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”)
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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“Until…frequently”; and “That is…power”)
30 June 2012
Syria XIV (or whatever)
By Gwynne Dyer
Kofi Annan does the best he can. At least he’s back in harness, doing what he does best: trying to make peace where there is no hope of peace. The rest of them do the best they can, too, give or take the odd Russian. Well, not exactly the best they can, but at least they do enough to make it look like they’re trying. And you can’t really blame them for faking it, because they all know it that it can’t work.
On Saturday Kofi Annan, ex-United Nations Secretary-General and now special UN envoy for Syria, announced that a special “action group” meeting in Geneva had come up with a plan to stop the carnage in Syria. Or at least a faint hope. Or not, as the case may be.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council were there, plus some of the biggest regional players (but not Iran, which backs the Syrian regime, or Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels). They condemned “the continued escalating killing” and agreed that there must be a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” Then they all went outside and spat into the wind, just to show how determined they were.
I made up the last bit, but they might as well have done that. The final communique said that the transitional government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed victory, saying it clearly signalled to President Bashar al-Assad that he must step down. But it didn’t, actually.
An early draft of the communique said that “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transitional government” – Bashar al-Assad, in other words – should be excluded, but that wording was gone from the final document. So Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was delighted with the outcome, since “no foreign solution” was being imposed on Syria.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, the most coherent opposition group, said it would reject any plan that did not include the unconditional departure of Assad, his family, and his close associates. Assad himself told Iranian television that no amount of foreign pressure would make his government change its policy. And on Friday, the day before the Geneva meeting, an estimated 190 people were killed in Syria, most of them by the government.
Assad’s regime has now killed around as many people – 16,000, by last count – as his father did in suppressing the last revolt against the regime in 1982. He must take hope from the fact that his father, in the end, terrorised all opposition into silence, and ruled on until his death in 2000. Bashar might win, too – and besides, what choice has he, at this point, but to fight until the last ditch?
So many people have already been slaughtered by Assad’s troops and their Alawite militia allies that there is no forgiveness left among the opposition. There is so little trust that a negotiated handover of power could not succeed even if Assad wanted that. His only remaining options are victory, exile or death.
It bears repeating that this is not how the Arab Spring ended up. It’s just how Syria has ended up, after eight months of non-violent demonstrations in the face of extreme regime violence gave way to armed resistance. The other Arab revolutions have not been drowned in blood (with the exception of Bahrain), and some of them, like Tunisia’s and Egypt’s, have already wrought huge changes. There’s even another one starting up in Sudan right now.
Two things make Syria different. One is its extreme religious and ethnic complexity, which makes it hard for protesters to maintain a united front against a regime that is adept at playing on inter-group fears and resentments. The other is that Assad heads the Syrian Baath Party, an utterly ruthless machine for seizing and holding power that copied much of its organisation and discipline from the Communists.
Why, then, would we expect it to behave any better than its former twin, the Iraqi Baath Party that was led by Saddam Hussein? Even the party’s role as the political vehicle for a religious minority was the same: Alawites in Syria, Sunni Muslims in Iraq. So if you were wondering how Saddam Hussein would have responded to the Arab Spring, now you know: just like Bashar al-Assad is responding.
(At this point in the argument, the American neo-cons will be getting ready to claim that the US invasion of Iraq was a blessing for Iraq after all. Not so fast, boys. Iraq is still not a very democratic place, and at least ten times as many Iraqis as Syrians have already been killed in the process.)
How long will the killing in Syria last? Until the rebels win, or until they are crushed. Are they going to win? Nobody knows. Will the neighbouring countries get dragged into the fighting? Probably not, although Lebanon is seriously at risk. Can Kofi Annan, the United Nations or the great powers do anything about this? Not a thing.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 12. (“I made…actually”; “So many…Damascus”; and “At this…process”)
17 June 2012
Assad’s Russian Defenders: Why?
By Gwynne Dyer
The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Syria has suspended its peace mission. “The observers will not be conducting patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice,” said the commander of the 300-strong multinational observer force, Norwegian General Robert Mood.
This decision by the observer force is fully justified: its observers were being prevented from visiting massacre sites by the Syrian army, and yet their mere presence created the false impression that the international community was “doing something”. So now the international community will be under even greater pressure to “do something” else about the Syrian tragedy. That means military action against the Assad regime – but the Russians will veto that.
Russian diplomacy is not usually so clumsy. None of the Western great powers will actually send troops to intervene in Syria: the Syrian army is too strong, and the sectarian and ethnic divisions in the country are far too messy.
So why don’t the Russians just promise to abstain in any UN Security Council vote on military intervention? No such vote will happen anyway, and Moscow would expose the hypocrisy of the Western powers that are pretending to demand action and blaming the Russians (and the Chinese) for being the obstacle.
It’s stupid to bring such opprobrium on your own country when you don’t have to, but both President Vladimir Putin’s elective dictatorship in Russia and the Communist Party in China fear that one day they might face foreign intervention themselves. There must therefore be no legal precedent for international action against a regime that is merely murdering its own people on its own sovereign soil.
In reality, there is one kind of justice for the great powers and another for weaker states, and neither Moscow nor Beijing would ever face Western military intervention even if they were crushing non-violent protests by their own people, let alone drowning an armed revolt in blood.
You only have to imagine the headlines that such an intervention would create to understand that the whole proposition is ridiculous. “Security Council votes to intervene in China to protect protesters from regime violence!” “American troops enter Russian cities to back anti-regime revolt!” Such headlines are only slightly less implausible than “Martians invade Vatican City, kidnap Pope!”
But we are dealing here with the nightmare fantasies of regimes that secretly KNOW they are illegitimate. They never acknowledge it in public, and they don’t discuss it directly even in private. But they know it nevertheless, and they understand that illegitimacy means vulnerability.
It doesn’t matter that Russia or China can simply veto any UN resolution that is directed against them. It makes no difference that no sane government in the rest of the world would commit the folly of sending troops to intervene in either of these giants. Paranoid fears cannot be dissolved by the application of mere reason.
Both Vladimir Putin and the Chinese leadership are appalled by the growing influence of the “responsibility to protect” principle at the United Nations, which breaches the previously sacred doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of member states. “R2P” says that foreign intervention can be justifiable (with a UN Security Council resolution, of course) to stop huge human rights abuses committed by member governments.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council give them complete protection from foreign military intervention, but they still worry about it. And they look with horror at the phenomenon of non-violent revolutions that has been removing authoritarian regimes with such efficiency, from the ones that overthrew Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and almost overthrew the Chinese regime in 1989 down to the Arab ones of today.
Moscow and Beijing have convinced themselves that there is a Western “hidden hand” behind these uprisings, even though Western actions (like the US backing for Egypt’s President Mubarak that continued until almost the last minute of the revolution) and Western interests both argue otherwise.
Now, in Syria, they see both of these threats coalescing. First, for eight months, they watch strictly non-violent protests – despite some thousands of killings by the Syrian state – undermine the Assad regime.
Then, when some of the protesters start fighting back and the regime responds with even greater violence, bombarding city centres and committing open massacres of villagers, they hear the Western powers begin to talk about their “responsibility to protect”, with the (deliberately misleading) implication that they are contemplating direct military intervention in Syria to stop it.
So Russia and China will veto any Security Council resolution that condemns the Assad regime, and certainly any resolution that hints at military intervention. Assad must survive, not because he buys a few billion dollars worth of Russian arms and gives Russia a naval base in the Mediterranean, but because his overthrow would be a precedent that, they imagine, might one day be used against them.
Utter nonsense, but it means that the Russians, in particular, will go on taking the blame for the UN’s immobility and lending cover to the West’s pretense that it would act against Assad if only the Russians would get out of the way. They will protect Assad right down to the bitter end – and it may be very bitter indeed.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 12. (“You only…Pope”; “Both…governments”; and “Moscow…otherwise”)