During the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, we took a clear position against [imperialist] war and against dictatorships: la li-al-harb, la li-al-dictatoriyat. Today, no such simple slogan is possible. That slogan is old. We need new positions, new slogans. We need to find our way out of the confusion of today.
-- Sahar Mandour, columnist for As-Safir and novelist, Beirut, 16 September.
Death and displacement has begun to define Syria. The numbers are suffocating. One cannot keep up with them. For the displaced, now near seven million, relief cannot come fast enough–and in fact does not seem to come at all for many. Of the dead, little can be said. The UN team now confirms the use of sarin in the rocket attacks on Ghouta, east of Damascus. It was not in the team’s mandate to say who fired the rockets. Whether it was the Asad regime itself or rogue elements, or (an unlikely scenario) the rebels, it is devastating. The number of dead in that attack is around one thousand, a sizable fraction of the hundred thousand dead so far in this seemingly unending war.
The rebellion, which began in Dar‘a as a peaceful demonstration against an autocratic regime, morphed largely due to the intransigence and the violence of the Asad system into a fissiparous brutality encaging the democratic core that remains and shrinks. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) crosses swords with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as much as it does against the regime. Al-Nusra and ISIS fight each other, as both are fired upon by the Kurdish popular protection committees (the YPG). Pockets of northern and eastern Syria are in the hands of al-Nusra and ISIS to the consternation of their local populations and of the less Islamist parts of the rebellion. In Eastern Ghouta, over the summer, on the other hand, sections of the Free Syrian Army united with a variety of groups including al-Farouq Omar Battalion, the Lions of Allah, the Islam Battalion, al-Bara‘ Battalion, Islam’s Monotheism Battalion–but most starkly Jabhat al-Nusra. Unity in some places, seemingly under the hegemony of the Islamists, but disunity elsewhere.
In other parts of Syria, the Free Syrian Army seems in charge, and yet in other parts matters remain in the hands of what Yasser Munif calls the “peaceful activists.” During a two-month trip to northern Syria, Munif went to Manbij, near Aleppo. What he saw there is that the people, under the leadership of the peaceful activists, fought off the attempt by the ISIS to take charge of the city. As he describes it:
Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra (which became the Islamic State later) entered the city and tried to control it. They tried to do so several times since then, but they failed. They try to intimidate the population by patrolling the city. They tried to take over the mills three times but failed. They were very much against the revolutionary court but were not able to close it. They tried to close several newspapers but were not successful. They tried to take over mosques but the religious establishment in the city prevented them. Most recently, the revolutionary council sent a threatening message to the ISIS because they assassinated the imam of the grand mosque who did not want the ISIS to take over his mosque. The message was clear: either they (ISIS) leave the city or they will be expelled by force. They are almost not present in the city anymore.
Such reports are heartening, but not too common. In Raqqa, Munif notes, the ISIS has established an emirate, although even here there are regular demonstrations against their rule. “Even in Jarablous where the entire revolutionary council was arrested and put in the ISIS prison,” Munif said, “a week ago there was an uprising in the city and people are becoming very critical of the practices of the the ISIS. They want them to leave the city.”
If what Munif reports were general across Syria, then the anxiety that one senses amongst friends would not be so grave. The rebels are in disarray. The most recent thrust by the ISIS in northern Syria, given the name of “Expunging Filth,” has either expelled or absorbed the FSA units in Raqqa, with on-going fierce fighting in Tabqa. The border town of A‘zaz is in ISIS hands, and the Turks have closed the border. The embers of the 2011 revolution seem to be smothered by the ISIS in large sections of northern Syria.
On the ground, then, Gulf Arab money and personnel have redefined the nature of the rebellion. In the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), as well, matters are not good. Over three years, the SNC has been unable to draft a clear and patriotic program for Syria. Its absence is not a sign of lack of imagination, but of the subordination of the SNC to the petty fights amongst their Gulf Arab benefactors. The SNC stumbled when it essentially allowed a palace coup to remove Mo‘az al-Khatib from his post. After much infighting, the SNC finally appointed Ahmad Saleh Touma as its prime minister. Ghassan Hitto resigned because he was seen to be too close to the tarnished star of Qatar. The marks of Gulf Arab infighting are all over the Coalition, much to its discredit.
The rebels are in disarray, and despite Gilbert Achcar’s effusions that they must alone overthrow Asad, do not seem capable of it. The rebels are not a homogeneous force, and amongst them are sections of those whose ideology terrifies others amongst them. This disunity, as Munif notes, is real, and it has no objective basis for reversal. If it is the case that sections of the ISIS are from outside Syria, then there is not even the cord of Syrian nationalism to unite them against Asad. One section wants a more democratic Syria, while the other wants an emirate of Syria: the lines that divide them, if we are to be honest with the facts, are deeper than any subjective hatred of Asad can bridge.
It is from a realization of this impasse that perhaps we see this conclusion: if the rebels are stuck, then the tonic that might work is a US military strike. No one person amongst us likes this, but if we assume that it is the only thing that can break the stalemate, then it seems to be a terrible necessity. Either the US strikes to help oxygenate the rebellion or the rebellion will linger on in a wounded state, with the ISIS taking the upper hand as its own sense of its inevitable victory overshadows the despondency of the “peaceful activists.” That is the framework that seems to lead many friends and comrades into a hopeless support for a US military intervention.
But the West has no intention of intervention in a fashion great enough to topple or wound Asad. Obama said he would strike the Asad regime with Tomahawk missiles, which the US military said would have “limited tactical effect.” On 10 September 2013, Obama said, “I don`t think we should remove another dictator with force.” What the United States would provide is a face-saving moral strike, even after the conclusive UN report from 16 September that establishes that sarin was used in Ghouta. This will not assist the rebels. The West is not going to act in the way imagined.
To say that the rebels are in disarray, with little capability to overthrow the Asad regime alone, to say that the United States is not interested (for reasons that have to do with Tel Aviv as well) in overthrowing Asad–to say all that is not to end up with nothing. It is not to end up with the status quo, giving the Asad regime free reign to crush the rebels and to end the hopes of a new Syria. This is not the way forward.
Other paths are open, if we allow ourselves to push for them. Other social forces need to be brought to bear on the Syrian catatonia.
During 2012, an unlikely group of regional players—Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—formed the Syria Contact Group in order to provide muscle for a defanged UN Envoy Kofi Annan. Before they could get going the United States and Russia decided to side-line them, and moved the discussion to Spain for bilateral talks on Syria. The message was that only the United States and Russia has the authority to set the agenda for Syria. Not even the Syrians. The Syria Contact Group folded not long after, suffocated by this Cold War attitude and by the internecine problems amongst the members. But new regional potential are available:
- Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan are weighted down by the refugee crisis. The creation of a Regional Syrian Refugee Crisis Team would allow these countries to create a common platform to deal with the humanitarian relief problems that bedevil them all. Recognizing the need for coordination, the United Nations has appointed Nigel Fisher as the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator. Now Fisher and the four regional countries need to create a modus vivendi to deal with the severe crisis for each of these countries. But Fisher’s ambit is largely going to be on relief. A four-country conference would allow these countries to move from coordination around relief to a consideration of the political root of the refugee crisis.
- Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq voted against the Gulf Arab proposal at the Arab League meeting to give backing to the US strike. These countries need to now push for a regional solution based on their refusal to allow an armed strike. Pressure needs to come on them to involve themselves as a bloc to push the Asad regime and the rebels to recognize that there is no path for either toward total victory. Negotiation is the only way.
- Iran has a new leadership, which has reached out to its immediate neighbors seeking a new foundation for relations. The new head of government Hasan Rouhani has said that Iran would welcome any elected Syrian leader. This can, of course, mean anything. After all Bashar al-Asad is technically an elected leader. But it indicates that there is a sense in Iran that the legitimacy of Asad is deeply compromised and that if there were another election he might not want to put himself forward for the sake of Syria. This is a productive gesture, and it could mean an Iranian feint to save Syria from destruction. In the Obama-Rouhani letters, there is apparently a sentiment that Iran might be brought to the table to build confidence for Geneva 2. Iran might want to insist that that table include Saudi Arabia, and the immediate neighbors of Syria. Only such a table would be able to exert genuine pressure on all sides in this dispute.
Progressives in the region need to try and strengthen these social forces to enter the Syrian dialogue. The road to salvation in Syria does not only go through the Pentagon. It might have to wind its way through Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, Amman, Algiers, Cairo, and Tehran–a circuit that has concrete stakes in the germination of a political process in Syria. The West could live with perpetual war. It would weaken Hizbollah, Israel’s main threat and it would bring disorder to what the West fears, the illusion of Iranianism. Syria cannot survive perpetual war. It needs the strength of the region to recover from the dark night of the Ba‘th and the dark dawn of ISIS and al-Nusra. Diplomacy has not been exhausted. No regional approach has been permitted to get off the ground. This has to be the focus of energy.