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Could the Increased Islamist Presence provide a Way Out of the Syrian Impasse?

In the wake of the Russo-American agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons, the war rumbles on, with a daily litany of shelling of civilians, torture, rape, murder and summary executions beyond the normal carnage of government soldiers and rebels butchering each other on whatever street, field or town square is their latest battlefield.

Especially given the short timeframe for the identification, acquisition and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the United Nations’ weapons inspectors have a truly daunting task ahead of them. A task the diplomats and the politicians may not appreciate the difficulty of.

Paradoxically, given the Americans’ apparent readiness to resume the threat of missile strikes, it may be ‘their side’ – the rebels – which most jeopardises the inspectors’ mission. As Bashar al-Assad’s military have pretty much held together as a disciplined military force, the Russians will be able to lean heavily on the Syrian Government to let the inspectors get on with their job.

However, the rebels are said to have fragmented so much that there may be up to 1,000 different groups now ranged against Assad. How on earth is any kind of centralised control going to be exerted on them to stop them hindering the inspectors? Without sufficient protection, it will be no surprise if inspectors are not killed and/or kidnapped.

Moreover, it has been widely reported in the past couple of days – eg: Ben Farmer & Ruth Sherlock in the Daily Telegraph – that nearly half of the rebels belong to or are affiliated to jihadist or hardline Islamist groups. The al-Qaeda-connected al-Nusra Front have reportedly assassinated a number of (moderate) Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders in Northern Syria where they and the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL) have imposed Sharia over large swathes of territory. They are better armed than the FSA – thanks to their Saudi backers – and are more effective fighters. Indeed, it wasn’t until the recent intervention of Hezbollah and Shia militants from Iraq and Iran that the civil war has finally started to go Assad’s way.

Will the jihadists be prepared to allow the weapon inspectors to do their job? If they were, do al-Nusra and the ISIL have enough centralised control of their own fighters and the myriad smaller Islamist groups to ensure the inspectors’ safety?

These questions must have been discussed by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva last week…surely? But, if they did discuss them, they won’t have had answers, only speculation.

If Lavrov and Assad can ensure the weapons inspectors’ safety in Government-held areas but Kerry can’t prevent rebel groups attacking them, Kerry’s hardly going to be in a position to insist on a strike against the Syrian regime if they are shown to be co-operating and the rebels are not.

In Chemical Weapons: escaping Obama’s Trap, I discussed the sheer scale of an operation needed to ensure the safety of the inspectors as much as reasonably possible. Unfortunately, given the limited 1st Tier and self-serving thinking of the politicians and diplomats, the likelihood is that Russia and the United States will only increase the resources to protect the inspectors in proportion to the number of them killed or kidnapped. In other words, the increasing body count of inspectors will drag in Russian and American military personnel on an incremental, piecemeal basis until it becomes a de facto occupation.

How much better if they had only seen the need for such decisive action in Geneva last week!

At its core, it’s a values conflict
It’s the issue of values which bedevils all conflicts between modern secular states and fundamentalist religious groups. The former essentially are Modernist in their approach to life and society while the latter are basically Pre-Modernist. In vMEMETIC terms, Pre-Modernists think in BLUE and lower vMEMES while Modernists think in at least the BLUE/ORANGE vMEME transition stage. Don Beck (2003) shows, with the Assimilation-Contrast Effect, that it takes the emergence of ORANGE to bring in rationalism and pragmatism to soften and break up the inflexible worldview of nodal BLUE and the my-way-or-the-highway approach of RED.

When true-to-religion-or-not is added into the mix, what we find is Pre-Modernist religious absolutism, fuelled by RED and BLUE, versus Modernist secularism or religious relativism, led by ORANGE and/or above thinking. And it is the former which helps make the jihadists such fearsome fighters; because they believe they will certainly go to Heaven if they die in the service of Allah, they will take risks in battle or even go to certain death to kill the enemy. Such is the power of the religious memes which form and re-form their schemas! In contrast, both the average Syrian Government soldier and the average FSA fighter have a more relativist view; they’re not so certain Heaven is definitely waiting for them…or they may not even believe at all.

In values terms, the relativist view is just too complex for the absolutist to understand; while the relativist is likely to find the absolutist terrifying in their certainty, especially when they have a weapon and are determined to destroy the unbeliever.

The US, Russia, Assad and his ministers and the FSA commanders are all frightened of extreme Islamism. They have that in common. The Syrians, because they face its death-dealing on a daily basis and neither Assad’s supporters nor most FSA fighters want to be faced with the choice of living under Sharia or being killed. For the US, 9/11 haunts the country and every little echo of it – even the tiniest, such as the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year – ramps up the public perception of paranoia about Muslim extremism. The Russians have never had a single, defining incident such as 9/11, but they have semi-porous borders with several Muslim countries, experience of fighting jihadist militias – not least in Chechnya – and a number of major terrorist incidents perpetrated by Islamic radicals – eg: the Moscow subway bombing of 29 March 2010.

Paradoxically, then, perhaps it is the commonly-shared fear of Islamic extremism that could form a basis for discussion at the tentatively-proposed ‘Geneva 2’ peace talks.

For Assad, the civil war now looks more or less winnable. But, with more and more foreign jihadists coming into Syria to shore up al-Nusra, the ISIL and smaller militant groups, it’s going to be a long haul, bloody and bitter, and with more and more war crimes added to the list already attributed to the Syrian Government. And the longer and more bloody the war is, the harder it will be to put Syria back together as a functioning nation.

For the FSA, caught between the Islamists and Assad’s forces, eventual annihilation or exile are increasingly looking like the only long-term alternatives.

The West’s view of the Arab Spring has soured. For all its supposed evangelism for Democracy, it doesn’t like the results putting Islamist or pro-Islamist governments in place as it has everywhere it’s been tried in the Middle East (Gaza, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt). Thus, the Americans expressed horror at the bloodshed involved in the military re-taking control of Egypt but refused to call it a ‘coup’ and continued giving the generals billions of dollars. It’s a tacit admission that largely pre-Modern societies aren’t ready for Western-style Democracy. (What the West needs to take on board is how to help such countries move through Stratified Democracy.)

In reality, the ORANGE pragmatism of most Western governments means they were not unhappy dealing with the dictators of the Middle East. As long as they didn’t espouse openly anti-Western views, they felt they knew where they were with them. Sell them some refurbished attack helicopters and put a couple of million dollars into their slush funds every now and then – such arrangements, by and large, worked as far as the West and the dictator and his elites were concerned. Goodness, even the Israelis were in semi-secret tentative discussions with Assad’s regime about returning the Golan Heights in return for a fully-fledged peace treaty!

What the West didn’t see because it wasn’t interested and what the dictators didn’t see because RED is myopic and/or they were in denial, is that increasing real and grinding poverty was fermenting first a protesting spirit and then a revolutionary spirit when the protests were put down.

It is that revolutionary spirit which has driven the FSA to fight, often against overwhelming odds, to overthrow Assad. As the West has dithered and dithered about how far to side with the rebels, so, as analysts such as Murad Batal al-Shishani (2012) have warned, the jihadists have been welcomed, however reluctantly, out of sheer necessity.

Now, the Islamists are close to outnumbering the FSA, are much better fighters and are much better armed. Extermination of the FSA is clearly on the jihadists’ agenda.

Outcomes of Geneva 2…?
So, if a common fear of the Islamists could be used as a lever to get Assad and his ministers and some kind of representation from the moderate opposition to ‘Geneva 2’, what next?

The moderates, though their cause is effectively broken, are not going to accept a return to the pre-protests status quo. Some may continue to back an increasingly-pointless armed struggle; others may go into exile, from where they will continue to look for opportunities to destabilise Assad’s government.

To get the moderates to lay down their arms and stay in Syria, they have to have something for 2 years of blood and deep, deep loss.

For Assad, if he is to rebuild Syria, he has to have the moderates on board and that means the way Syria has been governed mostly in the interests of the elite has to change. Unlike Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Tunisia), Assad had recognised the inevitability of some kind of reform and was at least talking about it. But he didn’t move fast enough and, once the protests started, fell back onto the dictator’s traditional protest-management strategy of shooting them.

Syria doesn’t need Democracy at this stage. What it needs is the application of Stratified Democracy to fathom a system of representative government which reflects the mode(s) of thinking of the vast majority of the population. In other words, to use 4Q/8L, the structure (Lower Right) has to fit with the culture (Lower Left).

At the same time, the FSA needs to work with the Syrian military in driving the Islamists out of Syria – before they get wiped out! Effectively, as per Samuel Gaertner et al’s Common In-Group Identity Model (1993), the Islamists become the common enemy to unite against. The fact there are now so many foreign jihadi amongst the Islamists, should help at the PURPLE/BLUE level in creating a common bond to protect Syria, the ‘motherland’.

As regards Assad personally, he’s clearly not going anywhere. That, the West and the moderates are going to have to accept. Unfortunately, as widely reported at the weekend – eg: Damien McElroy & Alex Spillius in the Daily Telegraph – UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has unequivocally labelled Assad a war criminal and stated a referral needs to be made to the International War Crimes Tribunal. Under pressure, it seems Ban’s BLUE got the better of him and he made a absolutist statement which leaves him absolutely nowhere to go diplomatically. Assad is undoubtedly a war criminal…but, as the Russians will argue, so are many commanders on both sides in Syria. And let’s never forget: Nelson Mandela, the greatest statesman of the late 20th Century was in years earlier unequivocally a terrorist.

ORANGE pragmatism needs to overrule BLUE absolutism. Otherwise more lives will be lost.

A form of words needs to be found that negates Ban’s view – something the UN Security Council can do. And a price can be extracted from Assad for this partial rehabilitation – perhaps driving the conclusion of a peace deal with Israel. Who knows, an Israel-friendly Syria could even start to build some bridges with the new, less fervent leadership in Iran…?

In the end a Geneva 2 will have to leave Assad as at least a figurehead with enough power to protect his own immediate interests and those of his Alawite clan. A more representative form of government (short of full Democracy) will need to be developed and some of the leaders of the moderate opposition given opportunities to take up roles in government.

As to forgive and forget…. Well, a spirit of co-operation can be engendered through uniting to drive out the Islamists, then a focus on rebuilding…. Probably in time some kind of truth & reconciliation commission…?

There’s a huge way to go and not much appears to have been thought through as to how to bring peace to Syria. But at least the dreadful incident at Ghouta has at last brought the Americans and the Russians into constructive dialogue about the civil war and how to end it.

That’s a start….



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  1. Tom Christensen says

    Its a pleasure to read a well thought out, pragmatic, treatment, especially as it distinguishes the various interest groups based on core values. This perspective has been helpful in guiding healthy changes in other hot spots, including, South Africa, at the time troubled Netherlands, and Iraq. The problem this post leaves me with is, “How to get the major centers of influence, specifically, the US, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudia Arabia, and Syria, to at least try on this more complex and nuanced analysis. Eventually world leaders must become Objective about their own view points and creative about what viewpoints to enact. Until then, its business as usual, and that is exactly what got us here.