Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Syrian Summary

Well we've finally arrived at a civil war, and no I don't think that this was avoidable or an accident. It is a deliberate policy and gamble by Assad to hold on to a sliver of power. Reforms were always out of the question because the slightest slip would have spelled the end of his family's grip on power. Let us be clear about it, this is one family's grip on a country, not a party's, not a minority's, but one family only and with its barons and loyal core of supporters. Assadism is the litmus test upon which you can test the revolutionary credentials of the artificial opposition that is sprouting domestically. These smart suited and highly educated technocrats with their talk of reform and convenient focus on only the transgressions of the regime's opponents never openly criticize or call for the overthrow of Assad. They have permission to tear the regime to shreds (verbally, of course) but the person of Bashar al Assad is inviolable, and the mere mention of his name in a way that could be construed - even remotely - to be a criticism is avoided.

Assad Lobbyists

It is these acolytes that we see on television and at debates on Syria in the West. They are never representing Syria in any "official" capacity, instead they are members of various "societies" that purport to be friends of Syria in this or that country. Playing the role of devil's advocate, they raise that element of reasonable doubt, enough to paralyse any calls for Assad's removal. Of course the discourse surrounding reforming - or even removing - the regime itself is allowed. But what exactly they consider to be the regime is, of course, deliberately obfuscated. The existence of such people is no longer a mystery, and they are now redundant to the future of Assad's war (against the Syrian people) effort.

Civil War and Feudalism

Today the future of Syria is being decided with guns. The use of weapons, and the turning of Syria into a battleground, is the only reasonable route that Assad could ever have taken. By going to war Assad can mobilize his powerful international backers, he can take advantage of the confusion to paralyse international efforts, and, by radicalizing his victims through brutality, he can justify the violence that he instigated. At first one would be justified in thinking that this is an incredibly smart regime, but really this behaviour is far from sophisticated or complex. It is the simplistic calculation of a family that has never really left its village, or the feudal society it emerged from. No amount of expensive suits, luxury cars or palaces can change this fact. Even though, as one writer said, Assad senior spent his life trying to escape his village background, it seems that neither he nor his descendants have ever been successful.

Furthermore, the pomp and ceremony of statehood were always something that this feudal family has play-acted until now, and any rough edges were smoothed out by an army of sycophants and propagandists. The underlying reality for Syrians when the camera is gone and when you don't have any connections or money is the reality of the gun and the warlord. In effect, the victims of feudalism created their own feudalism because that is all that they had ever known. The warlord doesn't necessarily have an official position in government. Instead, under Assad, he might even have a mundane title in the security services, but the strings of power for this little fiefdom are within his hands. The 'official' government representative is a figurehead, one that has his share of bribes and corruption too, but whose fate is decided by the security services - whose fate in turn is decided by their pecking order under "the family".

The play-acting of the Syrian regime also includes a narrative, and it is this narrative that has frustratingly emerged whenever its figurehead, Bashar al Assad, or any of his minions, speak.  There is talk of a "state" defending itself, of "terrorists" seeking to overthrow it, and of traitors who are getting their just punishment. When listening to this nonsense, I simply make a mental note that the word "state" is replaced by "my kingdom", and the words "traitor" or "terrorist" are synonymous with anybody who wishes to overthrow the Assad family. There is also an element of sectarianism, and a deep rooted mistrust of Syria's Sunni majority - a mistrust that stretches all the way back to Ottoman times. The two traditional seats of power for Syria's Sunni majority were Damascus and Aleppo, and this is why the future of the country will now be decided in those two cities. Assad is still in control of Damascus, and clinging fiercely to Aleppo, but should one of these cities be completely wrested from his control, then his regime will find it necessary to complete flatten it. This is because any manifestation of a Syrian Benghazi will, like political reforms, spell the inevitable doom of his regime.

The long term policy of Assad is to wear down the Syrian people with a scorched-earth policy that will make the cost of removing him far greater than of his remaining in power. The country is already traumatized, with probably ten percent of its population displaced either internationally or internally. This does not include those middle class families who have just packed up and left, and who would not be registered as refugees. So how would Assad deal with such a problem should he miraculously survive this revolt?

Exile and Redemption

In the long term, this is not a problem for Assad's policies, and some of these non-registered refugees might be allowed to return to the country. Many of them, especially the young who are supportive of the revolution and who have been vocal and active, will, however, find themselves unable or unwilling to return to a country in which Assad is ruler.

The regime divides Syria's Sunnis and sects in the opposition, whether exiled or not, into categories based on their loyalty and usefulness. The "old-money" families that are well connected internationally are to constantly be wooed by the regime, and these will be the first that Assad might extend a truce towards. Less connected or wealthy Syrians, of all groups, would be allowed back to the fold depending on their connections or popularity, so a figure like Nizar Qabbani, famous throughout the Arab world, was allowed back in the country and given a stately burial.

This leaves the third category that is firmly considered persona non grata and beyond all redemption. This includes members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as well as their families and dependents, and any credible or - and these are the majority - non-credible members of a political opposition that will not acknowledge the absolute inviolability of the Assad clans right to rule. Since the Hama massacre in 1982 this third category was on the fringe of Syrian society and mostly forgotten. Even with the advent of Syrian satellite channels, these forgotten exiles could not project any influence back into the country, with an entire generation of Syrians growing up and only ever having known Assad's rule. Naturally exiled members of the Assad clan - like Assad's uncle - who have strayed are dealt with in a different manner altogether. These exiled Assad's might, at the start of this revolution, harboured a desire to instigate an internal coup that would replace the Hafez branch of the Assad's with a Rif'aat branch, but their recent silence and disappearance from the limelight shows that they have instead opted to keep a low profile.

Assad's Post-Assad Policy Decisions?

Today Syrian society is in a complete state of flux. The patient work of almost forty years has been completely undone, and even the most stalwart of those the regime had wooed in the first category I've spoken about have abandoned the regime. Or they are keeping their support for it quiet. At this stage, the Assad's are focused purely on the security solution, and this is why Assad said he needed "more time" to deal with this situation. It is interesting to see that he has abandoned the Kurdish populated north-east of the country quite readily and this is, I think, for two reasons.

Firstly it is another stick - or carrot - to wave at his Turkish enemies. The second reason is to pave the way for a split in Syria should he ever fall. Any future government in Damascus that tries to re-impose its rule over the north east will find stiff resistance, and possibly a war against Kurdish militias. Judging the overwhelming stupidity of Syria's political opposition members so far, such a quagmire is perfectly foreseeable, as they have been remarkably unimaginative so far, and I expect their political naivete to continue long after Assad goes.

The other likelihood is Assad carving out a little canton on the coast, not an independent Alawite state, but an armed and deeply suspicious autonomous region that a post-Assad government will also find innumerable problems asserting its authority over. The result is that the country will become a basket-case should Assad ever fall, and probably ungovernable. There is, like today, ever the likelihood that a campaign of bombings will continue to make the lives of Syrians uncomfortable, and the support of outside powers like Russia, Iran and Hezbullah will aim at increasing this instability in order to deny a pro-Western (and Sunni) Syrian government from controlling the country.

Security Considerations for a Post-Assad Government

At this stage only a naive Syrian will expect that the support of the Gulf states, the West or even Turkey, is something to rely upon. It is inevitable that at some stage Assad's grip of the country will be loosened and his sphere of direct control will lessen. A future Syrian government must be willing to abandon the security solution at some stage, focusing instead on containing Assad's militias rather than crushing them, whilst seriously considering granting autonomy to a Kurdish north east. Syria's borders were, after all, drawn by a French man and an English man, so in reality why should any Syrian feel angry about having these redrawn by democratically elected representatives on both sides to reflect the aspirations of all the people in this land? This will mean resisting Turkish pressure to assert control by any means, but it will guarantee the country a period of stability and a chance for trust to be rebuilt by all minorities. Further, letting the Assad militia's weapons rust as trust is rebuilt with those who once supported him will eventually make his power redundant and pave the way for national reconciliation. Under such behaviour even the inevitable breakaway of Syria's Kurdish regions might be averted, or its impact lessened.


At some point, Syria's many communities will have to find a way to reconcile after this terrible period, and a future Syrian government run by intelligent people should and could make this happen. In all likelihood Syria's Sunni majority will wrest control gradually, but their behaviour and response will define how the country lives for decades to come. If they adhere to standards of human rights and the rule of law, in spite of the brutality of the regime and its remnants, then they will have achieved a great thing for the people of this country. Such a result will require patience, wisdom and imagination - none of which can carry much weight if the guns are still shooting when Assad goes.


Atheist Syrian Salafist Against Dictatorships said...

Right on the money! I posted excerpts of this post on SC, with a link of course. I hope you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

The article says, "These smart suited and highly educated technocrats with their talk of reform and convenient focus on only the transgressions of the regime's opponents never openly criticize or call for the overthrow of Assad. They have permission to tear the regime to shreds (verbally, of course) but the person of Bashar al Assad is inviolable, and the mere mention of his name in a way that could be construed - even remotely - to be a criticism is avoided."

Isn't that better than what happened in Egypt where they kicked out Mubarak but the regime has stayed intact?