of this significant moment), falling reserves and oil production, currency devaluation, restrictions on foreign exchange transfers using draconian laws, Syria’s economy took a beating just when its fertility was among the top 10 globally.

Fast forward to 2000…

The current President Assad took over in 2000. Yes, expectations and hopes were high both domestically and internationally. A very young population now had one of theirs. He had studied abroad. He was surely going to reverse directions both politically and economically. But from the start, Bashar’s main challenge was always going to be how to meet those high expectations. Political activists and thinkers quickly set up discussion gatherings to create a new political platform where they could start to participate in political life.

Economically speaking, there was now talk about allowing foreign banks to operate and even starting a stock market. Economic reforms of this type were always going to produce winners and losers. Those with capital made it big. They now owned banks, insurance companies, and hotels. And the losers? Losers were all those among the 7.4 kids per family born around 1980 to mothers with high fertility rates and fathers who did not have the income to support them. Those in rural areas fared worse. They were ill prepared and uneducated. The state was increasingly unable to support them.

The state in this period also never implemented a family planning campaign—after all, how would Islamists have reacted to an Alawi president trying to “reduce the numbers of the majority”? The state also never communicated to the public that the course the country was on was arithmetically untenable. The clock kept ticking. This is not to say that the state did not make mistakes. Old agrarian policies were by now resulting in over-exploitation of groundwater resources (again this was an inherited legacy). What was new was the 2007-2009 drought that was one of worst in recent memory.

What about corruption?

Corruption thrives in heavily bureaucratic centralized systems where civil servants suffer from frozen salaries and inflation rates that eat away at their real purchasing power. Without supplemental income, employees at all levels of the state apparatus can hardly survive. As the state can’t afford to raise salaries commensurate with inflation, employees at all levels are left to fend for themselves to make ends meet. The state knows it, the public knows it, and what you end up with is institutionalized corruption as inevitable consequence of a broken system.

For corruption at this level to be addressed, levels of public spending and liabilities have to fall dramatically. The size of government has to be smaller. The public sector has to slim down. Those left can now receive proper wages. Taxes must all get collected as the state gets a handle on finances.

What about corruption at highest levels? What about Rami Makhlouf? As we found out recently in Saudi, this problem is not restricted to Syria. This is not to say that Rami and the leadership did not make a huge mistake in occupying such visible positions in Syria’s economy. After years of complaints by both the business elites as well as average Syrians, it was decided that large projects are best shared by broader section of the country’s merchants and businessmen. This is when holding companies like “Cham Holdings” was set up to bid on large infrastructure deals. Mr. Makhlouf was, however, still the largest shareholder of such holding companies and this explains why the anger and resentment towards him and corruption in general never subsided.

What about Western political meddling?

The State Department had run a democracy promotion program since September 11, 2001 and many activists were supplied with media training and equipment to help them capitalize on the moment when it presented itself. March 2011 was that moment.

What about the political reforms that were expected after Assad’s arrival in 2000?

This was a classic case of high expectations clashing with reality on the ground and the system as a whole. What was seen as needed “reforms” to some was viewed as a dangerous slippery slope by others. Everything described above comprised the nasty cocktail mix that was waiting in the wings as events unfolded March 2011. Those who wanted more political participation included the poor, those from the rural areas, the Islamists, and the regional/Western adversaries of the Syrian leadership.

Assad may not have anticipated the tsunami early on, but by the summer and end of 2011, he had made up his mind. This was going to be a fight till the end where losing was not an option—the leadership would stop at nothing until victory had been ensured.

The Future

In conclusion, Assad inherited a number of intractable economic problems. This legacy was born out of years of governance challenges. How would one maintain a largely socialist structure while the population doubled every 22 years and revenues from the country’s natural resources were falling by nearly 50%?

When and if Syria’s war is over, a new chapter and contract must be inaugurated. The private sector must become the engine of growth. Regulations must be streamlined. Taxes must be cut to levels low enough to ensure a respectable collection rate. And one final proposition—an item for a wish list of sorts: Rather than financial handouts, Syria must ask for a 20-year grace period that would allow it to export to the rest of the world free of duties.

Sanctions also ought to be lifted. Investments in labor intensive industries must be encouraged to help employment. If and when the economy finds its footing, it is critical that women’s labor participation rises from the abysmal rates in the region. Studies conclusively show that increased female participation in the labor force is the single biggest factor behind population growth control.

Syria has no easy road ahead, but such measures may help alleviate the challenges that must eventually be faced and promote the recovery of the nation in its post-war future.

Perhaps as importantly as economics, Syrians will have to decide what it will mean to be Syrian. Decades of Arab nationalism saw the larger Arab world upheld as more important than Syrian identity. This war—and Syria’s relations with its Arab neighbors—may have convinced many Syrians (and perhaps the leadership itself) that the time has come for Syrians to forge a more independent Syrian identity that binds its citizens together apart from conceptions of a broader Arab culture.

__________________________________________________________

An earlier version of this article originally appeared here.

Eastern Ghouta x 20, by Aron Lund

After several days of calm, the battle in Eastern Ghouta enclave seems to have picked up again as President Bashar al-Assad’s government launched a new round of air strikes on Douma, the only city still left in insurgent hands. Leaders of the Islam Army, the opposition militia that rules the city, have insisted that they will stay in Douma come what may, but they do not have the military muscle to pull that off if Damascus and Moscow decide otherwise.

Should regime-rebel talks break down and end in a renewed, full-scale offensive, local civilians will be at risk.

UN sources recently estimated that as many as 78,000–150,000 people may remain in Douma alongside the Islamist fighters, though such figure are unreliable and have historically erred on the high side. Whatever the actual number, it is clear that many civilians in Douma have been forcibly prevented from fleeing by Islam Army rebels, who seem to want to exploit their presence as a card in negotiations, and that all are suffering from callous government siege tactics, with loyalist forces refusing to permit the entry of aid workers, medicine, and humanitarian supplies.

It remains to be seen what form Douma’s capitulation will ultimately take, and how much death, destruction, and displacement will accompany it. But when the city folds, as at some point it will, seven years of opposition rule in Eastern Ghouta are going to come to an end.

Other parts of the enclave have already been retaken since the offensive began in February, with rebels from Failaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and Tahrir al-Sham either killed, forced to surrender, or sent to northwestern Syria along with many civilians—according to the most recent UN numbers, as many as 49,000 people. Meanwhile, some 123,000 inhabitants of Eastern Ghouta are thought to have come under government control, either living inside retaken neighborhoods like Erbeen and Harasta or having fled to Damascus and a series overcrowded IDP shelters near the city.

The retaking of Eastern Ghouta seems almost an afterthought to Assad’s December 2016 victory in Eastern Aleppo, but this is in fact the bigger battle. It is being fought over a larger area, on the doorstep of the Syrian capital, with many more fighters involved and more civilians at risk. Whether more people died in Ghouta than in Aleppo, I don’t know—but many, many people have died.

* * *

Over the past few years, I have spent an unholy amount of time trying to understand the politics of Eastern Ghouta’s rebel movement. I have also written a lot about the area. Sifting through my archives the other day, I found that I had penned no less than twenty English-language articles, reports, and blog posts on the topic, for Syria Comment, the Carnegie Endowment, The Century Foundation, IRIN News, and others. The first one was published in February 2013, as pro-Assad forces prepared to put the region under siege, and the last one is less than a week old.

That’s a lot of text. Although in hindsight I can spot plenty of errors and misunderstandings, and there is still very much that I still don’t understand, there’s also a lot of material in there that seems like it could be useful to people trying to follow the crisis now unfolding near Damascus. Therefore, I have compiled all twenty pieces here, with a short introductory comment about each.

The latest publication is first on the page, so read from bottom to top if you want all five years in chronological order. If not, just pick and choose as you please.

  – Aron Lund

Eastern Ghouta - Map by IRIN News

Map source: IRIN News

Trapped Between Rebels and Air Strikes, Civilians in Eastern Ghouta Face Chaos (IRIN, Mar. 2018)
With only Douma left in rebel hands by late March, I tried to investigate what became of Eastern Ghouta’s civilian population in more than a month of fighting. UN numbers are all over the map, but it’s clear that many ended up in shelters erected around the area while others stayed put despite the fighting, and that they will now come under Assad’s rule once again. Still others have joined the opposition as it was driven off to Idleb and Aleppo, where some will now be resettled in Afrin. Yet civilians also remain trapped inside insurgent-held Douma, as the clock ticks toward either a rebel surrender or a renewed military offensive.

Assad’s Divide and Conquer Strategy Is Working (Foreign Policy, Mar. 2018)
Brute military force was certainly the main ingredient in Assad’s victory in Eastern Ghouta, but his government also reached its objectives using more sophisticated means, including by exploiting insurgent divisions to punch where their defenses were weakest, negotiating separate deals through well-connected siege merchants, and rallying supporters inside the enclave to work behind rebel lines. Among other things, this piece looks at the curious case of Sheikh Bassam Difdaa, a pro-government Sufi preacher who helped crack Failaq al-Rahman’s defenses in Kafr Batna.

Aleppo Again? A Plea to Save Lives in in Eastern Ghouta (TCF, Mar. 2018)
As the final, brutal offensive in Eastern Ghouta got under way, it was obvious that loyalist forces were going to win—they were overwhelmingly superior and faced no risk of outside intervention. In other words, the best time to think about what that meant for civilians was before the battle was over. The pro-Assad side had clearly advertised that defeated rebels and activists would either have to submit to government rule (but some would not; some could not) or head to rebel-held northern Syria. But what about the larger civilian population? Varied in their allegiances and circumstances, some civilians would undoubtedly want to follow the opposition to Idleb, while others would just as undoubtedly want to stay in their homes after government forces returned. To my mind, this was a moment for the international community to push for and facilitate individual choice by, among other things, promoting an orderly handover once rebels surrendered and by dispatching monitors to gauge the voluntariness of civilians staying or leaving, in the hope of minimizing the amount of forced displacement and hostage-type situations. Also, regardless of all political dimensions, humanitarian aid needed to be rushed to relief organizations on the ground quickly, before IDP numbers grew unmanageable. In the end, not a lot of that happened, but many of these suggestions remain just as relevant as when I wrote this—now in Douma.

Understanding Eastern Ghouta in Syria (IRIN, Feb. 2018)
A short but fairly comprehensive pre-battle backgrounder on Eastern Ghouta as it was in spring 2018, in which I attempt to map out who controlled what while also describing the issues at stake as Assad’s government readied itself to retake the enclave.

The Man-Made Disaster in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta (IRIN, Dec. 2017)
On how the siege on Eastern Ghouta was tightened in September 2017, in preparation for the offensive that would follow early next year. The humanitarian effects of the siege had always been severe, but with smuggling tunnels now blocked, private food sales banned, and UN convoys prevented from entering, what had been a simmering crisis boiled over into full-scale disaster—hurting civilians much more than rebels, who controlled all levers of the economy. It was a war crime right out in the open, a very effective one.

East Ghouta Turns on Itself, Again (TCF, May 2017)
In April 2017, the Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman went back to fighting each other, one year to the day after their mini-civil war in 2016. Drivers this time around included the de-escalation deals being rolled out by Russia, the recent loss of the rebel smuggling tunnels, and a whole lot of pent-up anger.

The Syrian Rebel Who Tried to Build an Islamic Paradise (Politico Magazine, Mar. 2017)
A long feature on Zahran Alloush and his attempts to unite the enclave under his own iron-fisted rule. Though capable and ruthless enough, the Islam Army leader’s grand project was ultimately frustrated by his failure to control the war economy and the resistance of rival factions. This article covers some of the same ground as the “Into the Tunnels” report, but has more storytelling and a tighter focus on Alloush’s role.

Going South in East Ghouta (Carnegie, Feb. 2017)
By spring 2017, things were looking pretty hopeless for the rebels. The Syrian government had seized a lot of territory after Alloush’s death and it had just pocketed Eastern Aleppo. It looked as if Eastern Ghouta would be next, with Damascus pulling together troops and seizing the smuggling tunnels in Qaboun and Barzeh. But then fighting petered out, possibly because Russian-brokered de-escalation deals clicked into place during exactly this time, which shifted Assad’s attention to the Islamic State. The Russian military then cleverly played Eastern Ghouta’s factions off against each other, in particular by goading the Islam Army to go after Failaq-friendly jihadis. A new round of infighting would begin in April 2017.

Into the Tunnels: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Rebel Enclave in the Eastern Ghouta (TCF, Dec. 2016)
A detailed history of the Eastern Ghouta enclave and its political economy, this report attempts to chart the rise of the main rebel groups and their shifting rivalries, up to the point when they finally split the enclave in May 2016. It includes sections on the 2014 joint institutions, the 2015 wars over frontline crossings and smuggling tunnels, and some discussion of the ideology of the major factions. A shortened and slightly updated version of this report was later printed as a chapter in The Century Foundation’s Arab Politics After the Uprisings, an edited volume that I assume you’ve already bought and read many times over, since it is just that good.

Showdown in East Ghouta (Carnegie, May 2016)
My quick take Eastern Ghouta’s just-beginning internal breakdown. Ending in a Qatari-brokered truce later in May, the infighting ended up splitting the enclave into two or three parts, depending on how you count them. The Islam Army took sole control over the northern and eastern parts stretching from Douma to Nashabiyeh; Failaq al-Rahman seized the Damascus suburbs; and Harasta remained in the Failaq-friendly hands of Fajr al-Umma. Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham Islamists were also part of the mix. Nusra had formally joined forces with Fajr to smash the Islam Army, but they were mostly floating around inside Failaq-land. Ghouta’s small Ahrar branch was fragmenting: some members backed the Islam Army, others fought the Islam Army alongside Nusra, still others tried to remain neutral.

After Zahran: Rising Tension in the East Ghouta (Carnegie, Apr. 2016)
This was written alongside “An Islamist Experiment,” when Eastern Ghouta was on the verge of major internal conflict. After Zahran Alloush’s death, factions outside Douma had merged into two loosely allied blocks that sought to cut his successor down to size. The Islam Army had lashed out in response with preemptive arrests and assassinations, which didn’t improve the mood much. Right after publication, the Ghouta insurgency blew itself apart with a big, nasty bang.

An Islamist Experiment: Political Order in the East Ghouta (Carnegie, Apr. 2016)
With infighting on the way, this article looks at the cross-factional institutions set up by Eastern Ghouta’s rebels to contain internal conflicts. Starting in 2014, Alloush had pushed for the creation of a joint military command and a sharia-based governance apparatus. At the peak of his power in early 2015, these institutions had seemed like they could potentially transform into a new political order of a sort. But the joint institutions frayed and hollowed quickly, with factional anarchy resurfacing to a greater extent than is clear in this article. I got a somewhat better understanding of the system later, with more detail presented the “Into the Tunnels” report.

• The Death of Zahran Alloush (Syria Comment, Dec. 2015)
On December 25, 2015, Zahran Alloush died in an air strike. Within weeks of his funeral, rival rebels in Failaq al-Rahman, Ajnad al-Sham, Fajr al-Umma, and the Nusra Front were ganging up on a shell-shocked and sullenly aggressive Islam Army in order to claim his mantle, with violence finally erupting on a large scale in late April 2016.

Is Zahran Alloush in Amman? (Syria Comment, June 2015)
Yes, he was. Having somehow snuck out of besieged Eastern Ghouta, the Islam Army leader was taking a trip around the region, to Turkey and Jordan, where he met with Syrian rebel and religious allies as well as foreign fundraisers, agents, and diplomats, at a sensitive moment in the opposition’s history. But when I wrote this, it wasn’t yet very clear what was going on.

Damascus Preachers and the Armed Rebellion (Carnegie, Mar. 2014)
This one takes a brief peak at the capital’s Ashaarite-traditionalist and Sufi networks, which had long dominated Syria’s state-approved Sunni Islamic establishment and would play a huge but under-studied role in the opposition after 2011. Today, their influence remains keenly felt through the Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council. It is a companion piece to the article about Ajnad al-Sham, which grew out of exactly this clerical milieu and had visible ties to Damascene Sufism and less visible ones to exiled Ikhwani networks.

The Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (Carnegie, Mar. 2014)
I look at the creation of Ajnad al-Sham, a group backed by local Sufi clerics and Muslim Brotherhood members. Later bolstering its ranks by absorbing aggrieved former Umma Army members, Ajnad al-Sham operated as one of Eastern Ghouta’s top three factions for nearly two years. In spring 2016, it merged into the other second-tier faction, Failaq al-Rahman, and launched a devastating attack on the Islam Army.

• The Greater Damascus Operations Room, part 1 (Carnegie, Nov. 2013)
• The Greater Damascus Operations Room, part 2 (Carnegie, Nov. 2013)
This two-parter is for the real nerds. With limited success, I tried to read the tea leaves of a major, foreign-funded rebel unity project in the wider Ghouta region. In particular, I was looking for clues about how it related to Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss’s hapless Free Syrian Army HQ in Turkey, to Ghouta’s Nusra and Islamic State jihadis, and to the unending internecine feuds in Douma, where Zahran Alloush was still struggling to establish himself as capo di tutti capi. I didn’t reach much clarity on any of these issues at the time, but some additional details had seeped out by the time I wrote the “Into the Tunnels” report.

A Dispute in Douma (Carnegie, Oct. 2013)
In this one, I did my sorry best to make sense of rebel rivalries in Eastern Ghouta, whose internal functioning under a half-year old siege had yet to be hashed out. Though at the time this was only vaguely visible in local coalition politics, Zahran Alloush’s just-created Islam Army was drifting into conflict with a set of pugnacious, Free Syrian Army-flagged commanders and contraband kingpins united by their shared rejection of his dominance and the Islamist rule that came with it. A year later, they made a desperate, last-ditch attempt to kneecap the Islam Army and push it out of the smuggling economy by entering into an alliance known as the Umma Army. Zahran promptly dropped a piano on them. For more about that grim story, check the “Into the Tunnels” report or my piece for Politico.

• The Islamist Mess in Damascus (Syria Comment, Feb. 2013)
This old Syria Comment blog post was written just before Assad’s forces managed to place Eastern Ghouta under siege. It looks at how rebel coalition-building around Damascus had clicked with the major national-level insurgent alliances of the time, and we get an early glimpse of the headstrong ways of a certain Zahran Alloush.

Intervention in Syrien: Sollten wir eingestehen, dass der Krieg gegen das syrische Regime verloren ist? – By Nikolaos van Dam @nikolaosvandam

Intervention in Syrien: Sollten wir eingestehen, dass der Krieg gegen das syrische Regime verloren ist?
By Nikolaos van Dam – @nikolaosvandam
Vortrag gehalten am 7 März 2018 am Bruno Kreisky Forum für Internationalen Dialog, Wien
Veröffentlicht am 8 März auf Syria Comment
Übersetzung der Rede in Englisch by Dr. Ann Vogel, a German sociologist, who did her Ph.D. at University in
Washington, Seattle. (The original English version is here)

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

Heute, am 7. März 2018, ist es genau 55 Jahre her, dass eine Gruppe junger syrischer Offiziere der Baath-Partei heimlich ihre bewaffneten Unterstützer mobilisierte und einen Coup gegen das damals regierende syrische Regime durchführte. Schon am nächsten Tag, dem 8. März 1963, hatten sie Erfolg und konnten sich anschließend über ein halbes Jahrhundert an der Macht halten.

Wie war es für diese Baathisten möglich, solange an der Macht zu sein?

Zunächst einmal besaßen sie eine gut organisierte, geheime militärische Organisation ideologisch motivierter Mitstreiter, die zueinander loyal waren – wenigstens auf eine bestimmte Zeit. Zweitens hatten viele von ihnen einen gemeinsamen Hintergrund, nämlich ländliche Abstammung und als Mitglieder von arabisch sprachigen religiösen Minderheiten, insbesondere  Alawiten, Drusen und Ismailiten. Viele dieser Minderheiten kannten soziale und religiöse Diskriminierung durch die urbane Sunni-Mehrheit. Ihre gemeinsame  Herkunft hinsichtlich Stamm, Sekte [im Sinne einer religiösen Sondergemeinschaft—Übersetz.] und Region schuf die Basis für Vertrautheit, Loyalität und Vertrauen. Natürlich gab es interne Rivalitäten, aber nachdem diese durch eine Serie interner Säuberungen ausgefochten waren, gab es letztlich nur noch eine militärische Faktion, die im Jahr 1970 ausgesprochen mächtig wurde, um dann das Land für drei Jahrzehnte zu regieren. Dies war die Faktion des alawitischen Generals Hafiz al-Assad.

Viele dieser früheren Baath-Offiziere sind inzwischen in ihren militärischen Positionen von einer jüngeren Generation alawitischer Offiziere abgelöst worden, wie auch ihre Verbündeten Nachfolger haben. Baschar al-Assad hat als zweiter alawitischer Präsident Syriens im Jahr 2000 die Nachfolge seines Vaters Hafiz al-Assad angetreten.

Anstatt allein zu agieren, formten die Baathisten für ihren Coup am 8. März 1963 eine Allianz mit weiterer militärischer Opposition wie z.B. den Nasseristen. Dieses Bündnis war von kurzer Dauer, weil das Baath-Militär mächtig genug war allein fortzufahren – ohne ihre sogenannten militärischen Verbündeten, von denen sie einen nach dem anderen eliminierten. Sie ermunterten sogar die Nasseristen zu einem Coup gegen die Baathisten, also sich selbst, um sie militärisch zu erledigen. Als Resultat konnten 1963 die Baath-Militärs ihre Macht monopolisieren.

Die Strategie der auf kurze Zeit angelegten Allianzen, mit dem Ziel die Macht zu monopolisieren, ist bis zum heutigen Tag zu verschiedenen Gelegenheiten wiederholt worden. Dies gilt auch für den Syrien-Krieg, der im Jahr 2011 begann. Hier war es nicht immer wichtig für die Baath-Herrscher, ob sie Bündnisse mit Gruppen bzw. Parteien eingingen, die ihnen ideologisch gar nicht nahe standen oder sogar Parteien, die in der Tat ihre Feinde waren, solange sie ihr hauptsächliches Ziel erreichen konnten: an der Macht bleiben und diese monopolisieren. Das Ziel rechtfertigte die Mittel.

Jeder Bedrohung gegen das Regime durch Rivalen der Baath-Partei oder Andere, egal ob imaginär oder wirklich, wurde in rücksichtsloser Weise begegnet: Gefängnis, Folter, Mord, Attentate, sogenannte ‘Selbstmorde mit mehr als einer Kugel’  usw.

Weil unter Hafiz und Baschar al-Assad Syrien von nur einer übermächtigen Militärfaktion dominiert wurde, die einen sehr zuverlässigen und effektiven Sicherheitsapparat (effektiv im Sinne von extremer Repression) hatte, war das Land seit seiner Unabhängigkeit  intern politisch stabiler und kontinuierlicher als je zuvor. Aber die Tatsache, dass diese Kontinuität ohne politische Reform oder beträchtliche Veränderung der Komposition der herrschenden politischen und militärischen Elite über einen Zeitraum von über vier Jahrzehnten bestand, bedeutete eben auch, Chance starker Diskontinuität und Spaltung des Regimes, sobald die langjährige politische und militärische Führung ernsthaft bedroht sein würde. Diese sogenannte Stabilität kam zu einem abrupten Ende mit dem Beginn der Syrischen Revolution im März 2011.

Was soll man für nicht-Baath-Gegner fürchten, wenn schon Rivalen innerhalb der Baath-Partei im System des Regimes das schlimmste Schicksal erfuhren? Oder auch für radikale islamistische Gegner, die nicht nur die Baath-Herrschaft beseitigen, sondern auch die prominente Stellung der Alawiten innerhalb und außerhalb des Regimes beenden wollten? Viele radikale Islamisten sehen Alawiten als Häretiker, die man einer Fatwa von Ibn Taimīya – einem Sunni-Gelehrten aus dem 12. Jahrhundert – folgend, morden durfte. Diese Ansicht wurde nicht nur von Mitgliedern des Islamischen Staates (IS bzw. Da’esh), die im Jahr 2013 nach Syrien kamen und größere Teile des Landes besetzten, sondern schon lange vorher von einem geheim geformten extremistischen Ableger der Muslimbrüderschaft, die während der späten 1970er Jahre und der frühen 1980er eine ganze Reihe von Morden an Alawiten (mit und ohne Baath-Zugehörigkeit) in Syrien ausgeführt hatten. Diese radikalen Islamisten versuchten, eine Polarisierung innerhalb der syrischen Gesellschaft entlang religiösen Gemeinschaftslinien, insbesondere zwischen Sunni und Alawiten zu provozieren, hofften sie doch, dass sie damit das alawitisch dominierte Baath-Regime überwerfen würden, denn die Alawiten formen nur eine Minderheit von ca. elf Prozent der syrischen Bevölkerung, während die Sunni die größere Mehrheit stellen. Während die syrische Armee der Mehrheit nach Sunni ist, eine Folge der Wehrpflicht und dadurch die Komposition der Bevölkerung widerspiegelnd, reflektierten die Kalkulationen [der radikalen Islamisten] nicht, dass die militärischen Schlüsselpositionen und -einheiten unter voller Kontrolle von alawitischen Offizieren waren, was letztlich ausschlaggebend war. So hatten die radikalen Islamisten keine Chance gegen das Regime und ihre Aktionen endeten mit dem bekannten Blutbad von Hama in 1982. Nicht nur wurde die Organisation der Muslimbruderschaft rücksichtslos eliminiert, sondern auch viele Menschen in Hama, die nicht involviert waren. Was die Sektenbeziehungen angeht, war dies ein irreversibler Wendepunkt in der syrischen Geschichte. Die Hama-Massaker konstituierten ein hemmungsloses Modell von Unterdrückung, das in der Syrischen Revolution von 2011 wiederholt angewendet wurde – diesmal jedoch nicht nur in einer Stadt, sondern über das Land verteilt.

Von einer brutalen Diktatur mit solchen Eigenschaften und solchem Verhalten wie dem syrischen Baath-Regime konnte man eigentlich nicht realistisch erwarten, dass sie ihre Macht freiwillig und als Ergebnis friedlicher Demonstrationen, wie Teil der Syrischen Revolution von 2011, aufgeben würde. Auch konnte man von diesem Regime nicht realistisch erwarten, dass es freiwillig seine Macht aufgeben würde als Ergebnis eines heftigen Stellvertreterkrieges auf Syriens Territorium – ein Krieg, der angefeuert und militärisch und finanziell unterstützt wurde von regionalen Proxys wie der Türkei, Saudi Arabien und Katar als auch westlichen Ländern wie den USA, Großbritannien und Frankreich. In meinem Buch „The Struggle for Power in Syria“ habe ich schon vor zwei Jahrzehnten vorausgesagt (und das war nicht besonders schwierig), dass jedes Bemühen, einen Regimewandel zu produzieren, zu enormem Blutvergießen führen müsse. Und genau das ist es, was wir in den letzten sieben Jahren, seit dem Beginn der Syrischen Revolution, gesehen haben und heute noch sehen. Diejenigen, die kein großes Blutbad erwarteten, litten entweder an einem Mangel genügender Geschichtskenntnisse über Syrien oder an gut überdosiertem Wunschdenken — oder beidem.

Wie kam es, dass so viele ausländische Politiker so naiv erwartetet haben, dass Präsident Baschar al-Assad freiwillig von seinem Amt zurücktreten würde, nachdem den Berichten nach alle möglichen Gräueltaten vom syrischen Regime gegen die sogenannten friedlichen Demonstranten und später gegen die militärischen Oppositionsgruppen begangen worden waren? Sie wollten, dass Assad sein Todesurteil freiwillig unterschreibt, weil aus ihrer Sicht der rechtlich legitime Präsident von Syrien seine Legitimität verloren hatte. Dies war völlig unrealistisch, und zwar in dem Sinne, dass das, was ihren Wünschen nach hätte geschehen müssen, auch wenn es gerechtfertigt gewesen sein könnte aus ihrer Perspektive auf Gerechtigkeit und Rechtmäßigkeit, doch hochwahrscheinlich nicht umsetzbar war.

Wunschdenkende hofften, dass al-Assad abdanken würde oder sogar das Land verlassen würde, um die Krise lösen zu helfen, so bald genügend moralischer Druck ausgeübt würde von Staaten, die ihn geächtet hatten. Aber das Gegenteil passierte, was man auch hätte vorhersehen können, weil man über Diktatoren im Allgemeinen weiß, dass sie nicht die Regeln der demokratischen Rechenschaftspflicht befolgen.

Hier geht es um den Kontrast zwischen dem demokratischem System und der Diktatur: In Demokratien können die Menschen ihre Gedanken frei ausdrücken. Sie betonen daher, wie Dinge ideal sein sollten, im Sinne von Gerechtigkeit und Rechtmäßigkeit. Die brutale Wirklichkeit als fait accompli zu akzeptieren, wird oft als Verrat an Prinzipien und Menschenrechten gesehen.  Aber diese Prinzipien in die Realität umzusetzen, ist oftmals etwas anderes. Wenn eine Demokratie eine Diktatur konfrontiert, sind parlamentarische Debatten oft nicht von Nutzen. Das gleiche gilt für das Verkünden von Deklarationen zu Prinzipien seitens Regierungen, Parlamenten oder dem Sicherheitsrat der Vereinten Nationen, egal ob die Inhalte gerechtfertigt oder richtig sind. Wenn Demokratien Diktaturen wie das syrische Regime konfrontieren, dann ist die Chance eines positiven Ergebnisses möglicherweise höher bei Gesprächen als bei der Verweigerung von Kommunikation mit dem Regime. Die Weigerung der meisten westlichen Regierungen während der letzten sechs Jahre mit dem syrischen Regime zu kommunizieren (seit Beziehungen im 2012 abbrachen), sind auch vom Gedanken motiviert, dass solche Kontakte von den Unterstützern der demokratisch gewählten Führungen nicht gewollt sind. Diese Führungen sind ihren Wählerschaften gegenüber rechenschaftspflichtig und die allgemeine negative Haltung dieser Wählerschaften zu Kontakten ist ganz verständlich wegen der Verbrechen des Regimes.

Eine politische Isolation des Damaskus-Regimes konnte aber nur in Aussichtslosigkeit münden.

Die Alternative war, das syrische Regime militärisch zu besiegen, wonach dann nicht mehr verhandelt hätte werden müssen. Eine solche direkte militärische Intervention wurde ebenso von den involvierten Demokratien abgelehnt.

Dennoch wählten verschiedene westliche und  arabische Regierungen als Alternative die direkte militärische Intervention durch Bewaffnung, Finanzierung und politische Unterstützung der verschiedenen syrischen Oppositionsgruppen, was jedoch, wie sich zeigte, nicht reichte, um das Regime zu stürzen. Und ich lasse hier außen vor, ob ein alternatives Regime viel besser gewesen wäre, da eine Demokratie ein hoch unwahrscheinliches Ergebnis gewesen wäre [, denn die Alternative wäre sehr wahrscheinlich eine Regierung der zunehmend die bewaffnete Opposition dominierenden radikalen Islamisten gewesen. – Ergänzung des Autors.] Die meisten ausländischen Regierungen behaupteten, dass sie eine politische Lösung wollten, was im Prinzip so stimmt. Jedoch wollten sie nur eine politische Lösung, die zu einem Regimewechsel führen würde. Und ein solcher sollte sich als unmöglich erweisen im Kontext unzureichender militärischer Mitteln. Diese militärischen Interventionen bedeuten eigentlich einen Verstoß gegen internationales Recht, das den Mitgliedern der Vereinten Nationen untersagt,  militärische Aktionen zu unterstützen, die zum Sturz einer Regierung eines Mitgliedsstaates, führen. (1)  Die Ergebnisse indirekter militärischer Intervention waren genauso ruinös wie die einer direkten militärischen Intervention gewesen wären: insbesondere fast eine halbe Million Tote, Millionen Geflüchteter, ein Land in Schutt und Asche und eine in großem Ausmaße zerstörte Nation.

Es scheint widersprüchlich, ausländischen Staaten den Vorwurf zu machen, dass sie nicht genügend Unterstützung für den Sturz des Regimes geliefert hätten, während man gleichzeitig gegen jegliche militärische Intervention ist.  Ich möchte daher klären, was ich meine. Ich bin im Allgemeinen vehement gegen militärische Interventionen, weil es so viele Beispiele gibt, die illustrieren, dass diese meist in einem Trauerspiel enden. Ich behaupte, dass die Länder, die die bewaffnete Opposition ermuntert haben, das syrische Regime zu konfrontieren, ohne diese jedoch genügend zu bewaffnen oder ihre militärischen Aktionen koordiniert zu haben, die bewaffnete Opposition in die Todesfalle sendeten.

Als ich im Mai 2011, als die syrische Revolution noch nicht einmal zwei Monate alt war, in einem Interview gefragt wurde, ob ich es noch akzeptabel für andere Regierungen fände, direkte Kontakte mit Präsident Baschar al-Assad zu unterhalten, weil ja schon Hunderte Tote die Folgen repressiver Aktionen des Regimes waren und Tausende Menschen inhaftiert waren, erwiderte ich, dass die Antwort davon abhänge, wie pragmatisch man sich verhalten wolle. Ich kam zum Ergebnis, dass, eine Ablehnung von Engagement und Dialog eine Beteiligung an positiver Konfliktlösung ausschlösse. (2)

In Fernsehsendungen anlässlich des ersten Jahrestages der Syrischen Revolution im März 2012 wiederholte ich meine Haltung, dass Dialog für jegliche Konfliktlösung wichtig wäre. Vertreter der syrischen Opposition lehnten das total ab. Ich argumentierte, dass wenn ich eine Wahl hätte – und natürlich ging es dabei nicht eigentlich um meine Wahl –, würde ich 10.000 Tote (die damalige Anzahl der Todesopfer) 300.000 vorziehen, die mögliche Anzahl bei weiterem Krieg ohne Gespräche und Verhandlungen mit dem Regime mit dem Ziele einer Konfliktlösung. (3)  Tatsächlich ergab sich, dass die Zahl der Toten viel höher als 300.000 war. Aber in 2012 schien das noch unvorstellbar.

Natürlich gab es keine Garantie für Erfolg durch Dialog, den ich vorschlug. Aber jegliche Ablehnung von Dialog war eine Garantie für das Versagen, wie wir es die letzten sieben Jahre beobachten konnten.

Die meisten der syrischen Oppositionellen waren damals nicht bereit, Verhandlungen mit dem Regime zu akzeptieren – nicht nur wegen ihrer extrem negativen Gefühle [vom Autor für diese Übersetzung präzisiert] gegenüber dem Regime, sondern auch, weil sie starke Unterstützung aus dem Ausland erwarteten, wie es in Libyen der Fall war und zu Niederlage und Tod des libyschen Führers al-Gaddafi führte.

In der damaligen Hoffnung, Unterstützung aus dem Ausland zu bekommen, versuchten viele Demonstranten über die Medien die internationale Aufmerksamkeit auf sich zu ziehen. Doch diese erwartete Unterstützung blieb aus.

Zurückschauend, und rein theoretisch betrachtet, hätten viele Syrier vielleicht nicht die Syrische Revolution gestartet, wären sie sich der  fatalen Konsequenzen vorher bewusst gewesen. Aber die Realität sieht anders aus.

Im Jahr 2013, als die syrischen Kräfte der bewaffneten Opposition verkündeten, sie hätten über 70 Prozent des Territoriums von Syrien unter Kontrolle bekommen und in Siegerstimmung waren, schlug Scheich Moas al-Chatib, der frühere Präsident des Syrian National Council mit Sitz im Ausland, vor, mit Präsident al-Assad und Russland über eine Lösung des Konflikts auf der Basis eines Zwanzig-Punkte-Plans zu verhandeln. In diesem Plan schlug al-Chatib vor, dass Assad zusammen mit von ihm ausgewählten 500 Verbündeten das Land verlassen und sein Amt an Vizepräsident Faruk al-Scharaa übergeben solle.

Es überraschte nicht, dass das Regime an al-Chatibs Vorschlag nicht im Geringsten interessiert war, da er den Rücktritt von Präsident al-Assad und Schlüsselfiguren seines Regimes forderte. Bemerkenswert ist, dass verschiedene Mitglieder der syrischen Opposition ihn auch ablehnten und als einen Akt von Verrat betrachteten, für den Scheich al-Chatib schwer bestraft werden sollte. Im Januar 2018 erinnerte Scheich al-Chatib seine früheren Kritiker an ihre damalige ablehnende Haltung, denn fünf Jahre später, als die militärische Opposition schon stark geschwächt war, gingen verschiedene von ihnen nach Russland und wollten unter russischer Schirmherrschaft verhandeln, d.h. tun, was sie doch früher laut abgelehnt und kritisiert hatten. (4)

Dass Vorschläge abgelehnt werden, die zu früheren Zeiten als Hochverrat galten, später aber, mit etwas Einsicht, doch ernsthaft hätten untersucht werden müssen, scheint sich zu wiederholen.

Das erinnert mich an den Vorschlag des tunesischen Präsidenten Habib Bourguiba, der im März 1965 die arabischen Staaten anmahnte, im Gegenzug für Verhandlungen im Geiste des Teilungsplanes für Palästina, (adoptiert am 29. November 1947) Israel anzuerkennen. Er schlug vor, dass die Araber die Teilung von Palästina akzeptieren sollten und forderte eine sofortige Ausrufung eines palästinischen Staates. Die Reaktion der meisten arabischen Staaten war damals, dass dies eine Art von Hochverrat darstelle. Ägyptens Präsident [Gamal] Abdal Nasser verkündete, dass Bourguibas Vorschlag ein Verrat an arabischem Nationalismus und Panarabismus darstellten und nur Israel und der zionistischen Bewegung dienen würde. Bourguiba erwiderte, dass‚ ‚was die Araber heute erreichen könnten, ist morgen nicht mehr greifbar‘. Und wie sich herausstellte, hatte er recht. Aber zu jener Zeit war es für die meisten der arabischen Führer unmöglich, Bourguibas Ideen wegen genuiner Gefühle für Gerechtigkeit und Rechtmäßigkeit zu akzeptieren.

Israel sah den Vorschlag als ‚bedeutend und würdig einer sorgfältigeren Betrachtung‘ an, aber wies letztlich Bourguibas Ideen zurück, weil es sich weigerte, Gebiete abzutreten – genauso wie bei einem ähnlichen Vorschlag 37 Jahre später in Form der Arabischen Friedensinitiative von 2002. Im Jahr 1965 konnte es Israel jedoch egal sein, denn die Araber hatten den Vorschlag schon selber abgelehnt und die Idee in ihren eigenen Kreisen im Keime erstickt.

Den Initiativen von Bourguiba im Jahr 1965 und von Moas al-Chatib im Jahr  2012 ist gemeinsam, dass sie von ihren eigenen Kreisen abgelehnt wurden und daher nie eine Chance hatten, ernsthaft in Erwägung gezogen zu werden. Beide wurden nicht annähernd richtig geprüft, ihre Lösungswege nicht erkundet. (5)  Was zu einer früheren Zeit als verräterisch betrachtet wurde aufgrund authentisch existierender Gefühle und Emotionen über das was rechtens und richtig ist, konnte später – nach Jahren von Krieg, Gewalt und Elend – vielleicht als relativ vernünftig und staatsmännisch eingeschätzt werden. Und mit dem Fortschreiten der Jahre werden authentische Gefühle und Emotionen über das, was rechtens und richtig ist, vielleicht im Lichte der neuen Realitäten vor Ort schwächer werden.

Was den Syrien-Krieg betrifft, war es so, als ob zwei parallele Welten existierten. In der einen Welt walten die wahrgenommenen Gefühle von Gerechtigkeit. Wünsche hinsichtlich dessen, was richtigerweise passieren sollte, wurden formuliert. Die Möglichkeiten – oder Hindernisse – diese Wünsche real werden zu lassen, wurden jedoch nicht immer in Betracht gezogen oder auch nicht akzeptiert. Das begehrte Ziel war klar, nicht aber der Weg dorthin.

In der anderen, der zweiten Welt, war und ist Syrien schon immer eine der harschesten und grausamsten, wenn nicht die größte brutale Wirklichkeit gewesen. In dieser zweiten Welt lag das Hauptaugenmerk auf dem Problem des politischen und physischen Überlebens des Regimes und des An-der-Macht-Bleibens, egal, was es kosten würde.

Viele westliche und arabische Politiker leben noch immer in der ersten Welt, der Welt des idealen Syrien, nicht in der Welt der syrischen Realität oder was aus Syrien geworden ist als Resultat des blutigen syrischen Krieges. Diese Welt ist die der prinzipientreuen Deklarationen von Absichten, die wegen fehlender militärischer Macht oder fehlenden politischen Willens nicht implementiert  werden – speziell wegen des fehlenden Willens, die Prinzipien dieser Deklarationen durchzusetzen, egal ob diese auf nationaler Ebene oder auf der Ebene des Sicherheitsrats der Vereinten Nationen herausgebracht werden. (Erinnert sei an Aleppo und Ost-Ghouta.)

Es ist eigentlich unnötig zu erwähnen, dass diejenigen, die sich mit begrenztem Willen und begrenzten Mitteln dem syrischen Regime entgegenstellen, sich auch begrenzte Ziele setzen müssen, wollen sie auch nur etwas von dem erreichen, was sie sich vorgenommen haben. Jedoch scheinen nach sieben Jahren blutigen Krieges und gut über 450.000 Toten viele westliche und arabische Politiker noch beträchtlich von Wunschdenken irrgeleitet zu sein.  Und infolgedessen wird der Konflikt in Syrien weiterhin vom vermeintlichen moralischen Zeigefinger her angegangen. Sie sind noch immer nicht bereit, die nackte Wahrheit zu akzeptieren, dass man mit unzureichendem Willen und unzureichenden Mitteln nur unzureichende Ergebnisse erreichen kann. Ausländische Regierungen können diese Regel entweder ignorieren oder so tun, als ob sie sich dessen nicht bewusst sind. Indem sie auf ethischen und politischen, sogenannten korrekten Ideen von Gerechtigkeit bestehen, ohne jedoch die dafür notwendigen Mittel zur Umsetzung dieser gerechten Ziele bereitzustellen, helfen verschiedene westliche und arabische Politiker indirekt, den Krieg mit all seinen Toten, Flüchtlingen und seinem Ausmaß an Zerstörung fortzusetzen.

Und was nutzt uns die moralische Überlegenheit, wenn sie zu mehr Toten, mehr Zerstörung und mehr Flüchtlingen führt, dazumal in einem Krieg, der noch nicht einmal ansatzweise gewonnen und nicht annähernd auf dem Wege ist, die verkündeten Ziele einer neuen, pluralistischen, säkularen, demokratischen und zivilen syrischen Gesellschaft zu erreichen, sondern stattdessen die deutliche Gestalt eines Kriegs ohne Erfolg annimmt?

Aus meiner Sicht wäre es besser gewesen, wenn sich die ausländischen Kräfte nicht in den syrischen Krieg eingemischt hätten und außen vor geblieben wären, statt zu versuchen, eine Lösung mit unzureichenden militärischen Mitteln durchzudrücken, deren Folgen wir heute sehen.

Wäre es nicht an der Zeit, zuzugeben, dass der Kriege gegen das syrische Regime nahezu verloren ist? Und wenn das Ergebnis schon recht klar ist, worin besteht denn dann der Sinn des Weitermachens und weiteren Blutvergießens? Oder wollen etwa die Länder, die am Krieg per Stellvertretung teilgenommen haben, den Krieg mit alle seinen Toten, Flüchtlingen und der Zerstörung zu Lasten des syrischen Volkes weiterführen? Möchten sie etwa der Opposition ein paar Druckmittel in zukünftige Verhandlungen mitgeben, obwohl praktisch gesehen eigentlich nicht mehr viel zu verhandeln ist, wenn man die militärischen Machtverhältnisse in Betracht zieht? Oder wollen sie in Syrien bleiben aufgrund eines Wettkampfes um die Vormacht in der Region?

Einige Leser und Leserinnen werden über diese Vorschläge, den Krieg zu beenden, außer sich sein und mit großer Empörung aufschreien, dass es Verrat wäre, jetzt aufzugeben nach all den Bemühungen um den Sturz des Regimes. Andere werden vielleicht sagen, dass halbherzige ausländische Unterstützung für die militärische Opposition einem Verrat gleich kommt, der auf Kosten des syrischen Volkes geht. Und andere wiederum mögen den Slogan ‚ Lieber tot als erniedrigt‘ (6) rufen, können aber nicht im Namen aller jener Syrier sprechen, die ohne ihre Zustimmung oder sogar gegen ihren Willen in diesen Krieg hinein gezogen und Opfer des Krieges wurden. Den Kampf aufzugeben könnte heißen, dass alle Bemühungen umsonst waren.

Frédéric Pichon hat sein jüngstes Buch zum Syrien-Krieg „Une guerre pour rien“ (etwa ‚Ein Krieg um nichts ‘) (7) betitelt. Tatsächlich ist es aber noch viel schlimmer, denn dieser Krieg war nicht nur umsonst, weil keines der Ziele der Opposition erreicht worden sind, sondern weil er Syrien um Jahrzehnte in die Vergangenheit zurückversetzt und irreparable Verluste und gesellschaftliche Schäden verursacht hat.

Am Anfang des Konflikts, der im Jahr 2011 ausbrach, wäre es möglicherweise leichter gewesen eine politische Lösung zu erzielen, was später nicht mehr möglich war. Mehrere Länder, einschließlich der Türkei und Saudi Arabien sowie die Arabische Liga und andere Länder strengten sich in der Tat sehr an, eine Lösung zu finden. Ab August 2011 jedoch begannen verschiedene ausländische Führer, einschließlich Präsident Obama und andere westliche politische Führer, Baschar al-Assad zum Rücktritt aufzufordern und verfolgten diesen Plan seitdem weiter, wenn auch in jüngster Zeit mit einigen Variationen.

Im Dezember 2017 hat z.B. der französische Präsident Macron fast sieben Jahre nach dem Beginn der Syrischen Revolution und nachdem klar war, dass Assad nicht freiwillig gehen würde – nicht zuletzt,  weil es so aussah, als ob  er den Krieg gewinnen kann – wie folgt formuliert:

“Wir müssen mit allen sprechen… wir müssen mit Baschar al-Assad und seinen Vertretern sprechen … danach muss sich Assad für seine Verbrechen vor seinem Volk und vor der internationalen Justiz verantworten.“ (8)

Während er damit zugab, dass Gespräche mit Assad unvermeidlich waren, konnte sich Macron sicher sein, dass der syrische Präsident die neue französische Position ablehnen würde, da Macron dafür stimmte, Assad vor das internationale Gericht zu bringen.

Dieselbe Formel, wiederholt angewendet, hat garantiert, dass keine wirklichen Verhandlungen stattfinden würden. Obwohl diese Formel  für seinen Gerechtigkeitsanspruch gewürdigt werden muss, ist sie ein schlechtes Rezept, ein ‚non-starter‘, geblieben.

In ähnlichem Wandel von Positionen machte die US-Administration im Dezember 2017 deutlich, dass sie bereit sei, Präsident al-Assads Herrschaft bis zu den nächsten geplanten syrischen Präsidentschaftswahlen 2021 zu dulden. Gleichzeitig blieb die Trump-Administration aber dabei zu verkünden, dass sie einen politischen Prozess wolle der Assads Rücktritt in Aussicht stellte.

Wenn Baschar al-Assad seinerseits erklärt hätte, dass er Präsident Trump bis zu den nächsten US-amerikanischen Wahlen im Jahr 2020 in seiner Position akzeptieren würde, hätte das für viele lächerlich geklungen. Aber ähnliche Bemerkungen von Präsident Trump sind ernst genommen worden, obwohl die USA während der letzten sieben Jahre beim Stürzen des Assad-Regimes erfolglos war. Und je nach Ausgang der Wahlen von 2020 sollte man nicht ausschließen, dass Assad Donald Trump als Präsident im politischen Amt überlebt. (9)

Die Position von Katar, einem der langjährigen zentralen Unterstützer der zivilen und militärischen Opposition, änderte sich auch im Oktober 2017, insbesondere nachdem die anderen Staaten des Golf-Kooperationsrates unter der Anschuldigung,   dass Katar die organisierten Terroristen in Syrien unterstützt hätte, Sanktionen gegen das Land verhängten. Der frühere Premierminister und Minister für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten, Scheich  Hamad ibn Dschasim Al Thani gestand daraufhin,  dass Katar die syrische Oppositionen früher vollends mit Saudi Arabien koordinierten und alle gemeinsame Unterstützung über die Türkei gelaufen sei, wo weitere Waffenauslieferungen an die Opposition mit den Vereinigten Staaten, zusammen mit der Türkei und Saudi Arabien koordiniert worden waren. Scheich Hamad stritt ab, dass es irgendeine Unterstützung von Katar für den Islamischen Staat gegeben habe. Einige von Katars Waffen sind jedoch anscheinend in die Hände von Dschabhat an-Nusra, der mit al-Qaida affiliierten Gruppe, gelangt. Als das bekannt wurde, wurde Unterstützung, so sagte Scheich Hamad Al Thani, für Dschabhat an-Nusra gestoppt.

Saudi Arabien und Katar hatten sich auf das, was Scheich Hamad Al Thani ‘die Befreiung Syriens’ nennt, konzentriert. Als aber die zwei Staaten miteinander in Streitigkeiten über ihre gemeinsame ‘Beute’ (womit Hamad Al Thani Baschar al-Assad und das syrische Regime meinte) gerieten, entwischte ihnen ihre Beute. Scheich Hamad fügte hinzu, dass es okay wäre, wenn al-Assad im Amt bliebe, solange die Saudis einverstanden wären. Katar war ursprünglich eigentlich mit al-Assad befreundet. Scheich Hamad kritisierte, dass es keine konsequente Politik zwischen Katar und Saudi Arabien gegeben hätte; er hätte aber trotzdem nichts gegen einen Kurswechsel, falls vergangene politische Linien sich als Fehler erwiesen hätten. (10) Dieser Linienwechsel trat ein, nachdem es mehr als 450.000 Todesopfer gab und war anscheinend das Ergebnis eines Disputs zwischen Katar und Saudi Arabien und nicht eines spontanen Perspektivenwechsels oder gar Resultat besonderer Sympathien für das syrische Volk.

Was die Verhandlungen angeht, ist die syrische Opposition schon seit mehreren Jahren mit dem syrischen Regime durch aufeinander folgende UN-Gesandte [die sogenannten Special Envoys] für Syrien im Gespräch. Aber die Opposition begann mit Vorbedingungen, die ernsthafte Verhandlungen unmöglich machen, weil sie als Voraussetzung forderte, dass Präsident al-Assad und diejenigen in seinem Regime, die Blut an den Händen hätten, zurücktreten müssten und von jeglicher Rolle in Syriens Zukunft ausgeschlossen sowie vor ein Kriegsgericht gestellt werden sollten. Diese Forderungen, so völlig nachvollziehbar sie auch scheinen mögen, waren unrealistisch, weil sie garantieren, dass jegliche Kompromisse und ernsthafte Verhandlungen mit dem Regime ausgeschlossen sind. Darüber hinaus ist das Schicksal des Präsidenten al-Assad überhaupt nicht im Genfer Communiqué (2012) erwähnt, einem der internationalen Eckpfeiler unter den Dokumenten der Verhandlungen zwischen Regime und Opposition.

Sollten sich nach mehreren Jahren Blutvergießens einige arabische und westliche Regierungen für einen Kurswechsel entscheiden und bestimmen, dass al-Assad der Machthaber von Syrien bleiben solle sowie es auch weiterhin für opportun halten, Beziehungen zu reetablieren und wieder ihre Botschaften in Damaskus zu eröffnen, dürfen sie nicht davon ausgehen, dass das syrische Regime sie wieder willkommen heißen würde. Ganz im Gegenteil, solche Ouvertüren würden zunächst ganz bestimmt zurückgewiesen werden, bis die politischen Konten ausgeglichen wären, denn das Regime sieht in der ausländischen Einmischung und Unterstützung für die bewaffnete Opposition prinzipielle Gründe dafür, dass der syrische Krieg so lange angedauert hat.

Jegliche ausländische Hilfe für den Wiederaufbau  würde nur in regierungskontrollierten Gebieten mit der Genehmigung des Regimes zugelassen werden. Jede Bemühung des Wiederaufbaus in Gebieten, die nicht unter der Kontrolle des Regimes sind, laufen Gefahr unter Feuer zu geraten, sollte das Regime künftig diese Gebiete zurückerobern.

Was vielleicht durch Dialog mit dem Regime in den früheren Phasen der Syrischen Revolution hätte erreicht werden können, ist zunehmend schwierigerer geworden mit verstrichener Zeit und mit all den Ereignissen und der Zerstörung, die passiert sind. Je länger der Krieg andauerte, desto schwieriger ist es geworden, zu verhandeln und Kompromisse zu erzielen.

Man könnte nun argumentieren, dass das Regime nie an einem Dialog interessiert war, der zu wirklichem politischen Wandel oder Reform geführt hätte. Aber das ist meines Erachtens nie lange genug versucht worden. Die ernsthaften Bemühungen zu Beginn hätten weitergeführt werden sollen. Manchmal muss man sich ernsthaft bemühen, auch wenn man von den Erfolgsaussichten nicht ganz überzeugt ist.

Was die Millionen von syrischen Flüchtlingen betrifft, würde man logisch erwarten, dass die meisten nach Syrien zurückkehren werden, sobald der Krieg vorbei ist. Aber die Realität könnte etwas anders aussehen. Besonders den Flüchtlingen, die unter Verdacht stehen, aktiv gegen das Regime gearbeitet zu haben – und die meisten von ihnen sind Sunni –  könnte die Rückkehr verweigert werden, und bestimmt solange die wirtschaftlichen Aussichten des Landes schwach sind.

Syrien-Experte Fabrice Balanche schlägt vor, dass Präsident al-Assad die Rückkehr der Millionen Flüchtlinge gar nicht möchte, weil Syrien schon vor dem syrischen Krieg, der 2011 begann, überbevölkert war und unter verschiedenen wirtschaftlichen Problemen, Wassermangel, und anderem litt, d.h. Faktoren, die wiederum Auslöser der Syrischen Revolution waren. Die Verweigerung der Rückkehr von Millionen von syrischen Flüchtlingen könnte aus dieser Sicht Syrien die Möglichkeit eines Neubeginns geben – mit einer kleineren Bevölkerung die, aus der Sicht des Regimes, Syrien ‚ein bisschen Luft verschaffen könnte‘ . (11) Darüber hinaus  darf erwartet werden, das Flüchtlinge, die nach Syrien zurückkehren wollen, ihre Loyalität gegenüber dem Regime zeigen müssen bzw. beweisen müssen, dass sie nichts gegen das Regime vorhaben. All das könnte eine starke demographische Verschiebung zum Nachteil der syrischen Sunni nach sich ziehen. Obwohl andere Faktoren auch eine Rolle spielen, darf – wie Fabrice Balanche überzeugend gezeigt hat –darf die Kluft zwischen den Religionsgemeinschaften in Syrien nicht ignoriert werden, da sie ein Schlüsselfaktor ist. Die Oppositionsgebiete sind überwiegend von Sunni dominiert, während die Gebiete, in denen zahlenmäßig die Minderheiten dominieren, pro-Regime sind. (12)  Diese Kluft hat ernsthafte Konsequenzen für die Zukunft, sobald der syrische Krieg vorüber ist.

Bemerkenswert ist auch, dass es bisher keinerlei Kompromiss zwischen dem syrischen Regime einerseits und der Opposition, welche sich im Lande aufhält, andererseits gegeben hat. Manche Oppositionsführer, die ursprünglich im Lande aktiv waren, wie z.B. Louay Hussein, Führer der Building the Syrian State, sind in Abwesenheit zu langjähriger Haft verurteilt worden, was es für sie schwieriger gestaltet, zurückzukehren. Prominenten Oppositionsmitgliedern im Ausland, die öffentlich ihre Opposition gegen das Regime bekundet haben und zurückkehren wollten, wurde die Einreise in ihr Heimatland verweigert, aber es gibt auch Ausnahmen. (13)

Bis jetzt habe ich kaum über die Rollen von Russland und Iran im Konflikt gesprochen und werde dies auch nur kurz tun. Die US-amerikanische und britische Invasion des Irak im Jahr 2003 hat zu Krieg geführt, dessen Ende nach 15 Jahren immer noch nicht in Sicht ist. Durch die Beseitigung von Saddam Hussein haben sie Iran einen roten Teppich ausgerollt, auf dem das Land seinen Einfluss in Irak, Syrien, Libanon und anderswo im Nahen Osten ausweiten kann.

Die direkten und indirekten ausländischen militärischen Interventionen in Syrien haben die Stärkung der russischen Position beträchtlich verursacht. Der hauptsächliche Grund für Russlands Intervention war, seinen Verbündeten, das Regime, an der Macht zu erhalten. Ohne ausländische Interventionen in Syrien, die einen Regimewandel herbeiführen wollten, hätte Russland keinen Grund gehabt so einzugreifen, wie es das seit 2015 tut.

Was hätte das Regime von einer politischen anstelle einer militärischen Lösung? Das Regime kann nicht ewig an der Macht bleiben und sollte daher daran interessiert sein, ein neues Syrien zu schaffen, welches inklusiv für alle Syrer ist – auf eine Weise, die eine neue Revolution oder einen  Ausgleich politischer Konten in Form von Revanche ausschließt. Das Regime hätte schon längst daran arbeiten sollen, bevor es zur Revolution gekommen war – oder unmittelbar danach. Aber Baschar al-Assad und seine Unterstützer wählten den Weg der gewalttätigen Unterdrückung.

Syrien-Experte David Lesch schlägt vor, dass al-Assad am Anfang der Revolution mit sich haderte, was die Wahl zwischen einer eher nachsichtigen Herangehensweise und einem gewalttätigen Crackdown durch die Regierungstruppen betrifft.  Es war eine schicksalhafte Entscheidung, nicht ernsthaft Reformwege und Aussöhnung versucht zu haben – gleich zu Anfang, aber ganz bestimmt unter dem Blickwinkel der jetzigen Zerstörung. (14)  Jedoch ist nicht sicher, dass Ankündigungen von Reformmaßnahmen durch den Präsidenten wirklich die Demonstranten zufrieden gestellt hätten beim gleichzeitigen Weiterbestehen der syrischen Diktatur, waren die Demonstranten doch überwältigt von Enthusiasmus infolge vom sogenannten Arabischen Frühling in Tunesien, Ägypten und Libyen, wo die Präsidenten aus ihren Ämtern entfernt wurden.

Zum jetzigen Zeitpunkt ist es viel schwieriger geworden drastische Reformmaßnahmen zu erzielen. Das ist aber kein Grund, sie nicht ernsthaft erreichen zu wollen. Doch bleibt es zweifelhaft, ob das Regime ernste Anstrengungen in dieser Richtung machen wird, weil das auch implizieren könnte, ihre eigene Stellung zu unterwandern, wie es auch schon am Anfang der Syrischen Revolution der Fall gewesen wäre.

Wogegen der Schlüssel zur Stärke des Regimes in den Gemeinsamkeiten bei Religionsgemeinschaft, Region, Familie oder Stamm der hauptsächlichen Baath-Herrscher lag, stellt ihr alawitischer Hintergrund auch eine ihrer inhärenten Hauptschwächen dar. Der ‘ alawitische Faktor’ behindert eine friedliche Transformation der syrischen Diktatur in ein breiteres repräsentatives Regime. Dieser alawitische ‘Gordische Knoten’ sollte daher zerschlagen werden, um Vertrauen zwischen allen Bevölkerungsgruppen Syriens –unabhängig von religiöser oder ethnischer Zugehörigkeit – aufzubauen.

Doch bezweifle ich stark, dass das Regime auf das Durchschlagen des alawitischen ‚Gordischen Knotens‘ vorbereitet ist, denn er war bisher immer essentiell für sein Überleben.

Aus diesem Grunde sehen die Zukunftsaussichten für einen syrischen Frieden sehr düster aus, auch wenn das Regime den Krieg gewinnen wird – und wonach die Lage aussieht.

[End]

* Nikolaos van Dam ist Syrien-Experte und diente als Botschafter des Königreichs der Niederlande in Indonesien, Deutschland, der Türkei, Ägypten und Irak. Er war der niederländische Special Envoy für Syrien 2015-16. Sein jüngstes Buch trägt den Titel  ‘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. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ending-disastrous-american-role-in-syria-by-jeffrey-d-sachs-2018-02

[2] ‘Dictatoriaal glamourechtpaar’, Vrij Nederland, 21 May 2011’. Interview with Harm Botje. https://www.vn.nl/dictatoriaal-glamourechtpaar/

[3] https://programma.bnnvara.nl/pauwenwitteman/media/88810, Pauw & Witteman, 7 March 2012.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TYv0IU6ZAoAljazeerah, 15 March 2012.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/pg/Alemyavena/posts/ 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.

[8] https://www.rferl.org/a/france-macron-islamic-state-syria-assad-talks/28924153.html

[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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igwf_5fllNI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9f33l30kQxg (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] Herausragend unter ihnen war Bassam al-Malik, Zaman al-Wasl, 14 August 2017. Fabrice Balanche, Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War, p. 48, schreibt, dass im Jahr 2017 Scheich Nawwaf al-Baschir, ein mächtiges Sunni-Stammesoberhaupt, von Istanbul nach Damaskus gezogen ist. Indem er für das Regime war, demonstrierte er, dass der Baggara-Stamm seine Unterstützung nun an al-Assad versprochen hat.

[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.

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. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/ending-disastrous-american-role-in-syria-by-jeffrey-d-sachs-2018-02

[2] ‘Dictatoriaal glamourechtpaar’, Vrij Nederland, 21 May 2011’. Interview with Harm Botje. https://www.vn.nl/dictatoriaal-glamourechtpaar/

[3] https://programma.bnnvara.nl/pauwenwitteman/media/88810, Pauw & Witteman, 7 March 2012.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TYv0IU6ZAo, Aljazeerah, 15 March 2012.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/pg/Alemyavena/posts/ 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.

[8] https://www.rferl.org/a/france-macron-islamic-state-syria-assad-talks/28924153.html

[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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igwf_5fllNI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9f33l30kQxg (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.

THE CHALLENGE OF IRAQ’S NATIONAL UNITY

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.

DEMOBILIZING THE MILITIAS

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.

A CENTRAL PIECE IN THE IRAQI POLITICAL MILIEU

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.