Nikolaos van Dam on Syria, Assad, the Opposition, Refugees, Kurds, Terrorism, & the Future of the Middle East

By Nikolaos van Dam – @nikolaosvandam


Tadmir Watan: al-Harb al-Ahliyah fi Suriya (Beirut, Dar Jana Tamer, 2018)

As there has been such a high demand for an Arabic translation of my book Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, which appeared less than a year ago, I am glad that it now appears for the first time in Arabic in an updated and extended version.

The fact that it appears some seven years after the start of revolution and war in Syria provides an opportunity to look back at developments in Syria with some more knowledge and insights of what has actually happened. From the very beginning of March 2011, the Syrian Revolution has been a highly controversial subject because of completely opposing and conflicting views among the warring parties concerned. My aim is to look at the developments with some more distance, instead of choosing sides, and following the motto of Albert Einstein that ‘you can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created’.

The Syrian Revolution that started in 2011 did not come out of the blue, but was a result of decades of developments under Ba’thist rule since 1963. The year of 2011 has become a very important turning point in Syrian history because the wall of silence and fear was broken for the first time among large sections of the Syrian population, as they rose massively against the Syrian regime. And even though Syrian history as a result might be divided into a period before and after 2011, it would be better to say that modern Syrian history has been marked by various important turning points, of which the 2011 revolution is just one, albeit a very important one which will be described extensively in this book.

There were, of course, more turning points in the period after Syria became independent in 1946, after the French had left the country when their mandatory power ended. I will mention here only three: 1963, 1970, 1976-1982, next to the fourth of 2011.

The first such turning point was when the Ba’thist military took over power in 1963. The importance of this turning point lay more in the specific backgrounds of the military who have dominated Syria ever since, rather than that the rule by the Ba’th Party itself was all-decisive. This was because the military rulers and their supporters as from 1963 originated to a great extent from the Syrian countryside and from the heterodox Islamic minorities that were concentrated in the Syrian rural areas: Alawis, Druzes and Isma’ilis in particular. Before the Ba’thist revolution of 1963, the Syrian political scene had been mainly dominated by urban Sunnis, whereas afterwards the power structure was more or less turned upside-down, with people from the Arabic-speaking rural minorities dominating the Sunni Syrian urban majority. This implied a radical social revolution, which slowed down, however, once these minority people had achieved higher positions with material interests which they started to defend, just as the Sunni urban upper class had done in the past.

As far as dictatorship is concerned, it would not be correct to divide Syrian history in a pre-Ba’thist period before 1963, and another period after 1963, because Syria has hardly known anything else but dictatorships or authoritarian rule for as long as it has existed during thousands of years. The Syrian free parliamentarian elections of 1954 were perhaps exceptional, but these provided more a valuable gauge of public opinion at a critical moment, in which they gave an indication of the comparative strength of the rival forces on the Syrian political scene,[1] rather than that there was really a democracy in Syria. In this epoch, which sometimes is described as ‘the democratic years’, the military and intelligence (mukhabarat) were noticeably present behind the scenes just as well.[2]

The military coup of Alawi General Hafiz al-Asad in 1970 can be considered as a second turning point, mainly because afterwards Syria was no longer plagued by military coups and rivalries as before. From that year onwards, it was only one all-powerful Alawi-dominated military faction that controlled the Syrian scene for almost half a century, until today.

A third important turning point caused the issue of sectarianism to be more important than ever before. In the years of 1976-1982 an extremist offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, called al-Tala’i’ al-Muqatilah (The Fighting Vanguards) carried out a whole series of assassinations against Alawis, whether Ba’thist or not, in an effort to cause a sectarian polarization between the Alawi minority and the Sunni majority that would destabilize the Alawi-dominated regime and could finally lead to its downfall. The Islamist radicals, however, stood no chance against the well-armed and well-organized 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. The earlier bloody events have had a profoundly negative effect on Alawi-Sunni relations, which has only increased after the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011.

One of the key questions in this book is whether or not the bloody war in Syria could have been avoided, and whether it could have been expected. The answer is that it was unavoidable and could have been expected. What could not have been predicted, however, were the effects of the so-called Arab Spring and the foreign interference in the Syrian War that started in 2011.

There has been some controversy about whether or not one could label the Syrian War as a ‘civil war’. It depends, of course, on the definition one wishes to give to the concept of civil war. And opinions vary widely on it. According to some academic literature, however, the Syrian War can be considered as a civil war, although one should note that it got the clear additional dimension of a war-by-proxy due to foreign interference and intervention.[3]

Already long before 2011, we have seen how on numerous occasions the Ba’th regime dealt in a ruthless way with any threats against it, whether these were imagined or real: people opposing the regime were imprisoned, tortured, killed, assassinated, or committed ‘suicide with more than one bullet’, or were dealt with by other repressive means.

A brutal dictatorship with such characteristics and behavior like 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. In my earlier book The Struggle for Power in Syria, I predicted more than three decades before the start of the Syrian Revolution– 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 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.

As could have been expected, the Syrian regime seized all possible means to stay in power. Its strategy of temporary alliances with the aim of monopolizing power has been repeated on various occasions ever since 1963 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.

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.

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 Western 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. This turned out to be enough to make the regime tremble (tarannah) but not enough to topple it. And I leave out of consideration here whether an alternative – for instance a radical Islamist – regime could have been even worse. Whatever the case, it would have been unrealistic to expect a democracy after the Syrian War.

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.[4] 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. Foreign military intervention under the United Nations principle of The Responsibility to Protect, would have required a multi-year huge military operation, for which not any Western country was prepared.

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 to or communicate with President al-Asad, it was not possible either to positively contribute to any solution.[5]

During television programs on the occasion of 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.[6] 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, not any 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 extremely negative and hostile 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. The other way around, the regime abhorred the thought of having to share power with those who tried to topple them and wanted to bring them before international justice.

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. They also played into the hands of the regime by proclaiming slogans like ‘the people want the toppling of the regime’ (al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizam) or ‘the people want the execution of the president’ (al-sha’b yurid i’dam al-ra’is). This gave the regime further justification for crushing the demonstrations and revolt. And slogans like these would not even have been tolerated in Western democracies.

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.

When asked seven years onwards whether the Syrian Revolution ‘was worth it’, various opposition authors have argued that ‘if the same history and conditions were repeated today, most likely people would do the same thing as in 2011’, that ‘it was worth it, at this unique juncture of history more than at any time before’, and that ‘there was no way of living a different life under a regime that openly spoke about remaining in power for eternity, as this would have meant a permanent war against the future.’[7]

Another revolution might happen again in future, albeit under different circumstances from those in 2011.

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. The declarations and resolutions issued on the occasion of the battles for Aleppo (2016) and Eastern Ghouta (2018) are clear examples of this phenomenon.

A well-known Dutch artist who portrayed Syria both before and during the war made the following comment about the destruction of the historic suqs of Aleppo during the Syrian War:

‘The rebels entrenched themselves in the Suqs [of Aleppo] as a protection against the heavy artillery of the Syrian Army. So, who, then, is guilty of their destruction?’[8]

It is a delicate question, which also requires a delicate answer. [And it is, of course, not only about the material destruction, but much more about the huge human cost in lives, wounded and refugees]. Is the party that pulls the trigger responsible, or the party that provides the other party with the motivation to attack it?

Most answers would immediately reveal the supposed sympathies for one of the various warring parties in Syria: either being in favor of the Syrian regime or against it. But there can also be a more neutral answer, which almost by definition will also be considered by the same warring factions as being pro- or against the regime. And that is because many Syrians or foreign observers can hardly abstain from using partisan language. Most of the involved parties expect someone to be either pro- or against the regime, as they would consider it to be shameful if one would not clearly take sides in such a horrendous conflict.

Concerning the destruction of the Suqs in Aleppo, the people supporting the opposition would most probably suggest the view that the Syrian regime has been fully responsible for the destruction in Aleppo, and for that matter of many other places all over Syria as well. Those supporting the regime, on the other hand, will argue that it is the opposition that is responsible for all the death and destruction that has taken place since March 2011. Some of them argue that had there been no revolt and massive demonstrations, whether peaceful or not, there would not have been that much killing, destruction and refugee movements on such an enormous scale.

The armed opposition groups were not really invited by ‘the people of Aleppo’ to so-called ‘liberate’ them from the dictatorship of the regime, even though many may have wanted them to do so, without, however, being able to foresee the disastrous consequences. The people of Aleppo, and for that matter of any other Syrian city, are not homogeneous as far as their opinions are concerned. Therefore, it is not that easy to make such generalizations as ‘the people of Aleppo by majority want this or that’. There is bound to be a great diversity of opinion.

Some have argued that in the conquering of Aleppo by opposition forces, factors such as rural-urban and poor-rich contrasts have played a role. But many people from Aleppo are themselves of rural origin, and the majority is not rich, but poor, albeit perhaps generally less poor than people from the countryside.

Generalizing, I speculate that it could be said that most people from Aleppo wanted the war to end, and to restart their normal lives, wherever possible. They did not want to pay the heavy price that the Syrian War has imposed on them.

When speaking about the controversial concept of bearing responsibility or co-responsibility for the disastrous situation in Syria, the harsh reality of who has won or who has achieved a certain victory or defeat in the war may also have to be taken into consideration.

It might perhaps have been perceived differently, had the military and civilian opposition forces been able to bring peace, and create a ‘new Syria’ with the characteristics that were described by the Higher Negotiations Council of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh in 2016 as follows:

‘A political system based on democracy, plurality and citizenship which provides for equality in rights and duties for all Syrians without discrimination on the basis of color, gender, language, ethnicity, opinion, religion, or ideology’.

This ideal, however, has not at all been achieved. And it is doubtful whether all the opposition signatories to this Riyadh declaration (2016) would have been prepared to really implement their stated common principles once they would have taken over power of the regime. This applied to the Islamist parties in particular. But that is another point. Here I only want to consider the ideal, albeit theoretical, situation that these principles would have been implemented. 

In such a case it could have been argued that the opposition war against the regime would have been justified, and would have been ‘worth it’, because it would have led to a substantial improvement in the country’s situation. But in reality, it could not be achieved, because the military opposition – or I should say the numerous military opposition groups together – were not able to achieve a military victory over the regime, and create the ‘new Syria’, which they proclaimed to be aiming for in the mentioned Riyadh Declaration.

As a result, it can be argued that the opposition groups and their foreign supporters at least bear a great responsibility, or co-responsibility (together with the regime) for the disastrous consequences of the Syrian War for all Syrians, even though statistically, by far most deadly victims and destruction have been caused by the actions of the regime.

Moreover, even in case the opposition military would have been able to topple the regime, the situation could hardly have been expected to have improved, taking the lack of unity among the numerous opposition groups into account. Even after seven years of war, no effective unity among the military opposition forces had been achieved. Various rival opposition groups have been fighting one another as most wanted power for themselves, not being prepared to share it with others (just like the regime did not want to share power with others). And I am not even taking into consideration here the lack of unity and coordination among the various countries that supported the opposition groups, like the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UK and France, which all had their own political and strategic agendas, and their own military client groups and favorites.

Even after seven years of bloody war, and some 500,000 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. Various Western and Arab politicians have thereby indirectly helped the war to continue with all its dead, refugees and destruction.

The war with the regime has failed to achieve the opposition’s proclaimed aims of a pluralistic, secular, democratic and civil new Syrian society, and is apparently going in the clear direction of being lost by the opposition.

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[9], 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 book on the Syrian War ‘Une Guerre Pour Rien’, or ‘A war for nothing’[10]. 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 brought Syria also decennia backward in development and caused irreparable losses and social damages.

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 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.’[11]

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.[12]

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, in his words, 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 (siyasa istimrariya) between Qatar and Saudi Arabia but did not mind to change course if past policies turned out to have been a mistake.[13] 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 been communicating with the Syrian regime for several years through the successive  United Nations Special Envoys for Syria, but they did so under accompanying statements 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 court martialed. 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.

Next to Geneva, intra-Syrian talks took place in Astana, Kazakhstan (2017- ), and in Sochi, Russia (2018- ). The meetings in Astana resulted in agreements on a de-escalation of the fighting in specific zones and in temporary local armistices, but the agreements were violated, and appeared to be mainly intended as a pause for further war. The meetings in Sochi under Russian auspices were not successful either. The more the regime was on the winning side, the less they were willing to really negotiate with opposition parties with whom they never had the intention to share any real power. Winning the war would not mean, however, that a political solution would have been achieved.

On various occasions, Syrian opposition forces were militarily defeated by the regime, to be subsequently deported to the province of Idlib, not with any intention to negotiate later on with the defeated military on a political solution, but rather to defeat them later on in Idlib once the time would be considered to be appropriate to the regime. In Idlib province the deported opposition military intermingled with other dominant opposition groups, like Hay’at Tahir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and other radical Islamist opposition organizations.

In fact, the regime had always wanted to reconquer the whole of Syria, and the outcome of this depended to a great extent on the support foreign parties were willing to supply to their favorite opposition clients.

If, after more than 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 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. Moreover, it is not without complications to channel foreign reconstruction aid to areas that are under the shifting control of a mixture of military opposition groups that include radical Islamist groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (linked to al-Qa’ida), Ahrar al-Sham or the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

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 became to negotiate and reach any compromise. The mutual hate between the conflicting parties is immense.

One might also argue that the regime has never been interested in any dialogue whatsoever that could 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.

What have the countries that supported the opposition received in return for their insufficient aid and military interference? Four of the most important issues are: 1) refugees, d) increased terrorism, 3) a strengthened current of Kurdish nationalism and wish for autonomy, 4) a strong increase of instability in the Middle East.


Considering the millions of Syrian refugees abroad, 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. A short look at the Facebook pages of many Syrians will easily show with which side they sympathize, for instance by using the Syrian flag with three stars, used by the opposition, or the official flag with two stars used by the regime.

Syria expert Fabrice Balanche has suggested that President al-Asad even might not want the return of millions of refugees, because Syria was already relatively overpopulated before the Syrian War, and suffered from severe economic problems, unemployment, severe draught, 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 the Syrian regime the opportunity of a new start with a smaller population which, in the supposed thinking of the regime, might ‘give Syria some air’.[14]

Moreover, it can be expected that refugees wanting to return to Syria may have to prove that they were loyal to the regime or at least 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 cannot 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.[15] This divide can have serious implications for the future once the Syrian War would be over. [On the other hand, it should be noted that many Sunnis from elsewhere have taken refuge in the coastal provinces of Lattakia and Tartus, with their Alawi majorities, showing that in this case safety prevailed over sectarian identity].

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.[16]


Terrorism and terrorist attacks in Europe are of course much older than the Syrian Revolution that started in 2011.

Al-Qa’ida, for instance, had its origins in the Mujahidin in Afghanistan who, at the time were supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia and others in their struggle against the Soviet occupation. These Mujahidin later on turned themselves against their former Western supporters.

The Iraq of President Saddam Hussein used to be a bulwark against the Iranian Islamic Revolution, which was the main reason for Western countries to support Iraq in order to contain the expansion or export of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. The US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, gave rise to a number of subsequent disastrous developments. In the first place, it led to a destabilizing war, the end of which after 15 years is by far not in sight. The number of deadly victims has, according to some estimates, risen far over the million.[17] Under President Saddam Hussein, al-Qa’ida did not have the slightest chance to be active inside Iraq. By removing the Iraqi president, however, al-Qa’ida obtained the chance to become very active inside the country and elsewhere. The US-British occupation created the fertile soil for the Islamic State to gain a foothold in Iraq first, so as to later become active from there in Syria and elsewhere. In fact, the removal of Saddam meant that the United States and Great Britain laid out a red carpet for Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Strengthening Kurdish nationalism and the wish for autonomy,

Turkey probably never expected that its ferocious efforts to topple the Syrian regime in Damascus would lead to a strengthening of the position of the Kurds in northern Syria, and notably of the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units that are at least a likeminded organization, if not the counterpart of the Turkish Kurdish PKK, which already has fought for decades for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, if not more.

As a result of the Syrian War, the YPG emanated strengthened from the battle, thanks to its well-organized military apparatus that could be efficiently mobilized by the involved Western alliance in the battle against the Islamic State in northern Syria. A complicating factor for Turkey was that the YPG was supported by its NATO ally the United States, also after the Islamic State had been militarily defeated in the area. One of the motives of the United States to prolong its military presence in northern Syria could be to contain Iranian influence in the area, but there is already a strong Iranian presence elsewhere in Syria, and in order to supply Hizballah in Lebanon a land bridge is not really necessary like in the past, although it would make it easier for Iran to extend its influence in both Syria and Lebanon, also vis-à-vis Israel. It is questionable, however, whether the United States could easily withdraw from such a delicate situation without difficulties. Logically speaking, one would expect the United States to give priority to its NATO ally Turkey over the Kurdish YPG, but it has not done so yet.

Under this situation, the Syrian regime could use the PYD/YPG in an effort to make their presence in northern Syria as difficult as possible for Turkey, the United States and other Syrian opposition groups in order to weaken their positions. It is yet another example of a strategic alliance between the regime and the PYD/YPG from which both can profit temporarily, as long as it suits them. Actually, the PYD/YPG could be considered as an enemy of the Syrian regime, because of its aims of Kurdish political autonomy, but the Syrian War has temporarily changed the traditional parameters.

It should be noted that the PYD/YPG is a strongly authoritarian party, which does not tolerate most of the other some fifteen Syrian Kurdish parties. The United States originally proclaimed that they supported the rise of a more democratic Syria, but in this case, they prefer to cooperate with an authoritarian, Marxist oriented Kurdish party, the Turkish Kurdish counterpart of which is listed as a terrorist organization in both the United States and Europe. In this case, strategic interests apparently have clear priority.

Whatever the case, Kurdish nationalism and the wish for Kurdish autonomy have obtained an enormous boost as a result of the war, not only in Syria, but in the whole region. Efforts to suppress the Kurdish identity are bound to fail, and may rather encourage Kurdish nationalism even further. Nevertheless, the Kurds in Syria have a lot to do to put their own political house in order.

Increased instability in the Middle East

As a result of the bloody Arab Spring, the brute suppression of the revolutions that emanated from it, and the foreign interferences in the internal affairs of the countries involved, a greater part of the Middle East has been seriously destabilized and radicalized. Hardly anyone has profited from it, [Russia and Iran being the exceptions]. Rather, the situation of almost everyone and every country involved has been seriously damaged and destabilized.

Had the Western and Arab countries not interfered with their arms shipments and support against the Syrian regime, there would, of course, also have been serious efforts of the Syrian opposition to topple the regime, inspired as they were by the developments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. After all, the leaders of these three countries had been toppled after massive demonstrations, and, in the case of Libya, after direct military intervention. Without foreign interference, however, the opposition insurrection would most probably have been violently suppressed much sooner, as a result of which much fewer deadly victims would have fallen; there would not have been as many millions of refugees as there are now, and the country would be less in ruble. Yes, the Syrian dictatorship would have continued relentlessly just as well, but is also continued now, albeit it under circumstances that are much worse.

In fact, the war was initiated (in reaction to the atrocities of the regime) without, however, sufficient means and planning that this war against the regime could also really be won. Before engaging in the war, interfering foreign countries should have sufficiently studied the military situation in order to be sure that their Syrian allies had a realistic chance of winning it; but they apparently did not. In order to be able to defeat and kill a lion, one should be sure beforehand to be the stronger and the better armed party, so as to prevent being defeated and killed oneself.

The development of a war is generally not a linear and predictable process. Neither can it be predicted with some certainty who will be the party that takes over power successfully, as has been demonstrated by various earlier military interventions, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

The defected military of the Syrian Arab Army, who later organized themselves as the Free Syrian Army and other organizations, did not have the luxury of comprehensive planning, because their opposition organizations developed only gradually.

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 only remaining regional ally, the Syrian 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 (even though its slogans maintain that it will) 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.

It has been 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 supposedly a ‘fateful decision’ not to have seriously explored the road of reform and reconciliation in the beginning, certainly when the disastrous aftermath is being taken into account.[18] 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. And it is doubtful whether the regime will make serious efforts in this direction because this could, in its own perception, imply undermining its own position, as could have been the case in the beginning of the Syrian Revolution.

Nevertheless, President Bashar al-Asad could begin with drastic economic reform measures, suppressing corruption and giving political space to others, non-Ba’thists in particular, to participate in his government, even though it might not be that easy to find relevant candidates willing to do so after all the bloodshed that has taken place.

As long as the regime would keep control over the armed forces and the intelligence services (mukhabarat), the president’s power would be ensured, and it would be relatively easy to share half or more of the ministerial posts with others, and to get used to a type of wider based regime. Various kinds of confidence building measures should be taken, and relevant UN Security Council resolutions should be implemented, including the release of prisoners, and so on.

Reconciliation appears to be an impossibility under the present circumstances because of the prevalent mutual hate and blaming the other side for the disaster that has happened in Syria. Nevertheless, serious efforts should be made by the various sides to the conflict to at least reach a modus vivendi. If no serious efforts are made, it may take generations to really solve the present conflict, and another revolution may be in the making.

[1] Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics (1948-1958), London, 1965, p. 164.

[2] Colonel ‘Abd al-Hamid Sarraj, who was Head of Syrian Intelligence (Ra’is al-Mukhabarat) at the time is a well-known name in this respect.

[3] Nicholas Sambanis, ‘What Is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an Operational Definition’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 48, No. 6 (Dec., 2004), pp. 814-858. Sambanis studied over 100 conflicts in order to come to his operational definition of civil war, and the Syrian War that started in 2011 fits into his criteria.

[4] Jeffrey D. Sachs, ‘Ending America’s disastrous role in Syria’, Project Syndicate, The World’s Opinion Page, 16 February 2018.

[5] ‘Dictatoriaal glamourechtpaar’, Vrij Nederland, 21 May 2011’. Interview with Harm Botje.

[6], Pauw & Witteman, 7 March 2012.

‘One Year Syrian Revolution, Discussions with Robert Fisk, Nikolaos van Dam, Haytham al-Malih, Anas Abdah, and others’, with Aljazeera Arabic, 15 March 2012, presented by Ali al-Dafiri and Ghada Aoways

[7] See: Ibrahim Hamidi, Subhi Hadidi, Yassin al-Haj Saleh and Ammar Abdulhamid in interviews with Michael Young, ‘On the Seventh Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, Was It Worth It?’, Inquiring Minds, Carnegie Middle East Center, 15 March 2018,

[8] Theo de Feyter, Mensen en ruïnes. Syrië revisited, 2017, p. 68.

[9] Ali Aljasem, Better Death than Humiliation, Master’s Thesis, Utrecht University, 3 August 2017.

[10]Frédéric Pichon, Syrie, une guerre pour rien, Paris, 2017.


[12]Robin Wright, ‘Trump to let Assad stay until 2021, as Putin declares victory in Syria’, The New Yorker, 11 December 2017.

[13] Television interview of Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim Al Thani, October 2017:

See also Nikolaos van Dam, ‘Foreign intervention in Syria: Isn’t it time to admit that the war against the Syrian regime is being lost?, Syria Comment, 8 March 2018.

[14] Fabrice Balanche, ‘Quel visage pour la Syrie de demain ?’, L’Orient-Le Jour, 30 December 2017. Balanche uses the term ‘Une Syrie « aérée »‘.

[15] Fabrice Balanche, Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2018, pp. 3-30.

[16] Prominent among those who repented but were refused re-entry into Syria 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.

[17] According to the calculations of Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies, 2.4 million Iraqis may have been killed since 2003 as a result of the US-British invasion, with ‘a minimum of 1.5 million and a maximum of 3.4 million’. ‘The Staggering Death Toll in Iraq’, Alternet, 15 March 2018.; and Sinan Antoon, ‘Fifteen Years Ago America Destroyed My Country’, The New York Times, 15 March 2018.

[18] 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. Ehsani, ‘President al-Assad’s First Speech – An Insiders’s Account’, Syria Comment, 19 April 2016, notes that ‘Assad’s speech was a classic case of expectations running ahead of reality. The fact that it was made at all should have been interpreted that the President did not side with Syria’s hawks. Ironically, what happened instead was that as soon as the speech was over, President al-Assad was forever seen as the ultimate hawk himself.’

Comments (4)

Roland said:

A full scale foreign intervention wouldn’t have done anyone good. Look at Libya, look at Iraq. If anything, the fates of Saddam, Qadafi, or even Milosevic, no doubt left Syrian Ba’athists thinking, “one might as well go down fighting.”

Foreign invaders just add more factions and more dimensions to a war, more sides to the polygon, more people who need to agree before the war can end, more politicians catering to more constituencies, and more people needing to save more face.

I think the Syrian War underscores the need to respect the sovereignty and integrity of all countries.

War is the worst thing people do. Civil war is the worst sort of war. Civil wars with foreign intervention are the worst of the worst of the worst.

January 10th, 2020, 7:19 pm


Mu Haha said:

Nicolaos van Dam the terrorist supporter.

He was unmasked in 2018 by Dutch reporters that initiated support for terrorist groups in Syria. Facilitated by the Dutch government…..

March 5th, 2020, 12:58 pm


eric d. meyer said:

The author argues, and the commentator agrees, that a full-scale foreign intervention wouldn’t have done any good. But neither of them mention that the decisive turning point in the Syrian civil war was precisely the intervention by Russia that tipped the balance of the fighting from the Free Syrian Army to the Syrian Arab Army and saved the Assad regime from what many believed was its imminent downfall in 2012-2013, at the crux between the Syrian Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

When US President Obama repeatedly said in 2011-2012, in response to the Syrian Arab Spring uprising, that Assad must step down, his words were largely empty rhetoric, but they were supported by the belief that Assad’s downfall was imminent anyway and US intervention wasn’t necessary to bring it about. Obama then followed up these calls for Assad to step down by saying in August 2012 that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, that would be a red line that would change his calculus (although he later walked back his hard-line talk). Again, the belief was that the West and the US would not accept war crimes and atrocities by the Assad regime, but would be called upon to intervene: a belief belied by subsequent events.

And when the Syrian regime in fact used chemical weapons in East Ghouta in 2013 as a direct challenge to the West and the US, Obama waffled and dithered and went to Congress for support, Cameron failed to gain support from Parliament, while US Secretary of State Kerry was tricked into agreeing to allow the Assad regime to escape attack if they coordinated with the Russians to eliminate their chemical weapons—a promise nobody believed would be fulfilled, but which gave the West and the US an excuse for their failure to follow through on their promises The Russians, of course, agreed to the deal, which gave them the green light to take charge of the Syrian civil war. And from that point forward, the Syrian civil war was controlled by Vladimir Putin and the Russians, and the US no longer played an effective role in Syria.

I would argue that Obama’s failure to follow through on his promises of support for the Syrian Arab Spring by intervening to defend Syrian civilians from the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity was the decisive turning point that changed the course of the Syrian civil war from a prospective victory by the Free Syrian Army and moderate Islamist factions, into a bloody struggle unto death between the Assad regime, with its Russian and Iranian backers, and the Syrian opposition, who were betrayed by Western and US promises of support that were never fulfilled and pushed into the hands of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist factions and the Islamic State.

If the West and the US had instead decisively intervened in favor of the Syrian opposition (the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds) under the UN R2P doctrine or under NATO auspices (per the Kosovo War), the Assad regime could have been forced, de minimis, to negotiate with the Syrian opposition, and the Syrian opposition would not have been forced into the grip of Al Qaeda-linked factions and the Islamic State, who were the only parties who could defend them from the bloody horrors of the Assad regime.

The failure of the West and the US to follow through on its promises was then the second decisive turning point that doomed the Syrian revolution to failure and turned the Syrian Arab Spring into the Syrian civil war.

March 27th, 2020, 11:14 pm


Wim Roffel said:

If its bases had been the reason for Russia’s intervention it would have done so much earlier. Why wait until the last moment when an earlier intervention could have been done with much less effort? The real reason was that in 2016 the likely winner was ISIS and Russia didn’t want those extremists in power so near its southern border.

When I read the reports from the government held area I get the impression that for many people Assad getting his act together has a higher priority than some compromise with the opposition.

April 9th, 2020, 4:48 pm


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