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Unfolding the Syrian paradox

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By Alastair Crooke

(source: Conflicts Forum)

Can Syria properly be understood as an example of a “pure” Arab popular revolution, an uprising of non-violent, liberal protest against tyranny that has been met only by repression? I believe this narrative to be a complete misreading, deliberately contrived to serve quite separate ambitions. The consequences of turning a blind eye to the reality of what is happening in Syria entails huge risk: the potential of sectarian conflict that would not be confined to Syria alone.

One of the problems with unfolding the Syria paradox is that there is indeed a genuine, domestic demand for change. A huge majority of Syrians want reform. They feel the claustrophobia of the state’s inert heavy-handedness and of the bureaucracy’s haughty indifference toward their daily trials and tribulations. Syrians resent the pervasive corruption, and the arbitrary tentacles of the security authorities intruding into most areas of daily life. But is the widespread demand for reform itself the explanation for the violence in Syria, as many claim?

There is this mass demand for reform. But paradoxically — and contrary to the “awakening” narrative — most Syrians also believe that President Bashar al-Assad shares their conviction for reform. The populations of Damascus, Aleppo, the middle class, the merchant class, and non-Sunni minorities (who amount to one quarter of the population), among others, including the leadership of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, fall into this category. They also believe there is no credible ‘other’ that could bring reform.

What then is going on? Why has the conflict become so polarized and bitter, if there is indeed such broad consensus?

I believe the roots of the bitterness lie in Iraq, rather than in Syria, in two distinct ways. Firstly, they extend back into the thinking of the Sunni jihadist trend, as advanced by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which evolved in Iraq, surfaced violently in Lebanon, and was transposed into Syria with the return of many Syrian Salafist veterans at the ‘end’ of the Iraq conflict. Secondly, and separately, the bitterness in Syria is also linked to a profound sense of Sunni grievance felt by certain Arab states at Sunni political disempowerment following Nouri al-Malaki’s rise to power in Iraq, for which they hold Assad responsible.

In a precursor to present36in Syria, the Lebanese Army too in 2007battled with a group of Sunni militants of diverse nationalities who had all fought in Iraq. The group, Fateh al-Islam, had infiltrated Naheral-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon from Syria, and had married into Palestinian families living there. Although the core of foreign fighters was quite small in number, they were well-armed and experiencedin urban combat. They attracted a certain amount of local Lebanese support too. That bloody conflict with Lebanon’s army endured for more than three months. At the end, Naher al-Bared was in ruins; and 168 of the Lebanese Army lay dead.

That event was the culmination of a pattern of movements from Afghanistan and across the region into, and from, Iraq. Most of these radicalized Sunnis coming to fight the US occupation had gravitated towards groups loosely associated with Zarqawi. 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 to call the aggregate of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, and parts ofTurkey and Iraq by its old name: “Bilad a-Sham.” Zarqawi and his followers were virulently anti-Shiite — much more so than early al Qaeda— and asserted that a-Sham was a core Sunni patrimony that had been overtaken by the Shia. According to this narrative, the Sunni heartland,Syria, had been usurped for the last 40 years by the Shi’i al-Assads (Alawites are an orientation within Shiism). 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 Shia, namely to Nouri al-Malaki.

From this deep grievance at Sunni disempowerment, Zarqawi allies developed a doctrine in which Syria and Lebanon were no longer platformsfrom which to launch Jihad, but the sites for Jihad (against the Shia 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 ruralvillages lying adjacent to Lebanon and Turkey, and similarly to their confrères in Naher al Barad, they married locally.

It is these elements — as in Lebanon in 2007 — who are the mainspring ofarmed 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 Shia 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 millionlives to overthrow the “Shia” Alawites, the sacrifice will have been worth the loss. Drafting of legislation permitting new political partiesor expanding press freedom are matters of complete indifference for them. The Zarqawi movement rejects Western politics outright.

These Salafi groups are the first side of the Syrian “box”: they do not conform to a single organization, but are generally locally-led and autonomous. Loosely inter-connected through a system of communications, they are well-financed and are externally linked.

The second side to the Syrian box are some exile groups: they too are well-financed by the US government and other foreign sources, and have external connections both in the region and the West. 2009 cables from the US Embassy in Damascus reveal how a number of these groups and TV stations linked to them have received tens of millions of dollars for their work from the State Department and other US-based foundations including training and technical assistance. These exile movements believe they can successfully use the Salafist insurgents for their own ends.

The exiles hoped that a Salafist insurrection against the state — albeitconfined initially to the periphery of Syria — would provoke such a backlash from the Syrian government that, in turn, a mass of people would be polarized into hostility to the state, and ultimately Western intervention in Syria would become inevitable – ideally following the Benghazi model.

That has not happened, although Western leaders, such as French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, have done much to keep this prospect alive. It is the exiles, often secular and leftist, that are trying to “fix” the Syria narrative for the media. These expatriates have coached the Salafists in “color” revolution techniques in order to portray an unalloyed story of massive and unprovoked repression by a regime refusing reform, whilst the army disintegrates under the pressure of being compelled to kill its countrymen. Al Jazeera and Al Arabia have cooperated in advancing this narrative by broadcasting anonymous eyewitness accounts and video footage, without asking questions (see Ibrahim Al-Amine here, for instance).

Yet the Salafists understand that the exiles are using them to provoke incidents, and then to corroborate a media narrative of repression by the external opposition; this might actually serve Salafist interests, too.

These two components may be relatively small in numbers, but the emotional pull from the heightened voice of Sunni grievance — and its need for redress — has a much wider and more significant constituency. It is easily fanned into action, both in Syria and in the region as a whole. Saudi Arabia and Gulf states explicitly trade on fears of Shiia “expansionism” to justify GCC 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 Shia Revolution of Iran. In March, Al Jazeera broadcast a sermon by SheikhYoussef al-Qaradawi, which raised the banner of the restoration of Sunni ascendency in Syria. Qardawi, whois based in Qatar, 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 in traditional centers of Sunni irredentism, such as Homs and Hama in Syria, comprise of aggrieved Sunnis seeking the Alawites ouster, and a return to Sunni ascendency. These are not Salafists, but mainstream Syrians for whom the elements ofSunni 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.

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. The perception that Assad betrayed the Sunni interest in Iraq — although inaccurate — does help account for the vehemence of the Qatari funded Al Jazeera’s pre-prepared information campaign against Assad.

The French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur has reported on one Stockholm media activist who paid an early secret visit to Doha, where al-Jazeera executives offered open access to the pan-Arab channel and coached the person in how to make his videos harder hitting: “Film women and children. Insist that that they use pacificist slogans.”

In contrast, Arabic press reports have been plain about the demands of Assad Gulf states (the “Arabs of America”) and European envoys are insisting on, in return for their support. Ibrahim Al-Amine, chief editor of the independent newspaper al-Akhbar, listed reform steps, which consist of disbanding the ruling party, initiating new legislationon political parties and the press, the dismissing certain officials, withdrawing the army from the streets, and beginning direct and intensive negotiations with Israel. The envoys also suggested that such reforms might provide Assad with the pretext to break his alliance with Hezbollah and Hamas, in addition to severing the resistance aspect of Damascus’s relationship with Tehran.

Making these steps, diplomats have suggested, would facilitate improved relations with Arab states and international capitals and the prospect that oil-rich Arab states would offer Assad a $20 billion aid package, in order to smooth Assad’s path away from any economic dependency on Iran.All of this underlines to the other dimension to36in Syria: its strategic position as the key-stone 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. It is not so clear, however, whether Israel is as anxious as some western officials to see Assad toppled. Israeli officials profess respect for the president. And if Assad were to go, no one knows what may follow in Syria.The US has a record of attempting to intervene in Syria that even predates the CIA and MI6’s 1953 coup in Iran against Prime Minister Mosadegh.

Between 1947 and 1949 American government officials intervened in Syria.Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite. What resulted was a disaster and led ultimately to the rise to power of the Assad family. Western powers may no longer remember this history, but as one BBC commentator recently noted, the Syrians surely do.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US effectively has been threateningthe Syrian President with continuing ultimata to make peace with Israel— in a closely worked double act with Paris. Assad’s rejection of that 2003 threat has given rise to a ratchetting sequence of pressures and threats to the Syrian President, including action at the UNSC; the Special Tribunal on Lebanon and Israeli military action to damage Hesballah and so to shift the balance of power in Lebanon to Assad’s disadvantage. The US also began the liberal funding of Syrian oppositiongroups since at least 2005; and more recently the training of activists, including Syrian activists, on the means to avoid arrest and on secure communications techniques using unlicensed telephone networks and internet software. It is these techniques, plus the training of activists by western NGOs and other media outlets, that also serve armed, militarised insurrection — as well as peaceful pro-democracy protest movements.

The US has also been active in funding directly or indirectly human rights centres that have been so active in providing the unverified casualty figures and eyewitness accounts to the media activists. Some such as the Damascus Centre for Human Rights states its partnership withthe US National Endowment for Democracy and others receive funding from, for example, the Democracy Council and the International Republican Institute. The Syrian government’s decision to ban foreign journalists has of course contributed to giving external activist sources of information the free hand by which to dominate the media narrative on Syria.

The missing side of the Syrian Pandora’s Box, which has been omitted until now, is that of the Syrian army and its response to the protests. The largely Russian-trained army has no experience fighting in a complicated urban setting in which there are genuine protestors togetherwith a small number of armed insurgents who do possess urban warfare and ambush experience from Iraq, and are intent on provoking confrontation with the security forces.

The Syrian army lacks experience in counter-insurgency; it was groomed in the Warsaw Pact school of grand maneuvers and heavy brigades, in which the word ‘nuance’ forms no part of the vocabulary. 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 protestors that were caught in the middle, inflaming tensions with genuine reformists and disconcerting thepublic.Initially, army esteem was affected by the criticism. Though the storiesof 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 faceof 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. The images from Jisr,as well as other videos circulating of lynchings and attacks on the security forces will have shocked many Syrians, who will have perceived in them the same cruel ‘blood lust’ that accompanied the images of Saddam Hussein’s hanging.

The Jisr36may prove to have been a pivotal moment. Army self-confidence and honor is on the rise, and the public majority now see in a way that was less evident earlier that Syria faces a serious threat unrelated to any reform agenda. 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. This, essentially, is the last side to the paradoxical Syrian ‘box’.

In this atmosphere, dramatic reform might well be viewed by the president’s supporters as signalling weakness, even appeasement to thoseresponsible for killing so many police and army officers at Jisr. Not surprisingly, Assad chose to use last week’s speech 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 the Turkish Foreign Minister might, at a certain point, have had a transformatory ‘shock’ effect; it is doubtful that it would achieve thatnow. On the contrary, any hint of concessions having being wrested fromthe 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, President 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. The roots of all these are very far removed from issues of legislative and political reform in Syria.

It would hardly be surprising were Assad to see the aggregate of such measures against him effectively to constitute the mounting of a soft coup. He may query the extent of President Barack Obama’s knowledge of what has been occurring in Syria. It seems unlikely that US officials were wholly ignorant or unaware of the matrix of threats converging to threaten Assad’s stability. And if so, it will not be for the first timethat Syrian officials have noted a ‘left’ hand-‘right’ hand dysfunctionality in the Obama style of foreign policy, whereby contradictory policy approaches are pursued simultaneously by different US officials.

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.

In 2007, Assad noted wryly, in an unscripted addition to his speech, that he had not had the time to pursue effective reform: “We did not even have time to discuss any idea related to the party law among others. At a certain stage, the economy was a priority, but we did not have time to tackle the economic situation. We have been engaged in a decisive battle [on the external front]; and we had to win. There was noother option…”.

Now “reform” is the existential external front. But if the intent of allthis was intended to shift the strategic balance in the Middle East, ithas not worked. It is unlikely that Assad will emerge more pliable to western challenges – any more than he has in the past.

Alastair Crooke is founder and director of Conflicts Forum and is a former adviser to the former EU Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, from 1997–2003.