Over the weekend, the Washington Post “reported”, see here, that the Obama Administration remains incapable of coherent strategy regarding Syria and the broader balance of power in the Middle East. Senior Administration officials want to treat Syria, like Iran, as the object of an ongoing competition to shape the regional balance of power. They are oblivious to the reality that both Iran and Syria are critical subjects of that competition, with legitimate interests of their own and considerable reservoirs of domestic and regional legitimacy from which to draw.
Ongoing turmoil in Syria is increasingly engaging the Western commentariat in a not terribly nuanced discussion, focused around a series of predictable questions: Will the Assad government fall? If so, what will follow it? What would the Assad government’s implosion mean for the regional balance of power—and, especially, for the Islamic Republic of Iran? Against this backdrop, we commend the deeply informed and sophisticated analysis offered by the Conflict Forum’s Alastair Crooke in a recent Op Ed, “Unfolding the Syrian Paradox”, see here, published in the Asia Times.
Alastair stipulates that there is a genuine constituency for reform in Syria. But, as he points out, much of this constituency continues to see President Bashar al-Assad as an ally to that end, not as an implacable adversary. (In this camp, Alastair specifically and correctly identifies “the populations of Damascus, Aleppo, the middle class, the merchant class, and non-Sunni minorities”, who believe “there is no credible ‘other’ who could bring reform” to Syria). Given this reality, the narrative of the Syrian unrest as “an uprising of non-violent, liberal protest against tyranny that has been met only by repression” is, in Alastair’s view, “a complete misreading, deliberately contrived to serve quite separate ambitions.”
Alastair argues, arrestingly, that the roots of the current turmoil in Syria actually lie in Iraq, in two distinct ways: “Firstly, they extend back into the thinking of the Sunni jihadi trend, as advanced by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which evolved in Iraq, surfaced violently in Lebanon”—Alastair offers an illuminating account of the 2007 battle between Sunni militants and the Lebanese army for control over the Naher al-Barad refugee camp in northern Lebanon—“and was transposed into Syria with the return of many Syrian Salafist veterans at the ‘end’ of the Iraq conflict.” He elaborates:
“Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda affiliation is not of particular significance to Syria today, but the Zarqawi ‘Syria’ doctrine that evolved in Iraq, is crucial. Zarqawi, like other Salafists, rejected the artificial frontiers and national divisions inherited from colonialism. Instead, he insisted on calling the aggregate of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, and parts of Turkey and Iraq by its old name: ‘Bilad a-Sham’. Zarqawi and his followers were virulently anti-Shi’ite—much more so than early al-Qaeda—and asserted that a-Sham was a core Sunni patrimony that had been overtaken by the Shi’ites.
According to this narrative, the Sunni heartland, Syria, had been usurped for the last 40 years by the Shi’ite al-Assads (Alawites are an orientation within Shi’ism). The rise of Hezbollah, facilitated in part by Assad, further eroded Lebanon’s Sunni character, too. Likewise, they point to Assad’s alleged undercutting of former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi as an act which had delivered Iraq to the Shi’ites, namely to Malaki. From this deep grievance at Sunni disempowerment, Zarqawi allies developed a doctrine in which Syria and Lebanon were no longer platforms from which to launch jihad, but the sites for jihad (against the Shi’ites as much as others).
The Syrian Salafists eventually were to return home, nursing this grievance. Many of them—Syrians and non-Syrians—settled in the rural villages lying adjacent to Lebanon, and similarly to their confreres in Naher al-Barad, they married locally. It is these elements—as in Lebanon in 2007—who are the mainspring of armed violence against the Syrian security services. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Syria has experienced hundreds of dead and many hundreds of wounded members of the security forces and police. (Daraa is different: the armed element consists of Bedouin who migrate between Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria).
It is difficult to establish numbers, but perhaps 40,000-50,000 Syrians fought in Iraq. With their marriage into local communities, their support base is more extensive than actual numbers that travelled to Iraq. Their objective in Syria is similar to that in Iraq: to establish the conditions for jihad in Syria through exacerbating sectarian animosities—just as Zarqawi did in Iraq through his attacks on the Shi’ites and their shrines. Likewise, they seek a foothold in north-eastern Syria for a Salafist Islamic emirate, which would operate autonomously from the state’s authority. This segment to the opposition is not interested in ‘reform’ or democracy: They state clearly and publicly that if it costs two million lives to overthrow the ‘Shi’ite’ Alawites the sacrifice will have been worth the loss. Drafting of legislation permitting new political parties or expanding press freedom are matters of complete indifference for them.”
Secondly, Alastair argues, “bitterness in Syria is also linked to a profound sense of Sunni grievance felt by certain Arab states at Sunni political disempowerment following Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s rise to power in Iraq, for which they hold Assad responsible”. Alastair rightly describes this perception as “inaccurate”. When we saw President Assad shortly before Iraq’s last election, he noted that Syria had its own disagreements with Maliki. Furthermore, he stressed how difficult the situation in Iraq had made his own efforts to ensure that sectarian tensions did not undermine Syria’s basic stability. Alastair elaborates:
“The marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and more recently in Lebanon has aggrieved the Saudis and some Gulf states as much as it did the Salafists…Saudi Arabia and Gulf states explicitly trade on fears of Shi’ite ‘expansionism’ to justify Gulf Cooperation Council repression in Bahrain and intervention in Yemen, and the ‘voice’ of assertive sectarianism is being megaphoned into Syria too. Sunni clerical voices are touting the Arab ‘awakening’ as the ‘Sunni revolution’ in riposte to the Shi’ite revolution of Iran. In March, al-Jazeera broadcast a sermon by Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, which raised the banner of the restoration of Sunni ascendency in Syria. Qaradawi…was joined by Saudi cleric Saleh Al-Luhaidan who urged, ‘Kill a third of Syrians so the other two-thirds may live.’
Clearly, many of the protesters are in traditional centers of Sunni irredentism, such as Homs and Hama in Syria, comprised of aggrieved Sunnis seeking the Alawites ouster, and a return to Sunni ascendency. These are not Salafists, but mainstream Syrians for whom the elements of Sunni ascendency, irredentism and reformism have conflated into a sole demand. This is a very frightening prospect for the quarter of the Syrians that form the non-Sunni minorities.”
Just as importantly, Alastair notes that “all of this underlines the other dimension to events in Syria: its strategic position as the keystone of the arch spanning from southern Lebanon to Iran. It is this role that those in the US and Europe that concern themselves primarily with Israel’s security have sought to displace” since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Alastair seriously doubts that they will succeed; on this point, he offers some trenchant observations about the Syrian military and security apparatus:
“The Syrian army lacks experience in counter-insurgency…Tanks and armored brigades are wholly unsuited for crowd control operations, especially in narrow, congested areas. It’s no surprise that such military movements killed unarmed protesters that were caught in the middle, inflaming tensions with genuine reformists and disconcerting the public.
Initially, army esteem was affected by the criticism. Though the stories of army mass desertion are disinformation, there was some erosion of military self-confidence at lower levels of command. And public confidence in the military wobbled, too, as casualties mounted. But it was a “wobble” that ended with the dramatic conflict around Jisr al-Shagour in mid-June, near the Turkish border. Just as the Lebanese nation rallied behind its army in the conflict of Naher al-Bared, so too the Syrians rallied behind their army in the face of the Salafist attack firstly on the police, and subsequently on the army and on state institutions in Jisr. And, as the details of the Jisr al-Shagour conflict unrolled before the public, sentiment turned bitter towards the insurrectionists, possibly decisively…Army self-confidence and honor is on the rise, and a majority of the public now see in a way that was less evident earlier that Syria faces a serious threat unrelated to any reform agenda.
Alastair then explains how these developments reinforce the Assad government’s traditional sources of durability:
“Sentiment has tipped away from thinking in terms of immediate reform. Public opinion is polarized and embittered towards the Salafists and their allies. Leftist, secular opposition circles are distancing themselves from the Salafist violence—the inherent contradiction of the divergent aspirations of the ‘exiles’ and the Salafists, from the Syrian majority consensus, is now starkly manifest…In this atmosphere, dramatic reform might well be viewed by the president’s supporters as signaling weakness, even appeasement to those responsible for killing so many police and army officers at Jisr. Not surprisingly, Assad chose to use [his speech earlier this month] to speak to his constituency: to state the difficulties and threats facing Syria, but also to lay out the road map towards an exit from danger and towards substantive reform.
Western comment overwhelmingly has described the speech as ‘disappointing’ or ‘short on specifics’, but this misses the point. Whereas earlier, a dramatic reform shock, such as advocated by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu might, at a certain point, have had a transformatory “shock” effect; it is doubtful that it would achieve that now. On the contrary, any hint of concessions having being wrested from the government by the type of violence seen at Jisr would likely anger Assad’s own constituency; and yet improbably would never transcend the categorical rejection of the militant opposition seeking to exacerbate tensions to the point of making the West determined to intervene.
By carefully setting out of some very deliberate steps and processes ahead, Assad has correctly read the mood of the majority in Syria. Time will be the judge, but Assad seems set to emerge from a complicated parallel series of challenges directed towards him from movements and states which reflect a range of grievances, special interests, and motivations…If, as seems likely, Assad does emerge from all the challenges, the tenor of his recent response to Arab and European envoys suggests that reform will be pursued, in part, to protect Syria’s resistance ethos from such challenges in the future…Now ‘reform’ is the existential external front.
[I]f the intent of all this was intended to shift the strategic balance in the Middle East, it has not worked. It is unlikely that Assad will emerge more pliable to Western challenges—any more than he has in the past.”
Alastair’s analysis is worth reading in its entirety—it offers many more rich insights on Syrian politics, U.S. policy, the role of Syrian exiles, Gulf Arab machinations, and other important subjects.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett