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The Syrian Civil War

15 November 2012

The Syrian Civil War

By Gwynne Dyer

Syria now has a new government-in-exile that allegedly unites all the groups seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. But if this is the best that they can do, Assad will still be in power next year, and perhaps for a long time afterwards.

It took a week of haggling in Qatar to bring all the fractious Syrian rebel groups together, and it wouldn’t have happened at all without great pressure from the Gulf Arab countries and the United States. Basically, the Syrian rebels were told that if they wanted more money and arms, they had to create a united front.

So they did, kind of, but the fragility and underlying disunity of the new government-in-exile is implicit in its cumbersome name: the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. It’s really just a loose and probably temporary collaboration between different sectarian and ethnic groups whose ultimate goals are widely divergent.

This new body has already been recognised by the Gulf states as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” in the words of Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim. France, Syria’s former colonial ruler, has done the same, and other Western countries may follow suit (although probably not the United States). But it won’t end the war.

It is a real civil war now; the days of the non-violent Syrian democratic movement that tried to emulate the peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are long past. Moreover, it is a civil war whose ultimate outcome is unclear. It is by no means certain that Assad and the Baathist regime he leads will finally be defeated.

The Syrian government has all the heavy weapons, but it does not have enough troops to establish permanent military control over every rural area in a country of 24 million people. However, it does have the strength to smash any attempts to create a rival authority with the powers of a real government in those rural areas, and it still holds most of the cities: the front line in Aleppo has scarcely moved since last summer.

How has Assad managed to hang on so long when other Arab dictators fell so quickly in the early days of the “Arab spring”? Partly it is the fact that he’s not a one-man regime.

The Baath Party which he leads is an organisation with almost half a century’s experience of power, and plenty of patronage to distribute to its allies. It began almost as an Arab Communist party (without the atheism), and although its economics are now neo-liberal, it retains its Communist-style political discipline. Moreover, the Alawites who populate its higher offices know that they have to hang together, or else they will hang separately.

The other thing Assad has going for him is the highly fragmented character of Syrian society. Seventy percent of the population are Sunni Muslims, but the other 30 percent include Shias, Alawites (a Shia heresy), Druze (an even more divergent sect with Islamic roots) and Christians. All of them are nervous about Sunni Muslim domination in a post-Assad Syria, and the presence of various foreign jihadis on the battlefield only deepens their anxiety.

Moreover, the main suppliers of arms and money to the insurgents are Sunni Muslim countries in the Arabian peninsula, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that are not know for being tolerant of non-Sunni minorities. This has persuaded most non-Sunni Syrians that they are under attack – and thirty percent of Syria’s population, with a big, well-equipped army and air force, can probably fight 70 percent of the population with only light weapons to a standstill.

In fact, the Syrian battlefield, after only a year of serious fighting, is already coming to resemble the Lebanese battlefield after the first year of the civil war there. Large tracts of the countryside are under the military control of the religious or ethnic group that makes up the local majority, while the front lines in the big cities have effectively congealed into semi-permanent boundaries.

In Lebanon, the level of fighting dropped a lot after that first year, apart from the period of the Israeli invasion and occupation in 1982-83, but the country continued to be chopped up into local fiefdoms until the Taif accord in 1989 led to the end of the fighting.

There are obviously differences between the Lebanese and Syrian cases, but they are not big enough to justify any confidence that Syria’s future will be different from Lebanon’s past. Assad will continue to have access to arms and money from Iran and Russia, and there will be no large-scale military intervention from outside to tilt the balance decisively one way or the other.

A split in the Baath Party or a military coup could open the way to national reconciliation if it happened relatively soon, but that is not likely. Apart from that, the only thing that might really change all these calculations and break the stalemate is an Israeli attack on Iran and a general Middle Eastern conflagration. That is not a price anybody wants to pay.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“This new…war”; and “Moreover…standstill”)


The Arab League

14 November 2011

The Arab League: The Infection Spreads

By Gwynne Dyer

For most of its 66-year history, the Arab League was a powerless organisation, dominated by autocratic regimes that made sure it never criticised their lies and crimes. But suddenly, this year, it woke up and changed sides.

Last March the Arab League suspended Libya’s membership because of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal attempts to suppress the revolution, and voted to back a no-fly zone in Libya. That led directly to the UN resolution authorising the use of force to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s army, and ultimately to the tyrant’s overthrow and death.

Last Saturday the Arab League acted again, suspending Syria’s membership. It did so because President Bashar al-Assad has not carried out the commitments he gave the League about ending the violence against Syrian civilians (an estimated 3,500 killed so far), pulling the army off the streets of Syrian cities, releasing the thousands of recently imprisoned protesters, and opening a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks.

On Sunday the Arab League’s secretary-general, Nabil al-Arabi, called for “international protection” for Syrian civilians as the organisation lacked the means to act alone. “There is nothing wrong with going to the UN Security Council because it is the only organisation able to impose” such measures, he added. And he said that during a visit to Tripoli, the newly liberated capital of Libya.

Everybody understood the significance of his saying it there. The Arab League explicitly rejects foreign military intervention in Syria, and NATO would never take on Assad’s regime anyway. But al-Arabi was implicitly saying that what is happening in Syria now is comparable to what was happening in Libya six months ago, and that all measures short of war are justified to stop the slaughter in Syria and remove the dictator’s regime.

Then on Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan finally said aloud what almost every other Arab leader has been thinking: “If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down.”

It’s particularly striking coming from Abdullah because the two men are not just neighbours. They both came to power in 1999-2000, replacing fathers who had ruled over their respective countries for decades, and they were both originally painted as reformers. True, Bashar al-Assad is not technically a king, but he is equally the product of a dynasty – and here is his closest counterpart in the Arab world publicly giving up on him.

King Abdullah added that on his way out, Bashar should also “create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.” Decoded, that means that Syria’s problems cannot be ending just by changing horses. The whole Baathist regime, and the near monopoly of power by the Alawite minority that underpins it, have to go too.

This is astonishing stuff. One year ago, nobody would have believed it possible that eighteen of the twenty-two members of the Arab League would vote, in effect, for the peaceful removal of the oppressive Syrian regime, or that the Jordanian king would dare to be so frank about his neighbour’s problems and options. What has wrought this miracle?

It would be nice to say that the rapid and largely non-violent spread of democracy in the Arab world has brought enlightenment even to the most deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes, but it would not be true. Only three of the 22 Arab League members (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) have actually had democratic revolutions, and their example has not transformed the attitudes of all the other members. What drives this response is mostly fear.

The Arab League said nothing when Bashar al-Assad’s father slaughtered up to 40,000 Syrians while putting down a revolt in the city of Hama in 1982, but his son’s brutality is simply unacceptable today. Arab leaders can no longer ignore the mass killing of Arab citizens. Some of them would like to, but uncensored Arabic-language mass media, broadcasting directly from satellites, have made it impossible. Everybody knows what’s going on.

Moreover, none of the other big countries of the Arab east – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon – are very far from Syria. The longer the struggle there goes on, the likelier it is to topple over into sectarian war and ethnic cleansing. The neighbours are rightly terrified that the sectarian violence might then spill over into their own countries as well, so the sooner Bashar al-Assad leaves office, the better.

And finally, there is the remarkable role being played by Qatar, the mouse that roared. It is one of the smallest Arab states, but its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has been both brave and far-sighted. It was he who gave al-Jazeera television, the first and best of the new satellite-based news operations, a terrestrial home, and even substantial subsidies.

It was Qatar that took the lead in persuading the Arab League to suspend Gaddafi’s regime last March, and then actually sent planes and military advisers to assist the pro-democracy revolt in Libya. And it is Qatar again, in the form of Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassim Al Thani, chair of the League’s committee for dealing with Syrian problems, that pushed the League into suspending Syria last week.

Whether that will actually produce the desired result in Syria remains to be seen. But at least they are trying.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Everybody…regime”; and “It’s…him”)


Al-Jazeera and Arab Democracy

10 January 2003

Al-Jazeera and Arab Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Given that well over two-thirds of the countries on the planet are now democracies, how come none of the 18 Arabic-speaking countries is genuinely democratic? There are a number of sham democracies like Egypt where the elections are always rigged, a couple of half-way democracies like Jordan where the king still has the last word, and one brave experiment in tiny Qatar, but that’s it.

Much of the rage and violence that disfigures the Arab world is connected with this democratic deficit: frustrated and powerless people can be walking time-bombs. And it is a problem specific to the 300 million people of the Arab world, not to the broader world of Islam: more than half of the billion Muslims who are not Arabs, from Turkey to Indonesia, live in functioning democracies. Why have the Arabs been left so far behind?

Part of the reason is the curse of oil, which has led foreigners to meddle non-stop in the Arab world. Certainly the half-century of confrontation with Israel, marked by repeated Arab defeats, also played a role. But rather than trying to answer the question, maybe we should note instead that the situation is probably about to change, because at last there is uncensored news available in Arabic.

Once information starts to flow freely, it’s hard to stop democracy. Consider former East Germany, whose Communist rulers were unable to block West German television broadcasts. Seventy percent of the East German population could pick up uncensored news in their own language with only a twisted coat-hanger for an antenna — and the television told them all the things their rulers didn’t want them to know.

In particular, it showed them the non-violent democratic revolutions in Asian countries in the late 1980s, especially the one where Chinese students tried to overthrow their own Communist regime in the spring of 1989. “We could do that,” the East Germans said to themselves, and six months later they began their own non-violent revolution, starting the avalanche that swept away all the Communist regimes of Europe with hardly a shot fired.

The Arab world has never had that kind of access to uncensored news and free debate — at least, not until five years ago, when al-Jazeera went on the air. It’s only a single television channel, but it broadcasts by satellite 24 hours a day, and can be picked up by anybody with a dish almost anywhere in the Arab world.

Al-Jazeera has 600 journalists operating in all the Arab capitals (except those where they have been expelled), plus London, Paris, New York and Washington, and it has single-handedly transformed the nature of political debate everywhere. It has interviewed Israeli cabinet ministers live. It has broadcast tapes sent to it by Osama bin Laden. It has allowed Saudi Arabian dissidents to criticise the monarchy. It has even given air time to critics of the Qatar government where it is based.

This may seem like no big thing. After all, it’s only one channel, and you have to be rich enough to own a dish to get it. But that is to misunderstand the nature of the media environment. When a major outlet starts to tell the truth, even if only one Arab in ten sees it (al-Jazeera claims a regular audience of 35 million), the word gets around very fast.

Al-Jazeera grew out a failed attempt by the British Broadcasting Corporation to create an Arabic-language TV service. It was a joint venture with a Saudi company that tried to censor a documentary hostile to the Saudi regime, so the BBC pulled out — leaving behind a talented team of Arab TV journalists who had got a whiff of editorial freedom. So they went to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the British-educated ruler of the small Gulf state of Qatar, and pitched the idea of al-Jazeera to him.

They picked the right man. Only recently come to power, he was starting to introduce democracy in his own tiny sheikhdom, and was so attracted by the idea of providing uncensored news to the whole Arab world that he agreed to bankroll the channel to the tune of $150 million over five years. It still isn’t making a profit — partly because a lot of local companies, and some multinational ones too, have been instructed not to advertise on al-Jazeera — but in five years it has transformed the political environment in the Middle East.

That may seem an exaggeration, since there has been no major change yet in any of the regimes that run the region. But as Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch said ten years ago (to his everlasting mortification, for it wrecked a lucrative deal he was making in China), direct broadcasting from satellites is “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” The free flow of information opens people’s minds, and then change can happen.

“I think that if al-Jazeera had been there 15 years ago, there would have been no 11 September,” said marketing director Ali Mohammad Kamal three months ago. If it is still in business 15 years from now, there will be a lot fewer dictatorships and absolute monarchies in the Arab world.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“Much…behind” and”Al-Jazeera…based”)