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Sunni Muslims

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The Vanishing Civilians of Aleppo

Did it cross your mind occasionally, in the past week, to wonder where all of the “250,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo” have gone? As the area of the city under rebel control dwindled – by Wednesday morning the Syrian regime’s troops had recaptured three-quarters of it – did you see massive columns of fleeing civilians, or mounds of civilian dead?

If several hundred thousand people were on the move, you would expect to be seeing video images of it. If they were fleeing into the enclave the rebels still hold (to escape the evil Syrian army), you would expect the rebels to give us dramatic images of that. They certainly gave us footage of every civilian killed by Russian bombing in eastern Aleppo over the past three months.

And if hundreds of thousands or even just tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing for safety into government-held territory, you would expect the regime’s propagandists to be making equally striking images available. “Look!” they would say. “The civilians really loved President Bashar al-Assad all along.”

Or maybe the civilians are all dead. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned just a week ago that if Assad’s forces went on advancing, then “the besieged parts of eastern Aleppo” would become “one giant graveyard.” So where are those quarter-million bodies? Or even a few thousand bodies? That’s kind of hard to hide.

Here’s a radical thought: Have most of those quarter-million people suddenly become invisible because they were never really there in the first place?

There were certainly a significant number of civilians trapped with the rebels: you saw them crying and shaking their fists every time the Russians bombed another hospital. But even then, did you sometimes think how strange it was that the Russian air force never seemed to bomb anything but hospitals? Where’s the strategic sense in that?

Well, here’s a clue. There were no foreign journalists in eastern Aleppo. They were quite reasonably afraid of being kidnapped by one of the many rebel groups in the city and held for ransom – or accused of being spies and ritually slaughtered by one of the more extreme Islamist outfits.

All the reporting out of eastern Aleppo for the past three months has been what the rebel groups wanted us to see, and nothing else. And to them, the presence of large numbers of “defenseless civilians”, the more the better, was their best protection against a full-scale onslaught by the regime.

So of course they gave us video of every civilian killed by a bomb, and greatly exaggerated the number of civilians in their part of the city, and almost never showed their own fighters.

There’s no crime in this. It’s the way propaganda works, and nobody fighting a war can afford to be too respectful of the truth. The real question is this: why did the international media fall for it?

For months, what was obviously rebel propaganda has been shown by the world’s media as if it were the impartial truth. Was it just laziness, or was it subservience to a political agenda set by the West and its main allies in the Middle East? A bit of both, probably.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were all determined to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even if it did take six years of civil war. And even though they didn’t agree on what they wanted to replace it with.

Washington pursued the dream of a democratic, secular Syria. Riyadh and Ankara wanted a decisive victory by the Sunni Arab majority (about 60-65 percent of the population) and an authoritarian Islamic state. But they all agreed on the need to overthrow Assad, and left the rest for later.

Syrians from the start were much more ambivalent. Few loved the Assad regime, which was repressive and brutal. But many Syrians – including many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities – saw the regime as their only protection against the triumph of an even nastier Islamist dictatorship.

There was never a mass uprising in Aleppo against the regime. Various rebel groups from the overwhelmingly Sunni rural areas around Aleppo stormed into the city in 2012 and won control over the eastern half, but it was never clear that the local residents were glad to see them.

On the other hand, it was not a good idea to look too unhappy about it, so over the next four years a great many people left the rebel-held part of the city, whose population gradually dwindled to – well, we don’t know exactly how many remained by this year, but it was certainly not a quarter-million or anywhere near it.

And it would appear that when the Syrian army retook most of eastern Aleppo in the past week, most of those people just stayed in their homes and waited to be “liberated”. Some of them will be terrified of being arrested and tortured, especially if they collaborated with the rebels even under duress. And others will simply be relieved that it’s over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“There…outfits”;and “There’s…it”))

The Strategy of the Paris Attacks

After Ahmed Merabet, a French policeman, was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week, his brother Malek said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. Islam is a religion of peace and love.”

It was moving, but to say that all Muslims who commit cruel and violent acts in God’s name are “false Muslims” is like saying that the Crusaders who devastated the Middle East nine hundred years ago were “false Christians”.

The Crusaders were real Christians. They believed that they were doing God’s will in trying to reconquer the formerly Christian lands that had been lost to Islam centuries before, and they had the support of most people back home in Europe.

Similarly, Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly believed they were true Muslims doing God’s will, and some people in Muslim-majority countries agree with them. But there is an important difference from the Crusades: the supporters of the young French terrorists are a minority everywhere, and among Muslims living in Western countries they are only a tiny minority.

This is not a “war of civilisations”. Seventeen innocent people killed in Paris is not the equivalent of the Crusades. For that matter, neither was 9/11. These are wicked and tragic events, but they are not a war.

There is a war going on, but it is a civil war within the “House of Islam” that occasionally spills over into non-Muslim countries. As foot-soldiers in that war, the three killers in Paris probably did not fully understand the role they were playing, but they were serving a quite sophisticated strategy.

Two of these Muslim civil wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were ignited by US-led invasions in 2001 and 2003. Four others, in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the northern, mostly Muslim half of Nigeria, have begun since 2011. Others go back even further, like the war in Somalia, or have flared up and then become dormant again, like Mali and Algeria.

In every one of these wars the victims are overwhelmingly Muslims killed by other Muslims. From time to time non-Muslims in other countries are killed too, as in New York in 2001, in London in 2007, in Bombay in 2008 and last week in Paris, and these killings do have a strategic purpose, but it’s not to “terrify non-Muslims into submission.” Quite the contrary.

The great Muslim civil war is about the political, social and cultural modernisation of the Muslim world. Should it continue down much the same track that other major global cultures have followed, or should those changes be stopped and indeed reversed? The Islamists take the latter position.

Some aspects of modernisation are very attractive to many Muslims, so stopping the changes would require a lot of violence, including the overthrow of most existing governments in Muslim countries. But that is the task that the Islamists in general, and the jihadi activists in particular, have undertaken.

As they are minorities even in their own countries, the Islamists’ hardest job is to mobilise popular support for their struggle. The best way to do this is to convince Muslims that modernisation – democracy, equality, the whole cultural package – is part of a Western plot to undermine Islam.

This will be a more credible claim if Western countries are actually attacking Muslim countries, so one of the main jihadi strategies is to carry out terrorist atrocities that will trigger Western military attacks on Muslim countries. That was the real goal of 9/11, and it was spectacularly successful: it tricked the United States into invading not one but TWO Muslim countries.

But smaller terrorist attacks that lead to the mistreatment of the Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries also serve the cause. They can create a backlash that victimises the local Muslim minorities, thus generating yet more “proof” that there is a war against Islam.

This strategy actually has a name. Appropriately it is in French: “la politique du pire”. It’s the strategy of making things worse in order to achieve one’s ultimate goal – in this case, revolutions that will sweep away the existing governments in almost every Muslim country and put the Islamists in power instead.

There is a sub-theme in some of the Middle Eastern wars that muddies the waters a bit: in Syria, Iraq and Yemen the general radicalisation has also revived and militarised the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But even in these countries most of the killings are of Sunni Muslims by other Sunni Muslims.

There will be more attacks like the ones in Paris, because lost young men seeking a cause abound in every community, including the Muslim communities of the West. We can’t arrest them all, so we will go on having to live with a certain amount of terrorism from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremist groups and trying not to over-react — just as we have been doing for many decades already.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“This strategy…Muslims”)

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”)