Mission (Almost) Impossible for Iraq’s New Prime Minister

By Mohammed Shiaa and Sylvain Mercadier
This article is a translation from the French original, which can be accessed at OrientXXI.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new Prime Minister

While satisfying most of Iraq’s political class, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has managed to form a government in less than a month. His independent background may be a source of hope for many, but his team is composed of politicians affiliated with heavyweight segments of the parliamentthe very same ones whom demonstrators swore to expel from power. Regardless, his first decision to liberate all demonstrators imprisoned since last October is seen as a positive sign.

As the country enters its eighth month of popular protests, political elites have finally agreed on a share of power and of ministries. Unusually, Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s new government includes many independents and technocrats as well as scholars, such as Ali Allawi who inherited the Ministry of Finance. Nevertheless, this pragmatic momentum should not hide the fact that the main political players’ interests have also been considered in the process.

A consensus for survival

« Regarding the share of ministries between parties, Mustafa al-Kadhimi repeated the same mistakes his predecessors had made: several independents and technocrats he named are controlled by political parties », analyzed MP Sarkawt Shams, a member of the Future coalition in Baghdad’s Parliament, in an interview with us. « Basically, this government is shared between Sadrists, the clan of head of parliament Mohammed al-Halbussi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Nonetheless, Ministries of Interior, Defense and Finance were handed over to competent actors », he continued.

It should come as no surprise that the political class may have negotiated its survival in this process. If it had not had the feeling that its interest were being represented, it would have been easy for it to obstruct the ministries’ nominations. A consensus was thus obtained in order to solve the political crisis and get some respite as the power struggle between Iran and the United States on Iraqi soil is far from being resolved. But these negotiations only included major parties and coalitions of the government: « I boycotted the government formation session in Baghdad because al-Kadhimi had pre-session meetings with all the political heavyweights without taking into account the other actors of the Parliament. We suspect that some informal deals were concluded between them which explains how easy it was to form this government », explained Ahmad al-Hajjn, a member of the Iraqi Parliament representing the Komal party.

A Herculean task to accomplish

Despite this agreement, the challenge ahead remains huge for this transitional government in a country crumbling under threats: the rise of ISIS attacks, coronavirus pandemic, economic stagnation, US/Iran rivalry, as well as the resumption of demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities to pressure the government. Just after his nomination, Mustafa al-Kadhimi reminded Iraqis that his top priorities will be bringing justice to the victims of the previous months’ protests, and to put the economy back on track despite the collapse in oil prices that represent about 90% of Iraq’s income.

Meanwhile, demonstrators still insist on the formation of a government free of all the traditional political elite. But al-Kadhimi’s profile should still give them hope. As the head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), al-Kadhimi distinguished himself by minimizing the repression of protests as much as possible.[1] One of the Prime minister’s first decisions was to order the release of all protestors incarcerated since people first took to the streets last October. He also ordered Abd al-Wahab to be reinstated as head of the NIS. The removal of this key figure of the war against ISIS was one of the reasons that initially triggered the demonstrations across Iraq.

But al-Kadhimi’s independence could also backfire and become a weakness. Indeed, harmony within his government in Baghdad during his mandate is far from a given. Achieving it will depend on whether influential political actors remain satisfied by receiving sufficient leeway enabling them to protect their interests in Iraq’s government: « the [main political] actors quickly understood the trick which consisted in placing a weak Prime Minister in power in order to forestall his constitutional powers such as his ability to bypass ministerial decrees », explains Erwin van Veen, a Clingendael Institute researcher specializing in Middle Eastern conflicts. « This is how the previous Prime minister Nuri al Maliki was able to perpetuate his grip on the government through a network resembling a “deep state” during his successor Haider al-Abadi’s mandate. In this context, if they feel they won’t be able to curb a candidate’s policy, they resort to obstructing him. »

Internal tensions, external pressure

The arduous task awaiting the Prime Minister is also set within a particularly tense context. Apart from the protest movement that has solidly entrenched itself in several cities of the country, the rivalry between Iran and the United States is still creating turmoil in Iraq. On Jan. 3rd 2020, the murder of Qassem Soleimani (commander of the Al-Qods brigade, the external branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps of Iran) and of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (vice-president of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) and  head of the Shia militia Kataeb Hezbollah) almost plunged the country into a bloody proxy war once again.

Since then, the turmoil deriving from this rivalry has stoked fears of an escalation of violence – one which could come at any time – while both powers are in a phase of reconfiguration of their influence in Iraq. « Today, Iran is much more present than the United States in Iraq. Although the latter has recovered some of its military influence during the fight against ISIS, they have since then gradually diminished their military numbers that are concentrated in just a few military bases. On their side, Iranians have infiltrated almost all levels of the political and economic matrix in Iraq and rely on devoted powerful militias around the country », said analyst Erwin van Veen, while also pointing out that the constant pressure imposed on the Islamic Republic makes it less and less predictable. « Iran is capable of provoking a major conflict in Iraq if it feels it could be profitable in the long term », he concluded.

The Shia militias, Iran’s most iconic symbol of power in Iraq, are more active than ever and continue to play a negative role including by targeting the protestors who still hope to topple the current political order. Recently, militias affiliated with the Shia clergy (the Abbas and Imam Ali divisions as well as the Ali Al-Akbar and Ansar Al-Marja’iyya brigades) all withdrew from the PMU; now only elements more clearly affiliated with Iran are left. By doing this – eliminating from the PMU most of the militias not serving Iran’s interest – Iraqi Aayatollah Ali al-Sistani has hoped to strengthen Iraq’s sovereignty. These groups will now answer only to the Prime Minister’s orders, as do the famous Golden Division led by Abd al-Wahab al Saadi. The split is getting more and more obvious between the advocates of a national unity and the bloc serving Iran’s interest. « The Shia clergy has definitively retreated from the PMU with other militias in order to ensure and respect Iraq’s sovereignty. For a long time, al-Muhandis had tried to take control of the entire PMUs to serve his cause or Iran’s, which the Ayatollah could not accept », explained Nancy Ezzeddine, also a researcher at the Clingendael institute specializing in Middle Eastern conflicts. Even within the pro-Iranian axis, different strategies can be noticed in the last months. Some actors like the Badr organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have evolved to become key political actors thanks to their parliamentary coalition, al-Fatah, while others like Kataeb Hezbollah, are determined to keep consolidating their military power. 

This also explains why Badr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq were more keen to negotiate in forming a government while Kataeb Hezbollah’s leadership insists on accusing the Prime Minister of having collaborated with the Americans in the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis: « Kataeb Hezbollah is much more extremist regarding the U.S.A. and those who might have collaborated with them. The organization even established a military camp in front of the parliament’s guesthouse in order to put pressure on the members of the government and remind them not to cross the red lines they wish to impose. In the meantime, federal forces are trying to prevent them from expanding their site », added Nancy Ezzeddine.

Chaos at all levels

While this fragile balance of power is constantly challenged, the Iraqi people sink further into misery while enduring a double economic and sanitary crisis. Although the coronavirus hasn’t affected Iraq as deeply as Europe and the United States – the government only reported 3000 cases and 115 deaths on May 14th – the numbers do not reflect the reality on the ground where thorough testing is not being carried out.

Ironically, the preventive measures against the coronavirus pandemic seem to have had a much more negative impact than expected. The underground economy that allows millions of workers to survive is on hold because of the confinement measures imposed on the country. While the most impoverished can’t even obtain the bare minimum to survive, the plummeting of oil prices and of world energy consumption is having the same effects on the government’s budget.

Previous Prime minister nominee Adnan al-Zurfi had already announced that the State would not be able to pay half of the public sectors’ salaries in May. Iraq depends on revenues from oil exports for up to 90% of its budget. The World Bank predicted last month that the country will see its GDP drop by 5% by next year while public debt will reach 66.9% of its GDP. The environmental crisis is also looming and might soon reach a point of no return. But it probably won’t be in the government’s top priority, despite the fact that millions of people’s health and livelihood depend on it.

The only good news came just after the new government was announced as the United States agreed to give Iraq a four-month moratorium to find a substitute to Iranian electricity and gas imports amid the embargo they are enforcing on the Islamic Republic. This extension, although short, is welcome and indicates Washington’s desire to collaborate with al-Kadhimi’s government. The Prime Minister also reaffirmed his will to collaborate with NATO to fight terrorism in Iraq.

But this apparent indulgence is not the only negotiation tool in Washington’s kit: « The recent attacks by the Islamic State against the PMU and the Iraqi army were made possible thanks to a drastic decrease in air surveillance by the coalition. The message of the Americans to Baghdad is clear: without a U.S. presence, ISIS will come back as strong as ever » analyzed the MP Ahmad Al-Hajj.

The dice have been cast in Baghdad. The independent Prime Minister seems capable of handling the subtle balance of power in order to lead his country ahead toward the next elections in 2021. « Al-Kadhimi deserves to be given a chance. His two most urgent cases are the current economic crisis and the Iran-United States rivalry. I think he will have more success with the latter », says MP Sarkawt Shams. The fact that the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States was maintained, and scheduled to take place next month, is an indicator that despite Tehran’s grip on Iraq, Baghdad is determined to keep up with its collaboration with Washington. But in the meantime, the pro-Iran axis will  remember that this government is only transitory, and that a new political battle will take place next year in order to take control of key positions in the government. 

[1] A source within the National Intelligence Service who spoke under guise of anonymity pointed out that al-Kadhimi, while he was Director of NIS,  was a silent supporter of the demonstrators. He apparently thwarted many assassination attempts targeting demonstrators and activists by militiamen and contributed to the liberation of dozens of demonstrators during the events that shook the country since last October.


The Assad–Makhlouf Rift: A Sign of Assad’s Strength

By Aiman Mansour
7 May 2020
For Syria Comment

Recent developments in Syria suggest that the country is about to go through a significant change. Many reporters and analysts have jumped to the conclusion that Assad’s grip on power is weakening. This conclusion is fueled by an unprecedented public challenge to President Assad by Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s top oligarch and Assad’s cousin. Adding fuel to the fire are a number of broadsides of President Assad made by prominent Russians and published in Russian media. But the truth is quite the opposite of what it at first seems. Assad’s position in Syria is stronger than it has been for years, not weaker. 

Rami Makhlouf shocked Syrians and outside observers alike with two unusual Facebook videos:

Rami Video 1
Rami Video 2

These represent his first public appearances since a 2011 press conference where he came across as inarticulate and explained that he was leaving business to focus on charity. Needless to say, Makhlouf did not leave business nor did he give up control of his companies; rather, he expanded his economic activities. He also established a militia, which he attached to his charity, Jamaiat al-Bustan. 

Brig.Gen.Suheil Salman al-Hassan

This militia was formed in 2012 to support the security forces, but became an important source of Makhlouf’s influence. Its numbers grew to 30,000. Suheil Hassan, commander of the Tiger Forces, and current commander of the 25th Division, was at first associated with Makhlouf’s militia before departing to work directly with the Russians.

Because of his control of a large militia, Makhlouf was entrusted with a large contract worth millions of dollars to protect and secure Syria’s oil and gas fields. These were a main source of the government’s income. Makhlouf bungled his mission nad lost the fields to insurgents, ISIS, and the Kurds. Makhlouf’s failure meant that Syrians had to suffered with little cooking gas and electricity. Makhlouf received the money for the contracts, but failed to deliver on them. Hundreds of poorly equipped, mostly Alawi, youth were captured or killed by the insurgents, who overran the sites. In no small measure, this was due to Makhlouf’s lack of preparation, corruption, and unprofessional management of the military effort. As a result, the Syrian government was forced to turn to the Russians and Iranians to spearhead the reconquest of the oil and gas fields from ISIS. Today, Russia and Iran own the contracts to operate them and reap much of the reward. Most notorious examples of Makhlouf’s failures was ISIS’s capture of the Hayan Gas factory, which produces gas for 1/3 of Syria’s electricity. Syrians are still suffering from this loss today because, although the gas fields have been retaken, the factory has been largely destroyed.

Islamic State group militants blew up the Hayyan gas plant in the eastern Homs province in January 2017. The cost of building the plant came to 291 million euros, when it was opened in 2010 and it produced enough gas to supply one-third of Syria’s electricity.

It will cost three hundred millions euros to rebuild it. Makhlouf received tens of millions of dollars per month to secure the factory, but sent only a fraction of the men required to protect it, which was in a well-supplied location that was not cut off from supply routes. Makhlouf’s bad planning and stinginess was a main factor in its loss. ISIS blew it up one month after getting its hands on the facility.

Tensions between Makhlouf and the regime bubbled to the surface in 2019. Bushra al Assad, the president’s sister and wife of the late deputy chief of staff Asef Shawkat, became embittered with Makhlouf because he was given all the contracts for billboards and media by the minister of information. Some of these had once belonged to Asef. Assad denied Rami Makhlouf’s request to take control of certain oilfields, which were likewise denied to Iran.

While Bashar al Assad was demanding monthly payments of money from each of the big businessmen in Syria and punishing those who failed to pay, only Makhlouf was able to escape both payment and retribution. Rami came to believe that he was not only untouchable, but also that he was Assad’s equal or superior. In private meetings with friends, Assad openly expressed his anger and disappointed with Makhlouf. By 2019 Assad had become convinced that his cousin was cheating him and set about to extract revenge and bring his errant family member to heal.

Meanwhile Makhlouf loomed for protection where he could. He funneled money to Hizballah as a form of insurance. He even sent direct payments to the son of Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s secretary general. Makhlouf also adopted Shia Islam and worked on becoming closer to Hizbullah than Assad himself. In the summer, Assad began to shrink Makhlouf’s share of the economy. He also took control of Makhlouf’s Bustan militia, with military security seizing its properties, though Makhlouf kept the charitable wing of Bustan. Assad’s move against Makhlouf was a continuation of similar steps against other businessmen, like the Jaber brothers and Muhammad al-Qatarji.

Assad had long wanted to weaken Makhlouf but he had to wait until after the death of his mother, a formidable woman, and the growing infirmity of her brother and Rami’s father, Mohammad Makhlouf, who had been Hafiz al-Assad’s chief financial fixer. With her death in 2016, Rami Makhlouf lost his most important protector. Both Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma, and Maher al-Assad’s wife Manal, had been pushing for the Makhlouf’s to be chastened.

The Makhloufs, especially Rami and his children, Muhammad and Ali, were being increasingly disrespectful of Assad in their interactions with interlocutors. It also appears that Bushra took exception to the arrogance of Rami’s two sons who were splashing about photos of their expensive cars, planes, and exploits. That summer there were already false rumors that Makhlouf was arrested, when his share of the economic pie was simply reduced a little. This is when Makhlouf began reaching out to Hizbullah and adopting Shia Islam in order to get closer to Iran and cement his self-perceived immunity.

Muhammad R Makhlouf flaunting his cars
Muhammad R Makhlouf’s jet

Already in 2019 Makhlouf was being weakened in Damascus. He lost his militia, which was the last independent militia in Syria, his control over his main companies was reduced, the government took his Shweifat private schools, and it seemed that Syriatel would be next. In addition, the Prime Minister was told to cancel the contracts Makhlouf had with the government on things like energy and commodities. 

Assad had been nursing his resentment of his cousin for some time, but feared bringing the conflict to a head before Syria’s war was decided. He had to focus on battling his external enemies. Assad also ordered Makhlouf to dissolve his branch of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Rami had formed his own wing of the SSNP. Assad also began to whittle away at Rami’s share of Syriatel, bringing it under the wing of the state.

Among Alawis, Rami Makhlouf was not universally resented. He provided salaries, charity and medical help to many in the poor loyalist communities. Others who were closer to being warlords, like Abu Ali Khudr or the Qaterji brothers, were more resented for being both parasitic and emerging out of nowhere and adopting lavish lifestyles thanks to their militias and smuggling. But while military security seized control of his militia, they took weapons, vehicles, and headquarters, not personnel. Most of the militiamen returned to their homes since the government could not offer them the same salaries. Some remain on Rami’s payroll, but not as militiamen. Makhlouf does not pose a military threat to the Assads, but he can he can hurt his cousin through propaganda and by exploiting the poverty and hunger that is widespread among Alawis, made weary by war, and ground down by years of sacrifice. Makhlouf used the opportunity created by the war to project the image of a philanthropist, as did his attention-seeking son, but in fact he gave Syria’s poor only a small percentage of what he made illegally.

Despite the claims of many observers, Alawis do not identify as Shia and should not be considered Shia. Members of the sect are overwhelmingly secular in belief and practice. Makhlouf tried to Shia-fy the Alawis to secure himself. He encountered Shia sheikhs thanks to his militia and was impressed with their ability to control masses of people and also receive the tithe (khums) of one fifth of their followers’ yearly salaries, which many were willing to contribute with little question. He also secured Iranian training for his militia. This interaction with his militia and charity led him to meet with Shia religious figures. Makhlouf tried to take control of Alawi shrines so he could control their money and Alawi religious men throughout the mountain. He wanted Alawis to donate to the shrines’ money boxes, the way Shi’is donate to their clerics. There is no textual or institutional foundation in the Alawi religion that commands Alawis to obey their religious leaders as there is in Shi’a Islam. Alawi sheikhs cannot legitimize a leader or direct their followers to obey him. Makhlouf thought Shi’a-izing Alawis could change that. But Assad thwarted these aspirations. Many Alawis, including the president, were concerned about these attempts to make the poor Alawis religious. They believed that Syrian stability requires Alawis to remain secular and that the only hope for Syrian nationalism and possible reconciliation is for the separation of church and state. They fear that to make Alawis religious would destroy the Syria they are trying to build. It would condemn their community to endless sectarian strife.

Alawites do not have leaders. Makhlouf, like some other Alawites in the past, believe that given the nature of the region, their sect needs to be better organized and shepherded by a strict leadership like the Druze have. This had previously been tried by Jamil al-Assad and Refaat al-Assad, but they both failed. Unlike them, Makhlouf wanted to modify Alawis to be more similar to Shias and hence more controllable. In meetings, he would suggest an Alawi rapprochement with Shi’a Islam. His attempts to seize control of Alawi shrines and impose guardians over them was an effort to further this objective. But he failed win over local Alawi leaders, who blocked his experiment. 

Makhlouf bought Beirut’s beachside Summerland hotel and Resort for $300,000,000 from a prominent Druze family and sought to make it a popular watering hole for both Iraq and Iranian Shia elites. Iraq’s former militia commander, Abu Mahdi al Muhandes, stayed there when he visited Beirut as did the Iraqi Shia political kingpin Ezzat Shahbandar. When Makhlouf’s sons traveled to Beirut or stayed there they received protection from Hizballah. Because of Hizballah’s financial crisis, Makhlouf found it easy to buy friendship from the Lebanese organization.

Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort Beirut, Lebanon

Earlier this year, the special government committee formed to go over Syriatel’s finances found that Syriatel was paying its service providers much more than its competitor, MTN, was doing. After interrogating some of Makhlouf’s assistants, the investigators discovered that Makhlouf owned the service providers and was using them to cook Syriatel’s books by charging inflated prices and in this way he reduced Syriatel’s profits and the share that it owed the government. By denying the government income, Rami was contributing to the collapse of the Syrian pound and weakness of the state.

Makhlouf also benefited from the collapse of the Syrian pound. Since most of his money is kept outside of the country in dollars, he benefits from a weaker Syrian pound.  

Makhlouf made it clear in his first Facebook video that he believes himself to be Assad’s equal. He lectured Assad about how he should spend money. He insinuated that Bashar al-Assad allows those that surround him to misappropriate Syriatel’s money. Rami claimed that he wanted to be sure the money goes to the right place and the proper recipients. Makhlouf made this video after his son had boasted about having two billion dollars in his account. So, we were to understand that one of Makhlouf’s sons has more than thirty times the amount that the state is asking from his father.

In his second video Makhlouf challenges the President more directly, the way Rifaat challenged Hafez. Makhlouf is refusing to hand over his assets, claiming that he is entrusted with them on behalf of others, and by this he means Alawis. Thus, Makhlouf, by playing the sectarian card, is threatening to divide the president from his base. Makhlouf also threatens a divine punishment and claimed to have a mission from God. Makhlouf asumes a religious tone and demeanor unusual for the secular Alawi culture from which he comes. His first video was entitled, “Be with God and have no cares.” The second video was entitled, “It is our duty to give victory to the believers.”

The latest episode of drama with Makhlouf comes at the same time as more open criticism of Assad in certain Russian media. This led to the inevitable speculation that maybe this time the Russians are finally going to get rid of Assad, or will finally pressure him to change. That seems unlikely when one understands that the source of the media pressure on Assad was Russia’s version of Makhlouf, or one of them at least, Yevgeny Prigozhin, “the chief” of Putin’s oligarchs. Prigozhin has profited from the Syrian war and is undoubtedly angry at the Syrian government for refusing to renew a major contract he had to manage an oil field. He is using his influence in Moscow to put pressure on Assad. This too poses no real danger to Assad, although “the chief” has a lot of influence in the Kremlin and could try to escalate problems for Damascus. Assad’s willingness to confront Putin’s leading oligarch shows how confidant he is in his position. He is prepared to confront allies to achieve his regime’s vital interests and to preserve his own grip on power.  

All of this is also an opportunity for a better Syria. If Assad decides to discipline and cull the parasitic class of oligarchs who gained great autonomy during the war years, he can help Syria recover from the last nine years of trauma. Most of the oligarchs do not own factories, do not import essential goods into the country, and do not create employment; rather they steal from the country. If Assad is able to empower more legitimate businessmen who can help build the country, such a move should be supported by the Gulf states as they help reintegrate Syria into the region.

Syria’s recovery is also essential for Lebanon’s recovery. Moreover, Syrian businessmen have the necessary skills to help with the rebuilding of Iraq. Syria’s factories used to be the main suppliers of a number of goods purchased by Iraqis. The region needs the return of legitimate businessmen. The continuation of the current regional and Western policies, dictated to a large extent by Washington, will not bring about a realistic change in behavior in Damascus. On the contrary, the heavy sanctions and impediments to trade only strengthen those businessmen who are deeply embedded with Iran and are unlikely to bring hope or a brighter future to the Syrian people.  

*Aiman Mansour is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Until Nov 2019, he served as the Head of the Middle East and Africa Division of Israel’s National Security Council. He was previously Liaison Officer and Assistant to the Special Envoy of the Prime Minister, and Director for Syria and Lebanon, NSC.

Returning to Hafiz al-Assad’s Syria: Bashar Heads Back to the Future in 2020

Bashar and Hafiz al-Assad

President Bashar al-Assad was the main catalyst for reform in Syria’s economy and to a lesser degree in its political institutions before the 2011 uprising. The Civil War has caused Assad to return to his father’s domestic and regional policies.

 By Aiman Mansour* and Joshua Landis

When president Bashar al-Assad assumed power in July 2000, he led Syria on a trajectory of gradual and limited reform. He eased restrictions on the economy. He allowed for greater foreign influence in Syria by encouraging foreign investment, licensing private banks, and pushing tourism. He let considerable light into Syrian society by legalizing satellite dishes, the internet, and relaxing restrictions on the media. To set these reforms in motion, he had to clip the wings of the security bosses, who frowned at his willingness to open the doors of the country. They complained that they would be the ones expected to clean things up once trouble started. They pointed to the Damascus Spring as an early example of how things could go badly wrong. But Bashar al-Assad was convinced that he could win the loyalty of the Syrian public, particularly its youth, if he could modernize along the lines of Turkey or China. To this end, he alternated between two development plans: one was the Five Seas Vision that he elaborated after a visit to Turkey in 2004. It was to turn Syria into the key transport and trading hub of the region. The other was a version of the China Model that was designed to build a “social market” economy that would allow Assad and the Baath Party to retain political control.

Syrian authorities also loosened their grip on society for a number of reasons completely beyond their control. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and its promise to reform the Greater Middle East dealt a major blow to regional stability. By 2004, Washington was demanding that Syria relinquish its traditional control over Lebanon, cease interference its elections, stop supplying arms to Hizbollah, and withdraw troops that had been stationed in the country since the 1976. Damascus viewed this U.S. effort to roll back Syrian regional influence and cut it off from its allies to be made in Israel, as it seemed design to end pressure on Israel to return of the Golan Heights. Even more ominous, it seemed to be a prelude to destabilizing the country and regime-change, if not a full on invasion.

To contain U.S. military intervention in the region to Iraq, Assad opened his country to the hundreds of Salafi-Jihadists who were seeking a way into Iraq to fight the American occupiers. Damascus’ new permissiveness toward Islamists would have the effect of awakening the Islamist currents in Syrian society that had been so violently suppressed in the 1980s. Young Syrians from every walk of life, whether university students or farmers, became mesmerized by the new jihad in Iraq that championed heroic narratives of adventure, revolution, and revenge. Youth were electrified. Students at the University of Damascus, eager to show solidarity with the fighters in Iraq, began to dress in Afghan garb. Washington’s pressure campaign on Syria led to its forced withdrawal from Lebanon on the heels of the Hariri assassination.

A devastating draught that led to the displacement of a million Syrians, combined with the failure of Syria’s state-controlled economy to produce jobs and revenue forced neo-liberal reforms. The down side to these changes was the creation of a yawning income gap and expanding corruption at every level of Syrian society. These changes, whether produced by reform, the expanding U.S. role in the region, or economic weakness and corruption produced social, religious and class discontent that exploded to the surface of society in 2011.

The worst drought on record in the Fertile Crescent killed livestock, drove up food prices, and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s jam-packed cities

Because of the civil war, Syria’s leaders were left with a single option: to survive. In order to do so, they returned to the policies of Hafiz al-Assad. Syria, haunted by distrust of the international community, plagued by internal divisions, and hemmed in by Western sanctions, has reverted to the inward looking policies it pursued in the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties.

Once the threat of a rebel victory began to recede in 2016, Damascus took steps to tighten its grip on the deteriorating state institutions as well as to restore its regional status.

To tightening control over economic transactions in the country, it limited dollar use in the local market in order to shore up the pound. Police have arrested merchants who continue to trade in foreign currencies and have attacked several leading figures in Syria’s private sector by confiscating their assets. The government seeks to revive key industrial areas, such as Shiekh Najar in Aleppo and Adra in Damascus. These policies are designed to restore vitality to small and medium businesses, which operate in the industrial areas. Despite the need for more foreign investment, the Syrian government will likely hesitate to allow projects led by Turkish or Qatari businessmen for fear that they will enrich and embolden members of the political opposition. During the first decade of this century, the government’s desire to attract Turkish and Gulf investors caused it to turn a blind eye to the growing sympathy of many Syrians outside of the capital felt towards political Islam. During his first ten years in power, Bashar al-Assad permitted the rapid proliferation of mosques throughout the country. Fearing a repeat of this phenomenon, Syrian authorities are likely to insist on investments from secular countries such as Russia and China and from the regional adversaries of political Islam, such as the UAE and Egypt, who prefer maintaining the political status quo and are willing to do business with the Assad government.

The ruling Baath Party, which had been neglected during the first decade of Bashar’s rule, is regaining influence and even dominance in national politics. Despite decisions made to sideline it, such as in the election campaign of 2007, or to encourage greater party freedoms, such as those laid out in the constitutional reforms of 2012, the Baath Party is becoming more visible in both the economy and politics. President Assad is also becoming more involved in running the Party, a role he all but abandoned in his first decade in power.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians gather for a pro-government rally at the central bank square in Damascus March 29, 2011. REUTERS/Wael Hmedan

Syria’s infamous intelligence agencies are also being revived. The four main organizations, the GID (General Intelligence Directorate), PSD (Political Security Directorate), MID (Military Intelligence Directorate) and (AFI) Air Force Intelligence Directorate languished during Bashar’s early years. Today, their authority as the central pillar of stability has been respected. As with the Baath Party, Assad has rediscovered the importance of his intelligence agencies.  Through his National Security Adviser, General Ali Mamluk, Assad is becoming more involved in the matters of these security organizations.

At the regional level, Syria is gradually regaining influence in Lebanon. Syria has long viewed Lebanon as its backyard. During the civil war, the loss of the mountainous border region separating Lebanon and Syria had a devastating impact on Damascus for guns, money and fighters could be funneled in to the rebels attacking the capital. It sparked a long and difficult battle to regain control of the border region, called the battle of Qalamoun (2013–14). It underscored to Damascus authorities just how key Lebanon is to its national defense.

Lebanon is not only important geographically, but it also serves as a lung for the Syrian economy. The recent banking crisis in Lebanon caused the collapse of the Syrian pound and gutted the savings of many Syrians who traditionally park their money in Lebanon. Lebanon is where Syrian businessmen buy their dollars and squirrel away their profits, while its banks issued the letters of credit and facilitated transactions that Syrian traders depended on.

Since the onset of the Lebanese civil war and the demise of Lebanon’s westward-looking Maronite leadership, Syria became the dominant power in Lebanon. Lebanon’s fragmented leaders, including those of Hizbullah at certain points, have decried the heavy hand of Damascus. All the same, they have remained too mired in their internecine squabbles to slip the bonds of their dependence. It should be remembered that Bashar was sent to Lebanon by his father in the 1990s to become schooled in the dark art of divide-and-rule. Since the international sanctions were imposed and the domestic conflict escalated to a full-fledged civil war, Syria’s focus on Lebanon become almost entirely economic. As Damascus regained its footing with the defeat of insurgents, its rulers are becoming more and more involved in Lebanese politics, supporting the block that eventually won the 2019 elections. Later, Damascus seems to be the main backer of the recently formed technocratic government, which was formed after Hariri’s resignation, most probably to the discomfort of Hizbullah who is interested in maintaining his dominance in his home turf. The economic crisis that Lebanon is undergoing will not diminish Syria’s interest in it. On the contrary, this will only encourage the Syrians to exploit its neighbor’s weakness and deepen divisions to further cement its influence, with the hope that a certain point, the Lebanese economy will start to recover in a way that will positively impact the fragile Syrian economic.

Through its growing influence in Lebanon, Syria is hoping to recalibrate its relationship with Iran which had descended from one of partnership into one of dependence and even vassalage during the civil war. Syria’s restored leverage in Lebanon, acquired largely through diplomatic and political means, is designed to put Damascus back onto an even footing with both Hizballah and Iran. Damascus’s suspicion of Iran has grown most recently as Assad has struggled with Turkey to retake its lost territory in the country’s north, whether in Idlib, north Aleppo, or east of the Euphrates. Tehran’s unwillingness or inability to come to Syria’s aid against Turkey underscored the dangers of relying too heavily on Iran. Putin stepped into the breech to help Damascus face down Turkey, but in the final analysis, Syria will have no substitute for its own military strength if it wishes to roll back Turkey’s military presence.

Syrian forces quit Lebanon after 29 years – China Daily: 

As regards Russia, President Assad’s policy toward the Kremlin is the continuation of his father’s. Hafiz al-Assad relied on and enjoyed the strategic-military support of USSR/Russia, that sent military experts to Syria and equipped it with weapon systems. In 1983 the Russians even sent anti-aircraft systems with Russian operators (which were turned over later to the Syrians). Assad allowed the USSR to expand the use of the Tartus naval base and use the T4 air base. Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader and General Secretary of the Communist Party, said in the1980s that he would not allow anybody to defeat Hafiz. Today, President Putin is providing the same strategic shield to Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad has offered Russia a 49-year lease of the Tartus naval base and a free hand in its use of the Hmeimim air base.  Today, Assad relies more heavily on Russia for the survival of the regime than it does on Iran. Russian air power was decisive in turning back the opposition militias and restoring the Syrian Arab Army’s control over Syrian territory. So too was Russian ground support, which included both regular forces and private contractors, made Damascus more dependent on Moscow than on Tehran.

Despite, Assad’s reliance on Russia, he has been careful not to allow Russia a free hand in reforming the military to become a “highly institutionalized, depoliticized, nonideological, and nonsectarian force.” He has been careful to ensure that the loyalty of its commanders to him and the Assad family remains undiluted.1 Patrimonialism has been the key to the regime’s survival. Nevertheless, both Russia and President Assad share a common interest in restoring more centralized, state-controlled military structures.2 The militification of loyalist forces, that was encouraged by the government during the nadir of Assad’s fortunes to counterbalance the mobilization of antigovernment forces, is today seen as a distinct liability. They challenge state authority; some may be more loyal to Tehran than to Damascus.  Assad shares Moscow’s interested in reeling in the multitude of quasi-independent militias, but he has always been careful not to all foreign countries, even Russia, to undo the tight bonds of loyalty between him and his security commanders. If Bashar al-Assad has stayed true to any principle of his father’s regime, it is to the primacy of traditional loyalties. Regime survival depends on it.

In conclusion, Bashar al-Assad’s present policies seem designed to restore a modified version of his father’s Syria. This will not be a full return to a state-controlled economy or the “communism” of the late Hafiz, but it will lead Syria to step back from many of the neo-liberal measures that guided reform before the war. The major lesson that Bashar seems to have taken away from the devastating civil war is that reforms, even those focused primarily on the economy, were too fast and destabilizing. Thus, he is reinvigorating the Baath Party and restoring the security agencies’ control over the daily lives of Syrian citizens. Syria’s regional role, so skillfully built up by his father, was key to national security. To regain some modicum of regional leverage, Bashar is focused on regaining primacy in Lebanon and a more balanced relationship with Hizballah and Iran.  

*Aiman Mansour is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Until Nov 2019, he served as the Head of the Middle East and Africa Division of Israel’s National Security Council. He was previously Liaison Officer and Assistant to the Special Envoy of the Prime Minister, and Director for Syria and Lebanon, NSC.


Khlebnikov, Alexey, “Russia and Syrian Military Reform: Challenges and Opportunities,” March 26, 2020, Carnegie Middle East Center. https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/03/26/russia-and-syrian-military-reform-challenges-and-opportunities-pub-81154

Landis, Joshua, “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013,” in Middle East Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 1 (2012). https://mepc.org/syrian-uprising-2011-why-asad-regime-likely-survive-2013

Lund, Aron, “Gangs of Latakia: The Militiafication of the Assad Regime,” Syria Comment, July 23, 2013. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-militiafication-of-the-assad-regime/

Sayigh, Yazid, “Syrian Politics Trump Russian Military Reforms,” March 26, 2020, Carnegie Middle East Center.

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

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

[6] https://programma.bnnvara.nl/pauwenwitteman/media/88810, 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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TYv0IU6ZAo

[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, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/75773?utm_source=rssemail&utm_medium=email&mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiT0RJd09XVmpOMlJoTjJReCIsInQiOiJJS25HWUpCVGtDV1FXY29OVzdJdk1LUEYrZFwvQ0ptVG9hMkJHZEtUSFQycHBhZEJjMjlcL3ZyUE5jdmRzK0pRT0RaRWorUzJmK29QcGh4VDA5ajdLbU9wb0h6SXdwQ21cL0VnK2R5bFRLTVU0aFJiaCs3MDJjRVN1Q0tXNzJ0VjVBWCJ9

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

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. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/SyriaAtlasCOMPLETE.pdf

[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. https://www.alternet.org/world/iraq-death-toll-15-years-after-us-invasion; 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.’

Is the US Decision to Withdraw from Syria in 2019 a Mistake like its Decision to Withdraw from Lebanon in 1983? – By Prof. Robert Rabil

Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. 

  • email: rrabil@fau.edu
  • Twitter @robertgrabil

Robin Wright, an astute journalist and analyst, wrote an article in the New Yorker on “The 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombing and the Current U.S. Retreat from Syria.” She makes the case that the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon following the horrific 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks resonates, hauntingly, as U.S. Special Forces pull out of Syria. She asserts that: “Once again, the United States is hastily retreating—abandoning a mission, stranding allies, creating a vacuum for adversaries to quickly fill, enabling Islamic extremists, weakening American credibility globally, and leaving the Middle East, the world’s most volatile corner, even more unstable.”

This argument, grounded in a belief in American exceptionalism as well as its ability to fix or improve bleak situations, makes sense to many. Many Americans believe that that the U.S. should not retreat from the Middle East in the face of failed American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this noble attitude does not fully examine the background against which the U.S. retreated from Beirut, Iraq, Damascus and Kabul.

As someone who lived the Lebanese civil war as a volunteer in the Red Cross and observed closely the preparation and execution of the invasion and occupation of Iraq I consider that Washington’s retreats as being born out of both its universal values and naivety that clashed with its foreign policy missions.

In 1982, Washington led the international community in creating a Multinational force (along with French and Italian troops) to supervise and safeguard the PLO’s withdrawal from Beirut following Israel’s invasion and siege of the capital. The withdrawal began in late August and ended in early September. On September 14, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, along with a number of his lieutenants, was assassinated in his East Beirut Phalange headquarters. I vividly remember the pall of gloom that descended on Lebanon, especially among Christians, following his assassination. On September 16, the IDF infiltrated a Phalange-led intelligence unit under Elie Hobeika into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila to “ferret out” PLO fighters who remained in the camps. What followed was a horrific massacre of mostly old people and children. Although previous massacres did not elicit the world’s outcry, the magnitude of the Sabra and Shatila massacre was not only met with an international outcry, but also damaged the reputations of the Phalange and the IDF.

The Israeli public, in contrast to the Arabs, held the largest demonstration in Israel’s history in Tel Aviv and called for the IDF to withdraw from Lebanon. It was only a matter of time before Israel was pressured to withdraw from Lebanon. The murder of Gemayel and Israel’s gradual withdrawal changed Lebanon’s civil war dynamics. The new president Amin Gemayel, brother of Bashir, did not command the full loyalty of the Christian Lebanese Forces, whose leadership had begun to fragment; Antagonistic forces rushed to fill the vacuum left by Israel’s withdrawal. Led by Walid Jumblat, the Druzes, supported by leftists and pan-Arab forces, defeated the Lebanese forces in the Shouf mountains; and the government of Amin Gemayel tried and failed to control West Beirut, which witnessed a mass mobilization of leftists, Shi’a Islamist groups and the Shi’a Amal party.

In the meantime, President Reagan, moved by the sorrowful and distressing flurry of unfolding events, decided to change the mission of the MNF. On October 28, he signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 64, “calling for the United States to work toward the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, help rebuild the Lebanese Army, and contribute to an expanded MNF if necessary.” But his well-intentioned and ambitious new mission was not timely reinforced by a bigger and stronger American force just as internecine fighting and regional meddling in Lebanon reached a new peak.

Even at an early age I shared my father’s concerns for the U.S. Marines. The question that troubled me most was why the U.S. Marines located their headquarters next to the airport in Beirut’s most volatile area. In hindsight, other horrific events should have underscored the fleeting objectives of Reagan’s new MNF mission. A new tool of terror, traced to Ayatollah Khomeini’s effort to reinterpret Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala in 680, justified suicide bombings based on fighting oppression and injustice. Before the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in October 1983, the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre and the American Embassy in Beirut were bombed respectively. Robert Baer, a shrewd CIA operative, contemplated that the United States failed to notice the warning signs of the 1983 bombing.

President Reagan had two choices: be fully involved militarily in a country in the midst of a brutal civil war or get out. Reagan grasped the danger of the treacherous politics of Lebanon and chose to get out. Since then, the U.S. should have grasped the fact that any mission in the Middle East has to be buttressed by significant American power not only to affect the context in which American troops are involved but also to dictate the outcome of American involvement. In other words, half-hearted measures in the Middle East do not work!

So, indeed, “the ghosts of Lebanon are in Syria today,” as Ryan Crocker observed. But herein lies the main question: how deep is the U.S. commitment to to its mission in Syria? The hard truth is the U.S. has neither a well-defined mission nor one that it is able to implement within a reasonable time span. The U.S. set itself up for tragedy. It also set the Kurds up for tragedy.         

In this respect, President Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria—like Reagan’s decision thirty-five years—is about saving American lives!                                

Syria: is it time for the West to talk with Assad?

By – BOB BOWKER, who is a former Australian ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Syria. He is now an Adjunct Professor at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

  • 19 Sep 2019 – Published first on the Interpreter at the Lowy Institute & reprinted on Syria Comment by permission of the author

Engaging Assad, while repugnant, is better than words
of sound and fury delivered that makes little difference.

Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, proved determined to not ask open-ended questions in Syria about the relationship between state and society (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, proved determined to not ask open-ended questions in Syria about the relationship between state and society (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Syria is one among several Middle East regimes which believe that repression, if not used in moderation, provides a necessary answer to challenges to the existing political and social order. Accordingly, Western governments have to decide the relationship they wish to have with Syria, and its neighbours and friends, including Iran – and how they wish their values to be reflected in their approaches to that relationship.

Understanding the consequences of the Syrian tragedy for our interests should lead us to support carefully calibrated re-engagement with the Assad regime. The alternatives are worse.

Bashar al-Assad with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at Khmeimim air base in Syria in December 2017 (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Without respect for principles and institutions of international humanitarian law, and efforts to hold accountable those who breach them, predictable and constructive dealings between states and the harnessing of human potential are hardly possible. An absence of respect for those principles, both domestically and in dealings between states ­– and the weakening of political will to defend robustly the values of political liberalism and the moral authority of international norms and values – brings us closer to the scourge of war.

But in the case of Syria, behind that self-evident truth are complex political and moral issues.

If concerns exist at all in Damascus for the absence of accountability for brutality in the name of security, or for the opportunities for recruitment and indoctrination afforded by burgeoning prison environments, torture, and other abuses, they are seen as issues of a lower order than the immediate need to preserve the identity and essential character of the state itself.

Advocacy for human rights must be framed within a realistic acceptance that any return to effective political leadership will have to come about within the existing power structure.

Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, proved determined to avoid the asking of open-ended questions about the appropriate relationship in Syria between state and society. Meanwhile, the ideological disposition of opposition groups was reduced from mid-2011 to an Islamist-inspired rejection of the existing social and political order.

Whether responsibility for the human tragedy of Syria rests mainly with the Syrian regime, other governments, or non-state actors, it is the Syrian poor, and the marginalised, who have been demonised, dehumanised, and exploited. And the values that best protect Australia’s interests at the global level have suffered as respect for international law has been set aside by the parties to the conflict.

The challenge is to find an acceptable balance between upholding core principles of international humanitarian law in the Syrian context, and recognition that without a return to economic growth and security, those principles, however worthy we may consider them to be, will matter little to those Syrians who are most vulnerable.

The application of economic sanctions to Syria – in practice, a manifestly inhumane, ineffective, and altogether despicable assault on the most vulnerable elements of Syrian society – add to the challenges ahead.

There is no chance of security or durable progress in Syria without economic advancement. The opportunity costs, in terms of wasted human potential, corruption, and human rights abuses associated with repression, insecurity, and conflict all weigh heavily against the likelihood of achieving levels of balanced economic performance that can restore infrastructure and human capital and combat Syria’s growing ecological threats and food and water insecurity.

But in Syria, and elsewhere in the region, advocacy for human rights must be framed within a realistic acceptance that any return to effective political leadership will have to come about within the existing power structure. A leadership that has proven willing to see the death and displacement of so many of its own citizens is not going to relinquish or genuinely share political power beyond its immediate base.

The incremental advancement in Syria of empowerment, within the rule of law, at all levels, from the state to the society to the household, is as desirable and yet as remote a prospect as ending abuses of human rights. And remaking Syria – or Yemen or Libya – for the benefit of their citizens may not be possible without remaking the wider Middle East.

History suggests that is something to which the rest of the world is unlikely to make a positive contribution. And words of sound and fury delivered in multilateral forums will make little difference in practice to Syrian behaviour.

But if we wish our values to be respected among future generations of Syrians, and elsewhere in the region and beyond, we should be prepared to stand up for those values by using such political, diplomatic, and intellectual leverage as may be available to us. And we should be prepared to take a long-term view of what is required.

Syria, not unreasonably, sees itself as deserving of international recognition as a country of substance and importance in the Arab and regional context. The ending of its isolation from the international community is important to it.

Calibrated, strategically planned re-engagement, in consultation with Western and Arab partners, offers the most likely path to seeing a Syria emerge which, like Tunisia, chooses to benchmark its achievements as an Arab state against contemporary ideas among a younger generation, in Syria and within the wider Arab world, of what it means to be Arab and “modern”. And it is among those ideas of what modernity looks like that the norms and institutions of international law are most likely to be respected.

The extent and timing of steps to help Syria move in that direction may depend, in practice, on a parallel process of realignment of dealings between Washington and Tehran. There must be some semblance of respect for the dignity and rights of its ordinary citizens if re-engagement with Western countries is to proceed. Russian sensitivities would need to be handled with particular care. But there is a strong case, humanitarian, diplomatic, and otherwise, for further exploration of the limits to the possible.

For their part, Western governments will see their interests served best, not by ongoing insecurity and conflict and the imposition of collective punishment in Syria, but by the re-emergence, over time, of a Syria that is once again confident, economically dynamic, socially progressive, and respected within the region.

The role of MI6 in Egypt’s decision to go to war against Israel in May 1948 by Meir Zamir

Egypt’s King Faruq

First published in Intelligence and National Security, May 28, 2019

70 years on from the end of the Arab-Israeli War, new documents shed light on the political intrigue that surrounded the motives of the geopolitical powers in the region. Just as Israel wields influence with the Arab Gulf States in the ongoing crisis with Iran, the 1940s saw the European powers play a role in the pivotal conflict that drastically altered the Middle East for decades to come.

In this article, Dr. Meir Zamir, Professor Emeritus of Middle East and Intelligence Studies at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, analyzes the case of Egypt’s decision to go to war against the nascent Jewish state and the influence of the British Empire that laid behind the Egyptian government. – CS


David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, repeatedly accused Britain of provoking the Arab states to invade Israel the day after its establishment in May 1948. To date, historians have not found proof of his accusations in British archives. However, evidence may be found in French archives, especially in Syrian and secret British documents obtained by the French secret services, originating from agents who had infiltrated the Syrian government in Damascus and the British Legation in Beirut. This article, based on French, Syrian, Israeli and British sources, argues that under the Labour government, Arabist MI6 officers in the Middle East, in collaboration with the British High Command in Cairo, pursued an alternative policy to that of the Foreign Office. They provoked Egypt’s King Faruq to go to war against Israel without the knowledge or approval of either Prime Minister Clement Attlee or Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, frequently misinforming and misleading them. This watershed research provides details of the goals and modus operandi of those involved in that clandestine plot.

To read the complete article, visit:


On the Yazidi Mothers of Children Fathered by Jihadists

A young Yazidi girl and her little sibling live under a bridge in Dohuk after fleeing Sinjar; photo taken Sept. 2014 by Rawaz Adil Nasser

By Matthew Barber

Yesterday, NPR aired an important and heart-wrenching story from Jane Arraf about Yazidi mothers now freed from IS captivity who are forced to abandon their young jihadist-fathered children. I recommend listening to the entire audio of the segment and not merely reading its transcript.

This story raises a number of important issues that deserve additional discussion.

Due to certain religious positions and social norms, Yazidi mothers are being made to choose between remaining in captivity or returning to their families in Iraq while leaving their new children behind. As the Genocide began in Aug. 2014, Yazidi women who were enslaved were able to begin giving birth as early as April 2015 to children fathered by jihadist captors or civilian Arab “owners” who had purchased them. (“Fathered” is a strange word to use since the men who initiated these pregnancies—many of whom are now dead—generally gave little thought to serving as fathers.) This means that the children whom Yazidi mothers must choose to remain with or abandon are now up to four years old.

This is not a new phenomenon in this Genocide, though it is recently becoming more visible. As early as 2015-2016 when I was working in Iraq, I was aware of cases where contact was being successfully maintained between Yazidi rescuers and certain enslaved girls in Mosul, the location of the girls was known, and rescue plans were in place. However, the girls (in the occasional cases I am referring to—not the majority of viable rescues) were refusing to be rescued because they had already given birth to children and did not want to be separated from them. They knew that it would not be possible to return to Yazidi society and keep their children.

The woman interviewed by Arraf in the NPR piece states: “If I wanted to stay with my son, I would have had to stay with ISIS. I was told they take the children away from their mothers.” Her understanding is correct and her fears justified—many Yazidi mothers have been forced to give up the children they have borne as a result of their enslavement. The numbers of these are more likely around several hundred, however, rather than the thousands proposed by one of the women Arraf interviewed. Additionally, many women have been forced by their families to undergo abortions after being rescued. Rescues began almost as early as the enslavement began, so these abortions have been taking place since the first year of the Genocide. Some women who were pregnant when rescued but too far along in their pregnancy to have safe abortions were made to give up their children after carrying them full term.

Not All Mothers Want the Same Thing

In 2016, the Independent reported on the case of a girl who was made to give up her newborn boy after having been rescued. The article did not provide many details as to what happened to the infant, but it gave the sense that the girl viewed the infant as a member of IS and not as her own child.

This raises another important point: the attitudes and experiences of Yazidi women who have mothered children of jihadists vary. Though more attention is understandably being given to the cases where women do not want to give up their children, it is also the case that some women have not wanted to keep the children that they bore due to rape and enslavement. These women have willingly given the children up when prompted to, have themselves sought out the means by which they could give them up, or have willingly undergone abortions. On the other hand are the women whose experiences parallel those of the woman interviewed by Arraf who was absolutely devastated to abandon her son Ibrahim. Mothers wanting to keep their children have sometimes fought tenaciously to do so, resisting their families and the norms of the Yazidi community; this effort, however, is usually unsuccessful.

The family is typically the agent of coercion in cases where women who prefer to keep their children are forced to give them up. Children left in Syria are cared for by the PYD. Those given up in Iraq wind up in orphanages administered by the central government in Mosul or Baghdad (see this article and this article).

The problems facing children fathered by jihadists in Iraq extend far beyond the Yazidi community and the orphanages mentioned above contain children from Sunni mothers and those of other communities. In addition to the dozen or so journalistic articles that have been published on this issue (see examples here and here), a master’s thesis has also been written on children born of rape in Iraq. However, it is important to understand that many aspects of this problem as faced by the Yazidi community are unique and not shared by other communities. This means that calls for the children to simply be accepted into the Yazidi community overlook the range of complexities that belie any straightforward solution.

Avoidance of the Problem

This is an issue that the Yazidi community has largely avoided discussing or bringing attention to. Some Yazidis worry that giving attention to the children produced through enslavement will distract from the much larger number of Yazidi children who were kidnapped in 2014 and who remain missing today.

In response to this tendency, it should be emphasized that looking at the problem of children fathered by jihadists does not necessitate turning away from the Yazidi children who remain missing. We can also understand why resentment would manifest within the Yazidi community when concern suddenly mounts over the children of jihadists while so many Yazidi children remain un-searched for after years of pleading with the international community and Iraqi government to locate and rescue them and so many other aspects of the genocide recovery process remain neglected, unaddressed, and unresolved. Still, I think that it is important for Yazidi leaders to recognize that all human beings deserve care and compassion, and concern for children produced through sexual enslavement does not imply a reduction of concern for the welfare of the kidnapped Yazidi children who remain missing.

Why Is It Difficult for the Yazidi Community to Accept These Children?

First of all, Yazidi religious tradition contains doctrinal positions holding that only a person whose parents are both Yazidi can be considered a Yazidi. In other words, if someone has a non-Yazidi parent—whether the father or the mother—they are not a Yazidi.

This precept is related to the fact that Yazidism does not admit converts—no one who was not born a Yazidi can become a Yazidi. Therefore it is impossible (as Yazidi doctrine is currently formulated) for a child with a non-Yazidi parent to be made a Yazidi and brought into the fold.

There is historical evidence that this position was not always a feature of Yazidi religion. Sources point to the conversion of non-Yazidis to Yazidism four centuries ago. This would mean that the proscription against in-conversion evolved later in Yazidi history.

Proscriptions against in-conversion are a trait of a number of religious minorities within Muslim-majority societies. Druze, Alawis, Yazidis, and Iran-based Zoroastrians all developed such positions at some point in their respective histories.

These proscriptions probably developed in response to Islamic doctrinal positions. Islam does not allow out-conversion and even mandates the death penalty for someone who leaves Islam. This can create a significant degree of discomfort, insecurity, and distress among Muslim families and communities when one of their members leaves Islam—no one wants to have to kill their family member. In such instances, therefore, animosity can be directed against a religious community receiving the convert. This has remained an issue primarily for Christians who, technically, have never instituted a proscription on receiving converts (though in practice they have sometimes avoided receiving converts in Middle Eastern countries out of fear). Instituting proscriptions against accepting converts was a way for minority communities to publicly demonstrate to the Muslim majority that they posed no threat to their religious interests. It’s tantamount to saying: “Not only will we not proselytize you, we will not even accept anyone who attempts to convert to our tradition.” By averring that they presented no competition to Islam, a vulnerable minority could further its own security.

In the case of the Yazidis, this position evolved into a doctrine involving conceptions of purity of sacred bloodlines that should not be mixed. (This even involves caste and sub-caste groupings within the Yazidi community that are not allowed to intermarry.) This issue has become a problem for Yazidis in the modern era as diaspora communities have grown. Germany contains the largest Yazidi diaspora and some Yazidi men have begun secret families with German women. These men travel back to Iraq to visit the Yazidi community but never bring their wives/children with them. Reform-minded Yazidi intellectuals have proposed some modifications to Yazidi doctrine on this matter, but so far without success.

Beyond the issue of parentage, a Yazidi—male or female—who has sex with a non-Yazidi is—according to Yazidi doctrine—considered no longer Yazidi. This has to do with the fact that culturally, intercourse and marriage are intertwined in legitimizing each other; a Yazidi who has sex with a non-Yazidi is viewed in the same way as if they had married a non-Yazidi, which, of course, results in their departure from Yazidism.

This is an area of the tradition that the Yazidi religious establishment had to confront after the Genocide began. Yazidi religious authorities issued a public statement that all enslaved women would be welcomed home as Yazidis and were not to be condemned for the rape that they were in no way responsible for. (This has not meant the end of all stigma and some women returning from enslavement have been denigrated; this largely depends on the emotional culture that varies at the level of the individual family.) It was the scope and public nature of the enslavement crisis that prompted this response from the religious authorities; this was not an isolated instance of rape that could have been hushed up, swept under the rug, or dealt with by shunning as typically happens.

Though this was an important step of social progress, receiving the children of jihadists into the Yazidi community has been a problem area that has proven too challenging for Yazidi religious authorities to reform. Such a step would: 1) upset the entire formulation of Yazidi identity; 2) dismantle long-established Yazidi religious doctrine; 3) simultaneously result in the opening of the door to in-converts, in turn creating a case for Yazidis who want to marry outside of the community—something the community has not yet been ready to tackle; and 4) potentially create new tensions with the majority Muslim population.

Beyond all of these deeply embedded and practical problems, it would understandably be difficult for children fathered by the same IS jihadists who tried to exterminate the community to grow up within the Yazidi community with acceptance rather than shame, abuse, and insults. However, the fact that this problem poses unique religious and identity challenges for Yazidis makes it even more difficult for them to accommodate these children than would be the case for another community surviving a genocide or a comparable scenario of wartime sexual violence.

Pointing this out is in no way meant to excuse or justify the problem; this is merely the reality as it currently stands, which leads to the impossible choice for the mothers profiled in Jane Arraf’s segment.

Responsibility Does Not Lie Solely With the Yazidis

While holding in mind all of the limitations described above, it is also imperative to recognize that Islamic religious norms and their impact on social custom and the legal system also carry responsibility in this picture. First of all, even if the Yazidi community were willing to raise these children as Yazidis, the doctrinal position of the Muslim majority holds that any person with a Muslim father is automatically a Muslim. It is, therefore, not only the Yazidis who consider these children to be non-Yazidis.

The Iraqi state implements this religious position through a long-established practice of refusing to grant a national ID card displaying affiliation with any non-Muslim religion to a person whose father is a Muslim (or even whose mother converted to Islam during the individual’s childhood). In other words, according to legal practice in Iraq, the Yazidis would likely find it impossible to incorporate these children into the Yazidi community even if their own cultural factors did not present impediments to such an option.

Yazidis speak frequently about women who remain missing even after the liberation of IS-held areas; however, it must be acknowledged that a number of these cases involve women who are choosing the children they have birthed and raised over their own return to Yazidi society.

Some of these mothers—who do not see a viable future within the Yazidi community while keeping their children—will live the rest of their lives as Muslims and will raise their children as Arabs and Muslims.

Remaining in their forced marriages could be considered a “choice,” but it is, of course, due to a lack of alternatives. The choices that people must make after all choice has been stripped from them are indeed unthinkable and we must remember who was responsible for this Genocide. In other words, the dilemmas that the Yazidi community is unprepared to tackle were not brought about by Yazidi actions.

Of course, not all Yazidi women who remain in captivity are doing so by choice and it should be recognized that the end of IS-held territory does not mean the end of Yazidi enslavement. Many women—whether they have given birth to children or not—are kept in situations that still constitute imprisonment, even if they were purchased by ordinary Arab men (i.e. not IS fighters). They can remain trapped in a domestic environment, shielded from knowledge of the outside world, and kept unaware even now that IS rule has been eliminated.

If in the future these women are rescued, those among them who have given birth to children and raised them for several years will also face the same heartbreaking dilemmas being experienced now by those who are reconnecting with the outside world.

A Partial Solution

The result of all of this is the heartbreaking reality that can be heard in the sobs of mothers and children in Arraf’s NPR segment.

But before blaming the Yazidis for callousness, it should be considered how incredibly difficult it is for a traumatized and displaced people—whose access to education and basic resources is now even worse than had already been the case in their highly provincial context—to tackle these reform problems amid their struggle to survive a genocide.

Nevertheless, Yazidi leaders should advocate for women who want to keep their children and facilitate their migration to countries where they can raise their children outside of the Yazidi community.

Western countries can assist in this situation by creating programs to resettle those Yazidi mothers who want to keep their non-Yazidi children, and the Yazidi community should respect the wishes of the women. Whether a woman wants to give up her child for adoption or to keep her child, her decision should be accommodated on an individual basis. The Yazidi Genocide served to rob women of all agency; if their wishes are ignored by their families and community upon their return to so-called “freedom,” the hell of the Genocide merely continues for them. The community must place the welfare of the survivors over its larger concerns regarding its image, norms, and desires to force a return to normalcy.

Amid the impossible choices being faced by these mothers and the lack of clear solutions to the problem, what must be remembered is that many of these children are anything but unwanted.

A look back at Kamal Jumblatt and the Progressive Socialist Party

By Christopher Solomon

As Syria’s Druze seeks out a balance with the Assad regime, the history of the Lebanese Druze’s Progressive Socialist Party and its leader, Kamal Jumblatt, from the Lebanese Civil War era may yield insights into post-war Syria.

The status of Syria’s Druze community has drifted in and out of the West’s attention during the long slog of the conflict. Talal el-Atrache’s recent article highlighted the precarious situation the Druze in Sweida Province, resting on the frontier of Da’esh, with the only option safeguarding their independence and security by way of the Syrian government. The brutal raid illustrated the fraught nature of civilians in southern Syria. Retaliation came quickly. Pictures circulated on social media showed a capture Da’esh fighter hanged from ruins of a Byzantine church over an arch known as “the gallows.” However, the Syrian Druze have also participated in the Syrian Civil War in organized fighting forces. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi has highlighted the scope of the Druze Arab Unity Party and its affiliated militia, Saraya al-Tawheed, operations in Syria. In addition, Tamimi discussed the role Druze women have taken on by upon recruitment to pro-regime militias, such as Labawat al-Jabal.

Still, the position of the Syrian Druze throughout the war has been desperate, with some youth refusing to join the Syrian army. One young man told AFP in November, “The army is your grave.” Commentary and analysis has long pondered what the future holds in store for Syria’s Druze. Will they gain enhanced political influence or potential ostracization and persecution?

The Druze in wartime continues to be overshadowed by the Levant’s larger geopolitical events. For some insights into how the Druze transitioned from a combatant force into a peace time political entity, a look back at the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and its militia, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), during the course of the Lebanese Civil War, yields some insights.

Founding of the Progressive Socialist Party to the 1958 Lebanon Crisis

Kamal Jumblatt was born in December 1917 to a powerful Druze family with Kurdish origins. His parents had a long history of protecting Druze interests in Lebanon. His father Fouad obtained an administrator post during the period of Ottoman rule. When Fouad was assassinated by a member of the rival Druze Arslan family in 1921, Kamal’s mother Nazira took over as the head of the Jumblatt family. Kamal traveled to France and obtained a degree in psychology and civil education at the Sorbonne University before returning to Lebanon in 1939. He took over as the head of the Jumblatt family in 1943, the year of Lebanon’s independence. He founded the Progressive Socialist Party (al-hizb al-taqadummi al-ishtiraki) in May 1949. The party was officially secular and had a Pan-Arab orientation. After Lebanon’s independence from France, Jumblatt formed a short-lived alliance with Camille Chamoun that brought down the corrupt and unpopular government of President Bechara El-Khoury in the Rosewater Revolution of September 1952.

However, with the Suez Crisis in 1956, regional tensions soon reverberated in Lebanon. Strong differences emerged between Jumblatt and Chamoun and the Druze leader turned towards Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser who had taken power in Cairo following the Free Officer’s coup in July 1952. Jumblatt strongly supported the Pan-Arabist movements in the region. When Syrian President Adib Shishakli arrived in Lebanon seeking a place of refuge after the anti-Shishakli National Front coalition (which included the Baath Party and Syrian Communists) overthrew him in a coup, Jumblatt’s threats forced the former Syrian strongman to leave for safety overseas in Brazil. This was largely in response to Shishakli’s brutal offensive against the Druze in February 1954. 

By the late 1950s, the chasm between Lebanese President Camille Chamoun and Jumblatt reached a boiling point. In April 1957 Chamoun himself had voiced the opinion that reconciliation with Jumblatt was still possible.[i] However, a U.S. Embassy Beirut dispatch from August 1957 showed that the Druze leader had little trust or patience for his government. The dispatch relayed news of a meeting between Jumblatt and embassy staff where he denounced the Chamoun government and accused it of “gangsterism” in the Chouf and warned that his followers would take up arms to kick Chamoun’s “corrupt” local officials out of the area.

Jumblatt added that Lebanon’s internal situation was “deteriorating to the point where only a strong and respected leader like General Chehab could restore law and order to the country.” Furthermore, he believed that Lebanon “must put its own house in order” to meet the external threat posed by the Syrian-Soviet accord.[ii] By the end of that same month, Jumblatt, railed against the government’s arrest of his supporters, and told the Lebanese press that Chamoun was risking pushing the Druze into a “second Hermel,” a reference to the Druze uprising against the French colonial forces some 30 years prior. Defense Minister Majid Arslan, for his part, said, “I believe the law ought to be applied equally to everyone without discrimination as it has already been applied to my own brothers and friends.”[iii] The 1958 clashes ended with the U.S. intervention and Jumblatt soon found himself included in the unity government cabinet of former Lebanese Army General Fuad Chehab.

The Lebanese Civil War

Logo of the PSP’s People’s Liberation Army

Prior to the Lebanese Civil War, Jumblatt’s party went a period of renewal and strength. Despite the relative security under the Chehabist era, Lebanon was in the midst of social and political turmoil. From 1965 onward, the Druze-dominated movement had seen its membership increase from working class and the economically disenfranchised segments of Lebanese society, largely Druze and Shia, but also contained some Lebanese Sunni Muslims. It was in this climate that Jumblatt’s PSP had essentially positioned itself as an “agent of change.” In addition, the PSP also saw the Baath Party’s successful power grabs in Iraq and Syria and recognized the anti-imperialist sentiments popular in the region as a harbinger for Lebanon.[iv]

However, it was the alliance with the Palestinians that made the PSP the dominant power broker on the Lebanese left. In 1969, Jumblatt, in his role as Lebanon’s Interior Minister, legalized a group of radical leftist and nationalist political parties to allow them back into Lebanese politics. With the military might of the well-armed and politically assertive PLO fully behind it, Jumblatt’s PSP fastened itself in the conflict as the vanguard of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM). This coalition of largely leftist and revolutionary parties faced off against the Christian and conservative elements of the Lebanese political elite. A series of clashes, massacres and retaliations escalated into open warfare in April 1975. Although often described as a sectarian conflict, the Lebanese Civil War, at least in its early phases, had strong ideological undercurrents that transcended sect and ethnicity.

The PSP’s armed wing was known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some sources put the total number of armed fighters in the PLA at 3,000. Although the party was staunchly secular, the PLA is typically described as one of the largest and most powerful sectarian armies in the civil war era. The militia is usually described as mainly composed of Druze and Shia recruits, with the latter effort occasionally put the PLA in conflict with the Amal militia of Imam Musa al-Sadr.[v]

After the LNM’s secured a series of victories against the Christian Lebanese Forces, Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad grew wary of the rising power of the LNM, and feared it would threaten the integrity of the Lebanese state if the PLO was able to secure outright power on the Lebanese battlefield. He felt this would undermine Syria’s own influence in Lebanon and control over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In December 1975, Assad notified the Lebanese combatants that he would “strike anyone who broke the peace.”

Patrick Seale wrote that Jumblatt was “a genuine man of the left,” adding, “He had early befriended the Palestinians, proclaimed himself a Nasserist, enjoyed cordial relations with Moscow, and from the late 1960s onward had gathered together a vast constituency of Arab nationalists and radicals of all sorts. And by the spring of 1976, as his allies besieged the strongholds of his old Maronite rivals, he scented victory.”[vi] However, for Assad, this could not stand. In his view, the LMN was positioning Lebanon into a state of partition, which played directly into the geopolitical designs of Israel. After the Syrian military intervention in Lebanon in 1976, Jumblatt traveled to Damascus and endured a tense meeting with Assad. No agreement between the two was reached. Assad asserted that Jumblatt allegedly said he wanted to destroy the entire Lebanese confessional system. However, His son Walid later relayed that his father knew about Assad’s designs to divide the warring Lebanese factions and conquer Lebanon.    

In early 1977, he traveled to Paris and met with French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. There he received promises of international support for Lebanon. Afterwards, he went to Cairo to hold court with Anwar Sadat, who had fallen out with Assad following the Arab’s defeat in the 1973 October War (Yom Kippur War). The Egyptian leader urged Jumblatt to stay in Cairo and allegedly warned him of an assassination plot.[vii]

October 25, 1975 – The Lebanese National Movement announces the end of the fighting in the first phase of the Lebanese Civil War. Kamal Jumblatt (center) is pictured with the SSNP’s Inaam Raad (left), along with Muhsin Ibrahim from the Communist Action Organization in Lebanon, and Anwar al-Fatayri of the Progressive Socialist Party.

On the path of his martyrdom, our banners will remain fluttering. 1984.

Kamal Jumblatt was killed by unknown gunmen on March 16, 1977 while traveling to his home in Mukhtara. Apparently he had sought to establish his own autonomous administrative region in the Chouf. Jumblatt had been targeted for assassination earlier in December 1976 with a car bomb, which he accused the Syrian-backed Saiqa militia of being behind the attempt.[viii] Lebanese Communist Party leader George Hawi claimed in a 2005 interview that it was Assad’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, who was responsible for the assassination.[ix] Others have suggested it was likely a botched kidnapping attempt. The exact details of Jumblatt’s assassination were never fully investigated by the Lebanese government and to this day, like many other crimes of the civil war era, the murder remains unsolved. However, there was a general consensus that the Syrian Air Force Intelligence was behind the incident.

The Martyrs of the Progressive Socialist Party in the Aley Region, 1983

Following Kamal Jumblatt’s death, Walid took over as the head of the PSP. The party and the civil war’s sectarian dimension became dramatically more distinct during this period. The Washington Post reported the cries of revenge by the Druze women at Jumblatt’s funeral, as well as the celebratory gunfire in the Christian sectors of East Beirut.[x] The impact of his death was felt particularly hard by the Palestinians. The Guardian quoted the late Yasser Arafat in 1977 saying, “It’s a tragedy. For us, Jumblatt was the equivalent of several armies fighting on our side.”[xi] The PSP engaged in brutal fighting with the Lebanese Forces in the so-called Mountain War from 1983-1984. The Lebanese Army joined with the Christian militias in an attempt to gain control over the predominantly Druze Chouf district.[xii] The PSP’s militia remained active in the conflict until the conclusion of the war, participating even in the final battles where the pro-Syrian forces routed General Michel Aoun’s troops holed up in the Baabda Palace during the so-called Liberation War. Aoun then left for his exile in France. Following the Taif Agreement, the PLA largely demobilized and entered the newly formed Lebanese Armed Forces and government security services. However, some elements of the PLA stayed on, participating in armed operations against the Israeli Defense Forces occupying southern Lebanon until the latter pulled out in 2000.

Nizar Hassan of the Lebanese Politics Podcast explained how Kamal Jumblatt’s life still lingers in Lebanese society 42 years after his assassination, “The essence of Kamal Jumblatt’s legacy on the PSP is that he represents the intellectual (and in a way spiritual) icon whose ideas and quality shall not be questioned. He is the figure to which all can pledge allegiance and about which they can express nostalgia. It is the hero that they never had ever since, a hero who is seen as a dreamer and visionary who carried the ideals of secularism, humanism and socialism, and beyond all a good and pure man. This is especially relevant because his son and successor Walid represents the other kind of qualities of the Za’eem; mainly political pragmatism and a focus on protecting the Druze and maximizing their share of social surplus. Another aspect of his legacy is the institutions that he created to ensure the party’s continuity and social dominance, which are arguably as powerful today as they ever were.”

March 16, 1985, Pledge and loyalty.

A PSP militia fighter greets a member of Amal as a Syrian soldier looks on.  Note the faction insignia on the shoulders.

Post-war politics

The fraught nature of commemorating Lebanon’s war martyrs was highlighted by Robert Fisk during the 40th anniversary of Kamal Jumblatt’s death. He noted that Walid has made every effort to warn against the bloody sectarian reprisals that followed his father’s assassination. Walid told Fisk in 2017, “He was trying to get rid of [Lebanon’s sectarian system] because the Muslims and Druze were not equal partners in the system. My father tried to do this peacefully. The elite of the Christians were with him. But the dream of a non-sectarian Lebanon was killed with him on the same day he died.”[xiii]

In 2005, Walid and the Lebanese Baath Party exchanged accusations over the death of PSP military official Anwar Fatayri, who was killed in 1989, after Walid had tasked him with pursuing reconciliation.[xiv] Ultimately, Jumblatt ended up shunning the Syrians in the post-war period. After the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the PSP became a part of the anti-Syrian March 14th Alliance.

Nazih Richani, the author of Dilemmas of Democracy and Political Parties in Sectarian Societies: The Case of the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon 1949-1996, told Syria Comment Walid’s anti-Syrian positions were rooted in the assassination of his father, along with Rafik Hariri, and added, “Walid’s perception that Pax-Americana was eminent and that a ‘New Middle East’ was about to happen in the wake of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. However, I think he miscalculated the geopolitical, regional, and global conditions and this drove him to the camp opposing Syria.”

A pledge is a pledge, 1981

Walid’s son Taymour has taken over after the official head of the party. However, it is Walid who still retains control behind the scenes. Taymour has indicated to the press that he has a distain for the feudal brand of Lebanese politics.[xv] Nevertheless, the third generation of Jumblatts look set to continue on at the helm of the PSP. At a memorial commemorating Kamal’s 1977 assassination, Walid told Taymour, “Walk forward with your head held high, and carry the legacy of your grandfather.”[xvi]

Hassan touched on how the PSP had to reorganize in Lebanon’s post-war politics, “Unsurprisingly, the civil war gradually destroyed the ‘political party’ aspect of the PSP and empowered the sectarian militia character…[however,] the last few years have seen a conscious effort to resurrect the PSP as a fully functional political party (similar to what Samir Geagea did with the Lebanese Forces), as opposed to a one-man show. This is however is very unlikely to make any significant change as Taymour, Walid’s son who possesses none of the requirements for leadership, was handed the throne without any democratic process and in contrast with Walid’s insistence in the past that he is against ‘political inheritance’ and would encourage internal elections for new leadership.”

Still the PSP continues to be plagued with the lasting stigma of being a relic of the civil war’s sectarian character. One Syrian Social Nationalist named Elijah said, “Kamal Jumblatt was a man of principles and ideology, who did not sell himself to the highest bidder, as a Syrian Social Nationalist I respect that, even if I disagree with him.” He went on to lament the current state of the PSP, “For a party that is so progressive and socialist, they ended up representing Druze as only a sect, like most of the other Lebanese parties, and they are today a shallow image of what they used to be.”

Richani said, “Since 1977, in spite that the PSP’s ideology remains secular, conflict dynamics in a vertically divided society proved to be a formidable challenge. The secto-political system of representation that was engineered in the 19th century by colonial powers (France, the British, and the Ottomans) vying for influence was further reinforced by the French with the 1943 constitution. This in turn was consolidated with the Taif Accord of 1990. Certainly the objective conditions played a significant role in transforming the PSP into a predominatly sectarian-based group. But agency, like everything in history, played an equally important role.”

The PSP’s “reluctant heir” shares a strong resemblance to his grandfather

Hassan said, “The PSP today is a sectarian party that maintains social dominance through a variety of mechanisms, but most important is the clientelist relationship between supporters and the Jumblatt family. This has two dimensions: the resources offered directly in return for allegiance (such as jobs, healthcare support or material assistance) and the influence on the distribution of state’s resources (most importantly jobs, but also access to healthcare and bringing in state investments into the Druze areas). I can say that it is not individuals that support Jumblatt, it is the communities. The communities support Jumblatt and avoid any confrontation with him because they are worried about not being supported in the future. So the basis of support is largely material. On the other hand, there are the social-psychological aspects, such as the inherited sense of love and affiliation, the habitual involvement in PSP affiliated civil society organizations from young age, and the legacy of the civil war. The latter is also a major pillar of Jumblatt’s legitimacy: there is a perception that Walid Jumblatt offers protection for the Druze. He represents a well-connected, pragmatic, but also courageous figure that would pull strings to avoid harm, and if needed lead the violence when harm is inevitable.”

The flag of the Lebanese Democratic Party, the PSP’s primary rival within the Lebanese Druze community.

Following the Lebanese parliamentary elections in May 2018, the PSP engaged in violent clashes with its longtime Druze rival, the Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP). An office belonging to the PSP was bombed with an RPG, killed a local PSP volunteer and community activist named Alaa Abi Faraj. LDP head Talal Arslan was accused of harboring fugitive. The issue was later buried between the two sides.[xvii] However, the tension still exists between the PSP and LDP and most recently were manifested in a spat involving Sheikh Nasreddine Al Gharib, a pro-Damascus Lebanese Druze figure who did not approve the journey of Sheikh Naim Hassan, the head of the Druze Spiritual Council, who is aligned with Jumblatt. Subsequently, Sheikh Hassan was barred from entering Syria. Wuel Abu Faour, a leader in the PSP, weighed in on the controversy, saying the move by the Syrian government was “further evidence of the return of the regime to its previous practices of intervention in internal Lebanese affairs.” The LDP defended Damascus. Its spokesperson Jad Haidar responded that Syrian sheikhs were required to obtain special identification for travel to Lebanon.[xviii]

Hassan said, “The LDP is incomparable to the PSP in size, power or ideological significance. It has no clear ideological tendency, no hero figure to give its current leadership legitimacy, and no major influence on the state’s resources. In the last election, the number of votes that the LDP leader Talal Arslan received was embarrassing to say the least; and if not for his inflation by the Free Patriotic Movement (an anti-Jumblatt strategy), he would have been largely insignificant on the national political scale. There is also quite a lot of hatred towards Arslan among the pro-Jumblatt communities for his support of the FPM’s major entrance into the politics of majority Druze areas in the last election, as he is seen to contribute to a political strategy that aims to weaken Jumblatt politically and revive sectarian tensions between the Christians and Druze of Mount Lebanon.” The PSP currently has two cabinet positions in Lebanon’s newly formed government. Ayman Choucair, the State Minister for Human Rights Affairs, and has been in parliament since 1992. Choucair previously held other cabinet posts, including Ministry of Human Rights Affairs, Environment, and Agriculture. He was also the PSP’s director for the party’s office in Damascus from 1985 to 1991. During his time as the Minister of Human Rights Affairs, Choucair used his platform to pressure the Lebanese security forces over their treatment of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Following the deaths of four Syrian refugees in July 2017, he said, “To preserve the army’s image and prevent any rumors that may be malicious, we ask the relevant leadership and judiciary to open a transparent investigation into…the causes that led to the deaths.”[xix]

Another PSP member, Wuel Abu Faour is the Industry Minister.[xx] He was previously the Minister of Health and was first elected to parliament in 2005. Faour lauded Russia’s role in securing the release of the Syrian Druze women who were taken captive by Da’esh in November 2018. He noted that Taymour played a role in working with the Russians on the situation. He said, “These recent events showed that Taymour Jumblatt’s confidence in the Russians was in place especially after the liberation operation. Further discussions about future arrangements related to the Druze’s situation in Syria are under way. A suggestion proposed that the Druze wanted for military service would join the fifth legion led directly by Russia, which is receiving positive feedback among Druze.”[xxi]

This relationship between Russia and the PSP comes amid Moscow’s resurgence in the region and in Lebanon. Faour suggested that the ties between Russia and the PSP were both long running and enduring. He explained, “The relation between [the PSP] led by Walid Jumblatt and the Russian Federation is historic. Russians preserve their relations with their historic allies and remember the great role of Kamal Jumblatt, who was awarded with the Order of Lenin among very few figures in the world. They also cherish the common friendship and struggle they share with Walid Jumblatt and want to consolidate the relation with his son Taymour.”[xxii]

Hassan shared his thoughts on Taymour’s future leadership of the PSP, “Taymour is far from a competent leader in any person’s mind, including the staunchest supporters of the Jumblatts. But the idea is that he is young and still learning, so we should give him a chance; this was the justification to support him in the 2018 election. It is hard to predict whether the PSP will continue to dominate Druze politics in the future. On one hand, Taymour is a very pragmatic person when it is no longer civil war times and people need visionary change-makers. He does not represent any ideological standing, he does not have a particularly left wing or progressive rhetoric, and we have not seen any impressive leadership moments yet. But on the other, the PSP’s mechanisms of social control and dominance remain very strong, which makes it difficult to imagine how its influence could be declining anytime soon. The major variable to watch in the near future will be the rise of independent political movements in the Druze-majority areas (such as the group LiHaqqi), which is already influencing the PSP and pushing it in a left-progressive direction. This will either end in the PSP adopting the causes of these movements and preventing any potential loss of support to them, or the beginning of the end of feudal politics. The next decade will help us know what to expect.”

The PSP will proceed into the coming decades in an environment with a heightened sense of community awareness, political activism, and growing desire for reform, equality, and better governance among Lebanon’s younger generation. The legacy of Kamal Jumblatt, frozen in time in 1977, will shape and guide the party. Although the past is present, whether or not the PSP can respond to the future remains to be seen.

[i] U.S. Department of State, Embassy Beirut Telegram, April 11, 1957

[ii] U.S. Department of State, Embassy Beirut Telegram, August 27, 1957

[iii] U.S. Department of State, Embassy Beirut Telegram, August 28, 1957

[iv] Nazih Richani, Dilemmas of Democracy and Political Parties in Sectarian Societies: The Case of the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon 1949-1996, (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998), p. 80-81

[v] Edgar O’Ballance, Civil War in Lebaon, 1975-1992, p. 16

[vi] Patrick Seale, Asad, The Struggle for the Middle East, p. 280-281

[vii] Saad Kiwan, Jumblatt’s legacy still echoes in today’s Lebanon, The New Arab, March 22, 2015, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2015/3/22/jumblatts-legacy-still-echoes-in-todays-lebanon

[viii] Edgar O’Bllance, Civil War in Lebanon, 1975-1992, p. 62

[ix] “George Hawi knew who killed Kamal Jumblatt,” Ya Libnan. June 22, 2005

[x] Stuart Auerbach, “Jumblatt Buried As His Followers Avenge Murder,” The Washington Post, March 18, 1977, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1977/03/18/jumblatt-buried-as-his-followers-avenge-murder/f858f618-bf32-4e25-b492-9d7043c4925b/?utm_term=.a5e308277118

[xi] “From the archive, 17 March 1977: Lebanese leftist leader Kamal Jumblatt assassinated,” The Guardian, March 17, 1977, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/17/lebanon-kamal-jumblatt-assassination-archive-1977

[xii] Nora Boustany, “Druze-Christian Fighting Spreads,” The Washington Post, December 13, 1984, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1984/12/13/druze-christian-fighting-spreads/5a88f929-51e0-4f81-ba4b-bd07176b8e57/?utm_term=.28811272bcff

[xiii] Robert Fisk, “On the 40th anniversary of Kamal Jumblatt’s death, is trouble brewing again in Lebanon?,” The Independent, March 19, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/lebanon-civil-war-walid-jumblatt-christianity-anniversary-a7638021.html

[xiv] Maher Zeineddine, “Jumblatt: Accusations of Fatayri murder aimed at hindering national reconciliation,” The Daily Star, February 14, 2005, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2005/Feb-14/2588-jumblatt-accusations-of-fatayri-murder-aimed-at-hindering-national-reconciliation.ashx

[xv] “Five new faces to follow in Lebanon’s parliament,” Agence France-Presse,

[xvi] “Lebanon’s Jumblatt affirms son Taymour as political heir,” Middle East Eye, March 19, 2017,  https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/lebanons-jumblatt-affirms-son-taymour-political-heir

[xvii] “1 killed in post-election clash in Lebanon town,” Xinhua News Agency, May 8, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-05/09/c_137164860.htm

[xviii] Sunniva Rose, “Syrian decision causes controversy among Lebanese Druze,” The National, March 4, 2019, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/syrian-decision-causes-controversy-among-lebanese-druze-1.833101

[xix] “Lebanon’s human rights minister calls for probe into Syrian deaths in custody,” Reuters, July 6, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-refugees-syria-minister-idUSKBN19R1FC

[xx] “Lebanon’s new Cabinet lineup,” The Daily Star, February 1, 2019

[xxi] “Lebanese MP: Sweida hostages were freed by Russia,” Arab News, November 12, 2018, http://www.arabnews.com/node/1403716/middle-east

[xxii] Ibid

Nationalism, War, and The Future of The Middle East – by S. Farah

Nationalism, War, and The Future of The Middle East
By S. Farah
for Syria Comment – January 25, 2019

“Nationalism is a great danger for Europe, for all the European countries. In the history of Europe, nationalism has always meant wars, and the last great war started right in the heart of Europe… The real breakthrough, made at the end of World War II is leaving behind nationalism and national egotisms.” This is how Professor Valerio Onida, the former president of Italy’s constitutional court expressed his concern about rising nationalism in Europe in a televised interview. While nationalism as a cause of war in European history has been well established, it has been overlooked when politicians and pundits discuss the Middle East.

What is Nationalism

Nationalism is the political movement that rose in Europe in the 18th century that led to the emergence of the nation-state. Before nationalism people did not give their loyalty to the nation-state but to other, different forms of political organization: the city-state, the feudal fief and its lord, the dynastic empire, or the religious group.

Broadly speaking, two types of nationalism emerged from Europe – propositional nationalism in Western Europe and ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe. Propositional nationalism, also referred to as civic nationalism, is an inclusive form of nationalism based on individual rights and the values of freedom, liberty and equality. The oldest form of propositional nationalism is French nationalism, which is rooted in the French republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The French model of citizenship is linked to belonging to universal republican institutions, not to a specific identity or religion. When granting full citizenship to Jews during the French Revolution, the Count of Clermont Tonnerre told the National Assembly, “We should grant everything to Jews as individuals and nothing as a nation.” Classifying people by their ethnicity is illegal in France; no direct census questions can be asked that would determine the exact ethnic, racial or religious makeup of the society. The nation of “liberty, equality, fraternity” treats all people equally with no differentiation.

The other form of nationalism that emerged in Eastern Europe is ethnic nationalism; it mines race and history to create politics that sacrifice individual liberty to the will of the majority. An example of this type of nationalism is German nationalism, which claims that the true essence of a nation emerges from history, culture, and ultimately, race.

The Olympic Torch-bearer runs through the stadium at the 1936 Berlin Games

While forced resettlement and mass killing has happened throughout human history, the emergence of the ethnic nation-state and the attempt to create ethnically homogenous geographic areas in Europe in the 20th century led to ethnic cleansing and genocide—most notably the Holocaust—but additionally, the expulsion of Germans from Polish and Czechoslovak territory, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs in Croatia, and the Albanians, and later, Serbians in Kosovo.  

Prisoners of the German Buchenwald concentration camp Anonymous | AP

Embedded in each national movement is a national myth: it might over-dramatize true incidents, omit important historical details, or add details for which there is no evidence. These legends and constructed narratives create imagined communities that give rise to a sense of delusional, inflated self-worth—what Professor Valerio Onida referred to in the opening quote of this article as “national egotism.” The English Nationalists argued that England was the kingdom that, of all the kingdoms in the world, was the most like the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the French believed that France had a special mission as representative of the most advanced form of western culture. And almost always in every national myth there are stories of victimhood, aggrievement, and a sense of superiority. These national myths, along with irredentism, led Europe into endless wars, culminating in WWII.

Nationalism Arrives in the Middle East

For two thousand years, the Middle East had been ruled by empires: the Roman, the Byzantine, and the successive Islamic empires, all culminating in 400 years of Ottoman rule. A multitude of cultures lived side by side, while people and ideas traveled freely across these vast polyglot empires. By the 19th century, European ideas of nationalism began to spread across the Middle East.

The First Genocide

Turkish ethnic nationalism came from central and eastern Europe through various channels. Émigré and refugees from Hungry and Poland (as well as Tartar exiles) brought this chauvinistic and illiberal nationalism into the seat of the Ottoman empire. The Armenians and Assyrians were its first victims. The Young Turks, a nationalist movement, in an effort to ‘Turkify’ the new republic, executed a systematic campaign to exterminate the Assyrians and Armenians from eastern Turkey, a plateau they had inhabited for 3,000 years. As many as 1.5 million people were killed in what is today known as the Armenian Genocide.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their forebears were killed in a 1915-16 genocide by Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire; Turkey has the figure at 500,000 (AFP/Getty) ( AFP/Getty )

Turkey has since been locked into never-ending wars with Kurdish nationalists who themselves aspire to create their own ethno-nationalist state on part of the Turkish state.

Arab Nationalism Usurps Syrian Patriotism and leads Syria Into Multiple Wars and Economic Sanctions

Arab nationalism drew inspiration from 19th-century Western ideas. In 1911, intellectuals from throughout the Levant formed an Arab nationalist club in Paris where the first Arab congress took place. Later, Damascus became the coordinating center of the Arab nationalist movement. While the idea did spread to other places like Beirut, Cairo, and Baghdad, nowhere did Arab nationalism inspire so much passion as it did in Syria, which Nasser of Egypt would later refer to as “the beating heart of Arab nationalism.” As Arab nationalists took control of the Syrian government, they preoccupied themselves with the greater Arab cause. In schools across all of Syria, children stood every morning and saluted the Arab nation, and the green map of the vast Arab nation replaced the Syrian map in every classroom. Arab nationalists in Syria were aggrieved and felt betrayed by the West for dividing their nation with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But the greatest affront to Arab nationalists was the creation of the state of Israel that they viewed as another Western betrayal. Syrians took the mantle of destroying Israel and resisting the Western plots in the region. This overarching goal led Syria into multiple wars and economic sanctions, which they wore as a badge of honor.  

Arab nationalism asserts that the Arab nation is the group of people who speak Arabic, inhabit the “Arab World,” and who aspire to belong to the same nation. Arabs, Phoenicians, Copts, Assyrians, Berbers, Jews, and all those who live in the designated Arab world and speak Arabic are the people of this great nation. But this diverse group of people and cultures, from the depths of Arabia to the far reaches of North Africa, dress differently, eat different cuisine, and do not share the same history. The purist Arab nationalists insist, however, that language is the strongest foundation for a nation, arguing that the varied languages spoken in the Arabic peninsula, the Levant, and in north Africa, are dialects of the same language. But the looser definition of a dialect states that a dialect should be understood by speakers of other dialects of the same language without formal training, a test that would be difficult to pass for someone in the Levant listening to a person from Morocco. Many successful countries are multilingual, like Switzerland and Singapore, each with four official languages. And despite the fact that all the contiguous countries of Central and South America—with the exception of Brazil—speak the same language, and even share a similar history and religion, none of these countries aspire to be one nation.

While Egyptians flirted with Arab nationalism during the Nasser era, they had a deep sense of self as a separate entity, and their loyalty was to Egypt first. The Egyptian flirtation with Arab nationalism came to an end with the Camp David accord. Syrians, indoctrinated with Arab nationalism, viewed the actions of the Egyptian leadership as treasonous and short-sighted. This view of other Arab leaders as stooges of their Western masters was a common theme amongst Arab nationalists in Syria. These nationalists thought that they were the representatives of the pulse and aspiration of the Arab street. This delusion, however, came crashing down during the past eight years of war in Syria: that Arab street was pulseless while Syrians were being killed and their cities destroyed as a part of a brutal regime change operation to punish Syria for its decades of opposing the West’s grand plans and defending the honor of their imagined nation.    

The Rapture

Another brand of nationalism, Jewish nationalism or Zionism, began in Eastern Europe; it aimed to establish a homeland for the Jewish people, with its sights set on historic Palestine. As of 1920, a British report showed that there were just over seventy thousand Jewish persons living in British Mandated Palestine, many of whom had arrived in the preceding 30 years. Jewish emigration and colonization of historic Palestine continued primarily by unassimilated Eastern European Jews. In 1948, as Israel declared its independence, Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel, and in the 10 months of fighting that followed, Israel occupied 60% of Palestinian areas—including West Jerusalem—far beyond the Jewish state allowance proposed by the 1948 Partition Plan.

This conflict triggered significant demographic change throughout the Middle East. Around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the areas that became Israel and have never been allowed to return. Over the next several decades, Israel occupied more land from its neighbors and continued the colonization of Palestinian land. And almost all the Jewish communities that have colored and enriched much of the Middle East for centuries in cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo vanished, with many emigrating to Israel or the U.S.

The refugee camps which sprung up in 1948 became permanent residences in exile

Israel’s Declaration of Independence speaks of equal rights for all its citizens; Israeli human rights groups have, however, documented several laws that discriminate against its Palestinian population, which largely still live separately from its Jewish population. Recently, Israel’s legislators passed the Nation State law that says that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of its Palestinian citizens. The Knesset also voted down the Basic Law Equality bill which proposed that “The State of Israel shall maintain equal political rights amongst all its citizens, without any difference between religions, race and sex”. While many of Israel’s founding fathers were secular, the messianic dimensions of a Jewish state on biblical land was inescapable. Today, the strongest support for Israel in the West comes from Evangelical Christians who believe that for the rapture to occur, the Jews must return to the promised land.

The Way Forward

After WWII, Europeans realized the ills of nationalism and moved to create a new political structure for the continent. They deemphasized borders between their states, allowing for the free movement of people, workers, goods and services, and created supra-national institutions that service the entire European community. The global financial collapse of 2008, however, exposed serious flaws in the structures of the Euro and other weaknesses in the new post- nationalist European project. The Middle East also has to find its way past nationalism to create stability and bring peace to the region. If not in a union similar to the one being attempted in Europe, then perhaps the answer lies in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Anti Fragile calls ‘fractal localism.’

The Rapture is but one of many biblical prophecies. Ammiel Alcalay, a poet, in After Jews and Arabs, Remaking Levantine Culture, examines the long and rich relationship between Arabs and Jews, and between the three monotheistic religions in the Levant that predated nationalism. He ends his work by quoting Shmuel Trigano:

When Isaiah announced “In that day shall Israel be a third with Egypt and with Syria, a blessing in the midst of the land…Blessed be Egypt my people, and Syria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance” he was certainly not predicating a union or a fusion into a state, an empire, but the opening into a space for three people passing beyond a stage of belligerency, of the state, the leaping beyond formal boundaries.

Mr. Alcalay continues:

Somewhere between visions based on the old prophecies and the need for a new covenant, between closed doors and full streets, the magic of old places and the locked rooms without song, a space remains, a space for a poetics and a politics of the possible.

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