Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Shape of Things to Come

Russia: More of the Same

Firstly the conundrum regarding Russia's "changing" position is not something I give much importance to. The Russian and Iranian stance advocating "political dialogue" is a game of double speak which only re-iterates the narrative that Assad's regime has been propagating since the start of the revolution. Muath al Khatib's political naivety not withstanding, the Syrian oppositions should not burn their bridges with Moscow and should see what they have to say. But all of this is hardly groundbreaking and isn't anything to get excited about. 

Rise of the Warlords

What I do want to talk about is something far more pressing, the shape of Syria after Assad goes. More and more of the discussion about Syria focuses less on the regime than on the security situation and the emergence of warlords in the country. But the creation of these warlords is not the only legacy that the Assad regime will leave Syria. The "day after" his regime falls, I have no doubt that we will continue to see car bomb explosions and kidnappings throughout the country. This will magnify the "Syrian catastrophe" that Assad's allies abroad will start to trumpet on about, but this should not dissuade Syrians from the path that they have chosen. I wrote at the start of the revolution that if Syrians wanted their freedom, then this will be a long and difficult path. Perhaps nobody expected the level of barbarism that Assad junior turned out to be capable of, but it was always naive for anybody to expect political reforms and sincere dialogue to emerge simply because of initially peaceful protests.

For all their divisions, I still see a rump Free Syria Army with its strength mainly in the Idleb province, and these appear to have maintained some discipline and coordination. The range of Islamic groups that are allied - for the time being - against Assad, vary in strength and effectiveness. Obviously the extremist group Jabhat al Nusra represent a serious problem for a post-Assad Syria, or for any kind of Syria, but in the battle for Syria's soul after the regime goes, it will be imperative that such groups be dealt with decisively and clearly and I think it is this core of the Free Syrian Army which will do the work - provided it is given the material support needed.

From a military perspective, I think it is safe to say that where the money is, many of the fighters will follow. What will remain are the hardcore "believers" of such groups, and it is these, along with remnants of the regime, that will shape the biggest danger to the country if they refuse to lower their weapons and join the political process.

The Political Battle

Politically, it seems to me a fact now that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood are the only opposition group that is organised and of any kind of size. I don't know how popular they are domestically, but the hysteria surrounding them is disproportionate to their political abilities and foresight. Some people seem to think that if they have any kind of strength in a future Syria then the country will become an Islamic state, which is utter nonsense. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are far more powerful, intelligent - relatively speaking - and organised than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood could ever hope to be, and they have not had the easiest time governing in Egypt. Unlike during the age of dictatorship, it is no longer possible in many post-Arab Spring countries to govern without consent. And there are far too many groups, political fronts, and organizations that a future government of Syria must work with in order to survive - Assad's ceding the north west of the country to the Kurds alone is going to pose an enormous challenge for any future government.

Misguided Analogies: There is no Syrian Khomeini

This is not Tehran in 1979 and there is no state left for anybody to hijack. Syria is back to basics politically, and because of this the institutions for repressing people and manufacturing the kind of consent that the Iranian regime is known for are also non-existent. Syrian society has become far more fragmented in the past two years, even within the Sunni majority, and there is no network of mosques and mullahs on a par with Iran's forty years ago. Most importantly, there is no charismatic and intelligent Islamist leader to articulate an ideology as was the case with Khomeini. The importance of Imam Khomeini in shaping Iran's revolution and creating the Islamic republic cannot be underestimated. In fact the man was so important that he was labelled a "mujadid" or "renewer" of the faith. In Islamic mythology such a man comes only once a generation. For Syrians, there is simply nobody this charismatic, powerful or influential in the opposition - which has been a very good thing in my opinion.

On this point it is important to remember that whilst many of the groups have an Islamic character, the motivations of this revolution are not so. In spite of the most ardent attempts by some to portray this as a Salafist or Muslim Brotherhood revolt, it is important that we don't confuse the causes with the effects. The cause of the Syrian revolution remains a deep seated popular discontent with the regime's savagery, and secondarily its corruption. The effect has been to elevate the importance of Islamic political movements. The two phenomenon should not be equated and are distinct. And the rise of political Islam is not the only effect of this revolution. Anybody insisting on this point is being reductive and obtuse.

We should also note that regimes which were labelled "anti-imperialist" have been far more brutal and savage in their repression of the revolutions than the "pro-Western" camp of countries such as Tunisia, Egypt or even Yemen. In Yemen the Saleh regime, apart from being incomparably stupid and incompetent, was also much more hesitant in fighting an armed population that was mobilizing the most wonderful mass rallies on a weekly if not daily basis. In contrast, the populations of countries that were nominally "anti-imperialist" were brutalised almost from the start and this was because they had no weapons and there was also nobody to restrain the Gaddafi and Assad regimes. This is something that students of politics must not ignore; whatever attraction Arab anti-imperialism once might have had, it is no more. Hezbullah in Lebanon might still try to revive this sentiment, but the group's preferential treatment of Bahrain's revolution at the expense of Syria's has shattered the trust placed in it by many, including myself.


Syria is not the first or last country where warlords have emerged because of instability. Nor is it the first country to emerge from violent revolution, brutal dictatorship and sectarianism. Each of these problems will require creative and intelligent solutions, and whilst they are difficult they are by no means insurmountable. The key is to point out these challenges and not be caught off guard by them.


antony goddard said...

Very encouraging to read this.

Ick said...

IDk about Jubhat Anasr; I mean, it was the west that declared them "terrorists"...