Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

Syria’s Shattered Mosaic

Commentary from Project Syndicate

Thanks to support from Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s regime no longer faces collapse – and thanks to support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Assad’s various opponents continue to hold large swaths of territory. When will the war end, and how will the outcome shape the regional and global politics?

A handout photo released on 25 September 2016 by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) showing Syrian soldiers at Handarat camp in the north of Aleppo, Syria, 24 September 2016. According to SANA, government troops recaptured Handarat camp. EPA/SANA HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

A handout photo released on 25 September 2016 by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) showing Syrian soldiers at Handarat camp in the north of Aleppo, Syria, 24 September 2016. According to SANA, government troops recaptured Handarat camp. EPA/SANA HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

By John Andrews

At some point, Syria’s civil war – now in its sixth year – will end. But how? As Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, once said: “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Sadly, the actors in the Syrian tragedy have yet to reach that point. Thanks to support from Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s regime no longer faces collapse. Thanks to support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Assad’s various opponents continue to hold large swaths of territory. And though the Islamic State (ISIS), sworn enemy not just of Assad but of all regimes, is losing ground, it remains powerful – and is demonstrating an alarming capacity to incite terrorist attacks in both Europe and the United States.

The military stalemate is mirrored by a political and diplomatic deadlock. Talks in Geneva have been an exercise in verbose frustration. A ceasefire painstakingly negotiated between the US and Russia in September ended in horrific bloodshed: on September 19, a United Nations humanitarian convoy was destroyed, either by Russian or Syrian jets (America’s accusation) or by rebel ground-fire (Russia’s assertion).

ALEPPO, SYRIA – SEPTEMBER 21 : Syrian men inspect damaged buildings and vehicles following bomb attacks by Assad regime forces on a market in the opposition controlled al-Shaar neighbourhood of of Aleppo, Syria on September 21, 2015. (Photo by Ibrahim Ebu Leys/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The following day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pulled no punches in his address to the General Assembly in New York. “Present in this Hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in, or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians.”

Outside forces

The reality Ban described underpins the analysis provided by Project Syndicate commentators. Since 2011, when popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government erupted, the United States has been intent on “regime change” in Syria. Russia, which in September 2015 began air raids against anti-Assad forces, has emphasized that it will not allow Assad to be toppled. And Syria has been the site of a proxy war between the Middle East’s two main regional rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

If US President Barack Obama had only acted more forcefully at the beginning of the conflict, his critics say, the Assad regime would have succumbed quickly to the moderate Free Syrian Army. Instead, the FSA has been marginalized, and Islamist extremists now dominate the opposition to Assad. Cynics note that until July, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant), arguably the most effective opposition group, called itself Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front) and was al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The name change has apparently made it easier to get arms and money from Gulf governments (and, Russia claims, from America, too).

But Christopher R. Hill, a former US ambassador to Iraq, has little time for the view that Obama’s response was too restrained. He notes that “the interventionism that is increasingly being championed by liberal and neo-conservative pundits alike has proved destructive on more than one occasion, including in Iraq and Libya.”

True enough, but Hill makes a more interesting point. The Obama administration, like many regional actors (including Jordan’s King Abdullah), had assumed that the “Arab Spring” of 2011 meant that Assad’s fall was “only a matter of time” – hence the call for a provisional government and a democratic election. “The assessment was wrong,” Hill argues. “And, because good policy is impossible without good analysis, so were the policies.”

Specifically, the assumption that Assad was “cornered” and “merely flailing desperately against the inexorable tide of history,” Hill says, led the Obama administration to underestimate the dominance of Sunni radicals in the anti-Assad movement. Worse, “beyond misreading the opposition,” the belief that Assad’s fall was inevitable led the US to make “another fateful mistake,” by “failing to take into account the interests of other powers.” One consequence was the intervention by Russia, understandably anxious to protect its military facilities at Tartus and Latakia and fearful of Islamist insurrection with the Russian Federation itself.

To be sure, as Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, rightly points out, “a key motive for Obama’s reticence about engaging in the Middle East” in general, and intervening in Syria in particular, was “fear of repeating the mistakes that left the US enmeshed in Afghanistan and Iraq.” But was such an outcome really inevitable?

Ben-Ami rebuts those who argued that Russia’s intervention would trap it in a morass akin to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. “Putin has just proved,” he writes, “that a military intervention in the Middle East does not have to lead to a quagmire.” On the contrary, “[e]ven without a political settlement, Putin’s strategic achievements are notable.” Not only did military intervention prevent Assad’s regime from being overthrown; the preservation of Russia’s Tartus and Latakia bases “will allow him to challenge US and NATO control in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Turks and Kurds

America and Russia have for several months ensured that their air forces do not clash in their attacks on ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups. They have also managed, in February and September of this year, to agree ceasefires – neither of which held for long.

The difficulty in sustaining a truce, much less negotiating a lasting peace settlement, reflects the fundamental fact that these two powers are not the only external actors on the Syrian stage. Turkey, supposedly America’s close NATO ally, for several years turned a blind eye to jihadist fighters crossing its border to join ISIS and other anti-Assad groups. It was not until July 2015 that Turkey allowed American warplanes to launch attacks on ISIS from Turkish soil.

“The problem for Turkey,” Javier Solana, a former NATO Secretary-General and EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, points out, “is that its interests are not as straightforward as” defeating ISIS, “or even driving Assad from power.” In particular, Turkey wants “to ensure that Kurdish groups – such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria, which is closely affiliated with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – do not consolidate control of territory in Syria, now or during the post-conflict reconstruction.”

Solana is right. But the dilemma for the Obama administration is that while it opposes the realization of the Kurds’ century-long dream for an independent nation-state, the Kurdish peshmerga (“those who confront death”) have been the most effective force against ISIS in northern Syria.

The result, argues Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the US-based foundation New America, has been to add fuel to a raging fire. “In its rush to find partners to help defeat ISIS, and thus to minimize its own direct contribution in the conflict,” Barfi says, the Obama administration “emboldened parties with conflicting objectives.” While “the CIA engaged with the rebel units, the Pentagon trained the Kurds,” and “US officials encouraged their Turkish counterparts to seize border territory from ISIS.” Rather than “offsetting one another, these efforts have stoked long-smoldering conflicts – and taken the catastrophe in Syria to an even more dangerous level.”

Saudis and Iranians

Barfi’s judgment is harsh – perhaps too harsh. “The US should have developed a coherent strategy,” he concludes, “one based on careful selection of allies and more direct US involvement.” But that is far more easily said than done – especially given the aftermath of “direct US involvement” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And who, exactly, would have been better allies? Saudi Arabia, an US ally since its very foundation, is an avowed opponent of both Assad and ISIS. But the reality is that much, if not most, of ISIS’s rhetoric and behavior mirrors the Kingdom’s own Wahhabi doctrine. And, while plenty of support comes not from the Saudi government but from Saudi citizens, the creation of Jaysh al-Islam, the coalition of some 50 rebel factions in Syria, was an official Saudi initiative – one that fosters precisely the Islamist ideology that is anathema to the US.

Obviously, more than the fate of Syria is at stake. For Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister and vice chancellor, the country’s civil war signifies the emergence of a “new” Middle East. “Unlike the old Middle East, whose fate was determined by the dominant Western powers (the United Kingdom and France after World War I, and the United States from the 1940s until recently), the new one has no external hegemon to stabilize it,” he notes. “And, without a dominant regional power, a dangerous strategic vacuum has emerged.”

That vacuum is being filled not only by Turkey, but, in a far more significant and far-reaching way, by Saudi Arabia, the stern guardian of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the standard-bearer of Shia Islam. “These countries’ struggle for regional supremacy,” Fischer notes, “is playing out on proxy battlefields in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and, now, Yemen.”

The Saudi view of an Iran attempting to dominate the Middle East must be judged on its merits. When the Kingdom’s leaders look at neighboring Iraq, they see a Shia-majority country under Iran’s influence. When they look at Lebanon, they see Iran’s hold over the Shia Hezbollah faction. In Syria, they see Iran’s support for Assad and his quasi-Shia Alawite minority. And, closer to home, they see Iran’s influence everywhere: over the Shia majority in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, the Shia minority in Yemen, and the Shia concentrated in the Kingdom’s own oil-rich Qatif region.

From this perspective, it would appear that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, is set to become the Middle East’s dominant leader. But that seems unlikely, to say the least. Eighty-five percent of all Muslims follow Sunni Islam, and the Arab world has never been wholly at ease with non-Arab Iran and its Persian heritage. Yet, mistaken or not, the Saudis – with Muhammad bin Salman, the 31-year-old deputy crown prince and defense minister, in the lead – feel they must play a vital role in shaping Syria’s future (in addition to an even more direct role in Bahrain and Yemen).

À Bientôt Sykes-Picot?

What that future will look like is, at best, a matter of conjecture. Like Fischer, Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former director of policy planning at the US State Department, focuses on the regional context. “In four – arguably five – countries in the region,” he points out, “the government does not control significant portions of the state’s territory.” It’s a sobering list: “Lebanon has been in this condition for decades, Iraq for more than a decade, and Syria, Libya, and Yemen for some five years now.”

In all of these countries, Haass notes, “[m]ilitias, terrorist organizations, foreign fighters, and other armed groups have asserted varying degrees of local authority.” And “the unfulfilled national aspirations of the Kurds (large numbers of whom live in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran)” complicate matters further, as does “the unresolved matter of how to reconcile the reality of Israel with the Palestinians’ political goals.”

What seems clear is that the national boundaries drawn in the Middle East a century ago by Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s François Georges-Picot are being eroded, if not erased. Indeed, even if ISIS, whose territory runs from Iraq to Syria, continues to lose ground, Haass is probably right that “no level of effort will alter the region’s basic reality: borders that count for little and governments that count for only a little more.” Any effort to restore the “Sykes-Picot Middle East” by “attempting to reunify the countries that appear on the map – and to make the borders between them matter – would be folly,” because “ties to region, religion, tribe, ethnicity, and/or ideology have in many cases superseded national identities.”

But such realism should not let diplomats and politicians off the hook. In Syria, Ben-Ami notes, “[o]ne option, which Russia has championed, would be a federal system; indeed, the territorial divisions left behind by the Russians could form the basis of one.” In such a scenario, “Assad’s Alawites could control territory in the West, running from Latakia in the north to Damascus in the south, and an autonomous Syrian-Kurdish region could be established in the northeast, with the rest of the country being left to the Sunni opposition.”

Should the Guilty Pay?

Ben-Ami’s suggestion is surely more plausible than restoring Syria to its status quo ante – and Iraq, with its autonomous Kurdistan Region, is perhaps an example to follow. But 11 million Syrians – half the country’s pre-conflict population – have been driven from their homes; as many as 400,000 have been killed; entire cities have been devastated; and Christian and other minorities, previously protected under Assad’s secular regime, have fallen prey to ISIS and other Islamist jihadist groups. Is any settlement possible without justice for victims and perpetrators?

Aryeh Neier, a founder of Human Rights Watch, is adamant that those who commit abuses must be held accountable, including the Syrian government as “the author of the greatest number of abuses.” Neier notes that four years ago, his call for an Arab League tribunal for Syria fell on deaf ears. Clearly, “some Arab governments feared that a court for Syria might set a precedent that would lead to efforts at accountability for crimes committed elsewhere in the region.” Indeed, given “the atrocities being carried out in the war in Yemen and the human rights violations committed by repressive regimes like that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, such an effort would be unpopular, to say the least.”

Neier is not ready to despair, however. He argues that “truth commissions” can be better than nothing. “Simply stigmatizing those responsible for war crimes would fall far short of imposing criminal penalties,” he concedes. “But it would, at least, provide a measure of accountability,” and this might lay the basis for criminal proceedings later. “Knowing who committed particular crimes could fuel demands to create a tribunal to bring perpetrators to justice.” Moreover, “shining a light on those who violate human rights could deter those who do not want to be identified as criminals from carrying out similar actions in the future.”

But, at least for leaders whose physical survival depends on remaining in power, deterrence seems implausible (for example, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir blithely ignores the international warrant seeking his arrest for crimes against humanity). Although meaningful commitment to human rights implies an obligation to speak out, there can be no illusion that doing so will deter Assad from wiping Aleppo off the map. Unlike in Libya in 2011, no one is invoking the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, unanimously adopted by the UN in 2005, to rally international support for “humanitarian” military intervention aimed at stopping the atrocities. So, to paraphrase Joseph Stalin: how many divisions has Human Rights Watch got?

A Larger Stage

This brings us back to two of the main external actors, Russia and the US, which, as Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of New America, points out, are “supporting different factions and trying to ensure that their allies in the multi-sided conflict are advancing, or at least holding ground.”

Though the two countries’ differences over Ukraine must surely color their negotiations over Syria, Slaughter (who, like Haass, was a director of policy planning at the US State Department), avoids that issue. Instead, she believes that a much broader effort is needed to find a solution in Syria, arguing that “a coalition of countries that are not yet directly involved in the crisis could be very helpful” in moving toward a peace agreement. “Such a coalition – involving, say, Germany, India, Japan, Brazil, and Egypt – could increase the pressure on […] Assad” to pursue negotiations seriously, “by convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Assad’s main backer, “that his prestige is on the line.”

Slaughter’s proposal is intriguing, but will anything come of it? As she herself notes, “Many of these countries’ governments might say that the Syrian conflict is too far away to affect them directly.” Indeed, as Bernard-Henri Lévy laments, even as the recent surge in brutality in Syria threatens to elevate “to extreme levels” Europe’s “present dangers, starting with a dramatic increase in the tide of refugees,” European leaders continue to sit on their hands.

The Fight for Islam

Tony Blair, former British prime minister, would certainly agree that Syria’s problems affect us all. Ultimately, what now defines the conflict there is a contest between secularism (albeit under a dictatorship) and Islamist forces that range from accommodating to extreme. And this conflict goes well beyond Syria. Referring to attacks from Pakistan to California, Blair argues that, “the international community needs a comprehensive strategy to defeat Islamist extremism – one in which force, diplomacy, and development work together to achieve a more stable world.”

Blair argues for a constructive approach. “We should think of the Middle East and Islam as being in a process of transition: the Middle East toward rule-based and religiously tolerant societies, and Islam toward its rightful place as a faith of progress and humanity.” Viewed from this perspective, the Middle East’s turmoil in general, and that of Syria in particular, “is not a mess to avoid, but a life-and-death struggle in which our own fundamental interests are at stake.”

That has become even more evident throughout the course of this year, and Blair is similarly right to advocate for “resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Doing so “is not only important in its own right,” he emphasizes, but “would also contribute to good international and interfaith relations – and powerfully reassert the principle of peaceful coexistence on which the international order rests.”

But the depressing reality is that no Israel-Palestine deal looks imminent, nor does any reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And, after the rapid collapse of the latest ceasefire, the US and Russia are further apart than ever. Clearly, too many of those who could stop Syria’s suffering are still seeking alternatives to behaving wisely.

John Andrews, a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Economist, is the author of The World in Conflict: Understanding the World’s Troublespots.

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