The war in Syria—cui bono?

15. 3. 2017

While protest swept through a range of Arab countries, due to the apathy of its population Syria was known as the “silent kingdom”. Who might benefit from the present-day chaos and bloodletting, who are the actors of the clashes and what are the root causes of the conflict that many analysts hesitate, rather unnecessarily, to call a civil war.

A Personal Prelude

When I first visited Syria ten years ago, I was enchanted with this Arab country. In the course of some fifteen longer visits between 2002 and 2011, I came to associate Syria with friendly smiles and warm hospitality the like of which you couldn’t experience anywhere else in the world. I suspect that those who know this country only from the news and are thus familiar only the with the horrifying images of war in devastated Syrian cities and villages might find it hard to imagine the charming atmosphere of a peaceful Syria.

Yet for me personally, Syria had until recently been a country where on arrival at Damascus International Airport “taxi drivers“ would enquire with concern whether I had somewhere to stay. And as incredible as it sounds, I have accepted their offer quite a few times and stayed with drivers who valiantly resisted any offers of payment and who, on the contrary, turned out to be caring and attentive hosts. Another personal memory conjures up the dusty setting of the Syrian desert, where I succumbed to sudden fever, bringing on a shivering fit. Not only did the Syrian soldiers on duty, who happened to be travelling on the same bus, selflessly go hunting for hot tea and some sweets for a foreigner in distress, but five of them took off their army tunics to cover me. It might sound overly theatrical to say that this is just one of countless stories of this kind I could tell of Syria.

That is why, on a personal level, I find it so painful to watch the present-day frenzy, and that is why I relate so directly to the current events that are likely to transform Syria forever, leaving deep scars on the Syrian people’s souls and fraying the fabric of Syrian society, once so artless in its relations with foreigners. And that is why I find it fascinating to explore the question of who might benefit from the present-day chaos and bloodletting, who are the actors of the clashes and what are the root causes of the conflict that many analysts hesitate, rather unnecessarily, to call a civil war.

A Jasmine Inspiration for Syria?

Fascinating historical events have been unfolding since December 2010, arousing not only frenetic enthusiasm in the Arab world but also depressing reflections concerning the current state of Arab societies and their (lack of ) prosperity. By staging the first so-called “Jasmine Revolution“, Tunisia became the first magnet for a pan-Arabic and global public, who watched the collapse of the Tunisian autocracy live on TV and, in January 2011, followed the flight of the enlightened dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whom a Tunisian tribunal sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2012. In 2011 Egypt, the preeminent country of the Arab world, was convulsed by brief yet intense storms that took a surprisingly short time to sweep from power President Mubarak, now hovering between life and death in a hospital. It is almost inconceivable that the Egyptian army elites would not allow Mubarak (b. 1929), with his background in the military, to die peacefully in his own bed, even though an Egyptian court sentenced him—at least symbolically—to life imprisonment in June 2012.

By contrast, the brief civil war that broke out in Yemen in 2011 was additionally complicated by a protracted Shia uprising in the north, separatist tendencies in the country’s south and an armed conflict with Islamist radicals, al-Qaida’s ideological adherents. By 2012 the civil war had forced Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s long-standing leader, to flee the country and, like the deposed Tunisian president, seek refuge in Saudi Arabia. Yemen itself, however, has undergone only a cosmetic change which, seen from the outside, hasn’t significantly upset the old order. On the other hand, the civil war in Libya was much more dramatic, accompanied as it was by a completely short-sighted and very foolish NATO operation in support of an—from the Western perspective—almost unknown and unpredictable conglomerate of opposition forces, which have turned Libya into an unstable state, conducive to a thriving Islamist radicalism. The ignominous death of the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in October 2011 and the tragicomic footage of Libyan families filming their dead leader on their mobile phones might be symbolic of the beginning of an era in which once-stable Libya may slowly turn into a Somalia of North Africa. Eastern Libya, in particular, does not inspire much optimism in terms of the country’s future direction.

While popular uprisings briefly flared up and died down in Jordan, Algeria, and a few other states—a variety of internal and external factors specific to each country being responsible for the the fizzling out of these short-lived revolutions— it was Syria that has, quite suprisingly for many, turned out to be the most infernal piece among the Arab revolution dominoes.

The Roots of the 18-month-long Syrian Crisis

While protest swept through a range of Arab countries, due to the apathy of its population, Syria was known as the “silent kingdom”. As a matter of fact, Syria was a country that, in its own way, almost cried out for internal unrest, certainly more than Tunisia. The country was plagued by a heavy-handed bureaucracy loathed by many ordinary citizens, ruled by a rigid police regime which political scientists had mockingly dubbed a “hereditary republic”, and the majority of Syrians was afflicted by the country’s economic decay. On the other hand, the regime enjoyed the apparently schizophrenic support of a large proportion of Syrians, who appreciated the total security in the streets of their cities, an almost zero-level crime rate, socialist-style government guardianship, free education, as well as some tentative economic, rather than political, reforms.

At this particular juncture, just as the Syrian regime might have attempted to introduce tentative reforms, there came the impatient and electrifying “Arab Spring”, stretching into the dramatic “Arab Winter” of 2011, ushering in a host of mass rallies and deposing leaders who had once seemed invincible. It would have been surprising if the shockwaves of these events hadn’t found an echo in Syria, although nobody could have predicted that the spark that would ignite a bloody civil war would come from the quite insignificant and little known town of Daraa close to the country’s southern border. With its proliferation of grey concrete and satellite dishes, coming alive at night to omnipresent Arabic music, with families with large numbers of children and pulsating street traffic, this small town resembles thousands of other anonymous Middle Eastern cities. Yet a local incident transformed this little Syrian town not far from the border with Jordan, full of taxis, smugglers of stolen goods and jewellers’ shops, into a symbol of the so-called “Syrian revolution”.

What happened was that in March 2011 a few wayward youths (the oldest being no more than 17) scribbled some anti-government slogans on a wall. Syrian security services, whether driven by conviction or excessive zeal, overreacted, detaining fifteen young men, which shocked and outraged the people of Daraa. The punishment for an innocent and immature schoolboy prank was too harsh even by Syrian standards and provoked the wrath of local inhabitants, particularly the detained youths’ extended families. They attacked government buildings and set them alight, chanting slogans of “no more fear“. It is quite likely that without the “Jasmine“ inspiration and images from Tunisia, Egypt and other countries, similar fervent protests would either not have taken place in Daraa at all, or would have followed a very different course, and also that the response on the part of Syrian authorities and the provincial governor would have been less heavyhanded. But a relatively speedy apology from Syria’s leader and the sacking of the governor was no longer enough to quell the flames of revolution. It is quite certain that the bad quality footage of a local Daraa uprising against the state and the attrocities committed by the authorities, passed on by mobile phones and on the Internet, went on to inspire and embolden various sections of the Syrian population who had until then been too afraid to show their discontent with a number of aspects of life in the country. Suddenly the Syrian uprising was born, gradually gaining on momentum and urgency, ignited by a rather tiny incident and subsequently hungrily fed not only by social media, but also by longconcealed frustrations and a widespread sense of injustice in society and, in the case of some Syrians, also by a fervent hatred of the regime that had imprisoned or wronged them in some way or another in the past, perhaps by imprisoning or killing their relatives.

The ensuing developments—the crowds of protesters joining the resistance against the regime in various parts of the country—are now history, to use a hackneyed phrase. It is quite certain that, had it not been for some instances of brutal responses by law enforcement agencies the uprising against the regime might not have grown to such gigantic proportions. However, to be fair to the Syrian regime that is being lambasted so ferociously, its blunders and brutality have sometimes been cunningly exploited by radical elements, who added fuel to the flames by deliberate provocations, such as sudden firing from a crowd of peaceful protesters, which , of course, made the police and army fire into a rally that had been peaceful until then; or the growing number of bloody ambushes of security forces, that quite naturally effected a change in the way not only individual members of law enforcement agencies but entire units treated the protesters. This side of the story is very often ignored in the West. Various media outlets, not just Arab ones, and particularly those based in the Persian Gulf, have also played their underhand role, capping their biased coverage of the Syrian conflict by quite indefatigable and noisy accusations against the Syrian regime every time any civilian casualties occurred. Yet, how many massacres over the past eighteen months have really been committed by the Syrian regime? We have absolutely no way of knowing without a proper investigation. It is not difficult to imagine that in some cases cynical opposition groupings, not necessarily comprising only Islamist radicals from abroad, may have been responsible for some of the atrocities, driven by the motto “the end justifies the means“ and helped to fan the flame of anti-regime hatred by cleverly publicized cases that make the West squeal with horror, and are immediately laid at the door of Assad’s regime.

Syria—a Plaything in a Battle for Supremacy

Syria has undoubtedly been a hardline dictatorship since 1970. General Hafez al-Assad was the country‘s undisputed ruler from the moment he seized power until his death in 2000, when his son Bashar al-Assad “inherited“ the country. At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, when Syria found itself on the brink of civil war, Hafez al-Assad stamped out the threat against his rule in the brutal massacre of February 1982, razing to the ground the centre of the city of Hama, a bastion of conservative thought and a breeding ground for resistance to his dictatorship. Tens of thousands of casualties left a very bitter taste in radical Islamist circles, who either went into exile or chose to lock themselves away in a kind of private underground. In 2000 the young President Assad didn’t find himself in an easy position and one can only surmise to what extent the initially promising political reforms (the so-called “Damascus Spring”) were a natural initiative on his part, or to what extent their abrupt ending in 2001 was orchestrated by the old guard surrounding the inexperienced leader. Or perhaps the sudden crackdown on dissidents was initiated by the President himself, worried about the excessively fast—that is, dangerous—pace of change in his first year in office? At that point, many freedom-loving people must have lost their faith in the chance of the regime ever giving them more freedom.

The current conflict is often being explained by reference to the complex ethnic and religious mosaic of Syrian society. The ruling Alawite sect is a specific branch of Shia Islam, comprising just over ten per cent of the population. They had ensured that, until recently, Syria was a very tolerant society, for it was the Alawites who had set the country on a secular course over the past forty years. Around 70 per cent of the population are Sunni Muslims; some 10 per cent are Kurds (predominantly Sunni); while an estimated 8–10 per cent are composed of various Christian faiths. This population structure currently largely determines who backs the Syrian regime and who supports the various anti-regime movements.

It has to be said that the Syrian unrest, provoked by the events in Daraa, was initially unified across the country by the opposition to the undemocratic regime, which made the spontaneous outbreak of popular discontent in Syria quite understandable. Few nations are keen on widespread and heartrending poverty, rising unemployment, omnipresent corruption, lack of opportunities for young people, with all that topped by an all-pervasive whiff of oppression. But while these factors might not have been sufficient on their own, in Syria’s case they were rendered more explosive by the inspirational example of successful Arab revolutions as well as the fact that over half of the population is under the age of 25. As a result, we witnessed growing unrest in large cities such as Homs and Hama during the course of 2011, and in 2012, the violence has spread to the most populous Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus. This year we have seen more and more ominous signs of sectarian incidents.

Moreover, to an increasing extent the conflict in Syria has been turning into a battleground for deciding the supremacy of two key regional actors. On one side there is the increasingly confident and rapacious Sunni Turkey with her Islamist political elites, which has been on the rise over the past decade, striving to assume a dominant role not only in the Middle East, but also more generally in the wider Islamic world. In recent years Turkey has presented itself as a patron and loyal friend to the Arab world. This attitude and ideology, which some analysts don’t hesitate to regard as the latest incarnation of “neo‑Ottomanism“, has gone hand in hand with a creeping Islamicisation of Turkish society; with disgraceful purges in the ranks of the Turkish army—regarded by the ruling AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan as an undesirable pillar of secularism and unwavering guardian of Atatürk’s legacy—as well as with a sharp cooling off in the once-flourishing relations with Israel. A good illustration of Turkey’s new course is the hysterical response to the Israeli paratroop commandos parachuting onto Mavi Marmara, the ship that tried to break the blockade of Gaza in 2009. Countries that support expansionist Turkey’s position on Syria include US, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Turkey’s opponent in the battle for supremacy is its neighbour Iran, a Shiite theocracy and an oil-rich country that doesn’t hesitate to extend its staunch, yet quite pragmatic support, to every surge of Shia Islam, even at the expense of backing various terrorist groupings and bloody civil unrest. In the context of this realpolitik the Iranian regime is not only seeking to expand its influence among, for example, the Iraqi Shia Muslims, but is also quite happy to fan Shiite unrest in predominantly Shia Bahrain or in Saudi Arabia, whose eastern oil regions are, ironically, populated by a Shia minority, of whom the Saudi elites are justifiably wary. Iran’s view of the events in Syria and its Syrian policy is shared primarily by Russia, closely followed by China and, de facto, also by Iraq.

All this has turned Syria into the proverbial plaything in a fascinating struggle for regional supremacy. Although Turkey and Iran are ostensibly on friendly terms, a vicious battle is raging behind the scenes and is likely to widen the rift in the relations beetween the two neighbours. However, a closer look shows that the relations between Turkey and Iran are far from black and white. Turkey receives a third of its oil and a third of its gas from Iran, economic links between the two countries have been thriving, and Turkey, in particular, has been very reserved about making any public anti-Iran statements. And as if more paradoxes were needed, in 2010–2011 Turkey gave its consent to a radar base in the southeast of the country, which will form part of an antimissile shield that Tehran, quite righly, perceives as being directed against Iran.

Who Does the Syrian Opposition Consist of?

What initially appeared to be a simple question has by now turned into an indecipherable riddle. While at the dawn of the uprising the anti-regime crowds were mostly composed of patriotic Syrians furious with their leadership, the present-day picture of Syrian opposition is much more uncertain and blurred, particularly since thousands of Syrian army and police members began to defect. Although many have sought shelter at home, with relatives or in remote parts of the country, others have begun to set up urban guerilla formations or fled the country and started to set up cells of resistance abroad. Still others have stayed in the country, forming their own anti-regime militias, which in time have most probably welcomed to their ranks a varied and opaque mix of civilians, foreign Islamist radicals, as well as deserters from various security agencies. In this opaque situation, it is likely that a number of further paramilitary formations have emerged, formed on purely family, clan and tribal links or, possibly, on long-term friendly and professional ties. However, we can only guess what role ethnic and religious affiliations might play in the formation of these groups.

I don’t believe that the regime is as weak as the media would have us believe, and dare say that it enjoys far greater support among the population than most people in the West are willing to credit. Apart from an overwhelming majority of Alawites the regime still has the backing of many Christians and Syrian Kurds, who see a future potentially dominated by Sunnis as a religious threat, tantamount to a curtailing of their future freedom as ethnic and religious minorities. I have personally often heard Syrian Christians professing, passionately and with full conviction, in the privacy of their homes, their “love of Bashar“. In addition, there is one more thing we must realize: if, as claimed, the Sunnis who comprise two-thirds of the population, are against the regime, how is it possible that it has survived for so long? Obviously a large part of Syrian Sunnis supports the regime and the Syrian army, which reflects the structure of Syrian society and is not comprised solely of Alawites.

Since August 2001, the so-called Syrian National Council (SNC) has tried to present a unified voice of the opposition; while since July 2011 the armed opposition has been represented by the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). Its relationship with the SNC is rather unclear, which in itself is a telling symbol of the internal conflicts within the Syrian opposition. Another opposition force that has been trying to exert its influence is the Muslim Brotherhood, which was silenced for years following the Hama massacre, although in my view their influence is not yet all that significant. And whereas the SNC is likely to be “riddled“ with French and US intelligence, Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency has probably been successful in inflitrating various parts of the FSA. After all, the FSA is totally dependent on Turkey, which keeps its finger on the pulse of the Syrian war by, for example, debriefing high-ranking Syrian defectors.

The lines between the camps are thus quite clearly drawn. The main sources of funds allowing Syrian opposition to buy arms and other material are two undemocratic Sunni regimes, Saudi Arabia and Quatar, who would like to see not only an allied, grateful and friendly Sunni Syria, but also a visibly weakened Shia Iran, which they see as a threat to their internal order; in addition, these ultraconservative monarchies would love to see the weakening of a (Shia) religious rival. Aid from the Persian Gulf is being effectively mediated by the Turkish MIT intelligence, whose new leadership under its director Hakan Fidan has recently been successfully ridding itself of “elements“ that disapprove of the country’s Islamicising course.

Furthermore, the MIT might also be perceived as an extension of the arm of the US, even though the Americans have so far shown a surprisingly bashful restraint when it comes to supplying the Syrian opposition with modern anti-tank and anti-missile weapons. For there is no shortage of evidence that radicals from all over the Islamic world have been flocking to Syria. An example is the famous defender of Turkish Islamists, Turkish lawyer Osman Karahan, who died as a Mujaheed in Syrian Aleppo in August 2012 while fighting government troops. And how should one respond to the news that in April the Lebanese navy intercepted a ship close to its shores: Luftallah II, allegedly belonging to a rich Egyptian, was flying the flag of Sierra Leone and on its way from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Libya to collect arms, and to sail from there to the eastern Mediterannean to deliver the contraband to Syrian rebels. It is common knowledge that the new Libyan leadership’s contact person for the FSA is the well-known Libyan “Afghan veteran“ Abdul Hakim Belhaj, regarded by many as an Islamist radical.

The Syrian regime is currently supported by Iran, which supplies it not only with arms and matériel, but also with advisers and fighters. The US influence over the Shiite Iraqi administration seems to be diminishing, and it must be quite frustrating for the Americans to see that, contrary to their wishes, the Iraqis have been allowing Iranian planes to fly over their territory to deliver aid to the besieged Syrian regime. And while even his Palestinian allies have gradually abandoned their erstwhile protector Bashar al-Assad, the pro-Iranian Lebanese movement Hezbollah has so far continued to support the Syrian government.

What Next?

Unfortunately, the influence of radical foreign Islamist guerilla groups is likely to grow. It is largely thanks to them that the uprising against the Syrian regime is beginning to take on an increasingly ominous nature. Suicide attacks targeting Syrian government forces, as well as some sectarian massacres, have already partly besmirched the reputation of the Syrian antigovernment uprising. In the future, we can quite certainly expect evidence of a growing influence of radical Islamist movements within the ranks of the Syrian opposition, which will be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for secular and patriotic Syrians, who have never been too keen on “their revolution“ being desecrated and hijacked by groups whose ideology smacks of al-Qaida. Most tragic in this development will be the fact that some of the once peaceful Syrian youths may turn into future Islamist radicals because of the war and its accompanying brutality, the disappointments as well as the inspirational potential of hundreds of Libyan, Turkish and other Islamists who are already fighting in Syria.

The majority of Syrians who are, unfortunately, likely to become increasingly radicalized as a result of the clashes are therefore likely to gradually stop believing in the “non-sectarian“ character of the civil war. I am afraid that what looms in Syria is a protracted and indecisive civil war that will draw increasingly sharp lines between individual ethnic and religious communities in once-tolerant Syria. Ordinary Iraqis would hardly have dreamt, in the early years of the Iraq uprising, of the grim situation into which the so-called sectarian war between the Sunnis and Shias in 2006–2007 would plunge them. And neither should we forget the Bosnian scenario, where the local idealists also initially believed that the frenzy of “a handful of fanatics“ couldn’t possibly infect communities that had lived together peacefully for many years.

Alas, we can’t expect the Syrian war to stop being a vicarious battle between conflicting interests of regional actors and global powers either. If Iran finds itself under increased pressure because of its involvement in the Syrian campaign, Tehran might respond by mobilizing Saudi Shiites to more spectacular acts of resistence, although the Iranian regime might be less successful in trying to incite unrest in Bahrain. The more the Syrian regime is pushed into a corner, the more likely it will be to support the Kurdish PKK in “giving hell“ to a hostile Ankara, and not only in southeast Turkey.

I believe that Syria ought to be left to its own devices and that the West, in particular, ought not to interfere in the ongoing conflict, and certainly not by arming the opposition. The war in Syria may yet become the unexpected catalyst for many further problems throughout the Middle East.

Tomáš Raděj

Tomáš Raděj is an Arabist. He teaches at Masaryk University in Brno, and has served as the Czech Republic’s consul in Baghdad.

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