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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments (9)

lavergne said:

A sound and accurate critics of this shortsighted account by a seasoned diplomat, which illustrates the general misleading views of western diplomacy regarding the Syrian regime and its strength and determination as well as the need to strongly support the popular uprising for democracy.

November 17th, 2017, 6:42 am


Eugene said:

Finding fault. That said, where things are at today, isn’t going to change anything. What has been, who caused it, the facts speak for themselves, the importance being how to rebuild Syria and who will pay for it?

November 17th, 2017, 7:37 am


Grumpy Old Man said:

The US has no vital interests in Syria. Zero. Hence it should have shut up and stayed out.

The rest is commentary.

November 18th, 2017, 10:44 am


Leonardo said:

I believe the opinion expressed in this post is the result of a perspective skewed by the western myth of a peaceful protest crushed by a brutal regime.

While reading, I was thinking that today we know better and we can safely say that that narration is a manichean oversemplification that doesn’t match reality.
Since the beginning the peaceful protesters were coexisting with small but very aggressive and deadly groups of armed insurgents and the repressive violence of the Syrian security apparatus. It’s been a spiral of mistakes and violence from many sides, since the first day.

Then I found an article posted on this website, dating back to march of 2011

Reading both the post and the comments today gives me the shivers.
Even though I have been following the Syrian crisis since 2011, I forgot how much we knew since the beginning, at a time when the western main narrative had yet to seep and coalesce into the form I was mentioning about above.
Things were much less murky than I remembered, since the very beginning.

The importance of this blog not just as a commentary but also as an information archive, cannot be overstated.

Thanks for your hard work.

November 18th, 2017, 12:41 pm


Poul said:

The problem I have with both Van Dam and Heydemann is the assumption that democracy will somehow become possible in Syria if certain criteria were present. Both are working on hope.

There is nothing in research into democracy in developing countries that can explain how a functioning democracy comes into being sucessfully. It’s too simple to point at leaders as the reason.

Ghana’s ex-president Jerry John Rawlings did listen to the population and introduced political reforms but he didn’t not have salafists to content with. However in Tunisia the Islamist Ennahda Party has been willing to enter into compromises with the opposition but there is also no non-Sunni minorities who are terrified of a religious based rule. And there are plenty of well-organized opposition parties plus an army which stayed out of politics. The officer corps in Egypt feared the loss of privilege and voila a coup against president Morsi.

We only have to look at Europe in the beginning of the 20th century to see the same problems. Islamism is the big political undercurrent in the Arab world right now, in Europe it was socialism and nationalism.

Russia fell under the sway of socialism. Poland was ruled by a nationalist officer corps (like Egypt and Syria today). Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy and Spain became fascist.

It take decades to establish a democratic pluralistic culture and as we can see in Poland and Hungary today the nationalist authoritarian political culture has returned in force. We’ll see if the democratic culture in those countries are strong enough to survive the present crisis.

November 19th, 2017, 10:52 am


Eugene said:

Refreshing your take on the post. Indeed, your last paragraph sums up the whole, to which I might add, so to for the U.S.A., who at the present time, is still having growing pains – i.e.- changing the rights or giving up the rights, that was written in the “Declaration of Independence”.

November 19th, 2017, 1:59 pm


Eugene said:

My last comment was in response to POUL.

November 19th, 2017, 2:01 pm


Ghufran said:

Both sides in the Syrian conflict were not interested in freedom, they used the freedom slogan but their actions showed how exclusive their vision for Syria was. The regime knew from day one that if the world has to choose between them and the Islamists they will choose the regime. Do not blame the world for the outcome of the war, look in the mirror.

November 22nd, 2017, 8:51 pm


Willy Van Damme said:

Another defender of Al Qaeda and other throat slitting salafist thugs. Sickening.

December 7th, 2017, 4:12 pm


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