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Sunni Muslim

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A Tale of Two Cities

Two great sieges are getting underway in the Middle East, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in Aleppo in Syria. They have a great deal in common, including the fact that the attackers both depend heavily on foreign air power, but they are treated by most international media as though they were completely different events. How similar they are will become clearer with the passage of time.

Sieges of cities, once a major part of warfare, grew rare in the course of the 20th century, mainly because of the rise of air power. You didn’t need to besiege cities any more, because you could just smash them to smithereens from the air: Guernica, Dresden, Hiroshima. But that’s not so easy in the era of instant global media coverage.

Seventy years without a really major war have allowed us to develop a major dislike for killing civilians from the air. Nobody on either side would have been the least bit reluctant to blast Aleppo or Mosul into oblivion in 1945 if it served their strategic purposes, but moral tastes have changed.

They haven’t changed that much, of course, or we would be seeing a horrified rejection of the entire concept of nuclear deterrence, which is based on the threat to extinguish millions or tens of millions of innocent civilian lives if the other side behaves too badly. But when the destruction from the air is piecemeal, with relatively small numbers of identifiable victims, we can get quite upset about it.

Every civilian death from bombing in Iraq and Syria – but not the thousands of other civilian casualties each month — is therefore publicly catalogued and condemned.

The Russians are taking enormous criticism over their bombing of the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo (although the indiscriminate “barrel bombs” are the work of the Syrian air force, not the Russians).

The US air force has been much more careful about its bombing around Mosul so far, but it too will end up having to choose between bombing the city heavily and seeing the Iraqi government’s attack fail.

Both Mosul and eastern Aleppo are Sunni Muslim cities facing an attempted reconquest by Shia-dominated national governments. In both cases the rebel fighters who control the besieged areas are jihadi extremists: Islamic State in Mosul, and the Nusra Front in eastern Aleppo. (In Aleppo, the jihadis number perhaps a thousand out of ten thousand fighters, but they dominate both the fighting and the decision-making.)

In both cases, too, the troops on the government side are divided by ethnic and sectarian differences, and largely unreliable. Which is why, in the end, government victory in both countries depends on foreign air power.

In Aleppo, the troops leading the attack on the ground are mostly Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan and paid for by Iran. Actual Syrian army troops have been decimated and exhausted by five years of war, and those who remain are being carefully husbanded. So they wait for the Russians to bomb the defenders to pieces, and just use the troops to mop up afterwards.

In the case of Mosul, the attacking forces are even more varied. The Iraqi government’s regular troops are mostly Shia, and the pro-government militias are entirely Shia and notorious for treating Sunnis badly. Since almost everybody left in Mosul is Sunni, they are terrified of the government’s troops.

The Iraqi govenment has therefore promised that Shia militias will not enter the city, nor will the Kurdish troops that are assisting in the early part of the offensive. What this means, however, is that very few soldiers will actually be fighting once the attack reaches the edge of the city proper.

There will be perhaps 25,000 Iraqi regular army troops in the final assault, of whom maybe half can be relied on to fight. There will be around 5,000 American troops in the area, but they are not allowed to engage in direct combat. And there are about 1,500 Turkish army troops who have been training a Sunni militia north of Mosul (but the government in Baghdad has ordered them to leave).

Islamic State’s five or six thousand fighters have had years to prepare their defences, and street fighting uses up attacking troops very fast. Even “precision” airstrikes in urban areas always mean lots of dead civilians, but central Mosul will not fall unless the United States uses its air force to dig the defenders out.

Even the current advance across relatively open country south and east of Mosul relies on the massive use of air power to keep the attackers’ casualties down. When the troops reach the city limits, the whole operation will stall unless the US government starts serious bombing in the built-up area.

If it does that, then the civilian casualties will be quite similar to those inflicted by the Russian air force in eastern Aleppo. But the Western media will doubtless still find ways to see a huge difference between the two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 15 . (“They…it”; and “Even…area”)

Syria

29 April 2013

Syria: Chemical Fantasies and Grim Realities

By Gwynne Dyer

First of all, dismiss all those news stories saying that the Assad regime has started using chemical weapons against its own citizens, and that this has crossed a “red line” and will trigger foreign military intervention in Syria. It is conceivable, though highly unlikely, that Assad’s troops have used poison gas against the rebels. It is not credible that any foreign leader is going to order his troops to go into Syria and stop the war.

The “evidence” for the Assad regime’s use of sarin (nerve gas) is flimsy, and it’s easy to see why the opposition fighters might choose to fabricate it. Equally flimsy evidence about alleged “weapons of mass destruction” was used to justify the American invasion of Iraq. Why wouldn’t the Syrian rebels have a go at the same game?

Moreover, there is no plausible reason why the Syrian regime would use poison gas. It would confer no lasting military advantage on the government forces, and the political costs of being caught doing it would be significant. But even if the accusations were true, it would make no real difference.

President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian and Chinese supporters would be embarrassed, but they would not drop their vetoes at the UN Security Council and authorise foreign military intervention in Syria. And even if they did authorise it, there would be no volunteers for the job.

No Western government – nor any Arab government, either – is willing to put soldiers on the ground in Syria. Meddling in a civil war is rarely a good idea, and the Baathist regime’s army could inflict very serious losses on an invader. Even imposing a no-fly zone would mean Western pilots dead or downed, because Syria’s air defences are modern, competent and extensive.

US President Barack Obama may talk sternly about how the use of poison gas by the Syrian regime would be a “game-changer” – but he doesn’t specify just how the game would change. He also spends much more time talking about how shaky the evidence is, because he has no idea what he would actually do if it were true. The one thing we can be sure of is that he would never send American troops in.

So if there is not going to be any foreign military intervention, when is the Syrian civil war going to end? Not any time soon.

From time to time the rebels overrun an air base here or a frontier post there. This is usually reported as proof that they are making progress, but half the time they lose their conquests back to the regime some weeks or months later. The front lines have scarcely shifted at all in Aleppo in the past six months, and the regime is even recapturing some of the Damascus suburbs that fell to the rebels last year.

The Syrian army lacks the numbers to hold down large tracts of countryside permanently, but it has never let the rebels close the main north-south freeway that links Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Assad’s divisions even re-opened the highway linking Damascus to Tartus and Latakia on the coast recently, after many months of closure. If they are not actually winning the war on the ground, they are certainly not losing it.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to feed weapons to the rebels, but not in quantities that would give them a chance of winning. This is probably because they have become increasingly nervous about the kind of regime that would replace Assad’s dictatorship after a military victory. They wanted to replace Assad’s secular regime with a government controlled by Sunni Muslims, but they do not want to put a fanatical Islamist regime in power.

That, at the moment, is precisely what an insurgent victory would produce, for the jihadi extremists of the al-Nusra brigades are by far the most effective fighters on the rebel side. The prospect of a radical Islamist regime has also convinced many moderate Syrians that they must prevent the fall of the Assad regime, even though they loathe it.

A year ago, the battle for Syria seemed to be turning into a straightforward struggle between the Sunni Muslim majority, some 70 percent of the population, and the various minorities, Shia, Christian, Alawite and Druze, who backed the Assad regime because they feared Sunni domination. It’s probably more like 50-50 now, because many Sunni Muslims are equally repelled by the alternative of a radical Islamist tyranny.

There are no opinion polls to confirm this shift in Sunni opinion, but the evidence is there in the loyalty and the combat effectiveness of the Syrian army, most of whose rank-and-file troops are Sunni Muslims. So what should we hope for, in this almost hopeless situation?

The least bad outcome, at this stage, would be a stealthy military take-over of the regime that discreetly removed Assad and his cronies without abandoning the principles of the secular state, and then isolated the jihadis by reaching a generous peace settlement with the other elements of the rebel forces. How likely is that? Not very, unfortunately.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Bashar…job”; and “US President…in”)

 

 

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.

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

 

Syria Next

20 July 2012

Can Syria Avoid Ethnic Cleansing?

By Gwynne Dyer

In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four, said Napoleon, and the past few days have seen a sudden and drastic shift in the balance of moral power in Syria. The bomb that killed the three most senior members of the security establishment last Wednesday may just have been a lucky fluke for the rebels, and the street fighting in Damascus may end with a (temporary) regime victory. But everything has changed in terms of expectations.

Until last week, the regime seemed secure in the short term, although potentially doomed in the long term. President Bashar al-Assad’s army was well-armed and apparently loyal, and he still had the support of much of the population. The opposition was poorly armed and only loosely organised – and as Napoleon also remarked, God is on the side with the best artillery. (If you want to be thought wise, contradict yourself frequently.)

Perhaps “morale” is a better word than “moral”. The reason the regime seemed secure until last week was not its weapons, but the confidence of its supporters that their side was still able to win. That confidence has now been profoundly shaken. The fighting has reached the heart of the big cities, and the rebels have struck even at the core of the regime, the national security building, to kill key members of Assad’s innermost circle.

So it is suddenly occurring to a lot of people who formerly saw the regime as the protector of their privileges that these guys could actually lose. If they are going to lose, you do not want to be in the last ditch with them. Maybe it’s time to change sides.

About ten minutes later, it will also occur to the same people that many others are undoubtedly having the same thoughts – and that means the collapse could come quite quickly. This kind of thinking operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so the regime’s final slide into defeat could be coming within days or weeks.

That is by no means guaranteed, of course. In material terms the regime is still vastly superior, and morale is a volatile thing. If the uprisings in parts of Damascus and Aleppo are crushed quickly and decisively, the morale of the regime’s supporters could recover, and the civil war might continue for months or years more. But Syrians must now reckon with the possibility of an early collapse of the Baath Party’s 49-year-old monopoly of power.

So the question is: what would happen then? The great fear is that it could go the same way as Iraq and Lebanon, two neighbouring countries that share about the same mix of ethnic and religious groups (in differing proportions) as Syria itself.

Lebanon tore itself apart in a civil war among those groups in 1975-90, and a quarter-million Lebanese died. Iraq tore itself apart in 2005-2009, and at least half a million Iraqis died. Two million people fled the country permanently, including almost all of Iraq’s Christian minority, and the Sunni Muslims have almost all been driven out of mixed and Shia-majority areas.

Any thinking Syrian, aware of these dreadful precedents, will be frightened by regime change no matter how much he or she loathes the existing regime. Indeed, the Assad regime’s principal means of garnering support has been to insist that only its tyrannical rule can “protect” the Shia, Druze, Alawite and Christian minorities from the 70 percent Sunni Muslim majority.

It could easily go wrong. The original pro-democracy movement was non-violent and emphatically non-sectarian. It was mostly Sunni Muslim, but it deliberately sought to attract the support of the various minorities as well. All the leaders understood that only a non-sectarian revolution could produce a democratic Syria.

Unfortunately, the Assad regime drowned that non-violent movement in blood, and instead Syria wound up with a violent revolt that has grown into a veritable civil war. What the rebels must do now is to end it without a massacre of the minorities. The price of failure is that the civil war won’t end at all.

The most exposed minority is the Alawites, because they have been the mainstay of the regime. The Assad family is Alawite, as are most senior figures in the military, intelligence and Baath Party elites. Their dominance has been based on close clan ties, not on their religion (they are a “heretical” Shia sect), and most Alawites have not benefited much from the regime, but they could easily be held responsible for its crimes – and massacred.

If they think they face that sort of future, they will withdraw to their mountainous stronghold along the Syrian coast (and effectively cut Syria off from the sea). Other minorities will also take fright and arm themselves, and the country will be trapped in a long, cruel war of massacre and ethnic cleansing.

So if the Baath regime goes down soon, the rest of the world should be ready to go in fast with economic help for the post-revolutionary regime, and with multitudes of observers to document what is actually happening to the minorities and dispel false rumours. The rest of the world can do nothing to help now, but it will be sorely needed then.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“Until…frequently”; and “That is…power”)