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Four Years On: No Easy Answers in Syria (Part II)

[Damaged buildings line the streets of Homs. Image from Reuters, by Yazan Homsy] [Damaged buildings line the streets of Homs. Image from Reuters, by Yazan Homsy]

[See Part I here. Parts II and III are combined below]

The Irony of Calamity

There are no easy answers in Syria. Though undramatic, this is not how most seem to approach the Syrian tragedy in practice.

What follows is not a recipe for an answer as much as it is a reminder against repeating the same mistakes if/when calling for solutions. If one’s vision is not yet clear regarding what path to take, or what existing combination of forces to support, one should be steadfast in understanding what went wrong and the lessons we might have learned—even if we learned differently. For those in touch with family, friends, and reporters/writers/publications in/on Syria, there is no doubt that many on opposing sides of the discourse on Syria have come to some similar realizations—whether or not they publically profess those realizations or support their content.

The irony of having no easy answers in Syria is that the least unfavorable exit from this Syrian calamity might involve all the wrong actors, but in unison.

Lessons Learned: The Art of Not Going Backwards                                                  

Beyond pontification, and over and above the mayhem, the pain, the personal hostilities, political disagreements, and paradigmatic gazes, let us not forget what we have learned about the following: the main players and forces involved; how calls for open revolution produced a decent into mayhem; how some discounted the future by supporting anything that moves against the regime; and, most of all, how we got here and whose primary responsibility it is.

There are two caveats to such an inventory. First, the challenge in addressing lessons learned is to avoid “black and white” characterizations. Such contrast is both unrealistic and counterproductive. Usually, missing the gray areas is an analytic liability because it is those very gray areas that animate the arguments of detractors, and sometimes for good reason. Second, it is just as unproductive to see all things as equally gray. They are not. There is a hierarchy of responsibility, and it usually rests with those who hold power, whether locally, regionally, and/or internationally. 

Thus, we cannot stop at holding the regime responsible in Syria, we also need to hold certain bigger powers responsible regionally and internationally for their role in producing the mayhem in and beyond Syria. Much of the disagreements result from people (analysts, “experts,” and lay persons) having a fixation on one party or set of problems/causes/actors, as I have argued previously, mimicking a Hollywood production that most of the same people deplore. The other problematic liberal lens is to consider all parties to be equally bad, with no recognition of the systemic capacity to inflict structural damage based on power differentials and mechanisms of exploitation. 

The Syrian Regime

Let us begin with not losing sight of the continued legacy of the Syrian regime’s ruthlessness—regardless of its resistance rhetoric or its enabling of resistance in times gone by. If this all-powerful regime prioritized defeating Israel’s belligerence and US imperialism, and the Arab conservative regimes’ complicity, it would have used the past forty years to build a most impenetrable state by those very countries and interests that have—both directly and indirectly—wreaked havoc in Syria, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United States. We can certainly debate the realities of relative food self-sufficiency, the (mostly forced) “social peace,” and the modicum of economic egalitarian leveling of social fortunes in the early years of Ba`thist rule. However, irrespective of these facts the Syrian regime proceeded to suffocate its people politically, and fostered a maturing neoliberal repression that sucked the blood out of most Syrians, forty years on. 

Between 1970 and March 2011, and particularly after 1982, the Syrian regime had what can be approximated to be unparalleled control of their population—where some quipped that even mosquitos were monitored. That period, that entire generation, could have been an opportunity to create the most formidable challenge to all the culprits the regime purports to fight, whether internally and externally, with its socialist, anti-imperialist rubric. Instead, the regime filled its many prisons in large measure with Marxists, socialists, nationalists, and any independent voice that actually, not just rhetorically, lived for the principles professed by the regime. The difference was that these individuals dared to voice these principles, and/or hold the regime accountable for abandoning them. Instead, for decades, the strong men of Syria, through the internal police (security branches) as well as the policies they crafted and knew well, imposed unspeakable daily, even hourly repression and fear in times of so-called “social peace” (السلم الاجتماعي). They made grown men and women urinate in their pants out of fear in front of their family as secret service personnel visited their homes at night to ask questions—and those were the fortunate ones. Such imagery is but a symbol of the normal state of affairs that characterized the forty-year period for anyone with public aspirations that diverged ever so slightly from those of the regime. Multiply this by a few decades to conjure a full picture of the pent up tensions, resentment, and revenge-prone attitudes. The documentation is overwhelming and such practices had nothing to do in essence with any value related to combatting Israel, imperrialism, or external intervention.

Moreover, the regime’s bourgeoisie or ruling elite—which came into full bloom after the 1980s, from the top family to most state officials and willing partners in the “private” sector—siphoned off the resources that could have built sophisticated industries, improved educational systems, nearly eliminated poverty, and fed Syrians for generations to come. Instead, much of these resources were squandered to create and implicate a crony ruling class. By 2005, this class or elite (it does not fit a classic definition) was instrumental in calling the developmental shots from afar, beyond the confines of the state. This was the case because by then the regime had become so deeply “embourgeoisified” (I borrow this term from Professor Raymond Hinnebusch—blame him) that its socioeconomic interest was hardly distinguishable from that of crony capitalists, except rhetorically, or in times profound crisis. Even the die-hard old guard who favored retaining a large public sector was only in disagreement about the identity of those capturing private wealth, not the process in question.

Just as the scant rainfall and ensuing drought paralyzed the countryside during most of the past decade, so too did the Syrian regime leave the largest and socioeconomically most-vulnerable portion of its population out to dry by that time. The regime and its intellectuals claim that they have maintained a modicum of services that prevented broad-based extreme poverty. This is not completely untrue. Yet, by the end of the last decade, that “egalitarian” narrative lost all steam with the lifting of fundamental subsidies (especially on oil/energy)—a trend that was likely to continue given the regime’s neoliberal orientation. All people could see by the end of the decade is the stark contradiction between their fate and that of the few who dominated public and private space, resources, and even life itself in Syria.

All of the above manifested in the service of regime survival, over any and every principle known to human kind, including socialism and social justice, anti-imperialism, and resistance to tyranny and exploitation in all their forms. Those who support the socialist and resistance coating as a compelling defense of the Syrian regime (and there is some substance to such claims) are either complicit in the regime’s crimes or uninformed about Syria’s modern history and the trade-offs made, including with same reactionary actors that the Syrian regime now accuses of conspiracy against it. 

After all, as that line in the film Scarface reminds us, “look at you now.” Why would the Syrian regime allow this to happen to the supposedly last historical stronghold of anti-imperialism in the region? Well, because this anti-imperialism was always secondary to regime survival (by any means necessary) as a priority. Thus, there is not much to discuss in the end. The comparatively higher nationalist credentials (when compared to other Arab regimes) the Asad regime garnered through the years was squandered systematically by the treatment of its citizens. Thus, most of those segments of Syrian society who continue to side with the regime do so much more out of rational choice, considering the alternatives, and much less out of belief in what the regime stands for. The oft-repeated statements by many Syrians that “we were fine and comfortable” applies to a small socioeconomic segment that was socially fortunate and that got accustomed to an abridged form of citizenship. Perhaps Syria was not fully ripe for a spontaneous uprising in 2011, but if one got started, by hook or by crook, it was bound to catch ample fire because the regime had been pouring gasoline all over its population for decades.

The Regime’s Allies

Syria’s allies, the states that support the current regime (i.e., Iran, Russia, and—to an extent—China) are not much of a disappointment, as they are not pretending to fight for democracy (at home or abroad) or for a Syrian revolution. In fact, they are not pretending to fight for pretty much anything lofty in relation to Syria. With some variance, their own reprehensible records of repression, exploitation, and/or aggression did not make them contenders for much in that regard. No one in and outside Syria was reaching out to them, assuming they can help Syrians in their fight against dictatorship. By contrast, Hizballah, as a non-state actor that felt compelled to fight alongside the Syrian regime after watching on the sidelines, has lost significant moral credibility outside its immediate constituency. This is a direct result of its participation in what most see as deeply antithetical to its professed values, however the intervention is spun (In fact, Hizballah’s justification for intervention went through various iterations of a short-list of limited rationales before settling on mostly broad arguments that point to the regional threat of remarkable ISIS and “jihadist” growth of late).  Nonetheless, despite widespread criticism and condemnation, what remains of Hizballah’s military power and moral capital is its potential deterrence against Israel’s expansionist aggression and ethnic cleansing—only now with a nearly destroyed Syrian partner. Those who dismiss this role are doing it for the wrong reason. For Israel’s decision-makers care little about Hizballah’s “purity” and much more about its enhanced capacity since 2006 to inflict damage and act as a real deterrent, at least for the time being. Thus, at this point, attempts to purify or dismiss Hizballah’s general resistance role are both off mark. The truth remains: no one worth their analytical salt expected Hizballah to support a Syrian uprising against the regime that supported its resistance against Israel, even if it was completely independent of any external actors.

Friends of the Opposition(s)

As to the purported friends of the Syrian revolution, the list is long and ranges from ugly to despicable. Let us not forget about the rushed, callous, and destructive support of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States (and friends) for anything that would displace the regime, as though any of these countries ever had the best interest of Syrians in mind, or as though they had an iota of interest in fostering an independent, democratic opposition. Quite the contrary on both counts. 

Every single one of these countries is on record, at one time or another, for supporting the Syrian regime prior to the uprising while it had its boot on its own people’s necks. More significantly, every one of these countries was willing in the early weeks of the Syrian uprising to strike a deal with the Syrian regime that would effectively prolong dictatorship in return for a coterie of compromises that served their actual time-tested pro-dictatorial interests. Many in the ranks of all levels of the opposition knew this, and privately disrespected those “reactionary allies.” Some of us heard such proclamations from defectors (from the ranks of the opposition) later on, and some of us heard it while they were embraced by those very actors. However, nearly all varieties of opposition groups/members ignored the implication of their own complicity on the grounds that they needed to get help/support from somewhere. And support they did get, to ends that made their purported helplessness beforehand pale in comparison.

Conservative oil-rich Arab regimes, the champions of the Syrian opposition, have treated their populations (whether citizens or migrants) in reprehensible ways for decades, often like cattle in the case of the laborers. The list certainly includes smaller countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who are awash with cash and in no “need” to practically enslave human beings. Yet they also want to fight for democracy for Syrians. The same applies to Saudi Arabia’s reprehensible human rights record, an inspiration and a model for the execution and punishment methods of the “stateless” IS. The humor of these regimes’ public positions is interrupted only by the grand miscalculations these states have committed in supporting policies that came back to haunt them: a growing Frankenstein, who mimics aspects of those very regimes. Taking some pause so as not to inadvertently strengthen ISIS even further, these states will likely come back to support the deepening of mayhem in Syria under the pretense of supporting the “moderate” opposition.

For its part, the United States destroyed Iraq, not once but twice. The United States destroyed the human fabric of the country as well prior to the invasion, with a dozen years of suffocating sanctions that harmed the population to no end. These wars and sanctions produced a most disturbingly brutal chaos, the “big bang,” from which the entire sub-region is suffering in various forms. In this context, IS is but one artifact.

All this damage was inflicted on the neighboring country of Iraq, ruled by a savage dictator that the United States propped up just years prior. Why, then, would a super power that coordinated and participated in such savagery care about any modicum of human decency in the neighboring country of Syria? Betting on the United States for supporting any human value in the region that might directly or indirectly threaten its allies in the region (Apartheid Israel and Arab dictatorships) is like betting on the Taliban to develop feminist governance. Yet, many continue to do precisely that, whether out of helplessness, naivety, or opportunism. There is no need here to address the entire destructive record of the United States policies in the region during the past half century. Suffice it to say that despite the superficial rhetoric peddled by United States officials, no other country has contributed as much, even if sometimes unwittingly, to the propping up of dictators, extremists, and, notoriously, ethnic cleansing (in the case of Israel and Palestine). The record is not only reprehensible, but everything about the conduct of US foreign policy today/recently—whether in terms of the NATO intervention in Libya, the support of the authoritarian coup in Egypt, the support of thwarting the uprising in Bahrain, and its counter-productive policy in Syria—all speak of a continuation of unprincipled and brutal policies in the region.

It should not be forgotten that all these Arab and US regimes will not support any outcome that compromises their ability to continue to dominate the region with impunity. This occurs alongside otherwise silent partners like Israel, who emerges as the biggest winner from plucking all the potential regional challengers to its military belligerence in the area, leaving Egypt, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf states as willing partners in its settler-colonial existence. Judging from the history of interaction (or lack thereof) between Arab Gulf states and Israel, it is a convenient formula. It meshes perfectly well with the US interest in dealing with compliant Arab states. Why should anyone expect this arrangement to be disrupted in favor of any type of a genuine Syrian revolution, Islamist or atheist, socialist or capitalist? 

The recent and ongoing assault on Yemen by the very same actors, led by Saudi Arabia this time, speak of the continuation of unprincipled viciousness that will be inflicted on any country/actor that manages to escape the hold of these actors and/or disrupt their rule/dominion. These are the friends of the Syrian revolution, leaving the overwhelming majority of ordinary Syrians stuck between these actors, the Syrian regime, and the fanatic takfiris. 

The Opposition

From the early phases, the miraculously quick inception of a Syrian opposition under the rubric of the Syrian National Council, as well as its equally dependent and ineffectual successors, has been a virtual disaster for any movement seeking to depose the authoritarian regime. This is caused in part by mimicking some of its practices regarding favoritism, corruption, and lack of transparency, but mostly because of its failure to develop an independent platform that includes all potential Syrian opposition groups, including the ones that refused to have external masters and external intervention in Syria. Along with the seemingly simultaneously ubiquitous and elusive FSA (Free Syrian Army, what is often termed the Syrian secular opposition), and certainly the regime’s incessant brutality, these early risers helped set the stage for what came next during the second half of 2011 and matured in 2012 and 2013: a penetrated militarization of the uprising that continued to serve and swell the ranks of extremists groups that eventually pulled the rug from under any decent notion of a collective uprising.

The arguments that focus exclusively on the regime’s role in militarizing the conflict do not take into consideration the meteoric rise of violence that was either encouraged or spun out of control from the other side, all with external inpouring of material support from the usual suspect discussed above. Other opposition factions developed their military wings before, or without, developing a movement, contributing more to radicalization and to the undermining of the uprising than to deposing the regime. The various dealing with Israel on several grounds of some of the militants is not just a warning signal, but a good indicator of where the country would be headed under their control should these specific groups prevail. 

How can such opposition groups prevail if their supporters are equally horrific, though globally more brutal, as the regime they are trying to depose?

As discussed at the outset, that is not to say that the “opposition” and all its supporters are of one color, or equally responsible for the chaos, violence, and thuggish-ness that proliferated. In contrast to what some would like to believe, millions of Syrians still vehemently oppose the regime, and just like those trapped by the regime as the lesser evil among other choices, those other segments of Syrians are trapped by the existing varieties of militant opposition. Still, many are resisting and building in their own way irrespective, on all sides, and it is these people who will be the future of Syrian; not the regime and its cronies nor the militant opposition, and one hopes not the civilian opposition “leaders” residing in Doha and Istanbul. 

The ISIS* Factor

Finally, the ISIS factor is at once very much part of a potential settlement in Syria and a regional factor that is certainly not limited to resolving the crisis in that country. From the very beginning of the meteoric rise of IS, many of us warned of taking extreme positions on ISIS’s future. In this very publication, I cautioned in September 2014 against assuming a continuing whole-sale take-over by ISIS and against dismissing its rise as ephemeral. The lessons learned regarding the ISIS phenomenon throw into stark relief the impact of the combination of external superpower aggression and both internal repression and economic exploitation. It is almost comical how pro-regime analysts blame the rise of radical Islamists primarily on external intervention and how pro-US and pro-opposition analysts blame that rise primarily on the regime’s oppression. The following will center the discussion on Syria.

(*leaving ISIS as the designation, as opposed to IS, is deliberate).

In Syria, Islamists had absolutely no political place after the 1982 regime-led massacre in Hama. During the past decade, Arab Gulf funds—notably from Saudia Arabia—steadily supported “cultural” and charity-based Islamic activism and networking.  Consequently, the transformation into radicalism needed but a spark. The regime’s brutal repression of protests at the outset, and the eventual support of the “friends of Syria” (listed above) for the fight against the regime, ensured that sectarianization quickly followed the militarization of the uprising, with extremist groups spearheading the effort.

Not anticipating the transformation despite ample warnings, non-Islamist opposition members did not distinguish between supporting such radical Islamist groups and supporting other opponents of the regime. Only now, in retrospect, did such lack of discernment strike many (not all) as irresponsible and counter-revolutionary. The rise of ISIS deflected attention from focusing the fight against the Syrian regime, depleted a measure of the fighting force of various opposition groups, and bifurcated regional and international pressure and preferences regarding the potential role of the Syrian regime in any settlement, at least for the time being. All the while, both Syria and its neighbor Iraq, as social and political entities, are/were being incrementally damaged, reminding us of the difficulty of seeing the Syrian calamity only as a local issue. It is also a reminder that the states that developed some sort of opposition—direct, indirect, principled or not—to regional dominance of the United States and its local allies have been torn apart by wars and invasions. This list includes Syria, Iraq, and Libya (notwithstanding the Libyan rapprochement with the Bush administration prior to 2008).

The destruction of Syria and Iraq may have well been catalyzed by their respective rulers. However, this destruction was ultimately supported and encouraged (or directly and savagely managed in the case of Iraq) by all these actors. For these actors, all voices that reject external dominance with select regional players as beneficiaries must be contained. To say so is neither a puzzle nor a discovery. This is not to be forgotten, even as a potential “deal” might be struck between Iran and the United States. After all, why should this (or Iran) be outside the dominance formula?

Most other players not discussed above are less consequential or are spin-offs of the above actors and dynamics. In all cases, their impact on the Syrian scene is less immediate. At best, they are a subject of another treatment.

The Difficult Road Ahead: The Irony of Settling Destructive Stalemates

For now, there is no escaping the grim reality that there are no satisfying answers in Syria. Quick fixes that do not engage the above-listed contradictions will reproduce the same demons, even if with a time lag. Not all is lost, so long as we do not place undue hope in the actors and dynamics above. The requirements of a negotiated settlement—an exit from the current mayhem and destruction of Syrian society—are diametrically opposed to the requirements of revolution. There is a political choice that has to be made. But not all parties are ready or convinced of this need, for all parties’ fate is now firmly tied to external actors.

In the mean time, we can separate the social from the political in terms of moving forward. The social dimension, the continuity of life, does not have to wait for a political solution (or even military solution).

Socially speaking, careful examination of productive rebuilding and regeneration efforts yields that they can no longer be holistic. They cannot rest on one formula or one solution or one source. They must be a function of aggregate types of actions and efforts that do not need to be necessarily harmonious. The idea that there needs to be a center is as increasingly untenable, and undesirable, as it potentially oppressive.  In the context of such decentered moves forward, there will be no icing, but there could be some cake.

Therefore, plugging into one or more of these myriad societal rebuilding efforts that are taking place today, sometime at the neighborhood level, is a gainful way forward for most Syrians, and supporters of a freer and reconstructed Syrian society. Identifying some of these efforts, or creating new ones, is a necessary challenge for any party willing and able to contribute to bringing Syria back from the brink and setting up the building blocks of any workable future. (We will feature in this publication a list of such social and humanitarian efforts, despite their divergent political positions). While ultimately sub-optimal and, for many, unsatisfying, the road ahead in these bleak times in Syria is one of modest and relatively limited initiatives that are often isolated from one another but nonetheless cumulative. The horizon is not yet clear for venturing into or supporting large-scale reconstruction, nor should we clamor for it lest we replace one demon with another prematurely. 

Politically speaking, the answers are always more difficult. Though there is no shortage of analysis, articles, books, and think-tank reports, the same best answer many of us offered previously continues to apply: there is no substitute, despite its difficulty on several counts, to a negotiated political settlement that involves all parties interested in a sovereign Syria. At this point, the argument that certain parties* should not be part of Syria’s future, whether it is the regime or Jabhat al-Nusra, among others, must be weighed against the alternative: i.e., leaving out broad sections of the population that must be part of any settlement, irrespective of who represents their interests. The regime, for instance, is not just the regime and its immediate cronies. For many Syrians, it is a life-vest, for good or for ill. A similar logic applies to other groups.

A concerted effort should be made to emphasize the difference between who represents one’s interests today and who represents Syria’s best interests as a country. The truth is that the answer for the former is vastly different from the answer for the latter according to most Syrians. For supporters of this or that side/group/regime today in Syria are not choosing among many or even good alternatives. They are also in large measure stuck. Therefore, as individuals and groups reject the inclusion of this or that party, they are rejecting close to one-quarter, one-third, or one-half of the population, inadvertently or intentionally, but certainly counter-productively.

Furthermore, rejecting the inclusion of certain parties in negotiation, or calling for their destruction, comes at a price. A collapse of all semblance of a state is an irresponsible way forward under the current and foreseeable circumstances. And denying the participation of parties on the grounds that they are reactionary or connected to outside actors might make a settlement arithmetically meaningless, considering the thick relations between the opposition (as well as the regime) and foreign actors. It will be a long road before internal parties to the conflict come to the realization that the sub-optimal outcome is their best choice. (IS is not included here because it is so far not interested in confining its gaze or ambition to Syria).

The reason why there are no easy answers in Syria is that even this potentially workable solution requires the participation and conviction of the same set of foreign countries that are part of the problem on all sides. Still, this is a much better and potentially more accountable route than a single-side sponsorship of an outcome, considering existing possibilities. However, it would have to take something close to a miracle under the current circumstances to convince the external powers that the opportunity cost of not favoring such a negotiated solution in unison, and the compromises they would have to entertain and eventually make, is actually higher than they can afford. As grim as this might sound, it might have to take a tectonic shift, or a monumental event, in and around the Syrian scene to spur the adoption of such simple, if improbable, logic.

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