Below is a brief but excellent overview of the tragic Syrian civil war. The US has allowed itself to become allied with the Sunni Jihadis, some of whom are connected to Al Qaeda. Much of what Seale writes below is a summary of a recent report Syrian Jihadis (published by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs). The report’s author Aron Lund explains how the Syrian rebellion is mutating into an an Islamist colouring, among other things.
Syria’s Long War
Patrick Seale, Agence Global, 28 September 2010
The pitiless, vengeful, blood-thirsty battle now being waged in Syria is not something new or unexpected. Nor is it a mere by-product of the Arab Spring, although events in Tunisia and Egypt have undoubtedly contributed to creating an insurrectionary atmosphere in the whole region. Rather, the Syrian uprising, as it has gradually evolved over the past eighteen months, should be seen as only the latest, if by far the most violent, episode in the long war between Islamists and Ba‘thists, which dates back to the founding of the secular Ba‘th Party in the 1940s. The struggle between them is by now little short of a death-feud.
This is not to suggest that the present rebellion is driven only by religious motives and sectarian hate. Although these are real enough, other grievances have piled up over the past decades: the ravages of youth unemployment; the brutality of Syria’s security services; the domination of key centres of economic, military and political life by the minority Alawi community; the blatant consumerism of a privileged class, grown rich on state patronage, in sharp contrast with the hardship suffered by the mass of the population, including in particular the inhabitants of the ‘poverty belt’ around Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. These deprived suburbs are largely the result of inward migration from the long-neglected countryside, which in the past decade has suffered catastrophic losses from a drought of unprecedented severity.
But beyond all this is the decades-long hostility of Islamists for Syria’s Ba‘th-dominated regime. Formed by two Damascus schoolmasters soon after the Second World War, the Ba‘th party was created as a secular and socialist movement dedicated to bringing about Arab unity and independence. Schoolboy members of the party clashed repeatedly at that time with members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. When the party seized power in Damascus in 1963, its clash with the Islamists burst into the open. The civilian leadership of the party had by then been largely displaced by Ba‘thist officers — including Hafiz al-Asad, father of the current President — mostly from minority backgrounds. In turn, these Ba‘thist officers had allied themselves with Akram al-Hawrani, the charismatic leader of a peasant revolt, which was challenging the great landowners of the central Syrian plain, most of them resident in Hama.
Hama is today remembered as the centre of the Muslim Brothers’ armed uprising against Hafiz al-Asad, which he crushed in blood in February 1982, leaving a bitter legacy of sectarian hostility. Few recall, however, that eighteen years earlier, in April 1964, rioting by Muslim rebels against the Ba‘thist regime had already flared into something like a religious war. Funded by the old land-owning families, enraged at being dispossessed, and egged on by the imam of the Sultan mosque in Hama, the rebels threw up roadblocks, stockpiled food and weapons, ransacked wine shops to spill the offending liquor in the gutters, and beat up any Ba‘th party man they could find.
After two days of street fighting, the regime shelled the Sultan mosque where the rebels had taken cover and from where they had been firing. The minaret collapsed, killing many of them. Many others were wounded but many more disappeared underground. The shelling of the mosque outraged Muslim opinion, igniting a fever of strikes and demonstrations across the country.
Thus, today’s civil war – for that is what it has become — has deep roots in modern Syrian history. The rebellion has increasingly taken on an Islamist colouring, as the Swedish writer Aron Lund explains in an informative 45-page report on Syrian Jihadism, published this month by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. It is striking, as he points out, that virtually all the members of the various armed insurgent groups are Sunni Arabs; that the fighting has been largely restricted to Sunni Arab areas only, whereas areas inhabited by Alawis, Druze or Christians have remained passive or supportive of the regime; that defections from the regime are nearly 100 per cent Sunni; that money, arms and volunteers are pouring in from Islamic states or from pro-Islamic organisations and individuals; and that religion is the insurgent movement’s most important common denominator.
In the last few months, the Syrian National Council (SNC) — that is to say the Turkey-based civilian ‘political’ opposition — has been largely up-staged by fighters on the ground. Most of these fighters are grouped into nine Military Councils (majalis askariya) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), each Council divided into a number of brigades (kataib). But, in much the same way as these Councils have marginalised the SNC, so they also seem unwilling to take orders from the Turkey-based FSA commander, Col Riad al-As‘ad.
Aron Lund points out that, with rare exceptions, the FSA is an entirely Sunni Arab phenomenon, and that most FSA brigades use religious rhetoric and are named after heroic figures or events in Sunni Islamic history. It is thought that about 2,000 non-Syrians, some linked to al-Qaida, are now fighting in Syria, about 10 per cent of the total rebel manpower, estimated at about 20,000 (although some sources put the figure twice as high at 40,000.) Most of these fighters would seem to be active only in protecting their home areas.
Three major fighting units, among a score of others — Jabhat al-Nosra, the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades and Suqur al-Sham Division — are among the most extreme salafi groups in the Syrian rebel movement. The first has been linked to suicide and car bomb attacks in Syrian cities and to the assassination of pro-regime figures; the second carries out ambushes and uses remotely-triggered bombings and sniper fire against army patrols; and the third uses suicide bombers and frames its propaganda in jihadi rhetoric. The leaders of the last two have declared that their aim is to establish an Islamic state in Syria. All three seem to have welcomed al-Qaida fighters into their ranks.
These fighting groups have gravely destabilised the Syrian regime but, without a foreign military intervention in their favour, they seem unlikely to topple it. The regime is fighting back with air and ground attacks, evidently determined to crush all pockets of armed rebellion on Syrian territory.
This is the conundrum facing the UN peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. His task is to persuade the world community to impose a ceasefire on both sides, before bringing them to the table. But only when all are persuaded that there can be no decisive win for either side might they heed his call. In the meantime, thousands more will die or be driven from their homes and the country will sink further into blood and chaos, making the divide between the Islamists and President Bashar al-Asad virtually unbridgeable.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).
Phi Beta Iota: Just as the Department of State cannot complete the history of US Foreign Relations until CIA complies with the law and declassifies relevant materials from the 1960’s and 1970’s, so also will it be decades before we can fully understand the complex relations among foreign powers, foreign intelligence services, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Mossad particularly, and the Saudi-financed Safari Club, among others. A major problem with policy-making that relies on secrecy (not secrets) is that it is inherently myopic, closed, and devoid of interest in either the long-view or any 360 degree understanding that may be achievable by a more transparent, inclusive, and truthful examination of all possibilities. In the USA, it also tends to avoid holistic analytics across Whole of Government, and mid to long term true cost calculations. It is useful here to remember the Davies J-Curve. Revolutions do not succeed, generally, when people are totally oppressed. They succeed when the oppressed have seen the light at the end of the tunnel (Davies J-Curve). We are inclined to disagree with the conclusion that the Syrian government will survive. Pandora’s Box has been opened, and public energies channeled in ways that will be ultimately beneficial to the public, but in the interim, a challenge to policy makers that do not do nuances.
Philip Allott, The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State (Cambrdige, 2002)