A Jihadist, Anti-Western Agenda is Being Forced on Syria
The international community has been blindly following a jihadist-driven agenda for Syria; a solution the majority of Syrians reject, but which Turkey and Qatar have been driving. It begs the question: why are analysts in Washington — or Paris or London — not digging more deeply into what is really happening, given that the solution they have endorsed is so profoundly anti-Western?
The key test of the Annan plan and ceasefire to help end the widespread violence in Syria came on Friday, April 13, 2012, in the aftermath of the Friday Sermons across Syria, when agitated and incited masses came out of the mosques, ready to challenge anew the legitimacy of a non-Sunni-Islamist Government in Damascus.
The sensitive element was the thin line between vocal and virulent protests against Pres. Bashar al-Assad and attempts by armed elements in the ranks of the demonstrators to capitalize on the mass of unarmed humanity in order to break through the lines of the security forces, instigate clashes and seize buildings of tactical significance. In Hama, such a provocation evolved into a major clash as government troops attempted to break up the demonstration and fell into a rebel ambush. At least two soldiers were killed in this clash.
There were also a few major efforts at violating the ceasefire. Overnight, a large armed group attempted to cross from Turkey into Syria near the village of Khirbet al-Joz in Idlib Province. The group was engaged by Syrian security forces and pushed back across the border after a lengthy firefight. This is an area heavily patrolled by the Turkish security forces so that it is highly unlikely that the Turkish Government and Armed Forces would not have been aware of the infiltration attempt. Near Aleppo, rebel forces ambushed a military bus, killing two officers and wounding 24 soldiers. Altogether, some 15 fatalities were recorded in the first 24 hours of the cease- fire. In Damascus, government media warned that “the anti-government armed groups” were “intensifying criminal operations in an attempt to destabilize Syria and torpedo the [An- nan] plan.” Meanwhile, the Islamist media continued to urge people to demonstrate and riot in the streets under the rallying cry “A revolution for all Syrians!”
Moreover, foreign leaders, led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu continued to issue demands unacceptable to the Assad Administration in the context of implementing the Annan plan. Washington, Ankara, and Doha lead the chorus demanding that the Syrian Armed Forces unconditionally withdraw from the entire inhabited and urban areas of Syria and surrender them to the rebel forces. They consider the reported withdrawals of Syrian Government troops from major cities insufficient because the mere presence of these forces around the cities constituted, in their view, undue pressure on the population in those areas. “This withdrawal must be total and comprehensive. Withdrawing from the cities but keeping the pressure on them doesn’t mean a real withdrawal. This withdrawal must be from all cities and towns to barracks and people must be assured they will not face another attack,” Davuto?lu stated.
These demands were made, even though the Syrian armed forces won the fight with the active support from key segments of the local population. Moreover, the majority of the urban population in Syria supports the Assad Administration (or, at the least, has demonstrated that it preferred them to the Islamist-dominated opposition). Thus, the issue at hand was not whether the Assad Administration’s security forces moved a few tanks and other armored vehicles a few more yards, but rather a challenge to the very existence of an ‘Alawite-led nationalist Administration in Damascus. French Pres. Nicolas Sarkozy dismissed the entire effort out of hand. “I do not believe in Bashar al-Assad’s sincerity, nor unfortunately in the ceasefire,” he told French I-Tele TV.
Barring the commencement of viable negotiations involving the real protagonists inside Syria, the fighting in Syria seemed, by April 13, 2012, set inevitably to resume after a brief interlude and even escalate as the weather improved. The Annan plan should be expected to keep faltering even though Annan himself declared that he was “encouraged by reports that the situation in Syria is relatively calm and that the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding”. Meanwhile, the United States, Turkey, and Qatar would continue urging a Bosnia- and Libya-style NATO intervention in support of “legitimate representatives” who had, in fact, already been rejected by the Syrian people and in the name of protecting civilians who had never asked for such intervention.
Thus, the primary explosive threat of the Syrian conflict was the growing dichotomy between the situation inside Syria and the relentless efforts by a myriad of external forces to exploit the conflict in pursuit of their regional and global interests.
This writer has discussed before, [in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy 2-2012, for example; see footnotes for hyperlink] that the traditional key to ruling Syria has always been an alliance between the security and economic élites. The security élite has been dominated by the main minorities — the ‘Alawites, Druze and Kurds — which remain staunchly loyal to the Assad Administration.
The economic élite has been dominated by Sunni urban families, as well as Armenian and Christian Orthodox families, in the main cities of western Syria; a strip between Damascus and Aleppo. Initially, the economic élite elected to stay out of the crisis and war, but it was increasingly siding with the Assad Administration: some by choice and some for lack of a better option.
By the first half of April 2012, the Assad Administration was close to restoring this alliance between the two most important foci of power. The Syrian Armed Forces had consolidated control over the economic-strategic Damascus-Aleppo belt. Moreover, the growing threat of jihadist terrorism as demonstrated in Aleppo left the urban-economic élite little choice but to cast their lot with the Assad Administration. The only impediment is the lingering insurrection in Homs and Hama which the ceasefire might help contain. The growing threat of foreign intervention was pushing Damascus to complete the pacification of Homs and Hama, albeit while markedly raising the level of violence and the ruthlessness of the crackdown.
This trend was also reflected in the popular support for the Government to the extent that reliable polling is possible. In the second half of December 2011, YouGov conducted a major poll commissioned by the Qatar Foundation throughout the Arab World. The key question was whether Bashar al-Assad should resign. The poll found that 55 percent of Syrians did not want Bashar al-Assad to resign as President; that is, 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain as President. Significantly, in a poll conducted in December 2010, that is, just before the outbreak of the current crisis, only 46 percent of Syrians considered Bashar a good president for Syria. The YouGov poll also found that 68 percent of Syrians disapproved of the Arab League sanctions. In contrast, the YouGov poll showed that outside Syria 81 percent of Arabs “want President Assad to step down”. They based their opinion on the coverage of Syrian events on Arab satellite TV news channels.
In other words, Arab satellite news — such as Qatar-based al-Jazeera — has had a profound impact on non-Syrian regional public opinion, shaping it in favor of opposition to Assad, while domestic public opinion is actually more in favor of Assad. Moreover, to reiterate: the US and West have allowed themselves to claim a moral imperative for intervention in Syria in support of non-Syrian objectives, and particularly objectives desired by Sunni radicals answerable to the Turkish and Qatari governments.
The lingering problem is the Syrian deep interior. From a pure military point of view, the Government’s task is manageable. Violence and stability in the interior have a negligible effect on the functioning of the Syrian state, because this depends on the minority zones and the economic belt, both of which are under the effective control of the Assad Administration. The primary tasks of Damascus are reducing the level of Islamist-jihadist insurrection in the area, slowing down the flow of jihadist volunteers, weapons, and funds across the porous borders.
Initially, Assad’s strategy was based on holding onto some of the key cities in the interior and let everything else burn. To fight the jihadists, Damascus relies heavily on special operations in order to entrap and manipulate both the Syrian and Qatar-sponsored foreign jihadist elements. Ultimately, this strategy saves Damascus the need for massive use and widespread deployment of regular military forces Syria doesn’t have without sacrificing the Administration’s success.
However, there emerged a political imperative to reduce the level of fratricidal violence all over the country, as well as move forward toward a viable and legitimate negotiations process with grassroots populace. Furthermore, because of family and tribal connections between the rural population in the deep interior and the slum dwellers in the western cities, as well as the tribal population in the villages surrounding the western cities and in Aleppo itself, Damascus cannot ignore completely the popular dynamics and awakening in the interior. Thus, while this turmoil is incapable of threatening the Assad Administration and its continued consolidation of victory, it cannot be left completely unattended either.
The situation in Syria’s interior is complex. The population is overwhelmingly Sunni, tribal, and rural. The growing economic hardships of the past three decades, particularly the failure of the Soviet-style institutionalization of agriculture and the destruction of water resources mainly due to experimentation with cotton growing, led to grassroots’ alienation and rejection of the state system. Instead, the population has increasingly rallied around tribal and extended family frameworks in order to jointly survive the hardships. When blood-relation frameworks failed to remedy the situation, the youth abandoned the interior in quest for livelihood in either the urban slums in western Syria or in the ranks of the security forces that largely deployed near Syria’s borders and away from the interior. Hence, the population which has endured the hardships and remained stable in the Syrian interior is socially conservative and inward-looking; that is, committed to the empowerment of tribe and extended family at the expense of the centralized state.
This unique posture is the key to the tumultuous and largely hostile relationship between the majority of Syrians and the internationally recognized opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC). Simply put, the Syrian grassroots dread, and are hostile to, any centralized regime and/or form of governance which attempts to interfere in their daily lives, be it the Assad Administration in Damascus and its efforts to impose Ba’athism, or the Islamist Ikhwan-affiliated SNC which is committed to a centralized Sunni Islamic government in Damascus.
Meanwhile, as chaos has spread throughout Syria and as the Government virtually stopped functioning, it became evident to the grassroots in the interior that they could not stay aloof and isolated from the overall dynamic. The traditional population, their tribal and extended family leaders, started gravitating toward the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA), a loose coalition of like-minded localized forces and mini-groups. The SLA was formed in secrecy in March 2011 by representatives of local coordination committees. As wider circles of tribal and extended family leaders sought a framework for jointly resisting and enduring the crisis, they started coordinating and cooperating with the SLA. The SLA has relied on these grassroots components to organize regional forces to defend their people. In March-April 2012, the SLA leaders reported having more than 32,000 fighters, mostly part-time local defense units spread over most of Syria. In addition, some 71,000 youth were ready to join but could not because of lack of weapons and ammunition. The tribes and rural population affiliated with the SLA have been predominant in some 20 percent of the Syrian territory, mostly in the deep interior. SLA leaders reported having clandestine cells and armed networks across 80 percent of Syria.
Until this point, SLA military capabilities have been abysmal, despite widespread grassroots support. SLA forces are starved for everything, from weapons and ammunition to funds and supplies. However, even massive deliveries of weapons, funds, and supplies should not be expected to alter the diffuse and locally-focused character of the population which makes up the SLA. Nevertheless, for as long as the Bashar al-Assad Administration refuses to negotiate, it has been seen as imperative for the international community to assist and build the SLA as the genuine grassroots force capable of exerting real pressure and compelling negotiations to end the conflict. Meanwhile, the SLA has demonstrated its presence and relevance through the periodic explosion of car-bombs near Syrian security buildings in Aleppo and Damascus; detonations which have been mostly perpetrated and claimed by the loosely-affiliated Al- Nusrah Front.
Thus, the Assad Administration has been winning at the national strategic level and there has been nothing the SLA, or any other opposition entity, could presently do to reverse this trend. However, Assad’s Damascus cannot ignore the ascent of the SLA because Damascus will ultimately have to demonstrate the cessation of armed opposition and establish control over the interior. It would be far more logical and expedient for Assad’s Damascus to do so in the context of negotiations and power-sharing, than to achieve this through bloody, prolonged and exhausting mop-up operations all over the Syrian vast interior.
Meanwhile, the West, led by the US, Turkey, and Qatar, is striving to repeat in Syria the legacy of the interventions in Bosnia and Libya, irrespective of the realities on the ground or the desires of the local population. To justify such an intervention, the US leads a media campaign to portray the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as westernized and democratic when Arab governments and the Arab media know that this is simply untrue.
The Syrian National Council has always been a front of the more militant- jihadist wing of the Muslim Brothers [MB: the Ikhwan]. Once SNC leaders resolved to seek Western help and recognition, special effort was made by the MB leadership to conceal this relationship and pretend that the movement was led by westernized intellectuals, as symbolized by SNC leader, the ostensibly secular dissident, Burhan Ghalioun. However, Syrian MB leader Ali Sadr al-Din Bayanouni admitted in internal fora that the MB had nominated Ghalioun as the SNC leader merely as a “front” because he would be palatable to the West. “We did not want the Syrian regime to take advantage of the fact that Islamists are leading the SNC,” Bayanouni said. For his part, before becoming SNC leader, Ghalioun openly associated with the most conservative Islamist leaders and intellectuals of the MB and particularly MB’s spiritual leader Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi whom Ghalioun called “my inspiration”.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) — which is associated with the SNC, as opposed to the SLA, which is an interior- and tribally-based coalition of fighters — has never amounted to much of a force beyond the media claims of its Turkey-based leader, Col. Riad al-Asa’ad. Moreover, in order to guarantee recognition by, and support of, the Gulf States and the Arab satellite TV news channels which the Gulf states own, the FSA stressed its relations with jihadist elements. Indeed, the Arab media is full of ceremonies in which various jihadist elements such as the “God is Great Brigade” are shown swearing allegiance to the FSA and joining their jihad. In Arabic, the FSA’s war is a jihad for the establishment of an Islamist state rather than merely topple Pres. Bashar al-Assad. “To our fellow revolutionaries, don’t be afraid to declare jihad in the path of God. Seek victory from the One God. God is the greatest champion,” this Brigade’s commander declared while joining the FSA. “Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your Nation, and instead of fighting for your [Syrian] nation, fight for God.” Moreover, Qatar tightly controls the funds of, and weapon supplies for, the FSA. Doha ensures that these go to Islamist-jihadist elements affiliated with, and controlled by, the key commanders of Qatar’s jihadist Foreign Legion [discussed in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 1-2012].
As well, the US-led interventionist policy leads to the needless aggravation and alienation of Russia, presently, a crucial supporter of the Assad Administration. Moscow’s basic strategy in the Middle East focused on restoring stability and permitting Russia to bide its time as chaos reigned. In Syria, as in all other Arab states and Iran, Russia is looking out for its own interests and has no commitment to any specific government or ruler. Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Middle East Studies Institute and one of the Kremlin’s leading Middle East experts, stressed this point. “Russia’s options regarding the situation around Syria are limited. ... Moscow’s current strategy enables Russia to save face and bide time in its own interests.” The Kremlin is apprehensive about foreign military interventions because of the unpredictable nature of their strategic outcome and not the fate of the government of the attacked countries. “A strike on Iran or Syria, if it ever happens, will weaken those who launch it. And whether or not there are more regime changes in the Middle East is not Russia’s problem,” Satanov- sky explained.
However, the US Barack Obama Administration insisted that there would be a new government in Damascus, rising as a result of a “regime change”. Thus, any US-sponsored new government in Syria would not be beholden to any agreement signed by either the Hafez or Bashar al-Assad administrations, including, specifically, the agreement of Syria with Russia on military installations in the ports of Tartus and Latakiya.
Whatever the importance to post-Cold War US national security of Russian presence on the shores of the Mediterranean, the mere unilateral assertion of this objective by the Obama White House has transformed the Russian involvement in Syria from that of bystander to a determined effort to save its military presence and installations from a “regime change”. The Kremlin is fighting to protect and secure the Russian access to the Syrian ports and not to support the Assad Administration, but the outcome is one and the same, and the results are showing in the military achievements of Assad’s forces as well as the deterring of NATO intervention.
Neither the complexities of the inner-Syrian struggle and the awakening of the deep interior, nor the travesty of the foreign intervention advocated by Washington, Ankara, and Doha should distract from the overall historic context of the crisis. At the core is the confrontation between resurgent Sunni Arab Islam- ism and the region’s aspirant non- Arab Islamist hegemonic powers: Mahdivist Iran and neo-Ottoman Turkey.
The Fertile Crescent of Minorities — from east to west counter-clockwise: Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, ‘Alawites, Druze, Maronites, Jews and Circassians — serves as the buffer, preventing a cataclysmic eruption.
Only a viable Fertile Crescent of Minorities — of which the ‘Alawites and Druze of Syria are presently the most beleaguered elements — can thus prevent the simmering Arab Middle East from conjoining with the Islamist ascent of Turkey and Iran and jointly creating an explosive critical mass.
Hence, the main challenge in resolving the Syria crisis is preventing the replacement of an ‘Alawite-Druze dominated Government by an Islamist- jihadist one. No less important is the imperative to restore and preserve a viable Syrian state via meaningful political reforms, as well as economic recovery and modernization of the entire region.
If a moderate, stable outcome was desired, then negotiations between the Syrian Liberation Army and the Assad Administration would need to be launched on the establishment of a nationalist government in Damascus, with emphasis on regionalization and diffusion of power which would ensure the rights of the Sunni Arab tribes, extended families and urban élite, as well as the nation’s minorities. The transformation of power through negotiations would ensure that all pertinent international agreements to which Syria was beholden would remain valid.
Ultimately, the restoration of Syria as a key to the Fertile Crescent of Minorities remains the real vital interest of the West.
Thus, in addressing the turmoil in Syria, special attention would have to be paid so as not to throw out the baby (‘Alawite-Druze pre-eminence) with the bathwater (ending the fratricidal violence). Democratic reforms would need to acknowledge the country’s Sunni majority and diversity of character and interests, but not at the expense of the pre-eminence of the ‘Alawite- Druze in official Damascus. The marginalization and destruction of the Syrian section of the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, even if in the name of democracy, not only would not elevate the Sunni majority but would cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East.
There are no instant-gratification panacea solutions to the Syrian crisis. The Arab Middle East, of which Syria is a crucial component, is currently experiencing a peak in an historic convulsion spanning a quarter of a millennium.
Ultimately, the Arab Middle East will have to find its own solution for its own problem. Western intervention might be able to help alleviate the immediate crisis, but Western intervention might also spark a cataclysmic eruption that will set the region aflame.
Internalize what Albert Einstein said: “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.”
Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.