Sunday, May 19, 2013

Military stalemate and social meltdown in Syria

Here are three takes on the unfolding tragedy in Syria that come at if from somewhat different perspectives but converge on the same basic story.

=> Some reflections by Paul Danahar, the BBC Middle East bureau chief:
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that in a guerrilla war the rebels only had to not lose to win; however, unless a regular army was clearly winning, it was losing. The Syrian crisis has, for the time being, turned that maxim on its head.

When the uprising began, the West and its allies in the Gulf expected it to last weeks or maybe months - but not years.

Now, by hanging on this long, the regime in Damascus increasingly thinks that by not losing it is winning.

That new confidence - along with what is believed to be a steady supply of arms from its supporters in Iran and Russia - is helping the regime to take back some areas which it had previously lost.  [....]

The situation in Syria is complicated. If you are not confused by what is going on there, then you do not understand it.  [....]

Having spent the last few days in Beirut and Damascus, talking to the international community, Western diplomats, FSA activists and Syrian regime supporters, it is clear that nobody knows how to end this crisis.

That's just about the only thing all sides agree on.  [....]

The only thing that is certain in Syria is who is losing: The Syrian people are losing. They are losing their lives, their homes, their wealth. Their children are losing their childhoods.  [....]

The Syrians are also losing Syria, because the longer this goes on the more society is losing what little sense of identity it has.

"The country is moving from a political crisis to a societal crisis," is how one of the few genuinely knowledgeable people trying to manage this crisis explained events here to me.

This societal crisis is manifesting itself in steadily increasing small acts of sectarian violence.

All across the country, every day, there are brutal events, none of which in itself is big enough to warrant the attention of international or local media, but each of which breaks another strand of this country's fragile weave of sects and religions.

Each one is an act of revenge for an offence committed by another member of the victim's religious community.

Women are being raped because they are Sunni or Alawite and their men are assumed to be involved in the fighting.

Christian women are being hauled off buses and attacked by Salafist fighters for not covering their hair.

Murders lead to revenge massacres. [....]

The Syrian war is turning into a sectarian conflict whose influence will spill beyond the country's borders.

There was the chance at the beginning to stop that being the case. That chance has been lost.
Whether or not that chance was there at the beginning is a major question, now difficult to answer confidently in retrospect.  But what's clear is that the longer this bloodbath goes on, the harder it becomes to imagine Syria's different communities trusting each other enough to live together comfortably in the foreseeable future—or ever.

=>  At the same time, it's important not to base our analyses of the present catastrophe in Syria on misleading pictures of Syrian society and politics before the current violence began in 2011.  Those misleading pictures come in various forms, peddled over the years and now recycled by both supporters and critics of the Assad regime.  But one common theme, shared by "anti-imperialist" fans of the Assad dictatorship and many gullible "realists" and "progressives" in more mainstream western circles, involved painting an excessively rosy picture of inter-sectarian co-existence, even cosmopolitan harmony, under the Assad regime.

Richard Spencer, a Middle East correspondent for the Daily Telegraph based in Cairo, asks the question bluntly:  Was Syria ever the secular, non-sectarian state we are led to believe it was? The quick answer would be no. The more extended answer still adds up to no, but in a somewhat complex way.
[....]  Throughout the conflict, I've read journalists and experts write about the Syria of "before" as a "secular" state, where people weren't particularly religious, where women wandered the streets at night alone, and hipsters drank in western bars and nightclubs. All sects and ethnicities mixed happily. There's a kernel of truth there but it's misleading, and it's aggravated by the fact that the worst offenders, whether pro- or anti-regime, or somewhere in the middle, are often those foreigners who know the country best:  after all, they lived and worked, studied Arabic and socialised, largely in smart areas of Aleppo and Damascus where those statements are more likely to be true. Even The Economist, which in the current edition has an excellent and gloomy overview of the mess Syria is in, falls into this trap, talking nostalgically of the time Muslims and Christians lived side by side in peace as church bells and muezzins filled the air over Damascus's Old City. Few of the original protesters were very devout, it says.

What this neglects is that a large part of Syria – largely the parts that have driven the revolution – were not so visible to the outsider. From my experience (even much earlier in the war) of provincial towns and villages, they were often divided by faith, with "shia villages" separate from "Sunni" and "Christian" ones. That doesn't mean they didn't get on, but everyone knew who was who. Likewise, in these places, you certainly don't see young women "hanging out". A general form of segregation is observed in Sunni areas – male journalists put up in local houses kept well apart from the women – and young men pray diligently and regularly.
[JW: And here is a crucial and perceptive point. My bolding:]
Moreover, while few talked openly about the sectarian divide before the revolution, that may have been because it was so important, not because it was unimportant. Nearly half a century of Baath party had totally inverted the historic sectarian order, in which Alawites (the sect of the Assads) were at the bottom of the pile, with the sect's leaders now occupying the key positions of state, and controlling much of its wealth. The effects of the Alawites' change of fortune were felt particularly in places like Homs and Hama, where poor Alawites were given land and encouraged to move, setting up the horrible sectarian clashes that have emerged in these areas.

Moreover, the regime, while claiming to be "secular", played a strange game of footsie with radical Islamists, not only allowing al-Qaeda to operate from and through the country in its highly sectarian attacks in neighbouring Iraq, but also allowing and encouraging some Islamist groups that it thought could be a counterweight to its great historical enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. Of course, that bizarre hypocrisy has now turned round to bite. Jabhat al-Nusra's core is Syrian men who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Among the revolution's most powerful leaders on the ground, Abdulqader Saleh al-Hajji, known as "Hajji Marea", head of the most powerful Brigade in Aleppo, the Tawhid, and vice-head of the revolutionary command council, was before the war a missionary for Dawa, a state-backed Sunni evangelical group, and travelled widely, including to Islamist-full Dagestan. ("Tawhid" itself, which means Unity, in a religious context refers to the "Oneness" of God and, in politics, to the importance of an Islamist, not secular state – division of religion and state clearly being an offence to Oneness.)

There is no doubt that the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are sponsored by salafis in the Gulf and full of foreign fighters, and it serves both pro- and anti-regime forces well to emphasise this, the former to cast the revolution in the most hideous light it can, the latter to say that the revolution's Islamism is imported from Saudi Arabia and other fundamentalist places. It's also true to say, with the latter, that the "Islamism" is growing, and to a considerable extent because of the West's failure to back the rebels with weapons and other military support. But in fact the demand for a more religious society is indigenous to large parts of Syria, as it is to Egypt and other Middle Eastern states that have been in the grip of "secular" (actually, just hypocritical) dictatorships. For provincial types, "secular" has come to mean flashy, worldly, corrupt and finally brutal, and for them Sharia means a more honest and decent society, as much as anything else. This is not a good thing – I wouldn't want to be an ambitious young woman growing up in Syria today, or one of the many perfectly decent, god-fearing middle-aged Muslim men I know who like a quiet tipple of Scotch before bedtime – but they will be victims of the dictators' dishonesty and refusal to reform as much as of Saudi fundamentalists.

This does not of course help the outside world, whether the "West" or Russia or Iran or the UN, decide what it wants to do about the mess. The White House is said to be reconsidering its opposition to arming the "good rebels", though what that means when Hajji Marea, officially a "good" rebel, is in open alliance with the "bad" Jabhat al-Nusra, is hard to say. But it is worth recalling once again that both Washington and Moscow might never have faced this dilemma were it not for years of support for horrible regimes that it mistakenly thought were at least non-sectarian and secular.
Actually, during the roughly three decades that Syria has been ruled by the Ba'athist regime headed by the Assad family, many analysts sympathetic to that regime—and there have been quite a few, ranging from sober scholars to shameless apologists—put this argument the other way around:  the Assad dictatorship may have been brutal and repressive, but only a brutal and despotic regime could keep the lid on such an explosive society.  I never sympathized with those analyses, though they did have a grain of truth, as we can see now that the lid has blown off.  But the two major problems with that perspective were (a) that it was always unrealistic to imagine that this 'solution' of despotic multi-culturalism could be maintained indefinitely under conditions of modern mass politics and ideology and (b) that the Assad regime, like many other despotic regimes, maintained and intensified the very conditions that made its despotic rule 'necessary'.  We can see the results.

=>  And to sum things up, here are some passages from a New York Times article on Thursday whose title captures the gist of the story: "Syria Begins to Break Apart Under Pressure From War".

One intriguing suggestion, put forward by analysts quoted in this article, is that Assad and his regime have largely given up trying to regain control over significant portions of Syria, at least for the moment—but the result is that they actually feel more, not less, secure about their position in the parts of the country they do control.
The black flag of jihad flies over much of northern Syria. In the center of the country, pro-government militias and Hezbollah fighters battle those who threaten their communities. In the northeast, the Kurds have effectively carved out an autonomous zone.

 After more than two years of conflict, Syria is breaking up. A constellation of armed groups battling to advance their own agendas are effectively creating the outlines of separate armed fiefs. As the war expands in scope and brutality, its biggest casualty appears to be the integrity of the Syrian state.
[JW:  What the writer really means is the coherence of Syria as a nation.  It is often misleading to conflate the concepts of  "state" and "nation", too easily yoked together in the term "nation-state", and in situations like this it's especially misleading.]
On Thursday, President Obama met in Washington with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and once again pressed the idea of a top-down diplomatic solution. That approach depends on the rebels and the government agreeing to meet at a peace conference that was announced last week by the United States and Russia.  [....]  But as evidence of massacres and chemical weapons mounts, experts and Syrians themselves say the American focus on change at the top ignores the deep fractures the war has caused in Syrian society. Increasingly, it appears Syria is so badly shattered that no single authority is likely to be able to pull it back together any time soon.

Instead, three Syrias are emerging: one loyal to the government, to Iran and to Hezbollah; one dominated by Kurds with links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey and Iraq; and one with a Sunni majority that is heavily influenced by Islamists and jihadis.

“It is not that Syria is melting down — it has melted down,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”

“So much has changed between the different parties that I can’t imagine it all going back into one piece,” Mr. Tabler said.

Fueling the country’s breakup are the growing brutality of fighters on all sides and the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence. [....]

As the momentum seesaws back and forth between rebels and the government, the geographic divisions are hardening.

After steadily losing territory to rebels during the first two years of the conflict, government forces have progressed on a number of key fronts in recent weeks, routing rebel forces in the southern province of Dara’a, outside Damascus and in the central city of Homs and its surrounding villages.

These victories not only reflect strategic shifts by government forces but also could further solidify the country’s divisions.

Since mass defections of mostly conscripted soldiers shrank the government’s forces earlier in the uprising, it has largely given up on trying to reclaim parts of the country far from the capital, said Joseph Holliday, a fellow with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

Instead, the government has focused on solidifying its grip on a strip of land that extends from the capital, Damascus, in the south, up to Homs in the country’s center and west to the coastal area heavily populated by Mr. Assad’s sect, the Alawites.

Other than hitting them with airstrikes or artillery, Mr. Assad has made little effort to reclaim rebel-held areas in the country’s far north and east.

The character of those fighting for Mr. Assad has changed, too. As the uncommitted defected, the loyalists remained. “All of these defections and desertions basically created a more loyal and therefore more deployable core,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who is based in Dubai. “At least you know who is fighting for you."

Mr. Assad has also come to rely more heavily on paramilitary militias that draw largely from his Alawite sect and other minorities who consider him a bulwark against the rebels’ Islamism. More recently, fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah have added extra muscle, especially in the border region near the town of Qusair, an area dotted with Shiite and Sunni villages that has seen intense fighting in recent months.  [....]

Although the Obama administration and its allies share the rebels’ goal of removing Mr. Assad from power, they have little else in common with the many rebel brigades that define their struggle in Islamic terms and seek to replace Mr. Assad with an Islamic state. Among them is Jabhet al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, the local branch of Al Qaeda, which the United States has blacklisted as a terrorist group.

The war’s duration and the competition for resources have left the rebel movement itself deeply fractured. Few effective links exist between the rebels’ exile leader, Gen. Salim Idris, and the most powerful groups on the ground.

And recent months have seen increasing fights among rebels, diminishing their ability to form a united front against the government. [....]

In Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh Province, the country’s largest Kurdish majority area, residents have taken in Kurds fleeing violence elsewhere, expanded the teaching of the Kurdish language in schools and raised militias that have clashed with rebel brigades. Many local Kurds are linked to groups in Turkey and Iraq and hope to use the uprising to push for greater autonomy.

These spreading fissures leave little optimism that Syria can be stitched back together under one leadership in the near future.  [....]
That assessment doesn't seem implausible, though it's still to early to say for sure.  And if the dynamics of ethno-sectarian polarization and fragmentation in Syria really have passed the point of no return, that still doesn't tell us what the form the practical consequences will take.  They could range from merely terrible to horrifyingly catastrophic, with various possibilities in between.  We'll see.

Meanwhile, I want to emphasize that none of these complexities and forebodings necessarily add up to a case for just wringing our hands and doing nothing.  There are good reasons to be cautious and careful, but it's also important to bear in mind that the longer this goes on, the worse the outcomes are likely to be—for Syrians, for the region, and probably for the rest of us.

—Jeff Weintraub