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What Kind of Endgame? What Kind of Syria?

Of course, you can find a steady drip of news from Syria if you look for it; but there haven’t been that many front page headlines about the Syrian conflict since the US stepped back from the brink of a missile attack in the Summer. Under tentative Russian protection, the Syrian Government appears to have co-operated fully with the United Nations weapons inspectors who are reported to be making good progress (BBC News, 2013b) While no one should underestimate how dangerous the inspectors’ task is – and they haven’t yet been able to access some sites which are in highly-contested areas – their success has been without the kind of nightmare casualties I envisaged in Putin a 2nd Tier Thinker. (The BBC’s Jonathan Marcus (2013b) was just one expert who foresaw similar scenarios.)

So far the weapons inspectors have done remarkably well, the Syrian Government is credited with meeting its obligations to the UN Security Council and Vladimir Putin with getting them to do that…and the world has breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Given the commercial media’s RED/ORANGE rapacious appetite for new and exciting events to draw in the audience, it’s not too surprising the media’s attention has largely gone elsewhere. (After all, anything else in Syria was going to seem a bit of an anti-climax after a talked-up near-potential World War III possibility…!)

In the meantime, however, Syria’s very dirty, brutal and murderous civil war has lumbered on, with most of the fighting going the Government’s way. While the world has mostly looked in the other direction, indiscriminate shelling of civilians, targeted sniping of children, torture and summary executions have all increased. The refugees now crowding the camps in Jordan and Turkey haven’t enough food or medical assistance and are increasingly threatened by disease. The armed opposition is more and more dominated by Islamists who are shunned by the West as they implement merciless interpretations of Sharia law in the few areas they control.

However, there were a couple of articles in the New York Times a few days back (28 November) under a global ‘Crisis in Syria’ byline that brought its readers up to date on the situation – and just how badly things are going for the rebels.

The state of the Syrian opposition
Ben Hubbard’s article looks at the successes of the Syrian Government forces, particularly in retaking territory in the north of the country which had been held by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups, the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front. Hubbard also highlights the critical role Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have been playing in these victories. In fact, it can be argued that the tide really began to turn Bashir al-Assad’s way when Hezbollah intervened decisively in the Syrian Army’s successful attempt to retake Qusayr in April this year.

Hubbard also discusses the factionalism and lack of central control among the rebel groups, including describing a video in which several men from a non-Islamist rebel group were executed in public by ISIS gunmen on the grounds they had been accused of corruption. While a number of the non-Islamist rebel commanders have been accused of turning a blind eye to their fighters’ thievery or even of being corrupt themselves, the non-Islamists often accuse the Islamists of putting more effort into tightly controlling the populations within their captured territory than in fighting the Army.

The disunity and (often violent) in-fighting amongst the rebel groups only further weakens them militarily as well as convincing Western politicians they did the right thing in not sending ‘game-changing’ weapons to the rebels.

Anne Bernard, Mohammad Ghannam & Hwaida Saad’s article takes a closer look at the rebels and the perception of them amongst Syrian civilian sympathisers. If their interviewees are indeed representative of the people the reporters claim they are typical of, then, if the heart has not quite gone out of the revolution just yet, its beat is certainly fading fast.

The reporters found that fewer people were involved in protests. Fewer people were involved in getting food and medicines through to besieged rebel areas. Many of those who had taken to the streets or been involved in clandestine smuggling in the past were now outrightly refusing to be involved.

‘Khaled’, a 33-year-old from Damascus who had worked for the exiled opposition leaders in Turkey, is quoted as saying he wished the uprising “had never happened.” ‘Ammar’, a 21-year-old who had been with the rebels right through the fighting in Qusayr and fled to Beirut, told the reporters: “I reached a stage where I hated the revolution. I don’t want to be an activist any more. I want to be a football player. I want to eat a lot of chocolate.”

Effectively the picture Bernard, Ghannam & Saad paint is one of a people worn down by the relentless fighting without end and all the lost loved ones and all the privations they have suffered. As the rebels have lost ground, the people have lost heart.

An unnamed 28-year-old female graduate perhaps sums it up most aptly: “Now people are trying to survive more than they are fighting for their rights.”

What we hear in those words is an abdication of BLUE/GREEN ideology. The words of the RED/BLUE zealots who led the crowds no longer carry weight with them. Now it is about BEIGE survival. These people, it seems, have come right down the Spiral in their selfplexes; they are at the lowest Maslowian level of survival.

It is, of course, impossible to know just how representative the people Bernard, Ghannam & Saad interviewed are. But, after 3 years of bloodshed, with the side you backed obviously losing, it would be surprising if war weariness wasn’t setting in.

A year or so back, it seemed more than possible that the rebels were doing well enough militarily that they would eventually unseat Assad as the price of a negotiated settlement. Assad now seems to know that he can win if he carries on doing what he’s been doing. He’s offered an amnesty to rebels who lay down their arms. Soldiers who defected to the opposition may even be invited back into their units. To not appear foolish, Assad must be confident that some rebels at least will take up the offer. The more rebels who lay down their arms, the faster what’s left of the non-Islamist parts of the opposition will collapse.

Closing down a civil war
Short of some unforeseen disaster or a large-impact intervention by an outside agency or power, Assad will win eventually. It could possibly take couple of years or even longer. Certainly the Islamist groups are unlikely to give up easily, even if many of the non-Islamist rebels are ready to do that. The strong BLUE element in the Islamists’ mindsets will lead them to sacrifice themselves for the cause. And while ever there is an Islamist cause in Syria, the country will continue to attract militants from around the world to fight for that cause.

Assad needs to exterminate the radical Islamists – for the same reasons I outlined in Killing the Terrorists – but, if he designs his strategy correctly, his forces can be seen as liberators…since anecdotal evidence, reported by the likes of the BBC’s Paul Wood and CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Raja Razek & Gul Tuysuz, would seem to indicate many people living in areas controlled by the Islamists are deeply unhappy with the summary executions and brutal punishments meted out to ‘sinners’. Activist Lyas Kadouni told Wood: “We did not hope for what we have come to today. It is not necessary to throw religion into every corner of your life. This is killing our revolution.”

In eliminating the Islamists, the Government would require far more selective and less indiscriminatory methods than those used by the Army in much of the civil war to date. Large scale slaughter of civilians would revive resentment against the regime when many local populations are probably ready to welcome government soldiers if it means they get rid of the Islamists.

Alongside waging unrelenting war against the Islamists, Assad also needs to win the trust of the more moderate rebels who recognise they cannot win and might be persuaded to lay down their arms if they could be convinced the Government’s offer of an amnesty is genuine.

Bernard, Ghannam & Saad encapsulate the mistrust when they quote Abu Firas, a fighter from Homs who is now ready to lay down his weapon: “OK, I will be on Addounia TV as a hero for the pro-regime people while my people spit on the TV, calling me traitor and coward. And the day after I will find myself in Saidnaya prison spending thirty-one years in the rule of a military court or court of terrorism.”

This is perhaps where the UN can step in, setting up ‘safe camps’ to supervise the surrender and processing of those rebels ready to give up. This would, of course, mean Assad allowing a foreign agency to have jurisdiction on Syrian soil. Would his RED allow him to cede that concession…even temporarily? Logic says it’s a way of moving numbers of moderate rebels out of the war, to allow the regime to concentrate on isolating and destroying the Islamists. Unfortunately, RED may well interpret ceding authority to a foreign agency as shameful and, therefore, be unwilling to allow it. In the very first days of the Syrian crisis, Assad seemed genuinely interested in some kind of reform – thus possibly demonstrating a vMEMETIC capacity beyond RED. It is to be hoped he can still access higher vMEMES if some kind of workable long-term solution is to be developed.

What kind of Syria?
Facilitating a ‘safe’ disarming of moderate rebels and eliminating the Islamists, if these things can be done, should hasten the end of the war.

However, to ensure the war ends as well as this kind of war can end, there needs to be a vision of the kind of Syria that can emerge from 3 years which have left over 120,000 dead, millions displaced, much of the physical infrastructure in ruins, the economy in ruins and the social fabric of the country torn apart along both sectarian and geographical lines.

Short of an internal coup, Assad’s not going anywhere…and it seems like the core of the Ba’ath Party has remained intact. Assad, his immediate advisers and the generals would probably rather drag the war out to its inevitable conclusion over several years than step down.

This is the grim reality the Americans, the Europeans, the Arab League and the ‘rag, tag and bobtail’ of the non-Islamist Syrian opposition have to accept at the Geneva II peace conference – on the assumption Geneva II actually can be made to happen in January (6 months later than the Americans and the Russians had supposedly intended).

However, neither can Assad and the Ba’athists assume things can go back to how they were. The rebellion of the past 3 years has been a step difference from the Islamist uprisings of the early 1980s which culminated in the Hama massacre of 1982. This has developed into a full-scale civil war between the Government forces and (eventually) well-armed rebels, drawing in diplomatically (and almost militarily!) the superpowers, in the context of wider ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings against autocratic regimes throughout the Middle East. And there is a real possibility Assad’s Government would not have survived without Iranian and Russian arms and intelligence and Hezbollah fighters on the ground.

So, hopefully, as the military operations slowly but surely recover lost territory and as people under the control of the Islamists grew more and more restive at the brutality of their rule, Assad will turn his thoughts to what kind of Syria can emerge from the ruins of civil war.

If he and his advisers try to reinstall the old oppressive regime across Syria, not only will they ensure the war is fought to the bitter, destructive end, with further ruination of the economy and exacerbation of sectarian hatreds but they will lay the foundations for the next revolt. Whatever oppressive means the Government uses to restore order, the PURPLE vMEME will ensure stories of the martyrs and their great heroic actions that almost overthrew the regime are repeated and repeated over the years until a new generation is ready to have a go at Assad’s son or grandson.

One possible way of bringing some degree of reconciliation is to operate at the level of the BLUE vMEME and create a superordinate nationalist identity into which all the lesser sectarian identities at the PURPLE level can invest.

Interestingly this past week some attention has been given (via the BBC’s Lina Sinjab) to the relatively-unknown ‘We Are All Syrians’ opposition movement , a small group composed mainly of representatives from Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities. Sinjab quotes Tawfiq Dunia, a Syrian exile from Assad’s Alawite sect: “I don’t want to be represented as an Alawite. I am Syrian and people killed on both sides of the conflict are all Syrians too. We are…part of Syria’s mosaic – as nationalists who want to find a national solution.”

There is, in Dunia’s words, the beginnings of a potential framework around which both a national identity and a national mourning could possibly be built while understanding the sectarian divisions will always be there and will always need to be managed.

Politically Assad has to give something. There has to be a move towards some form of more representative government. It won’t be Western-style Democracy but there has to be some kind of concession to assuage the rebels and their sympathisers for their suffering. If ORANGE can dominate in Assad’s selfplex, he’ll find a way of greater sharing of power which will still leave him with the greater say but systems which will bring the more astute of the rebel leaders into his circle of advisers. Systems of fast-tracking leaders from all sections of Syrian society with political and/or economic leadership capabilities into government service can only be good for a country needing to rebuild itself virtually from the ground up.

Bringing differing voices into the Government hopefully can lead Assad and his advisers to avoid the groupthink which led to attempted suppression of the first protests in 2011 – and consequently the drift into civil war – rather than dialogue to find out just what government concessions would get the majority of the protesters off the streeets.

Averting a region-wide conflict
It’s in the interests of the superpowers to facilitate such moves – and Russia seems particularly to have the influence to force Assad into directions he might not initially to be too keen to go in.

The sides in the Syrian conflict all too easily split along sectarian lines and that has brought Hezbollah Shia fighters into direct confrontation with al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni fighters. As commentators such as Alexander Marquandt have pointed out, these confrontations are potentially a precursor to a wider Shia-Sunni war. The Syrian divisions are being replicated in Lebanon – though, thankfully, so far on a small-scale – while Shia-Sunni sectarian violence is at its greatest in Iraq since the days before the American ‘surge’.

With Shia fulcrum Iran determined to develop nuclear weapons capability, even if it has agreed to slow things down a bit in the 24 November deal with the US, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain, and Sunni fulcrum Saudi Arabia reputed (according to commentators such as the BBC’s Mark Urban, 2013) to have reached a deal to access Pakistani nuclear weapons at short notice, the potential for a major regional conflagration is growing rather than receding.

If that conflagration were to erupt, the outcomes, for the world in general as well as the Middle East, are simply incalculable. The diaspora of Muslims around the world would make it impossible to contain such a conflict to any one region while, even if it didn’t go nuclear, the damage to both the global economy and the world environment would be huge.

So the secular superpowers need to make sure such a Shia-Sunni conflict does not take place on a large scale. Since Syria is the current most dangerous flashpoint, that is the place to start. A non-democratic Syria, but with more representative government and programmes to build a partial reconciliation through nationalism could provide the ‘laboratory’ for developing new ways of managing sectarian and religious division.



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4 Responses

  1. Keith E Rice says

    Thanks for this, Said.

    Syria is going to need HUGE outside investment for its rebuilding. Iran is too weak economically. The Saudis’ RED would probably see a severely-weakened Syria as good for the region and a slow rebuilding that undermines attempts to develop unity (through poverty, lack of services and infrastructure, etc) as more opportunity to meddle. There could possibly be an opportunity for Israel. It certainly has the means to invest and, prior to the Arab Spring, they were tentatively exploring possibilities for a deal on the Golan Heights. But that would need to be part of a broader rapprochement with the Arab world – and, sad to say, Netanyahu’s thinking seems too limited/too 1st Tier for that.

    Of the countries outside the Middle East, Russia (obviously) and China are the obvious investors Assad might deal with. Interesting, though, that the Syrian government is allowing an American warship to take on board chemical weapons for destruction. Assad probably has no choice in that…but it could be there is opportunity for drawing Assad a little away from Tehran via the rebuilding of Syria. After all, the Ba’athists are avowedly secular in their approach to the state and concepts of government…

  2. Said Dawlabani says

    Keith, the Shia Crescent is a reference to the shape of the geographic location of the Shia population in the Middle East. From Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that has lately become driven by the Iranian doctrine. It is in the beliefs of the Shia sect that the thirteenth Imam will appear to save the believers and rid the world of evil (sounds familiar?) The Iranian brand Islamic Revolution when it was speading in the Middle East in the early 1980’s gave a sense of BLUE purpose to young Lebanese Shia men when the political system was stacked against them.

    Many fundamental Shia believe that the 13th Imam was the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the call has been cast to set out on this apocalyptic journey. The rise of Shia power in Iraq is seen as a part of this. Assad who’s an Alawite, (a Shia sect named after Imam Ali, the founder of the Shia branch and the grandson of Mohammed), if he’s allowed to stay in power, will be considered a part of this awakening as well. Of course Hizbullah, who are ready to throw all of Lebanon under the bus in order to make Iran’s dream for supremacy through religion come true, are the last point on the crescent.

    Much of the Shia doctrine perpetuates the practices of victim-hood, of how the sons of Ali, Hassan and Hussien were killed, and how the Shia are always the underdogs in a world dominated by Sunni Islam. But, more to the point of this discussion, Red Sunni rule has dominated the Middle East repressing the rise of Red Shia. As Shia gain access to power and money they will look to avenge their historic oppressors setting the stage for what could be a long a bloody regional, and probably global conflict. Saudi Arabia’s worries about Iran’s Nuclear ambitions are not without merit. They know their enemy well. If Assad stays the Shia threat for the region increases considerably. The West should focus on how pry him out of Iran’s hands and bring him to the Arab fold if he stays.

  3. Keith E Rice says

    VERY interesting, Said. You, of course, have on-the-ground experience which I don’t. So I’m really interested in what you’ve got to say about the ‘Shia Crescent’.

    Putin, I’m not so sure of. He’s outwitted Obama, Kerry, the Europeans at every stage of the Syrian crisis. Had opprobrium heaped upon him from virtually every quarter for the stonewalling at the UN and then rides over the hill like the 7th Cavalry at the last minute to rescue Obama from carrying out the missile strike he didn’t want to make! Depending on your perspective, his intentions may or may not be malignant…but it’s more than just clever. It’s highly-developed sense of reading others which I, personally, am prepared to consider could be 2nd Tier.

    Agree with you totally about needing to get the Arabs up the Spiral and the time that might take.


  4. Said Dawlabani says

    Keith, you hit on so many critical points that are shaping the dynamics of Syria, it will take many hours to respond to each and every point. What it boils down to at the end, in my opinion, is do we support and keep the devil we know or do we take a chance in thinking that the Syrian rebellion is going to be any different than rebellions everywhere else in the Middle East.

    In a PURPLE-RED culture, (which the entire region is in), if you depose the dictator, there will be a deluge as smaller RED bosses try to seize power. If you keep the dictator there will be oppression and corruption. Those are the only two viable choices given where the region is in its stages of emergence. We should stop thinking there will be a utopian solution any time soon for anything that’s happening in the Middle East. There is no magic pill for emergence. It will take a few decades to sort out the current mess and many more decades for the region to arrive at a globally acceptable form of BLUE. Radical Islam has to be addressed from within the culture, and this can’t be accomplished overnight with the infrastructure of hate and ignorance that has been part of the “Dictator’s Manifesto” for the last 3/4 of a century.

    When it comes to Russian intervention, Putin is RED, pure and simple. A very clever Red at that who is basking in the spotlight with his ambitions to return the region into the fold of Cold War Russia and to sell arms in order to make the Russians relevant again. Should Assad stay, the Russians will modernize his army, empower Hizbullah to take over Lebanon, and laugh in the faces of the West while he helps Iran become stronger economically and militarily. This strategy will help the Shia Crescent establish a stranglehold on the region by establishing a region-wide “Wilayat al-Faqueeh”, the Shia version of an Islamic “Khalifah”.

    Instead of wondering which devil to back and expect immediate results, the West should be focusing on how to move the entire culture in the long term from a closed system PURPLE-RED to an open system (globally accepted) BLUE-ORANGE.

    Easier said than done.