Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Syrian conflict

The Syrian conflict seems to have become the defining issue in world politics. Much recent front-page news, from the refugee crisis engulfing Europe to the terrorist attacks in Paris to the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, involve what is going on in Syria in one way or another.                                  
The fact is that the fighting in Syria is increasingly coming to resemble the Spanish Civil War: a conflict which not only tears a country apart, but also becomes a battleground for a global struggle between foreign powers with competing interests and ideologies. The narratives being peddled by the international supporters of the two sides at war are very different, but they both share a disconnect from what is actually happening on the ground. It is ideology and wishful thinking which seems to guide most of the commentary on Syria, rather than a hard look at the facts.

Basically there are two main international narratives concerning the conflict in Syria. One we could call the mainstream Western narrative: an oppressed people rise up against an oppressive dictatorship in power for decades, inspired by the "Arab Spring" revolutions in neighbouring countries. The regime fights back, and it turns into a bloody civil war. Although Western governments consider the emergence of the Islamic State to be a huge threat, they maintain that Assad is a bloody dictator who has massacred his own people and has to renounce power if there is to be a solution for Syria. The so-called "moderate rebels" are considered to be the good guys worthy of support, fighting against both Assad and the Islamic State fanatics.

The other narrative is the one being peddled strongly by Russia, more quietly by China and other allied countries, and increasingly by the Western left-wing and others who have a bone to pick with US foreign policy. According to this camp, the secular regime led by Assad maintained Syria's stability and prosperity for decades and acted as a bulwark against religion fundamentalism. Then one day, using the excuse of the Arab Spring, the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia above all) fomented rebellion against Assad, and funded Muslim fundamentalists and terrorist groups to fight against Syria's legitimate government. What followed was the destruction of what used to be a peaceful country, and the emergence of the plague known as the Islamic State. Assad deserves support in his fight against the foreign-backed terrorists, and the Russian airforce is providing it.

Both these narratives respond to the worldviews and to the geopolitical interests of those who spread them. There is some truth to both of them, and also much simplification. The Syrian conflict started when popular demonstrations against Assad, inspired by what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia, were met with gunfire by the regime. That the US somehow pulled the strings is unlikely. It is much more logical to presume that Syrians took to the streets for the same reason that people did in other Arab countries: because they were fed up with living for decades on end under the same corrupt, inefficient and brutal regime. When they were met with violence, they responded with violence.

On the other hand, over four years after the civil war began, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would have been better if nobody had challenged Assad in the first place: Syria has not moved towards becoming a better country, it has simply been devastated by war, turning into a place from which people are escaping in droves. All its ethnic and religious faultlines have exploded, and Syria has become a battleground on which Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other battle for power and influence. Even if eventually a better alternative to Assad emerges, Syrians will have paid a huge price in the process.

And then there is the composition of the rebel forces: it is an undeniable fact that Muslim fundamentalists now constitute a large part of them. The Islamic State's caliphate, spread out between what used to be Syria and Iraq, is attracting lunatics from all over the world. Syria's ancient non-Muslim minorities are being threatened and driven out. And then there are the other Islamist organizations operating in Syria, like Al-Nusra, Sunni fundamentalists who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

The Baath Party held onto power in Syria through brutality, as such regimes have always done in the Arab world (just look at the infamous massacre which Assad Sr.'s troops carried out at Hama in 1982). At the same time, it probably did prevent the country from descending into ethnic and religious warfare, while maintaining a relatively "secular' public culture. If the regime goes, there is no saying what could replace it. All this does lead some credence to the narrative of what we might call "the authoritarian camp": sometimes stable regimes had best not be toppled, regardless of how bad their human rights record might be, because the only alternative is chaos and ethnic conflict.

At the same time, the view that we can only choose between Assad and religious fundamentalism is simplistic as well: for one thing the Syrian rebels are not made up entirely of Muslim fundamentalists. There are other rebel factions which are more moderate, including the Free Syrian Army, which fights both the regime and the Islamic State at the same time. Then there are the Kurds, who fight for their independence as they always have done, and have become one of the main sources of resistance to the Islamic State. The self-governing Kurdish enclave of Rojava, which sprung up after Assad's forces withdrew from the region, is said to be an amazing experiment in secularism, grassroots democracy and women's rights in the Middle East.

According to most reports, Russian airstrikes are not aimed only or even mainly at the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but also at more moderate rebel factions which want to overthrow Assad. What's more, Russian missiles have been killing Syrian civilians in droves. People who berate the US for propping up friendly dictators and engaging in bombing campaigns which kill civilians in the Middle East, but then support Russia for doing the same thing, might wish to consider whether there isn't a certain hypocrisy in this.

What remains clear is that the real losers are the ordinary people of Syria, who see no end to their suffering in sight. Further bombings by Russia, the US, France or Britain are not going to provide a viable or just solution.


Renato Corsetti said...

The comparison with the civil war in Spain is genial. I would stress more the undeniable role of the USA. I myself saw the USA Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms. Clinton, during many months making the tour of the world, to help the syrian invented moderate rebels.

Renato Corsetti

Renato Corsetti said...

My English is as weak as the USA right to decide who has to be the dictator in Syria. What I wanted to say is "The comparison with the civil war in Spain is brilliant."

Renato Corsetti

Ji Xiang said...

Well thank you! I also think it's a very apt comparison.

The US, as well as Britain and France, openly supports what it considers to be the moderate rebels, in other words all the rebels who aren't Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
It supports them diplomatically, and its allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar support them with money and weapons.

I don't doubt that these "moderate rebels" can also be a pretty nasty bunch. It is the unfortunate case in such conflicts that everyone does nasty things. But if there was a guarantee that they are not Islamists, I guess I would still understand. The real risk is that if Assad falls, he will be replaced by an Islamist regime. Unfortunately the conflict has taken on a sectarian hue, with rebels from the Sunni majority who feel that they are fighting for Islam against an "Alawite" regime, because Assad is an Alawite. The fact that the Shia Iran and Hezbollah support Assad has helped to turn it into a sectarian religious conflict, at least in my understanding.

At least this time the US is not intervening with its own army to force the outcome one way or another. I guess they have understood that invading Middle Eastern countries themselves is not only unpopular, but ineffective in forcing the outcomes they want. After invading Iraq, they are now faced with an Iraqi government which is a close ally of Iran. Probably not what the US was banking on.