As the Sykes-Picot agreement turns 100, the borders it delineated are crumbling.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
ONE OF THE Islamic State’s first gestures after conquering a vast portion of the Syrian and Iraqi deserts was to bulldoze the sand berm delineating the official border between the two states. In one of its first propaganda videos from the summer of 2014, “The end of Sykes-Picot,” a bearded fighter walks solemnly through an abandoned checkpoint in the former no-man’s land. “Inshallah this is not the first border we shall break,” the fighter declares in English.
Many Westerners taking their first notice of the toxic Al Qaeda offshoot were mystified: Wait, the end of what?
But the historical reference was not obscure in the Middle East, which for exactly a century has suffered the consequences of borders drawn by two diplomats who had orders from the top but weren’t considered the best informed Middle East experts in their respective governments — Sir Mark Sykes, an Englishman, and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot.
Since then, the Middle East has suffered a profound cognitive dissonance between the official state, often demarcated by unnaturally straight borders, and the human geography of how people live and who wields power in the lands stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the Sykes-Picot agreement has been blamed for many long-running catastrophes, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the violently thwarted national aspirations of many Kurds, Arabs, and other groups.
Yet for all the rancor, the Sykes-Picot borders are already crumbling. The orderly national borders they drew — mostly to please the interests not of the people who lived on the land but of colonial masters Britain and France — have been superseded, though not necessarily in the manner that anti-colonial critics would like.
SYKES AND PICOT’S era was roiled by the Great War, the deadliest conflict the globe had known until that time, and defined by American President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic notion of self-determination. People across the world were supposedly going to be free to choose their own borders and shape their own nations.
That might have been the case in parts of Europe but not in the Middle East. More interested in destroying what remained of the Ottoman Empire and thwarting each other’s imperial aims, France and Britain agreed in secret on May 17, 1916, to carve up the region heedless of the human and political realities on the ground.
The Sykes-Picot agreement was leaked a few years after it was brokered. It enraged not only the people in the Middle East who had been promised self-determination but even experts in the British foreign office who had warned exactly against this sort of expedient and destabilizing imperialist border-drawing.
“All borders in the world are, in their own way, artificial,” says Joost Hiltermann, who runs the Middle East program for International Crisis Group and has written a book about the Kurds. He believes the instability in the Middle East today reflects pressure from groups like the Kurds and the Islamic State who feel the current state order doesn’t accommodate them. “Over time, sometimes a long time, the internal contradictions will explode the prevailing order,” Hiltermann said. “What the new order, or series of orders, will look like is anyone’s guess.”
Sykes-Picot has had a doubly poisonous legacy. First are the borders themselves, which have continually been contested by groups convinced they didn’t get a fair shake, from the Kurds and Palestinians to Shi’ite and Sunni desert tribes. Second is that they were dictated in secret by outsiders, forever enshrining the suspicion that schemers in Western capitals fiddle with the region’s maps, which of course, they did.
Kurds, who call themselves the world’s largest nation without a state, are planning an independence referendum this year. Some originally hoped to hold a vote on May 17, the Sykes-Picot centennial, to drive home the symbolic point that the old colonial order is dead.
It’s high time to take stock of the de facto new states operating in the Middle East and stop pretending that the Sykes-Picot borders are even in operation.
The Middle East is full of borders that don’t appear on official maps.
AGAINST THE ADVICE of many of their better informed colleagues, Sykes and Picot fashioned a new Middle East, literally drawing new nations out of whole cloth and truncating millennial aspirations for nationhood with a clumsy stroke through a map. Their map created the made-up new Kingdom of Jordan, which ended up displaced by the house of a twice-displaced monarch, the Sherif of Mecca, who had supported the British during the Great War and had originally been promised the throne of Syria. Wags of the day called the British approach to the state-building in the Middle East “everybody move over one.”
Lebanon was carved out of Syria. Mosul and Baghdad were cobbled into Iraq. Palestine was given to the British, who already had promised the territory to the Zionists. The biggest losers were the Kurds, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group who weren’t given a state at all. Today the Kurdish heartland stretches into corners of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
British historian James Barr wrote a lively chronicle of the diplomacy of the Sykes-Picot era called “A Line in the Sand,” which is still wildly popular in Beirut bookshops five years after its publication. Barr unearthed secret British foreign office memos that correctly anticipated most of the terrible spillover from the Sykes-Picot agreement, including prescient predictions of the violence and instability that would follow the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
It is because of this history that even today random maps scribbled on napkins or published on blogs drive Middle East conspiracy theorists into a tizzy. After the United States occupied Iraq, many experts in the region were convinced that there was an official plan to divide Iraq into separate Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish states. Comments in support of partition by long-retired US diplomat Peter Galbraith were cited as proof that a conspiracy was afoot. Similarly, after the Egyptian popular uprising in 2011, supporters of the deposed dictator believed they were actually the victim of an American-Israeli plot to cut up Egypt’s territory into smaller, more easily cowed mini-states.
It’s common to hear cosmopolitan analysts in the Middle East speak matter-of-factly about unknown, but in the common view, utterly plausible, secret plots to divide the region in the service of someone’s agenda: Iran, the United States, the Zionists, or some other culprit.
“The Sykes-Picot agreement was only revealed in 1917 after the Communists took power in Russia,” wrote Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, head of a think tank, the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. “So the fact that there are no current plans that have been publicly announced by certain powers to divide the region does not mean that such plans do not exist — perhaps the details will become evident at a later time.”
It’s a version of that old saw: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” There’s no arguing with the dirty facts of the secret map a century ago. It doesn’t help that Western powers have never stopped meddling even after the colonial era. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are fresh in the region’s mind, as is the ongoing war in Syria with all its foreign sponsors and military advisers.
As a result, any chitchat about drawing new borders can instantly become a sensation. A map published by the Armed Forces Journal in the United States imagined what new borders would look like if they were redrawn by ethnic and sectarian group; it remains one of the publication’s top viewed articles even a decade later.
FOR ALL THE unwarranted conspiracy-mongering, however, a new Middle East is, in fact, taking shape — and it’s not the product of a map scribbled on a napkin by jolly Western agents (at least, not so far as we know!).
“This region, and Kurdistan in particular, was divided without regard to the will of its indigenous people, which in turn led to a hundred years of troubles, war, denial, and instability,” the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, said earlier this spring. Barzani has promised an independence referendum this year during the Sykes-Picot centennial. He presides over the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has functioned in most ways as an independent nation since the United States established a protectorate there in 1991 to shield Kurds from retribution by Saddam Hussein. Kurdistan has its own military and gas fields, but it still depends on the central government in Baghdad for revenue and trade.
Travelers who fly into Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, don’t need visas from the central government in Baghdad. Kids growing up there are often educated in Kurdish and might learn English as a second language before studying any Arabic. While Kurdish officials are still organizing their referendum, a few weeks before the Sykes-Picot anniversary they announced the next best sign of sovereignty in the digital age: an Internet domain, “.krd,” which went online the first week of April.
“The same way that Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec, and other places have the right to express their opinions about their destiny, Kurdistan, too, has the right, and it’s non-negotiable,” Barzani said.
His statelet is one of many Middle Eastern de facto nations you can find in the world but not yet on an official map or the list of member states at the United Nations.
Palestine was accorded “nonmember observer state” status at the United Nations in 2012, and its flag now flies over the UN headquarters in New York. On the ground, however, geography is even more complicated. Parts of the West Bank are supposedly under control of the Palestinian authority, but the land crossings are all controlled by Israel. Gaza has functioned as an effective state since 2005, when Israel withdrew its settlements. Access to the Gaza Strip is controlled entirely by outsiders — by Israel in the north and Egypt to the south — but inside, Hamas holds sway over a de facto city-state.
Rojava, a Kurdish-controlled statelet in northern Syria, declared official autonomy last month. Because of its precarious location on a strip of land bordering Turkey, which resolutely opposes its existence, Rojava might seem unsustainable. But the Kurdish party that controls it has managed to woo support from both the United States and Russia, for complicated reasons having to do with the war in Syria.
The Sinai peninsula, popular with sunbathing and scuba-diving tourists, was briefly occupied by Israel after its 1967 war with Egypt. It returned to Egyptian sovereignty in 1982 but arguably never to its full control. Today, the Sinai is an unruly place, with powerful tribal leaders and vibrant Al Qaeda and Islamic State franchises.
Hezbollah, the Party of God, is the single most powerful movement in Lebanon. It has its independent military, ministers, and members of Parliament in the Lebanese government, and wide swaths of territory that everyone in Lebanon recognizes are under Hezbollah control. Hezbollah polices sensitive areas, like borders and military training areas, sometimes in tandem with national authorities, sometimes on its own. The movement sees no interest in making the arrangement more formal; power on the ground serves it better than any official designation.
One shorthand for figuring out the real borders is to ask who could protect you effectively if you were traveling in a certain area. If the answer is “no one,” you could be talking about an area of failed governance like Sinai, or a contested border zone like the front lines between the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian government.
If, on the other hand, the answer is some entity that’s not the official government, then you’re probably looking at one of the post-modern, post-Sykes-Picot regions that has emerged heedless of the rule-making of cartographers and international bureaucrats — like Hezbollah, the Islamic State, or Hamas in Gaza.
In fact, one of the most interesting developments a hundred years after Sykes-Picot is that many of the most dynamic, independent groups in the Middle East are accommodating their thirst for autonomy without any redrawing of official borders. The Kurds in Rojava are careful to describe their regional government as part of a federated Syria, and even the vociferous Barzani, in Iraqi Kurdistan, has made clear that even after a referendum he wouldn’t formally declare independence unless neighboring countries supported the move, which they are unlikely to do.
Hiltermann, who has followed the twists and turns in the Middle East for more than three decades, says it’s unwise to make predictions: “All we know is that what used to be will not return in exactly the same form. It might even look radically different: a brave new world.”
The maneuvering of groups who don’t fit neatly into the existing nation-states suggests that the map of the Middle East is already been redrawn. This is how sovereignty changes today: through human geography — or bulldozers — which changes not maps, but facts on the ground.
Kobani, Syria. Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
[Published in The New York Times Sunday Review.]
BEIRUT, Lebanon — NOOR, who is a commander in a pro-government militia near Damascus, thinks that President Bashar al-Assad will prevail in Syria’s civil war. But even so, he thinks it will take his country a generation to recover. “After we finish this war, we’ll spend another 10 years cleaning up the thugs and warlords on our own side,” he told me when I met him in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, in an apartment overlooking a highway where rebels and government forces clash nightly.
That was last fall, shortly after Russia began bombing in support of the government. This infusion of firepower changed the course of the conflict. After years of stalemate, Syria’s civil war became unstuck. But that hasn’t made it ready for settlement.
Negotiations over Syria’s future restarted in Geneva last week amid cautious optimism that the regime and the opposition may finally be ready to discuss a deal. Russian and American diplomats are talking about shared goals, and both countries finally seem willing to strong-arm their clients to the table. Opposition groups and their sponsors say they have achieved levels of unity that will enable them to force concessions from the government, and for the first time they have admitted in public that they’re willing to work with some regime figures.
But all of this misses the central point: Syria, one of the most important states in the Arab world, has cracked up, and no peace settlement can put it back together.
Despite talk of a “regime” and “opposition,” Syria today is a mosaic of tiny fiefs. The government has ceded control of stretches of land to Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Its opponents range from the apocalyptic Islamic State to a coterie of tiny insurgent groups led by local warlords reliant on foreign donors. On all sides of the conflict, warlords mark territory with armed checkpoints. These low-level bosses have tasted power; it’s hard to imagine they will readily submit to any national government.
The collapse of Syria poses a huge threat to Middle Eastern stability. For good and for ill, Syria has been a major player in the Arab world since World War II. It often acted as spoiler, string-puller or savior in the conflicts that ravaged its neighbors. It was a major player among the dizzying cast of foreign powers that intervened in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, and brought that conflict to an end with an outright occupation blessed by the United States.
Without Damascus, a rogue’s gallery of militant movements might never have survived. Hezbollah grew into a powerful regional actor with sustained aid from Syria. Hamas’s leaders weathered lean years in exile in Damascus. Many groups labeled terrorists by Western governments found refuge in Syria. The Assad government’s patronage of Iraqi rebels helped fuel the uprising against the American occupation, and provided crucial early support to radicals who today lead the Islamic State.
And yet, for all these destabilizing moves, Syria was a coherent focal point in a region short on leaders who could deal and deliver. On occasion, even the United States and Israel enjoyed close collaboration with Damascus.
Now, Syria seems destined to influence the region not as a puppet-master but as a black hole. Syria’s war already has spawned chaos, from the millions of refugees seeking safety beyond the country’s borders to the rise of the Islamic State and the tremendous traffic in weapons and cash to militants.
The next chapter could be even worse. Even if some fraction of the opposition can reach an accord with the government, the area they could try to rule would amount to a rump state. The nation’s industrial heartland and most populous city, Aleppo, has been almost completely destroyed. Before the war, Syria’s manufacturing economy, education and health systems all functioned well by regional standards; they are unlikely to recover. The postwar landscape will probably play host to extremists, entrepreneurs of violence and widespread graft.
So why does anyone have hope for the talks in Geneva?
One reason is superpower politics. Russia and the United States are looking for ways to calm tensions, and diplomats from both countries believe an accord could lead to progress on issues they consider more important, like Ukraine. Another critical factor is exhaustion: Iran and Hezbollah backed the regime for years but, without Russia’s assistance, were unable to help it hold ground, much less win. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States, the main sponsors of the opposition, have pulled back support whenever their proxies have surged, perhaps unsure that they’ll behave responsibly if they win power.
Syria’s civilians are desperate. The ranks of fighters are dwindling, especially on the government side. None of the parties have given up hope of outright victory, but an increasing number of rebels and midlevel government supporters acknowledge that they will either have to settle for a divided country or join forces with their sworn enemies. Some of the rebel commanders I interviewed in March said they believed the war had entered an endgame, but that it would take at least a few more years of fighting before serious negotiating would begin. Until now, none of the players have taken peace talks seriously.
Russia and America’s renewed engagement has drawn the notice of negotiators, but that means only that they believe they might be embarking on a real process — not that they expect a result soon. That rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia and the United States, will see eye to eye on a brokered deal to end the war is a long shot. But the idea that they would work together to prevent Syria’s continued decay into a zone of violence is an even longer one.
For now, Mr. Assad’s negotiators still consider the rebels “terrorists,” while the opposition insists that Mr. Assad, “the disease that struck Syria,” must step aside immediately. The state over whose fate they’re haggling, however, appears beyond salvaging.
[Originally published in Foreign Policy.]
ISKENDERUN, Turkey — The militia commander, a barrel-bodied man who hulks over his soldiers and playfully hurls epithets, was beaming. It was as if getting run out of his home base by al Qaeda was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Col. Ahmed Saoud, head of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Division 13, knelt in the antechamber of an underground infirmary in the Turkish port city of Iskenderun. But his mind was very much still back home as he calmly dictated orders to a deputy in Syria.
“My sheikh, you will make sure that tomorrow’s demonstration was bigger than today’s. Each day we will make them bigger,” Saoud instructed Sheikh Khaled, who had just been released after three days of detention by the Nusra Front, Syria’s powerful al Qaeda affiliate.
“God willing we’ll be back in a week and those animals, those donkeys from al Qaeda, will never return,” he declared.
For the past two weeks, the small rebel-controlled town in Idlib province has become the central battleground in a pitched power struggle between al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army, a confederation of nationalist militias that draws support from Western governments. It all began when Nusra Front fighters shut down a nationalist protest on March 11 – an act that escalated into full-blown clashes with Division 13, which al Qaeda eventually forced out of the town.
While the military confrontation is over for now, Saoud’s supporters in Maarat al-Nu’man are harnessing their public support in defiance of the dominant Nusra Front. FSA supporters have organized escalating protests of the town’s men and women against al Qaeda, sparking such anger at the jihadist group’s abuses that Nusra was forced to withdraw, at least temporarily. A religious court is deciding when and if either side can return. The fight is less about territory and military strength, where the Nusra Front still has a clear upper hand, than it is about legitimacy, popularity, and propaganda.
The FSA is gambling that it can leverage the popular backlash against the Nusra Front that followed the clash in Maarat al-Nu’man to argue that a popular nationalist revolution survives. For supporters of Syria’s original non-violent nationalist uprising, the entire project of fixing Syria is at stake. If the ragged coalition of activists and nationalist rebels who cooperate under the brand of the Free Syrian Army collapses, they say, Syria will be left with a bitter choice between two murderous and sectarian alternatives: Bashar al-Assad’s regime or Islamic fundamentalists.
Jihadists may have fared better on the battlefield because of their bigger budgets and unscrupulous tactics, FSA commanders claim, but they have failed to win the hearts and minds of liberated Syria’s civilians.
“How can they build their emirate if the people don’t want them?” Saoud asked.“When they see people waving our flag, it makes them crazy. Now Nusra is revealing itself, and its popularity is collapsing.”
In interviews at rebel safe houses and command posts in southern Turkey, FSA commanders and activists from across northern Syria said they believe that the current lull in fighting might represent the nationalist opposition’s last solid chance to take back momentum from the jihadists, who for several years have been the dominant force in the armed struggle against the Syrian government. Jihadist groups are better financed, better armed, and have been consolidating their command structures for years, while the fragmented patchwork of FSA factions has lost ground.
Russia has scaled back its military operations after a six-month campaign, and most of the non-jihadist rebel groups have stuck to a cease-fire with the government, allowing both sides to regroup while half-hearted negotiations take place in Geneva. The Nusra Front is not party to the cease-fire.
The partial cease-fire has also allowed for the resurgence of non-violent protest in rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Free from the constant threat of barrel bombs, artillery shells, and airstrikes, Syrians returned to the street to chant against Assad. In several towns they also hoisted the banner of the nationalist revolution, a tricolor Syrian flag with three stars. The Nusra Front had banned the revolutionary flag in areas under its control, and its cadres in Maraat al-Nu’man appeared incensed on March 11 when a crowd of thousands, emboldened by the cease-fire, renewed anti-government protests in the town center with nationalist poetry, chants for unity, and the nationalist revolutionary standard.
Al Qaeda fighters on motorcycles drove into the center of the demonstration and seized the microphone from a notable local poet. The demonstrators fought back and recaptured the microphone. On March 12, the Nusra Front set up checkpoints around Maraat al-Nu’man and arrested members of Division 13, the most popular FSA group in the town. Nusra surrounded Division 13 bases and demanded they surrender their weapons cache, which included anti-tank weapons supplied as part of the CIA’s covert train-and-equip mission.
So far, nothing about the confrontation was unusual. Hard-core Islamists in the Nusra Front have long outgunned the more secular, nationalist, Western-supported rebels. According to FSA officers, Nusra routinely harvests up to half the weapons supplied by the Friends of Syria, a collection of countries opposed to Assad, and has regularly smashed FSA factions that were corrupt and inefficient — or that Nusra thought were getting too strong or too popular.
What was different this time was the FSA’s reaction.
“We will fight and die rather than surrender our weapons,” a Division 13 officer told the Nusra Front, according to an activist who was in the barracks during the fight and subsequently fled to Turkey.
Seven fighters from Division 13 died and at least a dozen were wounded, Saoud said, in a fight that lasted all night. At least a dozen more men from Division 13 were taken prisoner. Nusra eventually won — in large measure because none of the other FSA factions in the town were willing to help their allies. Most prominent among the nearby FSA divisions that sat on their hands was another U.S.-backed faction, Fursan al-Haq, led by another Syrian Army defector, Col. Fares Bayyoush.
“I guess they were afraid that if they helped us, they’d be next on Nusra’s list,” Saoud scoffed.
With their weapons gone and survivors detained by Nusra, the rest of Division 13 fled. Another al Qaeda rout of the so-called moderate opposition was apparently complete.
But on March 13, the day after Division 13 was ejected from Maarat al-Nu’man, hundreds of residents took the town’s streets waving the nationalist flag of the original Syrian republic. Women and children drove Nusra out of the posts it had occupied and set them on fire. Rather than shoot civilians, Nusra fighters left town. The next day, an even bigger demonstration swept Maraat al-Nu’man. Men can be seen on videos climbing on walls and tearing down Nusra flags.
In official statements posted on Facebook, as well as in tweets by supporters, the Nusra Front derided the FSA for agreeing to a cease-fire, which it calls a “distraction from the real target” — the fight against the Syrian government. Nusra also tried to blame Division 13 for starting the firefight, but quickly backed away from that claim when evidence to the contrary surfaced. The al Qaeda affiliate quickly agreed to submit to arbitration by an ad hoc sharia court, which has ordered Nusra to release prisoners and return the weapons it took, although weeks later negotiations over the implementation of the ruling are still underway.
Three days after it conquered Maraat al-Nu’man, the Nusra Front had withdrawn its main fighting force from the town under pressure from the sharia court, and began releasing its prisoners from Division 13.
“Jabhat al-Nusra asks of all its members to hold their breath and maintain the highest degrees of patience,” said a Nusra Front statement, which urged calm and tried to point out that Assad and his allies were the biggest beneficiaries of internecine strife among the rebels.
The struggle over this remote Syrian city will reverberate as far away as Geneva. The non-jihadist factions negotiating in Switzerland hope to form the nucleus of a post-Assad Syria. But in order to credibly represent the opposition, they’ll have to shift the balance of power on the ground, where the far stronger Nusra Front often dictates the course of events in rebel-held areas.
Civilian activists in Idlib province also said that they wanted to reclaim the initiative after being sidelined during years of grinding fighting.
“The larger the number of protesters, the more pressure it puts on the armed factions,” said Ammar Sabbouh, a member of the Maraat al-Nu’man local council, speaking by telephone from the town.
About 150 people have joined the daily protests since the clashes — enough, he said, to rattle Nusra because it shows locals no longer fear them.
“Before the truce, people were afraid of barrel bombs, shells, bombs,” Sabbouh said. “Demonstrations lasted 15 minutes. Since the truce, the peaceful side of the revolution has gained strength.”
But Sabbouh is well aware that driving the Nusra Front from rebel-held areas is not so simple as returning power to the people. He cautioned that all the armed factions, including Nusra, had popular followings. Maraat al-Nu’man is one of a handful of towns famous for its nationalist, sometimes even secular, revolutionaries — but even there, some powerful clans are evenly divided between al Qaeda and the FSA. Meanwhile, many other towns in Idlib province passionately support the Nusra Front or other jihadi factions.
There had been little public objection when the Nusra Front had wiped out other U.S.-backed FSA factions in Idlib, as the groups had engaged in widespread corruption. Division 13, however, has a reputation for being fair and relatively uncorrupt. Its leader, Saoud, is a defector from the Syrian Army who was detained by the Islamic State in 2014. He is popular with his fighters, which he claims number 1,700 men.
But seasoned observers of the Syrian war caution that even if public opinion runs against Nusra — which might not even be the case — the al Qaeda affiliate’s unified command and compelling ideology suggest it will continue to play a dominant role.
“Nusra commands deep support,” said one Western official who meets regularly with emissaries of Syrian rebel factions, and who believes that Islamists from less extreme factions will eventually shift allegiance to Nusra. “They’re not going away anytime soon.”
It’s notable that Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful, nationalist-leaning jihadi group, has taken the FSA’s side in the latest dispute with Nusra. After the Nusra Front clashed with protesters, Ahrar al-Sham leaders tweeted that Syrians had the right to protest and carry flags of their choice. Many view Ahrar al-Sham, which supported the cease-fire, as a kingmaker group, with jihadist credibility but aspirations for national Syrian leadership.
Critics inside northern Syria say that the Nusra Front initially masked its intentions, but that over the last year and a half, residents in Idlib province have realized that al Qaeda is just as repressive as the Islamic State or the Syrian government.
The Jabhat al-Nusra Violations group sprung up in Idlib a year ago to track the Nusra Front’s use of kidnapping, torture, and child soldiers. Its founder, who lives in Turkey because he said he is wanted by Nusra, believes that the jihadists will ultimately alienate even conservative and religious Syrians.
“The more people learn about Nusra, the more they will reject them,” he said.
That’s the FSA’s hope as well.
“I have a strategy to set all Syria on fire against the extremists in Nusra, ISIS, and the regime,” Saoud said. “The demonstrations will teach other leaders how to break the fear of al Qaeda. The checkpoint of fear is being shattered.”
[Originally published at TCF.org.]
REYHANLI, Turkey—Peace in Syria might appear less remote today than it has in recent years, but rebel commanders on the ground—like Colonel Hassan Rajoub, commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Division 16—aren’t betting on it.
Col. Rajoub is taking advantage of the current lull to do what he thinks is wisest: stockpile weapons and plead with American and other foreign officers to provide enough support to resist a triple threat facing the FSA.
“We are at a very dangerous crossroads,” Rajoub said in an interview in Rehanli, the Turkish border town that serves as rear area for most of the rebel groups that openly take military support from the “Friends of Syria,” an alliance that includes the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
Since a February 27 cessation of hostilities, Russia has suspended its major air offensive, although it could quickly resume if it chose. Talks are underway in Geneva between the Syrian government and an opposition delegation backed a number of rebel groups, but not all. Increasingly, it appears that the United States and Russia share a desire for a political transition that allows a more effective military campaign against ISIS.
According to rebels in the Turkish border zone, weapons have flowed steadily into Syria since the ceasefire began. Even those who hope for a political settlement aren’t betting on one any time soon. Instead they’re stockpiling for the next round, which they expect will be as desperate as the last. Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov say they want a transition by the summer, none of the rebel commanders in northern Syria expect a political settlement before 2017.
Up close, however, to commanders like Rajoub interviewed in mid-March during an extension of the ceasefire, the patchwork of diplomatic developments looks less like momentum toward a settlement and more like a timeout.
Aleppo’s state of play underscores just how difficult it would be to work out the details of a lasting settlement. It has proven impossible, even with massive Russian support, for the Syrian government to fully encircle the rebels in Western Aleppo. It isn’t known whether Russia made a tactical decision not to allow a full government takeover of Aleppo, in order to prevent government overreach, or whether it wasn’t able to. Moreover, despite indications that the Syrian civil war might be tilting toward a punishing stalemate, the factions around Aleppo—once the economic and industrial hub of Syria—have plenty of fight still left in them. During the ceasefire, skirmishes have continued over city’s strategic choke points. Militias have shifted their forces in anticipation of major battles they expect as soon as the ceasefire breaks down. And commanders with access to foreign arms, like Rajoub and his FSA colleagues, are shopping across the border in Turkey.
“We ask the Friends of Syria and they give us,” Rajoub said with a smile. “They have just now given us new supplies of everything. But we want some special weapons to give us a little bit of leverage.”
In the past, FSA commanders ritualistically complain that the United States won’t let them have high-tech missiles (man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS) that would enable them to shoot down government bombers and helicopters. But during interviews this with nearly a dozen FSA commanders, none of them lingered on the issue of MANPADS.
Instead, several FSA commanders said the United States had been forthcoming during the ceasefire period, replenishing arms stocks and leaving open the possibility that some anti-aircraft missiles might be released into northern Syria.
“We expect a surprise,” said one satisfied commander.
Another commander, who runs the operations room in Aleppo that coordinates among all the factions, nationalist and Islamist, fighting in the city, said that the February bombardment had driven many insurgent militias into retreat, but they had re-infiltrated most of their important positions since the ceasefire.
“We still are counting on the supporting nations, and we emphasize the United States because it is the ‘indispensable nation,’” said the commander, who goes by the sobriquet Abu Ahmed al Amaliat (which loosely translated means “Ahmed’s father, the operations guy”).
A complex web of combatants with very divergent agendas is competing for Aleppo. The FSA battalions, nationalist in orientation and allied with the Friends of Syria, wants Bashar al Assad gone but strongly favors a unified post-war Syria that preserves the institutions of state.
Hard line jihadists, including the Al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front and ISIS, are not party to the ceasefire and are trying to establish their extreme version of Islamist governance in areas under their control. They can be distinguished from all other rebel groups because of their practice of takfiri jihad, through which they declare other groups apostate and then believe they are justified under religious law in using any tactic against them, no matter how nihilistic.
Kurdish forces have fought effectively against ISIS, and have at times collaborated with the United States, Russia, and the Syrian government, but they hope for an autonomous Kurdish region—a position anathema to all the other factions, which oppose federalism and support a unitary state.
The government wants to reconquer the entire city, and has employed its own forces, and has drawn as well on support from Iran and Russia, along with militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are also wild cards, such as the powerful Islamist rebel faction Ahrar el Sham, which has nationalist and jihadi constituents but hasn’t yet decided whether to break decisively in favor of an alliance with the FSA or with Nusra.
The government side of Aleppo is still home to an estimated 1.5 million people. The population on the rebel side has dwindled to about 300,000 living under horrific conditions: near constant bombardment, and shortages of everything. Rebel Aleppo can only be reached by one route, the Castello road, which is sandwiched between government forces on one side and jihadists on the other. Rebel-held Aleppo has lived in fear of a total siege for more than a year. Aleppo residents have watched the regime employ a siege-and-surrender tactic against places such as Eastern Ghouta and Madaya, where starvation has become common.
Opposition administrators are stockpiling food, fuel, and medicine, and working feverishly to unify their political and military leadership, but opposition leaders say that the decisive development won’t occur in Geneva but on the battlefields of Syria.
Rajoub said he planned to request fifty tons of explosives that night at meeting with with foreign officers at the Military Operations Center, or MOC. He said that fifteen nations have officers stationed in the MOC; they ask detailed questions about planned operations and demand thorough accounting for the weapons distributed. Rajoub had prepared satellite photographs of his area of operations with overlays showing his positions, enemy positions, and planned operations, which he displayed on his smartphone. His division is fighting around Aleppo, and if the government of Bashar al-Assad managed to reunite the divided city, it would mark a decisive turning point.
“The U.S. military commanders are always with us,” Rajoub said. “We ask. They are very cooperative. They understand our needs.”
He said he still fantasizes about MANPADS, but figured that the FSA could turn back its opponents without them.
In the midst of a continuing meltdown, it striking that plenty of actors, as angry as they are about a perception of American indifference, still welcome American help: activists, humanitarians, and military commanders arrayed against Bashar al Assad’s cynical dictatorship—which we ought to remember, played the most pivotal role in abetting ISIS and continues to devote resources to smashing nationalists while leaving ISIS, for the most part, untouched.
A close look at the Battle for Aleppo suggests it is far from won, and that progress on the ground, or stalemate, is ultimately what will determine the stance of the delegations in Geneva. Russia and the United States are trying to shape a military balance on the ground that will encourage their local allies and proxies to accede to a Moscow-Washington deal. But contested battlegrounds with so many factions are notoriously hard to shape, especially when many of the militias are fighting for their own neighborhoods and villages, or for what they view as a matter of ethnic or sectarian survival.
The budding superpower diplomacy, and even the tentative talks at Geneva, give cause for hope. But the military machinations around Aleppo should temper any unbridled optimism. In a destructive round-robin, where so many sides have lost so much, it’s a surprise how many still think they can win outright.
THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY of Beirut used to tally its influence by the number of its alumni among the region’s monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers. Today, AUB’s boosters have stopped counting heads of state but remain as obsessed as ever with reclaiming the luster of an institution that remains the best-reputed and most independent university in the Arab world.
That’s no mean feat in an era when authoritarian rulers in most Arab states are using the tools of surveillance, torture, and state harassment to curtail freedom of inquiry.
Yet today, in the heart of this region’s historical turbulence, AUB has begun an ambitious effort to make — or remake — itself as a great Arab university. For the first time in its 150-year history, AUB inaugurated a Lebanese president this January, a biologist and medical doctor named Fadlo R. Khuri. He has begun quietly but steadily breaking taboos in a systematic effort to emerge from four decades of hibernation and reconstruction, hoping to restore AUB’s ambitions and connect unapologetically to Lebanon and the Arab world.
“We can’t sit there and say we’re going to wait for the country and the Arab world to get its act together,” Khuri said in an interview in his corner office at College Hall, a stone building with a New England clock tower built in 1871. “We are committed to being excellent without the asterisk — not excellent ‘for Lebanon’ or excellent ‘for the Arab world.’ ”
Khuri’s bold talk about shedding mediocrity, fighting corruption, and competing directly with top universities around the world marks a vivid departure for AUB, which until recently was still a deeply scarred institution. In 1984, gunmen murdered AUB president Malcom Kerr — an American famous for his magisterial study of Arab politics — inside College Hall as he was entering his office. In 1991, the last year of the civil war, a bomb blew the building and iconic clock tower to smithereens. Reconstruction began immediately, and College Hall reopened in 1999.
It took 14 years from Kerr’s assassination for AUB’s president to risk living in Beirut at all — during the interim, the university was run remotely from an office in New York. Today, the campus gleams like any well-funded small liberal arts college with a gifted landscaper.
But in many important ways, AUB has not yet begun to recover from the hiatus violently imposed by the civil war. Tenure was scrapped during the war years and only now, in Khuri’s first year, has AUB decided to reinstate it — a necessary precursor for the university to compete with top-tier research institutions. AUB’s leadership is so afraid of sectarian politics and student activism that it bans the mention of political party names on campus and so heavily regulates debate at a Hyde Park-style speaker’s corner that students stopped showing up even at the peak of the Arab uprisings.
And in a country beset with multiple crises and a crippling political divide, its preeminent university seems often strangely genteel and detached, with only glancing mention at public events of pressing realities like the next-door war in Syria, the 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, and the often violent struggle between Lebanese sectarian warlords underwritten by expansionist regional powers.
The stakes are high in a region where scholarship is severely restricted; for example, researchers are almost entirely unable to work in Egypt today because of restrictions on academics and the routine detention of scholars. Last month, an Italian graduate student was allegedly murdered by Egyptian security officials. The greater the limits, the more independent scholarship is sorely needed. Institutions of state are in shambles, and political discourse, even five years after a wave of mostly failed popular uprisings, remains in a state of suspended animation.
Lebanon is better off than many of its neighbors in the Arab world, and that’s saying something when the most basic essentials of life and government barely function: For nearly two years, Lebanon has been unable to elect a president, and for nearly one, it hasn’t been able to dispose of the nation’s garbage.
Khuri’s predecessor was more likely to chide faculty members for failing to go through proper channels when reporting litter on campus than for failing to take a public stand on the issues of the day. Reams of leaked documents published in the Lebanese press detail allegations of kickbacks, nepotism, and corruption in the university’s procurement and finances — especially significant considering that AUB is the largest employer in the entire country of Lebanon after the government.
In a refreshing change of tone, Khuri has dispensed with the notion that civility, or even pure scholarship, is more important than relevance. He wants his deans to define the criteria for tenure and promotion to value service to Lebanon.
“Yes, we want to have international impact. But we were put here to have an impact locally and regionally,” Khuri said. “I would rather have my engineer who designs a retractable school for Syrian refugee kids spend a lot of time and get that right than necessarily publish 20 articles and get cited.”
AMHERST COLLEGE GRADUATE Daniel Bliss founded the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, with high hopes to spread Christianity in the Levant. Instruction was in Arabic, and Bliss planned to quickly turn it over to local leadership. Within decades, however, Bliss had clashed with a faculty member who wanted to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and shut down a student protest movement. English replaced Arabic, and “native instructors” were relegated to secondary status. Eventually, the institution gave up on its failed missionary aims and in 1920 adopted it modern name, the American University of Beirut.
It became a cornerstone of an era of ferment in Arab political life. Liberals, nationalists, revolutionaries, communists, and others were agitating throughout the Levant and the Arab region. In the half century that followed — through World War II and decolonization, the establishment of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians, and a long cycle of regional wars — it was an epicenter of political activism and research in and about the Arab world.
Until the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, AUB hosted some of the most influential and prolific figures of Arab political and intellectual life. Arab nationalists, Lebanese chauvinists, leftists, Palestinian revolutionaries, and countless others sharpened their arguments in AUB’s lecture halls and the nearby cafés on Bliss Street.
But the civil war undid the university. After Kerr’s murder, the university hunkered down, improvising in order to continue teaching students throughout the ebbs and flows of violence. AUB survived by insulating itself from its surroundings. Once a petri dish of politics, AUB tried to transform into a sterile politics-free zone. When Lebanon’s fratricidal war ended in 1991, AUB rebuilt a gleaming campus that now enrolls 9,000 students and employs 800 full-time faculty members. But the university never fully recovered its luster or reputation. Top scholars were deterred by the absence of tenure, and many would-be faculty avoid Lebanon, considering it unstable or dangerous.
“It’s always been a real crossroads,” said Betty S. Anderson, a historian at Boston University whose 2011 history of AUB remains the definitive study of the school.
But it is still a draw because none of its new competitor universities can match Beirut’s intellectual climate. “You still have academic freedom at AUB,” Anderson said. “There are red lines you can’t cross, but there is still an openness and freedom to maneuver here.”
The failure of lavishly state-funded universities in the Gulf suggests that money can’t buy excellence in research or education, and AUB, diminished as it is, remains the Arab world’s top university.
AUB is making an effort now to reverse decades of decline and reestablish a distinctly, and distinctly Arab, renaissance. Its challenges mirror those that face researchers across the Arab world: political pressure to avoid sensitive topics, corruption, and instability.
Research is dramatically underfunded in the Arab world ($10 per capita is expended for scientific research in the Arab world compared to $33 in Malaysia and $575 in Ireland) and subject to extreme political pressure, according to an ongoing multiyear study of research in the region by an AUB sociologist, Sari Hanafi, and Rigas Arvanitis, a sociologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France.
This spring at an AUB symposium, they released their new book, “Knowledge Production in the Arab World: The Impossible Promise,” about the dismal state of Arab research. Across the region, the sociologists found, Arab researchers suffer a double bind, discredited by religious authorities as well as by authoritarian states.
Lebanon had fared slightly better, Hanafi said, but only because of international funding. “When we talk about producing knowledge, we always should ask what is its purpose,” Hanafi said in an interview. “AUB’s international success comes at the expense of local relevance.”
Much of the research done in the Arab world is set by the agenda of foreign donors, Hanafi said, or is locally driven but of poor quality or published on platforms only read in one country.
“There will be no important research in the Arab countries without freedom to think, speak, and write,” Hanafi and Rigas wrote in their book. “Important research will be done elsewhere, and far from the actual needs and desires of the Arab population.”
KHURI IS CANDID about AUB’s fallen stature, and about the need to think beyond the university’s American identity to its Arab and Lebanese role and responsibilities. But striking a balance will be tricky. Until the civil war era, the US State Department was a major funder and considered AUB an arm of Cold War foreign policy. AUB steadfastly refused to cast itself as a Lebanese institution in part as a hangover from its imperial roots but also out of a desire to protect itself from the sectarianism, political violence, and graft that pervade Lebanon.
Born in Boston, Khuri finished high school in Beirut and then returned to the United States, where he studied at Yale and Columbia universities and finished his medical training at Boston City Hospital and Tufts. Khuri salts his conversation with references to the Red Sox and Celtics; as a teenager in Lebanon he listened to Sox games on Armed Forces radio. He carefully describes himself as card-carrying member of the ACLU with family roots in Beirut and AUB — someone who can navigate Lebanon’s local political culture without getting sucked into sectarian politics.
“I think it’s high time after 150 years that one of us was qualified enough to lead this institution,” Khuri said. “I get AUB, and I get Lebanon, and I get the US.”
Some of AUB’s problems are familiar: Students complain about unsustainably high tuition and the difficulty finding jobs. Faculty complain of low pay and tone-deaf administrators.
Others are of an entirely different nature. Faculty search committees lose compelling applicants who drop out when a bomb goes off in Beirut. Lebanese government officials approve work permits for some of the foreign faculty but illegally delay or withhold permission for faculty from Syria, the Palestinian territory, and some African countries. AUB developed its own electricity and water infrastructure during the war, but, like the rest of Lebanon, it struggles from chronic shortages and resource mismanagement.
Despite the official ban on politics, student clubs with tame names run for council elections as Trojan horses for Lebanon’s sectarian factions. The student newspaper publishes a handy guide explaining that the Cultural Club for the South fronts for the Shia organization Hezbollah, the Youth Club for the Sunni Future Movement, and so on.
Speaker’s Corner, a prominent feature of campus life until 1974, was brought back in 2010 but quickly faded away. Administrators, terrified that open debate about politics could quickly escalate into sectarian strife, carefully vetted topics and heavily coached student speakers. Like many public events on campus about polarizing contemporary topics, the result was so anodyne that students lost interest even at the peak of the Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011. Speaker’s Corner is once again on hiatus, and students said that faculty members tell them it’s better this way, since the young don’t yet have the “maturity” to discuss sensitive political matters.
Suspicion borders on paranoia as members of the AUB community track the relative number of supporters of each of Lebanon’s main political factions. Some whisper darkly that Hezbollah has taken over the faculty; others point to recent hires to argue that the rival Future movement now dominates AUB. Any perception that the university has sunk into the clutches of one faction or another could hurt the institution’s standing and expose it to pressure, threats, or even violence.
In order to eliminate the perception of sectarian bias, university admissions stripped out personal artifacts like essays or portfolios; Khuri wants to reverse that.
As Lebanon’s national crisis has reached a breaking point over the failure to dispose of garbage since July 2015, political activism among AUB faculty has quickened. So far, perhaps as part of his commitment to the Arab nahda, or renaissance, Khuri has let it flourish.
Dozens of enraged professors banded together in the fall to propose technocratic fixes to the Lebanese garbage crisis and have become a major force in an accountability movement that paints all Lebanon’s politicians as party to a colossal failure. The faculty proposals have emerged as the main alternatives to government policy.
An AUB economist named Jad Chaaban has spearheaded a group that’s running a slate of candidates for the Beirut city council elections this spring. If it does well, the group could emerge as a new, antisectarian political party in the next national parliamentary elections — a return with a bang of AUB’s legacy as a political player in its own right.
With several of Lebanon’s entrenched politicians on AUB’s board, Chaaban said that Khuri will need thick skin to resist encroachment on faculty autonomy. “They say they welcome dissenting voices,” Chaaban said. “So far they have left us alone.”
Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A member of the Syrian government forces waved as he sat on the road leading to Gaziantep on the outskirts of the village of Kiffin on Thursday.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
ONE OF THE BIGGEST developments in Syria’s five-year civil war came with the surprise announcement from Munich, that the warring factions had agreed a temporary cease-fire and to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas. If the agreement can hold, it would be a remarkable turn in a conflict that has seemed to defy all efforts at a peaceful resolution.
The ultimate breakthrough may have come not at the table but on the battlefield. A Russian blitzkrieg on Aleppo broke the stalemate around the most important contested city in Syria, threatening to cut off millions of rebel supporters and eliminate the last major bastion of the opposition not dominated by jihadis.
Diplomats accused Russia of stringing the United States along with negotiations; Syrian opposition fighters spoke of betrayal; and an American intelligence official told Congress that Russia had “changed the calculus completely.”
The move on Aleppo outraged and stunned American policy makers, but it shouldn’t have. Russia was treading on familiar territory when it forced new facts on the ground while simultaneously engaging in peace talks.
On the contrary, any policy maker interested in predicting what might work long-term in Syria can turn to the rich body of scholarship on civil wars, almost perfectly suited to align expectations with reality. “History can tell us a lot about this kind of situation and this kind of conflict,” said Christopher Paul, a senior social scientist who studies modern insurgencies at the RAND Corporation. “There’s always a danger in getting caught up with what’s unique about a case while it’s going on rather than with the clarity of hindsight.”
One of Paul’s recent projects analyzed 71 conflicts fought between 1944 and 2010; he identified a series of seven steps that led to negotiated settlements — necessary preconditions for a diplomatic solution to a civil war. The odds he tabulated should humble expectations: Only 13 of the 71 insurgencies he studied were resolved by a political negotiation.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 an increasing share of conflicts were fought within states rather than between them, prompting social scientists to delve into the study of civil war with particular intensity. The Pentagon funded academic examinations of every civil war and insurgency of the last century. There was an unusual confluence of theoretical and practical interest, with scholarly studies of civil war designed to help policy makers deal with the ongoing conflicts of our times. Researchers probed thorny questions of identity, sectarianism, and ideological grievance that often bedevil social scientists but play a crucial role in civil wars.
The research tells us how long civil wars tend to last and what factors prolong or resolve them; what steps tend to lead to a negotiated settlement and what presages a resolution established on the battlefield.
When Russia raced to Aleppo, the real mystery is why anyone was surprised.
FRATRICIDAL CONFLICTS are most effectively won, not negotiated. Sadly, in practice, the most enduring way to resolve a civil war is often the one with the most horrific human costs. Most other outcomes, including peace accords reached under international pressure, tend to be unstable and marred by continuing flare-ups of violence. Until last week, Syria has offered a painful illustration of this cold fact.
Incredulous Syrian rebels in interviews and private conversations before the announced truce said bitterly that the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons would only negotiate after they’d already won as much as they could and destroyed what’s left of the original uprising. US officials complained in public that Russia was tanking any prospect of a fair or humanitarian end to the war, although they were more sanguine in private. Two senior officials said that as much as they decried the Russian approach, they expected Moscow to push for the best outcome it could get. They didn’t expect Russia or Syrian President Bashar Assad to sign away territory or make political concessions until they had seen what a year or more of vigorous Russian military intervention would yield.
Years of study have confirmed what’s intuitively obvious: No one wants to negotiate seriously until they’ve given up hope of winning on the ground. With Russian support, the Assad regime seemed to believe it could reconquer most of its territory — so why seek a deal before it was ready?
The war appeared deadlocked on the ground because the two international coalitions appeared balanced, said Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist who helped pioneer contemporary study of civil wars. “The question to ask is. . . what are the costs they pay to keep fighting?”
Overall, civil wars last about 10 years. If all sides get used to a stalemate, a war can go on far longer. The greater the number of factions and international sponsors involved, the longer a civil war tends to last. Syria’s civil war is now in its fifth year.
Some experts compare Syria’s war to the grinding, decades-long conflicts in Congo and Afghanistan, which also involved more than two factions and deeply implicated foreign sponsors of proxy armies. Other scholars, like MIT’s Fotini Christia, argue that Bosnia is a better parallel, because like Syria it had a high level of education and development before collapsing into strife, and its domestic factions relied on nearby foreign backers.
Breakthroughs historically occur when both sides finally acknowledge that they can’t win — or when one side finds that it actually can.
PAST CONFLICTS SHOW that a stable equilibrium doesn’t usually come with a victory for the good guys (or better guys if all sides are unsavory), the establishment of justice, or any of the moral outcomes that the international community tends to promote.
About 70 percent of civil wars end with outright victory, roughly 40 percent of the time for the government and 30 percent of the time for rebels, according to several data sets. After the fall of the Soviet Union, negotiated settlements, while still the exception, became more common, because international coalitions were willing to sponsor negotiations and then enforce the settlements with peacekeepers.
Unless one side wins outright, fighting factions only see an incentive to negotiate when they run short of fighters and their international patrons lose patience.
Political settlements usually involve a division of power that reflects the territorial disposition of the war, said Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. In Syria’s case that’s a long shot long-term — a settlement based on the current front lines would cede major areas to the Islamic State and Nusra Front and would require the Assad regime to share power with Sunni rebel groups, a prospect that all sides still categorically reject. Effective settlements also require international guarantors willing to enforce an agreement.
Three years ago, Walter judged the likelihood of a negotiated settlement in Syria as “close to zero despite the efforts of the Obama administration to convince us otherwise.”
Today, she says, “what’s changed is that the incentives to stop fighting and start seriously negotiating are becoming more prominent.”
Outside sponsors were tiring of spending money on the conflict, Walter said, while edging closer to the view that a compromise might benefit everyone.
Walter believes it’s possible for Syria’s warring sides to eventually agree on a power-sharing formula. But she said finding peacekeepers, the third precondition of successful peace accords, would be more elusive. “How do you enforce an agreement over time?” Walter asked. Iraq, for example, failed under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki because no neutral power was able to enforce the power-sharing agreement between Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.
For scholars steeped in dozens of civil war case studies, and who aren’t advocating for any particular policy course, the evidence in Syria points to a slow, messy resolution. “There is probably no long-run military solution to this war in the sense it is extremely hard to see how you could get back to Assad ruling the country as he did in, say, 2010 or 2005,” said James Fearon, a Stanford political scientist. “I can imagine a partial victory that implies a rough and messy de facto partition of the country, that would drag on with lots of skirmishing.”
Civil war research offers a sobering warning to those in Syria and the international community who seek a major shift in Syria. Similar conflicts in Afghanistan and Congo stretched on for decades. Neighboring Iraq has hosted an ongoing civil war-cum-insurgency for nearly 13 years, featuring many of the same players involved in the Syrian war.
“A major concern about the current policy debate is there is so much pressure to resolve this conflict quickly, and history suggests that it will take time,” said RAND’s Paul. “Push hard and aggressively, by all means, to encourage settlement, but don’t be surprised if it’s hard and things break down repeatedly. It takes time, and requires strategic patience.”
Social science isn’t always the answer, but when it comes to civil wars and insurgencies, it can be a helpful corrective. The fighting factions in a civil war and the states that back them are often unable, or unwilling, to make clear-headed assessments of their own prospects. They have little incentive to be realistic about their chances of victory or concerned about the humanitarian costs of their actions.
If the tentative cease-fire announced at Munich is implemented, the scholarship warns us to be patient and temper our hopes; it often requires several rounds before there’s enough trust among warring parties for the truce to last, and implementation can prove as tricky as the initial negotiation.
Political science doesn’t tell us everything, said Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, but it outlines what’s possible and what’s impossible. In the case of Syria, long studies of civil wars that have become “internationalized,” with multiple outside powers reinforcing their proxies and blocking victory by their opponents, make clear that quick and easy victories are impossible. A decisive Russian intervention could have changed the war but couldn’t end it on its own; in a similar manner, Lynch says, a full-on US intervention wouldn’t have decisively resolved Syria’s civil war either.
Gamal, seated right, with his daughter on his lap, on Feb. 8, 2011.
Today, I cannot help but think of the shock and wonder I felt when I beheld the revolutionary Egyptians fighting their way into Tahrir Square five years ago—as if with each riot policemen they swept aside, they were casting away another piece of foundations of authoritarianism.
We still don’t know how Egypt’s story will turn out. It might not turn out well, but it is not yet over. The aspirations of the Egyptians who demanded a better state are still unmet, and the latest incarnation of military strongmen simply cannot deliver on any front: neither legitimacy nor livelihood nor dignity.
“My body is here but my mind is still in Tahrir,” one of the activists of 2011 messaged me today from exile. Sure, there is ample reason for despair, or even for the silence that has engulfed one of the revolution’s most creative and articulate thinkers, Alaa Abdel Fattah. But there is also reason for patience, even hope.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship believes its own paranoid propaganda. In addition to the actual threat Egypt faces from Islamist insurgents, the security services imagine other, nonexistent threats around every corner. Sisi knows his initial popularity was broad but very shallow. That is why he is so insecure. The military could easily shift its support to some other figure. Sisi has not captured the loyalty of the government bureaucracy, or the wealthy. He doesn’t have a political party through which to manipulate politics. And his legitimacy is subject to challenge from every direction.
As a result of his weak position, Sisi has sadly but understandably felt the need to consolidate his power through maximal repression. In the 1990s, Hosni Mubarak put down a far more substantial and violent Islamist uprising with far less force and far fewer indiscriminate arrests. There aren’t credible challenges today from the secular, nationalist opposition, because Sisi has so thoroughly clamped down on freedom to talk and organize. Yet he’s still nervous, because he knows his thin legitimacy and failure to govern effectively will inevitably result in challenges to his authority, or even another coup or popular uprising.
A few days shy of five years ago, a minibus driver from Giza named Gamal sat on the ground in Tahrir Square, in front of a tank, with his young daughter on his lap. It was drizzling. He was wet and cold, but he didn’t care. His extended family told him he was foolish to risk prison joining a protest. He failed to change their minds, but he was invested in his three-year-old daughter. As he wiped her runny nose, Gamal told me cheerfully that he didn’t want his little girl to grow up to be like her parents or think like her parents.
“I want her to see and feel what it’s like to defy authority,” he said.
I don’t know where Gamal is today, or how he views the last five year’s rapid turns of the gyre. But I very much doubt he thinks the same way he did on January 24, 2011, or that he will ever have the same expectations or the same resignation that he did before the January revolution.
Whether that change of heart leads one day to a change of state for Egypt—a change for the better—no one can know. But we can be sure that today’s silence, imposed with a historically unprecedented level of repression by a state ruling from a historically narrow base, tells us nothing about Egypt’s future. It only reveals the fears of its military rulers.
Zakia and Ali. Photo: DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ
[Book review in The Boston Globe.]
When news reached Kabul that a pair of teenagers was breaking every manner of taboo, determined to marry for love or else die in rural Bamian province, New York Times reporter Rod Nordland jumped. He had been looking for just such a story to illustrate Afghanistan’s horrifying tradition of rape and “honor killings,” as well as the courage of young people ready to challenge the old system.
Zakia and Ali had met as children — their families farmed neighboring plots — and decided when they came of age to defy their parents and marry. By the time Nordland meets them, Zakia is hiding in a women’s shelter. Her family is threatening to kill her because she has tarnished their “honor.’’
Their story makes sensational headlines about “Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet,” and Nordland doggedly sticks with the protagonists. The result is “The Lovers,” a rich account of Zakia and Ali’s romance that doubles as an indictment of the Afghan patriarchy’s abuse of women and the failures of all those in power, inside and outside the country, to curtail it.
Nordland follows the couple’s escape into the mountains, their marriage and honeymoon on the run, and the hair-raising manhunt that pits Zakia’s relatives against the bride, groom, and his family. Along the way a circus of Afghan and US government officials and international gadflies try to shape the fate of Zakia and Ali.
Couples like Zakia and Ali usually pay for their daring with their lives. This exceptional pair, however, doubles down on their decision to marry by going public with their tale. Miraculously, they manage to avoid being killed, although their victory seems pyrrhic. Some young Afghans find solace in the couple’s crusade, although we only learn of their social resonance in glancing references to their celebrity status.
What support the couple wins from local power brokers has more to do with ethnic and tribal loyalty than any major change of heart among patriarchal elders. Zakia and Ali enjoy what pass for moments of serenity on the lam from vengeful relatives, discovering that the married life for which they fought so gallantly includes long stretches of monotony and bickering.
For Americans contemplating their longest war, in Afghanistan, the campaign for women’s rights was a potential bright spot. The 2001 invasion might have failed on most counts, mired in torture, warlordism, and corruption, but at least the appalling position of women was supposed to improve.
Nordland’s “The Lovers” fatally complicates that optimistic narrative. In the 1980s, when Nordland first covered the conflict in Afghanistan, the United States supported mujahedeen whose main motivation to fight was to reverse the Soviets’ emancipation of Afghan women. So it was rich with irony that after the United States staged its invasion, it pushed for a flurry of women’s rights laws that improved things mainly on paper — and were undermined by the same warlords who owed their rise to American patronage.
To contextualize Ali and Zakia’s romantic yarn, Nordland presents a tirade of stories of rape, murder, bribery, and cover-up. While this barrage of anecdotes enrages, it does not advance our understanding of the thinking of the men who run this brutal system. Nor does it explain how they secure the cooperation of their countrymen.
Ali and Zakia are simple characters, illiterate, uneducated, and young. Although they star in this account, we never fully understand why they took such a bold leap. The closest glimpse we get to their souls is through the poetic verses that Ali selects for his cellphone ringtone.
There’s another story here, which Nordland shares with admirable candor and unflinching honesty, and that is of the unsatisfying, at times distressing, encounter between Afghans and the foreigners who have come to save, subjugate, or chronicle their country.
Almost from the first, Nordland dispenses with sanctimony. Journalists are supposed to maintain objectivity and avoid becoming part of the story. But in war zones, lines get blurred, and Nordland refuses to ignore his responsibility to be humane and help his subjects.
He gives Zakia and Ali money, lobbies for them with government officials, arranges a getaway car, and choreographs one abortive flight abroad.
The couple proves maddening and headstrong. They routinely ignore advice, dodge phone calls, and surface only when they need help or money. They might frustrate their allies, but Nordland respects their agency and independence of thought. They might not make the wisest choices, but the point is they act empowered in a society where few do.
The American government offers little aid, seeming reluctant to grant asylum to persecuted Afghans because it would undermine the line that Afghan women are better off since the Americans came.
All the more reason to chronicle this bittersweet, ambiguous love story. Zakia and Ali haven’t changed the status of Afghan women, and Nordland’s relentless reporting hasn’t shifted US policy. But the very acts of successful resistance and honest storytelling provide much-needed seeds of hope.
THE LOVERS: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing
By Rod Nordland
Ecco, 384 pp., $26.99
Thanassis Cambanis writes The Internationalist column for Globe Ideas and is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York. His most recent book is “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.’’
[Published at The Century Foundation blog.]
Monday evening Lebanon’s two most powerful Christian political bosses set aside decades of enmity – including many years when the two men’s militias were locked in a death match whose collateral damage included much of Lebanon itself – to join forces in the race for the country’s presidency.
The announcement was not altogether unexpected, and marked a powerful shift of alliances within the slate of warlord factions that runs Lebanon. For those familiar with the history of the civil war and the bitter rivalry between Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, it’s a shock to the system to see the two men on the same side. It’s an important reminder that in politics, even Lebanese politics, all things are possible; personal and ideological feuds don’t preclude common ground and tactical alliances.
Geagea’s decision to support Aoun might be many things, but it is not a game changer.
“We must leave the past in order to build a future,” Aoun said in the press conference with his long-term rival and new friend. But he was only talking about the two men’s past disputes; he wasn’t talking about leaving behind a hidebound political system firmly trapped in the past. If anything, an Aoun presidency that reinvigorates the role of Lebanon’s Christian parties will take the old system off life support and inject it with new vigor – while stymieing any push for a more representative election system, which would privilege groups with the large and growing numbers of followers, most prominently Hezbollah.
Lebanon is still run by an anti-democratic cabal of hereditary warlords, and the major groupings for now remain intact. The March 14 and March 8 blocs are so loose, and so bereft of a shared ideology or political vision, that it’s hard to imagine them enduring much longer. Even their members are hard pressed to define either side by what it stands for rather than what it opposes.
In any event, even if the wider alliances fracture and regroup, there’s no reason to believe we’re witnessing anything more than a rearrangement of the supporting cast. The main event is the sectarian power struggle for primacy between Hezbollah, the Shia movement whose influence has been on the upswing for two decades, and Lebanon’s waning Sunni community (a contest that mirrors and reflects the regional battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia).
Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Sunnis’ first among equals, has been fighting what seems to be an inevitable consignation to the second-tier, a result of his own shrinking fortunes and political missteps, intra-Sunni fragmentation, the demographic shift of Lebanon’s population and wealth, and the regional feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Throughout the 20-month presidential vacuum, my guess has been that when the major brokers finally decide Lebanon needs a president, they will resort to a lowest-common denominator consensus candidate, someone who can get the job done without providing any faction with a notion of victory. In other words, no polarizing zaim like Aoun, Geagea or Suleiman Franjieh. Pushed to bet on a name, I’d pick the current head of the military, Jean Kahwaji, a safe choice to preserve security without tipping the political balance or posing a threat to the hereditary majors.
Monday’s announcement makes that outcome more unlikely, although still possible in the opaque, faction- and personality-driven layered negotiations that characterize Lebanese politics.
Geagea and Aoun have been growing closer since last summer, and as Lebanese commentator and Daily Star columnist Michael Young points out, both men see a great danger to the long-term viability of their status and their entire movements. If Muslim politicians get to select the Christian president, if Christian political parties act effectively as filler in political coalitions dominated by Sunni and Shia bosses, then what’s the future of the Lebanese Christian community, much less its political leaders? Power in Lebanon remains entirely rooted in sectarian quotas, patronage networks, and power-sharing agreements, not individual voting rights or secular law.
Does the Aoun deal really signify an alliance shift and a fracturing of the March 14 coalition? Or is it an organic reassertion of Christian dealmaking, reminding kingmakers like the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and actual kings like Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and the weaker but still “royal” Hariri, that the Christian lock on the presidency, in Lebanon’s weird system, does endow Christian parties with actual power should they opt to use it?
The last year’s evidence points to the latter theory. If that’s correct, then a reassertion of Christian political initiative should be understood as reactionary rather than radical shift. From a historian’s perspective, it’s a clear, conservative step back onto the solid ground of the 1943 National Accord and its descendants, sectarian power-sharing compromises that put national governance second to the preservation of sectarian fiefs. In many ways, it restores equilibrium to a rigid and fragile system, postponing any root-and-branch reform project, which would exacerbate every group’s communal fears and might destabilize the entire country. Since the Civil War broke out in 1975, warlords have never stopped making the decisions in Lebanon. Relative power has shifted within the cabal of warlords, but so far no one has posed a systemic challenge to the basis of their rule.
Some Lebanese politicians, especially those who oppose Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria, and Iran’s influence, might be tempted to see in the presidential deal a fruit of the Iran nuclear accords, a further tilt toward Iran in the Levant. It’s more likely that the Lebanese presidential pragmatism is a response to the same underlying conditions that made the nuclear deal possible: a hard-headed calculation about numbers, power and possibilities. Hezbollah and its allies are stronger than their opponents in Lebanon, so their side has had the leverage in the presidential standoff. As in Syria, relative strength doesn’t guarantee that the stronger party gets everything it wants, but it does make the opposite unlikely. Until now, in Lebanon, the March 14 side has held onto the vague hope that it can somehow drive the choice of president, or even anoint its own candidate. But March 8 holds more cards and will get the better end of whatever deal is reached, even one in which Saad Hariri gets to return as prime minister.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s demography marches onward, its Shia plurality bustling and its Sunni and Christian communities in decline (so long as Syrian refugees don’t enter the calculation). The preferences and identities of the country’s population are ever farther removed from the sectarian quotas that shape electoral results and the upper reaches of Lebanon’s government. Not a single major political party of warlord has atop their agenda any policies that advance rule of law, citizenship or fair elections, which would posit an alternate path to protecting pluralism and minority rights.
A full rapprochement between Geagea and Aoun changes the lineup; it does not, as some breathless reaction would suggest, in any way change the game.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
I USED TO feel smug about Lebanon’s dysfunction when I moved here from New York three years ago. I knew the country well as a frequent long-term visitor. I had reported the 2006 war from the battlefields in Lebanon’s south and subsequently criss-crossed it while researching a book. However familiar and modern Lebanon seemed, I was convinced that it lay in the category of failed states, its problems of an entirely different nature than those facing the United States.
Then two critical things changed, evaporating my smugness and leaving in its place a sort of dread that I fear might never leave me. I began to really live here, raising my family and establishing a home. Soon after, I realized the paralysis and failures that mar Lebanon are not so far removed from the pathologies of the United States.
Lebanon isn’t an alternate universe. It’s a potential future, perhaps not the most likely for the United States but definitely a possible outcome. For a quarter century since its civil war ended, Lebanon has ambled along with an awkward power-sharing arrangement that prevents any single group from dominating. The same compromise also prevents any political faction from governing effectively — political stalemate. Corruption is rampant. Money can buy almost anything.
Successive crises have wracked this little country since sectarian warlords agreed to disarm their militias and turn to business in 1991. In the last decade alone, local experts predicted a complete breakdown multiple times — when former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005 and half the country protested in the streets, when Israel bombed the entire country during the 2006 war, when Hezbollah and its allies briefly took over West Beirut in 2008, and then when a million or more Syrian refugees crossed the border from Syria after 2011. Every Rubicon crossed so far has led not to another civil war but rather to another unthinkable degradation in quality of life, which the population stoically endures because most Lebanese would prefer anything to another horrifying civil war. Meanwhile, for reasons entirely attributable to corruption, Lebanon suffers from a permanent shortage of water and electricity, and countless other ignominies inexplicable in a country so rich and so modern.
This year’s garbage crisis encapsulates the hopelessness of a system that successfully holds its citizens hostage. One of the ruling families, the aforementioned Hariris, benefits from a secret national trash collection contract. (Wrap your head around the fact that the national garbage contract is a state secret. No member of the public knows how much the government spends for waste disposal. Even members of parliament can’t pry the information out of the government.)
Years after the overstuffed landfill’s expiration date, local activists finally forced its shutdown last summer. Politicians figured something would work out. Nothing has. Since July, garbage has piled up in fetid mountains around the nation — beside villas, beneath underpasses, in the harbor, in the rivers. Rotting garbage fills Lebanon’s unused corners. Doctors blame its toxic effluence for an epidemic of infections.
As Lebanon’s problems go, the garbage morass is extra mind-boggling because the solutions are within reach. The government could open other landfills. It could agree to let local municipalities take care of their own garbage, as many Lebanese advocate. The government’s preferred solution is the most expensive (and really, the most absurd): to ship the garbage abroad, to countries not yet disclosed. Anti-corruption activists warned of an environmental disaster. They were proved right at the first winter rains, when trash floated down flooded streets and clogged the seacoast. The prime minister tried to claim that images of garbage floods had been faked. But in a country as small as Lebanon, such obfuscation didn’t work; almost everybody had seen the disaster firsthand. Today flotillas of garbage bags regularly cruise the waters along Beirut’s Corniche.
The politics of garbage are complicated and inseparable from the politics of everything else, from the thwarted selection of a new president (the office has been vacant since May 2014) to the system that ended the civil war with a web of sectarian quotas and set-asides. Two of the most deleterious factors that fueled Lebanon’s emblematic civil war were the insecurities of minority groups in a pluralistic society and the toxicity of foreign intervention. Ultimately, after 15 years of fighting and a quarter of a million killed, the dominant warlords in Lebanon couldn’t find a new modus vivendi. So they stuck with the old unstable system that collapsed in 1975. The same warlords, or their children, still run Lebanon, and they still have failed to resolve the underlying problems of communal fear and foreign intervention. Beginning with that signal failure, Lebanon’s leaders over the years have compounded their original sin by failing to solve easier and easier problems.
Stymied on the big questions of how to elect the government and how to separate citizenship rights from sectarian identity, Lebanon has gradually become incapable of resolving ever more prosaic questions — how to divvy up the ill-gotten proceeds of black market diesel crucial to running the nation’s generators, how to keep public schools staffed, how to register civil marriages, how to activate the existing fiber optic network so that Lebanon loses its stigma as one of the slowest zones of Internet access in the world, how to repair leaks in the water mains responsible for far more water loss than drought and groundwater overpumping, how to collect parking fines. Every one of these issues has reached a breaking a point in just the last three years. At each juncture the political system has essentially shrugged.
All this differs in degree rather than in kind from the American system. It’s only a few dystopian steps from today’s plutocratic-politics-for-sale and Washington gridlock to a great American variation on the Lebanese model.
It’s easy but misleading to see the Arab states as failing and the Western states as members of an entirely different, successful category.
Sure, the US and European systems function far better — so vote millions of emigrants with their feet. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the drawbacks of the Western systems, which have decidedly uneven foundations.
America is often seen as the most attractive destination because of its open and ever-growing economy, and as a model of assimilation that, despite deeply rooted racism, provides a surer path to belonging than Europe’s. America’s opportunity for earning and self-invention balance against its cultural roughness and weak social safety net.
The strengths and weaknesses of America’s fundamental compact are closely intertwined. As a system, the United States has been remarkably adaptive in some ways and remarkably brittle in others. Its grandeur and lack of rigid ideology — or fixed cultural identity — has allowed it to welcome a huge number of immigrants and create a great deal of national wealth. It has embraced stark inequality as integral to its brand of capitalism.
Europe more generously absorbs newcomers and provides its citizens with a beguiling array of social services. Governments provide comfortable benefits to workers and the unemployed alike. The system prioritizes social stability; there’s less inequality but taxes are high and economic growth limited.
But all is not perfect in Europe either. The concept of European identity only roughly veils a subterranean nativism flowing through many quarters of the continent, evoked in racist conceptions like Blut und Boden or francais francais and traditions like Santa’s slave helper in Holland, Black Piet, still played today by white people in blackface.
In Europe, the social protections are more humanist and mainstream politics long ago achieved consensus on matters that still bedevil Americans, like universal health care, gun control, the death penalty, and abortion. The system is more placid, but in many ways also more rigid and undemocratic. There is no direct electoral connection between the roughly 500 million European citizens and the executive European Commission that wields so much power over them. In Europe, it’s hard to get rich or move up the class ladder, and it’s much harder for an immigrant of color to gain full social acceptance.
Importantly, these Western systems can break. They’ve done so before, in recent times, and without careful stewardship will do so again. Before Europe’s system was so great, it was terrible. Many of its most impressive achievements came in the wake of World War II, when the continent was so thoroughly destroyed by decades of violence and fascism that its inhabitants were willing to take radical measures in order to protect against further war.
American history is littered with points of rupture. The constitutional system has enabled the United States to improvise in response to some modern developments. But the US system, at great risk to itself, continues to struggle with major issues of equality and human rights. Again and again in times of crisis, America has resorted to extrajudicial violence, including torture and assassination, in the name of national security and its foreign policy aspirations.
At home, the American system has been unable to accommodate reform on race and gun violence. The nation almost split twice during violent upheavals over systemic racism, first during the Civil War and then during the cataclysmic and constitutional crisis that we neatly call the civil rights movement. Generation after generation of gun massacres have failed to convince American society (or its politicians) that it’s time to reinterpret the Second Amendment like we have so many others.
A truly adaptive system has to evolve, even sometimes on matters of great significance like slavery, free speech, suffrage, and who is allowed into the ruling elite. America’s historical strength has been its ability to follow crises with genuine reinvention. But that history is no guarantee, and for two generations now American political life has been stalemated over fundamental issues including race, guns, and taxes.
The ambiguities in the American and European compacts remind us that there are drawbacks to the most attractive systems in the world, the systems to which people flock from failed or failing states like Lebanon. Resourceful people abandon the places that stop working — where violence makes life untenable, like in much of Syria, or where corruption and collapsed institutions erase the opportunity for education and progress from one generation to the next.
Many of the people most likely to succeed, who take risks and initiative, abandon these disrupted zones for alluring, safe boom countries.
The West’s global appeal today shouldn’t lull us into complacency. We don’t have garbage piling up in the suburbs, like Lebanon, but we have an alarming number of solvable national problems that our system has stubbornly refused to solve.
Lebanon’s garbage problem differs from America’s gun problem in degree. America is not Lebanon, of course, and for all its pathologies the United States is not a failed state. However, it is not immune to failure either. We would do well to look and learn from Lebanon, lest we repeat its mistakes.
[Published in Newsweek.]
The recent tit-for-tat clashes across the Middle East have made the first days of 2016 seem a lot like 1979. That was the year Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led Iran’s transformation from an autocratic state ruled by the Shah into the Islamic Republic. Violence wracked the region in the immediate aftermath of the changeover. Mobs overran embassies, and Sunni Arab governments swore to turn their backs on the new theocratic regime in Tehran. Oil-rich despots throughout the region poured money and weapons into proxy conflicts all over the Middle East, unleashing a wave of destabilizing, sectarian violence that eventually died down but never went away.
The event that turned back the clock and made an already roiling situation boil over took place on January 2, when Saudi Arabia killed a dissident Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, in a mass execution of 47 people. Iranian mobs attacked Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad. A flurry of escalations followed: bombings in Yemen, diplomatic relations severed, promises of retaliation by both Riyadh and Tehran.
Although they’re an alarming throwback to 1979, these incidents are just the most recent round in a long, destructive struggle between two powers apparently set on pulling the entire region into a struggle between a Sunni bloc and a Shiite crescent. Both are seeking a winner-takes-all victory. “All the sectarian rhetoric is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for these regimes who love to play the sectarian card,” says Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemen analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The Saudis feel betrayed, and now they feel like they must do something, even if it’s the wrong thing.”
The two oil-rich theocracies—one Shiite and one Sunni—are vying for regional dominance. The feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia has fueled sectarianism, resulted in an increase in the flow of weapons and funding to extremists, and spawned numerous militant movements.
Neither side shows any sign of backing down. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised “divine justice” after al-Nimr was executed. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, meanwhile, put out the word through allies that “enough is enough” and that it would no longer hesitate to stand up to Iran.
But even more of a threat to the region than this Iran vs. Saudi Arabia contest is the likelihood that the two countries are lashing out at each other not from positions of strength but of weakness—and in their efforts to dominate each other they could cause the entire region to fracture and spin out of control. The two autocracies appear set on ratcheting up their clash, consequences be damned. But it also seems clear that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can control the wars, proxy militias and ideological movements their conflict has unleashed. Even if Tehran and Riyadh calm down, the armed groups they have spawned could continue fighting throughout the region.
If there is a single event that sparked this flare-up, it was the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which saw Iran agree to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The agreement was clearly good for global security, but it also dramatically changed the region. Saudi Arabia, which views itself as the Sunni world’s banker, oil baron and spiritual chief, felt abandoned by its most important ally, the United States, widening a rift that opened in 2011 when Washington supported popular uprisings against Arab tyrants during the Arab Spring.
When the Obama administration was pursuing its nuclear accord with Iran, Saudi Arabia felt betrayed, and now the U.S. was preparing to help the Saudis’ biggest regional rival by lifting sanctions. At almost the same time, oil from fracking and other sources has made the U.S. a major oil state, no longer directly dependent on Middle Eastern—particularly Saudi—oil.
King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, took an uncharacteristically confrontational approach with the U.S. His inner circle lobbied against the Iran deal, and in March—over strenuous American objections—Saudi Arabia launched a massive assault on Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. By the time the nuclear deal was inked in July, the Saudis were dangerously close to a rupture with Washington.
Some Western diplomats said the Saudis’ decision to execute al-Nimr—when they knew full well it would antagonize Iran (and the U.S., among others)—seemed specifically designed to thwart the major Syrian peace conference scheduled for January 25 in Geneva. Peace talks without Saudi Arabia and Iran, powerful backers of opposing sides in the war, would be a waste of time.
Saudi Arabia’s bellicose maneuvers have strained its relationship with Washington. U.S. diplomats and security officials say they are angry about citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries financially backing jihadis in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the region.
But the Saudi royal family, if it is to survive, must keep the country’s powerful extremist Sunni (or Wahhabite) clerical establishment on its side. That means that the monarchy wants to persuade Washington that Saudi Arabia is a firm counterterrorism ally while demonstrating to its subjects at home that it will protect the conservative religious core of the Wahhabi sect.
The execution of the Shiite cleric was “local politics,” says one Arab analyst who works closely with the Saudi government and spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to anger officials. “They don’t want to lose more support to ISIS, so they need to show they can be more hard-line than ISIS. That’s why they killed Sheikh Nimr.”
The execution was also a way for Saudi Arabia to block what it sees as Iranian ascendance. After almost five years of stalemate in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been winning back territory, thanks to significant military support from Tehran and Moscow. Iraq, a Shiite-majority neighbor, has also become an Iranian ally. In Lebanon, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah is stronger than ever, and the nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers will greatly boost Iran’s revenues and reintegrate the Islamic Republic into the global economy and the international community.
But a closer look suggests all is not so rosy for Iran. Abroad, it has lost much of the support and soft power it cultivated directly after its 1978-1979 revolution. In the mid-2000s, Iran’s so-called axis of resistance—an informal coalition of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Sunni-dominated group Hamas—enjoyed widespread popularity among Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Today, polls show that Iran’s popularity in an increasingly polarized region has evaporated. Like Saudi Arabia, with its backing of rebels in Syria and its military campaign to support the government in Yemen, Iran has overreached and become inextricably involved in wars that are unlikely to have an outright victor. Hezbollah openly took sides with the Assad regime and has lost its Pan-Arab luster.
And Iran, despite the considerable resources of its expeditionary Quds force and the fearsome reputation of its commander, General Qassem Soleimani, has been unable to guarantee the survival of the Syrian regime, in spite of the recent military successes of Assad’s forces and their allies. In Yemen, the side Iran supports, the Houthis, is steadily losing ground in the face of the Saudi-led assault.
“Iran and Saudi Arabia have managed to establish a mutually destructive cycle of conflict in which both sides are damaging their future regional position,” says Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and co-author of a recent article titled “The Limits of Iranian Power” in the journal Survival: Global Politics and Strategy.
“While most assume that Iran is much better positioned, it is much more isolated than is generally recognized,” says Hanna, who argues that Iran’s alliances are under extreme strain. “Its soft power in a majority Sunni Arab world has collapsed, and it is now limited to exercising hard power in sectarian conflicts.”
Whatever happens in this round of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, things promise to get worse, not better. “The policies of the Saudi regime will have a domino effect, and they will be buried under the avalanche they have created,” said Iranian Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Hossein Salami on January 7, according to Iran’s state-run Press TV. “If the Al-Saud regime does not correct this path, it will collapse in the near future.”
Both sides frame their competition more and more in absolutist, sectarian terms, and both sides have proved less and less able to manage the endless crises in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia are doubling down on a war neither can win.
Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
HOMS, Syria — More than four years of relentless shelling and shooting have ravaged beyond recognition this city, which once served as the symbolic capital of the revolution.
The buildings hang in tatters, concrete floors collapsed like sandcastles, twisted reinforced metal bars and window frames creaking in the wind like weather vanes. The only humans are occasional military guards, huddling in the foundations of stripped buildings. Deep trenches have been dug in thoroughfares to expose rebel tunnels. Everywhere the guts of buildings and homes face the street, their private contents slowly melting in the elements. Ten-foot weeds have erupted through the concrete.
As far as the government of Syria is concerned, the war in Homs is over. Rebel factions were defeated more than a year ago in the Old City, and the last holdouts, who carried on the revolt from the suburb of al-Waer, signed a cease-fire agreement this month. A few weeks before Christmas, busloads of fighters quit al-Waer for rebel-held villages to the north, under what the Syrian government and the United Nations hailed as abreakthrough cease-fire agreement to bring peace to one of the Syrian war’s most symbolic battlefields.
Gov. Talal al-Barazi, an energetic Assad-supporting Sunni, has been instrumental in pushing the cease-fires in Homs’s Old City and recently in al-Waer district. But almost none of the pro-uprising Sunnis who once filled its center have returned, and at times he seems to be presiding over a graveyard — an epic ruin destined to join Hiroshima, Dresden, and Stalingrad in the historical lexicon of siege and destruction.
By the end of a two-year siege of the Old City, the entire population of about 200,000 had fled, and more than 70 percent of the buildings in the area were destroyed. Today, according to the Syrian government, less than one-third of those who left have returned to the Homs area — but the ravaged city center is largely uninhabitable. Barazi said the cost of physically rebuilding the city would be enormous; without help from Russia, Iran, China, and other international donors, he said, full reconstruction would be impossible. Experts estimate it will cost upwards of $200 billion to rebuild across the entire country, or three times the country’s pre-war GDP.
And yet the Syrian government hopes to turn this shattered city into a symbol of its resurgent fortunes. Authorities showcase the reconstruction of Homs to spread a clear message: They intend to regain full control of the country. If they can tame Homs, a Sunni city where the majority of people actively embraced the revolt, they can do it anywhere.
There’s another more menacing message in the Homs settlement, however, as the neighborhoods that wholeheartedly sided with the revolution were entirely destroyed and have been left to collapse after the government’s victory. Almost no Sunnis have been allowed to return. Displaced supporters of the revolt from Homs understand that this is the regime’s second wave of punishment — they might never be allowed to go home.
This is the Homs model from the regime’s perspective: surround and besiege rebel-held areas until the price is so high that any surviving fighters surrender. The destruction left behind serves as a deterrent for others. Supporters of the government say that fear of a repeat of the ravaging of Homs is one major reason why militias around Damascus, like Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam, have largely kept their indiscriminate shelling of the city center to a minimum.
The rebels, of course, take a different lesson: Assad will annihilate any opposition he can, unless the rebels fight hard and long enough to win, secure an enclave, or, at the very least, force the government to allow safe passage to another rebel-held area. Only force can extract concessions from the state.
A recent visit to Homs laid bare the deep divisions in the city and the near-impossibility of restoring what existed there before: a majority Sunni, but markedly mixed, community, more conservative and provincial than Damascus, but one that managed to successfully coexist despite profound communal differences.
As I stood in the middle of Khaldieh’s main square, in the center of Old Homs, I could recognize the bones of a familiar cityscape. Storefronts and five-story apartment blocks surrounded me. Avenues led in six directions from the roundabout.
I had seen this place before in video footage, when it played host to popular protests and later guerrilla fighting, and still later to a relentless barrage of Syrian government artillery intended to bludgeon all resistance. What remains today is an obliterated landscape that would be worthy of a dystopian sci-fi flick, if it weren’t so real.
The only sound, the ubiquitous sound, is the whistle of the wind, as loud as in the desert but incongruous in the heart of an ancient urban core.
My government minder fell silent after pointing out now-vanished landmarks. As we prepared to leave the square, she gestured dejectedly. “You can’t rebuild this,” she said.
The desolation continued for blocks in every direction, only abating up the hill toward Hamidiyeh, a mixed neighborhood to which a few dozen families, some Sunni, some Christian, have returned.
A bicycle parked outside a bombed schoolhouse is the only sign that you have reached the re-inhabited part of Khaldieh. Two boys kicked a soccer ball in a narrow courtyard delineated by rubble and broken walls. They pointed us in the direction of Maamoun Street, which begins at a grand Ottoman-era house, with a fountain and interior courtyard. One window had been refashioned into a sniper’s nest, a car frame shoved into the window.
Abdulatif Tawfik al-Attar, 64, is one of the few Sunnis to have returned to the Old City, the historic district near the center of Homs. Perhaps he was trusted by the government because of his outspoken criticism of the rebels, whom he said “came and destroyed everything.”
Now Attar is slowly rebuilding his shattered life. His wife and daughter live in a rented apartment on the outskirts of Homs while he restores their home to livable condition, room by room. Before the war, he worked as a mechanic at a government refinery. Now he repairs bicycles in his entryway.
He cherishes what he considers his ample blessings. All three of his children survived the war, he still draws a government salary, and the walls of his home are still standing. “For me, the situation could be far worse,” he said.
A chatty man who dropped out of high school for his first job, Attar finds it difficult to sit still. He’s ready to brew tea on a portable burner hooked to a car battery or prepare a water pipe for guests who like to smoke. But in the Old City, hardly anybody drops by to visit, except for a middle-aged neighbor also painstaking reconstructing his house.
“It is lonely here sometimes,” Attar admitted. He apologized for the spartan conditions in his home. His son invited the family to join him in Saudi Arabia, but Attar said he wasn’t interested. “I love my country,” he said. “I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
Quietly, he began to cry. “We have lost a lot in Syria, especially in Homs,” he said. “We didn’t used to have women begging outside the mosques.”
After a moment he said, “Homs will be back.”
The local Ministry of Information official charged with supervising journalists in Homs, an Alawite who also hails from the city, began to cry as well. One of her sons died fighting for the government in Daraa; her husband and remaining two sons are still on active duty in the military.
“We have lost so much,” she agreed, fingering the gold pendant she wears around her neck engraved with her slain son’s portrait. “Even our own children.”
Attar squeezed the official’s arm to comfort her. “Don’t be sad,” he said. “No one dies before it is written. People run away from the war to escape death, and they die in the sea. People went on the hajj, and 800 died in a stampede.”
One day the war in the rest of Syria will come to an end, they said, as it has in Homs — but if Syria is to recover, it will have to transcend the sectarian divisions exacerbated by the war.
“Those men who have hurt us have hurt themselves, too,” Attar said. “God knows what everyone has done. Human beings make mistakes.”
The minder quoted a saying she attributed to former President Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current leader: “Religion is for God, and the nation is for everyone.”
“That’s how we grew up,” she said. “If you live in a country with government, land, home, you want to forgive so that you don’t lose everything.”
These pro-government Homs residents expressed nostalgia for a version of coexistence that worked for them. But the Assad government so far has offered rebels few options beyond submission and surrender — nothing that looks like increased rights for the majority of citizens. Homs Gov. Barazi, for instance, argues that as the city limps back to life, people will return, including Sunnis who might have sympathized with the uprising.
“Between Christmas and New Year’s, you will see a new Old Homs,” Barazi said, in an interview on the sidelines of a conference in Damascus about how to reboot the Syrian economy. “Once the shops open, you will see the things go back to life.”
He said the occasional car bomb or shell that strikes Homs didn’t threaten the city’s overall security. “It’s much safer in Homs than in Damascus,” he said.
Many government supporters don’t like the cease-fires that Barazi has championed, especially because they allow some fighters to flee and continue fighting elsewhere. The recent deal in al-Waer allows those rebels who surrender their heavy weapons to remain and govern their neighborhood. Activists suspect the government might round up rebels and dissidents later.
His strategy is to start with quick anchor projects in the worst-hit parts of Old Homs: rebuilding schools, historic places of worship like the Notre Dame de la Ceinture Church and the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, and now 400 stalls in the old marketplace. He is counting on Russia, China, and Iran to foot the bill of what will be an enormously expensive project. He estimates that maybe one-third of the displaced residents from Old Homs have returned to the city, if not yet to their original homes.
Several Christian parochial schools reopened this fall in the Hamidiyeh quarter of Old Homs. About 200 students came to the first day of school, out of a pre-war enrollment of 4,000 in the neighborhood, according to Father Antonios, a priest who helps run the Ghassanieh School. At pickup time, parents said they still didn’t feel safe in their old neighborhood. “We’re doing a lot of work to reassure people,” the priest said.
The government’s strategy overlooks the daunting, practical obstacles to resuscitating a city as thoroughly ravaged as Homs. It also ignores the bitter feelings of the people who supported the revolution and will never reconcile themselves to Assad’s rule.
Homs might yet be a model, but perhaps not the one intended by Syrian government officials — it might end up as this war’s lasting symbol of ethnic cleansing or urban siege war without restraint. The government’s showcase plan doesn’t make room for the legions of Homs natives who rose up demanding rights from a government that systematically tortures its citizens and allows them no say over how they’re governed. Anti-government activists also say that Sunnis are systematically denied permission to return to the Old City because authorities suspect that a reconstituted Homs will continue to act as a bastion of resistance.
“People still support the revolution,” said a retired resident, who never left Homs throughout the war. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution against his family members.
Homs proved the futility of expecting the Syrian government to reform, this resident said. He lamented how it responded to peaceful protests with lethal force and indiscriminate arrests and torture.
“For six months, no one carried so much as a knife. When the regime began killing them, they defended themselves,” the resident said. “I’m so sad about Syria. I stopped thinking about the future a long time ago. I live one day at a time.”
Periodically during the siege of al-Waer district, this resident smuggled in food and meat to civilians. With like-minded friends, the resident cheered advances of the rebel Free Syrian Army on battlefronts around the country. Today, the resident said, depression has set in, with the government precariously in charge of a city that once felt like the first liberated place in Syria.
“I feel like I will explode,” the resident said. “All these people died, in every possible way, for what? I can’t believe that everything will finish and Bashar al-Assad will still be president. I would rather die.”
Old friend and colleague Eric Westervelt spoke with me on WBUR’s Here & Now about the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war, and the historical arc of the crisis in the Arab state system. You can listen here, or read the highlights as compiled by WBUR.
What are some takeaways from your time in Syria?
“There’s a bizarre sense of the clock having stopped somewhere in the 1960s or ‘70s when you step into regime-controlled Syria. The propaganda operation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the way it’s still trying to hold onto an absolute monopoly of dishonest manipulation and a denial of the barrel bombs and torture state. All these really crusty mechanisms of trying to maintain an old-fashioned authoritarian dictatorship seem really out of tune for 2015. We start with really small things, from just outright denial up until recently that the regime was losing the war, up to really big issues like that the secular authoritarian dictatorship hasn’t figured out a way to talk about how it wants to control a country that contains minorities but also religious Islamists, and we get to sort of this big historic arc of what’s happening in the region. The Arab state system that came into being at the end of the colonial period in World War II has proven unable to serve its citizens and it has set up a sort of horrible binary choice between secular dictatorships on one hand, and Islamist extremist groups like the Islamic State on the other hand. And neither of these poles represent the vast majority of citizens, and yet in the case like Syria’s, the regime and the Islamic State have wiped out almost every force that is moderate or even just less extreme and located between these two poles, so we have a region that’s still struggling to find avatars of the aspirations of the majority of its people.”
On the extreme “poles” Syrians are forced to decide between
“The regime and the Islamic State have wiped out almost every force that is moderate or even just less extreme… so we have a region that’s still struggling to find avatars of the aspirations of the majority of its people.”
“The Arab states like Bashar al-Assad, or Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, or you could really pick your favorite offender, made a sort of dirty deal with the republics half a century ago. They said, we’re going to oppress you but we’re going to deliver modernity and progress, but ultimately they failed on their end of the deal. So people were oppressed and they also started getting poorer, less healthy, less educated and were missing out on what were supposed to be the benefits of this dictatorial trade-off. By design of these despots, the only viable opposition that was allowed to exist was extremist Islamist, and that self-fulfilling prophesy has led to a lot of the destruction in the region and yes, now we’re witnessing a tug of war between these extremes but the generational fight that we’re just at the beginning of is one where there’s going to be a third pole, which might not be liberal or democratic, but it certainly is not going to be something as extreme as the Islamic state. And that is, I wager, what is going to be dominating the region after this period of upheaval.”
On the views of ordinary people in Syria
“Well there’s two major groups that haven’t turned against the dictator. And one, are the real die-hard supporters of the old order, they’re not a small group. These are the ones who are, whether for ethnic reasons or because of their wealth and their well-being are tied to the regime support, aren’t going to abandon it. The other group, which is more interesting because they could shift, are folks like all the displaced Sunni Arabs and Palestinians I spoke to, who are turned off by the violence and extremism of the opposition groups, but they are in no way loyalists for the regime. What they like about regime-held Syria is that it’s a place that has room for many sects and many ethnicities and that welcomes people who are religious and people who are not religious. Beyond that, they are abused victims of the regime, like many people in the opposition areas and you can tell – some of them actually were able to speak openly about this to me – that they are yearning for some alternative, someone to be able to come and topple the regime but not replace it with a fascist religious order.”
How close is the war for people in Damascus?
“The suburbs of Damascus, many are still in rebel hands. The period I was there in early October was relatively quiet, which means I would hear dozens of barrel bombs every night and more outgoing artillery than incoming, but there were several hits a night on the city and usually a dozen or so casualties ending up in Damascus hospitals. You realize when you drive around Damascus, you have to go around rebel-held areas to join the highway going north, that this really is a city surrounded by oppositionists and that it’s very tenuously held by the regime.”
Is there anything that gives you a glimpse of hope in Syria?
“The most positive thing about Syria is the one thing that’s always been positive, which is the tremendous human capital and talent of its people. Sadly today, a lot of the most promising Syrians have taken the refugee trail to Europe or are laboring away in exile as activists who are just trying to survive here in Lebanon, in Turkey, in refugee camps elsewhere. But there is an unbelievable amount of promise among this population and it’s a population that’s become very politically awakened and mobilized over the course of this uprising. So we have a reservoir of politically savvy, educated, polyglot skilled young people – young and middle-aged people – a lot of them with real technocratic experience. So in the very slim eventuality that Syria had a political transition, you’d be able to draw on a tremendous diaspora and population of recent emigrants just from the last five years who would have a better chance, maybe than any other Arab country, of building a functional creative successful new political order. So if I were looking for a ray of hope for the next five years or the next generation in Syria it would be that.”
These displaced young Palestinians from a suburb of Damascus only were allowed to return home after signing a loyalty oath, but Syrian government soldiers still consider them a terrorist threat. Photo: Thanassis Cambanis
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
HUSSEINIYEH, Syria — The conquest of this Damascus suburb was supposed to be a success story for the Syrian government — a sign that after years of fighting, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces could defeat rebels and send displaced civilians back home. Instead, the halting repatriation of its residents stands as a daunting reminder of just how difficult it will be to reestablish order in a country shattered by war.
This small suburb southeast of the capital emerged relatively unscathed from a brief spasm of fighting between rebels and the Syrian military in 2013. By the end of that year it had been completely emptied of civilians. Once the government had driven rebels from the suburb and readied it for habitation, officials waited nearly two years before allowing a first wave of residents to return. A select group of a few hundred families were permitted back into Husseiniyeh this September, after pleading with the government and signing loyalty oaths. Following that first wave, over 4,500 families have returned, according to the United Nations.
Even within the tightly controlled, fortress-like perimeter of Husseiniyeh, army soldiers are jittery — their rifles at the ready as they warily eye the returnees, most of them government employees of Palestinian origin. Syrian authorities fear many internally displaced civilians support the anti-government uprising or are even secret agents themselves.
“Be careful,” whispered a nervous Syrian soldier as a group of teenage Husseiniyeh residents told me about their plans to repair the family home and restock the appliance store. “Some of these boys are jihadis.”
Whether or not they were, the soldier’s anxiety spoke to the fragility of the return process here. The first wave of returnees admitted in September included members of “trusted” categories: soldiers, civil servants, and government contractors.
“Anything could happen,” admitted Izdeehar Hussein, 48, owner of the appliance store and aunt of the teenagers. She was one of the advocates who helped negotiate the Husseiniyeh return agreement with the government’s Ministry of Reconciliation Affairs. “They let us in first and said, ‘You promised you would keep this peaceful.’ This way they can keep things in control.”
The struggle to reestablish control of this small suburb reflects one of the Syrian government’s greatest challenges: What should it do with a massive number of displaced Syrians who could potentially become a fifth column in government-controlled areas or might even take up arms against the government as soon as they’re home again?
Even as Europe and the United States debate whether Syrian refugees pose a threat, Assad faces a much more acute problem at home — one that is orders of magnitude worse. According to Syrian officials, in some government-controlled areas like the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia, half of the population today consists of people displaced from areas now under the control of anti-government militias. And for all the government’s happy talk about displaced people well cared for and living under the hand of a fully operational state, Syrian authorities have fewer resources than ever with which to control or monitor citizens whose loyalty they doubt.
The number of displaced people inside Syria beggars belief. Nearly 7 million people are displaced across the country, according to figures from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Another 4 million have fled entirely. Damascus hosts 436,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and its suburbs more than 1.2 million, according to U.N. figures. Syrian government officials said some provinces have twice as many IDPs as the U.N. estimates.
Solving the internal displacement problem is key to Assad’s strategy, which requires reasserting dominance over Sunni areas and populations that took part in the uprising. But some international officials and analysts of the Syrian war argue that Assad has purposefully made it easier for Syrians to leave the country in order to reduce his IDP problem. This summer, Syrians who had previously been unable to obtain passports found officials willing to issue them in a week. Border restrictions were lifted, making it possible for vast numbers of Syrians to seek refuge abroad.
“They’re happy if they have fewer mouths to feed,” one U.N. employee in Syria said.
This policy has, in turn, exacerbated the refugee crisis in neighboring countries and Europe. About half of the local staff in one U.N. agency in Syria fled to Europe this summer, crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece in boats, the employee said.
* * *
Far from the front line, the new demographics of displacement are straining the social peace of a region considered Assad’s heartland.
In the coastal city of Tartus, Syrians who have fled fighting in the country’s interior have inhabited virtually every available structure with a roof, from office towers to construction sites. A few steps down the hall from the Social Affairs Ministry’s provincial headquarters, a jerry-rigged iron gate blocking a stairwell leads to offices which have been repurposed as homes for families from Aleppo, their foam mattresses neatly leaned against the wall to make room for water buckets and butane burners. This is Displaced Persons Shelter No. 1, which was established in 2012 by optimistic officials who thought the war would end quickly.
Today, 600 people from Aleppo live in that first center. They are the lucky ones: Their kids are in school, the government staffs a free medical clinic on the ground floor, and most of the shelter residents — from the war’s early waves of displacement — have full-time jobs. The provincial government of Tartus has opened up 21 more official shelters, which house only a small portion of the 370,000 registered IDPs, according to Nizar Mahmoud, head of the government’s humanitarian response in Tartus.
Rents have skyrocketed, and tensions bubble up between the displaced newcomers, many of them Sunni Muslims, and the local population, which includes a large share of Alawites, Christians, and other minorities. The Mediterranean coast represents the government’s most secure area, and the loyalist villages scattered across the nearby mountains are often referred to as the Alawite heartland. But even before the war, the major coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia were predominantly Sunni, and that percentage has only grown with the wave of displaced people.
The government watches the displaced population carefully, on the lookout for sleeper cells and rebel infiltrators. The government tries to downplay sectarian rhetoric, but it seems to consider the massive influx of newcomers a potentially destabilizing fifth column.
Vigilant locals, one off-duty military officer in Latakia insisted, were supplementing the strained capacity of the state’s many intelligence agencies, or mukhabarat. “We have the situation under control,” he said.
“Today, everybody has become mukhabarat.”
Resentment percolates quietly among the displaced civilians, the majority of whom are forced to fend for themselves. Officially, the state still guarantees social services for all, but in practice, hundreds of thousands of displaced people have fallen through the cracks. Many of the displaced have already moved three or four times, as the conflict kept spreading deeper into formerly safe zones or when they ran out of rent money.
The strains are obvious: Cafés and promenades are overflowing with the unemployed, and despite the government’s claims, thousands of children aren’t in school, and families that can’t afford housing are sleeping in parks or makeshift quarters.
The problems are even more acute further north along the coast in Latakia, which houses many more displaced people and is closer to the front-line fighting. Since 2014, many refugees from northern Syria have reported that they were turned away when they tried to flee to the Syrian coast from embattled northern areas around Idlib and Aleppo. The government denies such reports, but it wasn’t able to show this reporter any shelters or camps that housed people displaced by the last year’s fighting; all the IDPs showcased by the government to multiple visiting reporters from different outlets moved there in 2013 or before.
The lone Syrian identified by government officials who arrived recently was a post office employee named Khaled Badawi, 53, who was displaced from his home village in Idlib in 2011. He stayed there for four years, until March 25, when a rebel coalition swept into the city. On that day, Badawi’s 16-year-old son died in a rebel mortar attack as the family was crossing a government checkpoint. His surviving two sons are in the military.
Now he collects a salary from the post office in Latakia, even though he admits there isn’t much for him to do there. Like dozens of displaced Syrians interviewed in their temporary homes, Badawi plans someday to return to his village, despite profound reservations.
He denied that the government has turned away IDPs from his area or that it gives special treatment to those whose family members are fighting for the government. He praised the government’s support but described a life of hardship. There was no place for his family in the city of Latakia, so they now live an hour’s ride away on public transport in a small village. “Everything is hard now,” he said.
The challenges of building a new life on the coast are daunting enough, but the task of restoring peace to Badawi’s hometown in Idlib will be even greater. In the Idlib countryside, Badawi said, all the combatants know each other: Relatives and former friends fight with anti-Assad militias, while his sons fight for the government. When it’s over, he doesn’t believe supporters of both sides can live in the same town again.
“The man who threatened to kill me was my neighbor,” Badawi said. “He will not be my neighbor again. It will be me or him. There is no trust at all anymore.”
* * *
Trust in the government has also eroded among some IDPs, though criticism remains muted for fear of being branded a terrorist or opposition fellow-traveler. In Damascus, a Sunni-majority city surrounded on several sides by anti-government rebels, the strain placed on the government’s limited resources is more visible.
Many of the displaced in the capital have come from rebel-held areas under steady government bombardment to suburbs like Jaramana, south of the city center and a few miles from front-line fighting. Some 1.6 million people in search of affordable and safe quarters have crowded into a neighborhood meant for one-third that many people. Beside a busy government checkpoint, two families were renting a windowless ground floor room that before the civil war was used as storage space.
Iman Araouri, 45, was recuperating from a stomach operation but was unable to afford the medicine and nutritional supplements prescribed by her surgeon. Her husband’s salary as a municipal janitor, about $85 per month, goes entirely to their rent. They cannot afford mattresses or blankets nor can the extended family’s children attend school.
To qualify for government services, including school enrollment and extra food rations, they need papers that prove where they lived originally. Araouri’s cousin, Marwa Bashir Hamoud, 31, said she crossed rebel lines, braving the same militiamen who murdered her husband in search of documents from her home. But when she reached it, she said, it had been looted. There was nothing left.
Hamoud tried to enroll her daughter in school after hearing a government announcement on the radio. “The minister said on the news that we can put our kids in school no matter what has happened to our papers,” Hamoud, who has four children, said she told the admissions official in Jaramana.
“Go and tell that to the minister,” the official told her, turning her away.
The IDPs are careful not to directly criticize the government, but at least some of their complaints are clear. Araouri said she has a brain-damaged 17-year-old son who lives in hiding at a relative’s farm; she’s afraid that despite his condition, he’ll be drafted into the army.
“Somebody has to take care of us,” Araouri said. “We are going back to Stone Age life.”
These personal tragedies echo in households across Syria, multiplied millions of times over. The Assad government fervently promotes the idea that the state still functions and that it earns the loyalty of the Syrian public. But the reality of wartime Syria differs greatly from the ideal propagated on state television and in the dispatches of the government’s rose-tinted Syrian Arab News Agency.
If the Palestinian suburb of Husseiniyeh is any indication, where it took nearly two years after the end of fighting for civilians to return, the Assad government’s piecemeal approach to restoring control will progress slowly. The displaced population will likely be an ongoing source of instability — a rolling earthquake that never fully stops.
“Here, by the grace of god, the war has ended,” said Khaled Abdullah Hussein, 64, a retired customs agent and a leader of the committee of local notables that negotiated Husseiniyeh’s reconciliation agreement with the government. With more than half of Syria’s territory out of the state’s control, and much of the rest threatened by rebels or jihadis, officials have their hands full, Hussein said. “The government doesn’t have time only for Husseiniyeh.”
Illustration: RICHARD MIA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
WHEN RUSSIAN JETS started bombing Syrian insurgents, it was no surprise that fans of President Bashar Assad felt buoyed. What was surprising was the outsized, even over-the-top expectations placed on Russian help.
“They’re not like the Americans,” explained a Syrian government official responsible for escorting journalists around the coastal city of Latakia. “When they get involved, they do it all the way.”
Naturally, tired supporters of the Assad regime are susceptible to any optimistic thread they can cling to after five years of a war that the government was decisively losing when the Russians unveiled a major military intervention in October.
Russian fever isn’t entirely driven by hope and ignorance. Many of the Syrians cheering the Russian intervention know Moscow well.
A fluent Russian speaker, the bureaucrat in Latakia had spent nearly a decade in Moscow studying and working. Much of Syria’s military and Ba’ath Party elite trained in Moscow, steeped in Soviet-era military and political doctrine, along with an unapologetic culture of tough-talking secular nationalism (there’s also a shared affinity for vodka or other spirits).
The Russians have announced that they will partner with the French to fight the Islamic State in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris. But beyond new friendships forged in the wake of the Paris massacre and the downing of a Russian charter flight over the Sinai in October, Moscow’s strategic interest in Syria is longstanding and vital to its interest.
The world reaction to the Russian offensive in Syria has been as much about perception as military reality. Putin, according to Russian analysts who carefully study his policy, wants more than anything else to reassert Russia’s role as a high-stakes player in the international system.
Sure, they say, he wants to reduce the heat from his invasion of Ukraine, and he wants to keep a loyal client in place in Syria, but most of all, he wants Russia’s Great Power role back.
For all the mythmaking and propaganda, there is a powerful historical context to Russia’s latest foreign military intervention. Like all states that try to project force beyond their borders, Putin’s Russia faces limits. But those limits differ markedly from those that doomed America’s recent fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The spectacular international attacks by Islamic State militants against targets in the Sinai, Beirut, and Paris have reminded Western powers of the other interests at stake beyond a resurgent Russia and a prickly Iran. Until now, Russia’s new role in Syria has stymied the West, impinging on its air campaign against ISIS and all but eliminating the possibility of an anti-Assad no-fly zone.
Russia’s blitzkrieg in Syria might have only tilted the conflict in Assad’s favor, with no prospect of securing an outright win for the dictator in Damascus — and yet, that might be more than enough to achieve Russia’s limited objectives.
As a result of a bold, arguably cynical, gamble, Putin might just get what he wants.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER WORLD WAR II, the Soviet Union quashed armed insurgencies in many of its newly annexed republics, including Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Western Belarus.
Those early campaigns shaped a distinct Soviet approach to counterinsurgency, according to Mark Kramer, program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
The United States was at the same time developing its own theories about winning over local populations, which underpinned the doctrine of “population-centric” counterinsurgency that ultimately failed to accomplish American aims in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s.
The Soviet Union, on the other hand, developed what Kramer calls “enemy-centric” counterinsurgency: Kill the enemy, establish control, and only then sort out questions about governance and legitimacy.
Harsh tactics worked for the Soviets. Kramer quotes the future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev directing his agents in 1945 Ukraine to use unbridled violence against insurrectionists: “The people will know: For one of ours, we will take out a hundred of theirs! You must make your enemies fear you, and your friends respect you.”
In 1956, the Soviets used similar tactics to crush an uprising in Hungary. Despite the widespread perception of failure in Afghanistan, says Kramer, the Soviets had successfully propped up their local client, at great but sustainable cost, until Mikhail Gorbachev decided to repudiate the war there — just before US antiaircraft missiles arrived in the theater.
Vladimir Putin, insulated from political pressure, has drawn on this history to craft a brutal approach to counterinsurgency.
The first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, presided over the weakening of the Russian military and a desultory defeat at the hands of rebels in the first Chechen war of 1994 to 1996. As Putin prepared for a second Chechen war, in 1999, he used political coercion to guarantee friendly media coverage from Russian television and erase any meaningful political dissent over the war.
“During Putin’s [first] presidency, the Russian government was able to quell the insurgency in Chechnya without, in any way, having ‘won hearts and minds,’ ” Kramer wrote in a 2007 assessment after the Chechen war was provisionally settled in Putin’s favor. “Historically, governments have often been successful in using ruthless violence to crush large and determined insurgencies, at least if the rulers’ time horizons are focused on the short to medium term.”
Kramer compares Putin’s approach to that of Saddam Hussein, Stalin, and Hitler. It also seems very similar to Bashar Assad’s strategy today in Syria.
With no need to worry about public opinion, Putin’s counterinsurgency could kill countless Chechen civilians. When retaliatory Chechen terrorist attacks killed hundreds of Russian civilians in theaters and schools, Putin’s campaign only gained support. Russia’s flawed strategy in Chechnya ultimately created an outcome that worked for Putin.
“Historically, insurgencies tend to last eight to ten years, and most of the time Soviet and Russian forces have achieved their goals,” Kramer said.
Today Russia can’t entirely ignore international opinion, which has run strongly against its intervention in Ukraine. Doubling down in Syria, it turns out, has created the possibility of an exit strategy.
“Putin’s trying to change the topic from Ukraine, and maybe he’s been successful on that,” said Thomas de Waal, a scholar at Carnegie Europe who wrote a book about the Chechen war and closely follows Russian policy.
The style that Russia has honed — “overwhelming force as your basic strategy,” de Waal said — fits well with Assad’s merciless shelling of opposition areas. “You treat every enemy city as Berlin, and you pulverize it,” de Waal said, describing Putin’s approach to insurgencies. “There’s no subtlety, no regard for collateral damage or civilians.”
STATE MEDIA IN SYRIA has continued to herald the Russian intervention as a massive game-changer, but on-the-ground realities have already brought short initial expectations. Early predictions of a rout foundered when the Russians encountered resistance.
Anti-Assad forces, as any longtime observer of the conflict would have predicted, continue to fight back hard. Local militants defending their communities rarely quit; when they are defeated, victory can require months or years of fighting. In response to Russia’s escalation, the United States and other foreign backers of anti-Assad militias opened the spigot of aid including antitank missiles. Jihadists are equally formidable foes.
Assad appeared to be on the losing end of a stalemate before the Russian intervention. A major coordinated push by Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government could turn the momentum the other way, but analysts of the conflict doubt there’s any prospect of an outright victory.
Once the dust settles, the Syrian government will still suffer from the same manpower shortage that has plagued its efforts, and antigovernment forces will remain entrenched, said Noah Bonsey, Syria analyst for International Crisis Group. With Russian help, the government has gained ground around Aleppo but has lost some around Hama.
“In real military terms, it gets us right about to where we were before the intervention,” Bonsey said. “We haven’t seen any significant breakthroughs.”
Some of the closest followers of the Kremlin’s designs in Syria and the wider Middle East, like Russian analyst Nikolay Kozhanov, argue that Putin was never aiming for a military solution in Syria but only to better position Russia in the diplomatic great game.
Another Russian analyst, Nadia Arbatova, a political scientist at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, said Russia wants to regain influence by convincing the United States and other Western powers to join Moscow in a counterterrorism alliance. She doesn’t think the Kremlin has carefully studied its own history in foreign interventions. The Syrian intervention, in her view, is less about Syria than it is about showing the West that Moscow can project global power again.
“For the first time after the collapse of the USSR, Russia is conducting a big military operation outside the post-Soviet space,” Arbatova said. “Hence Russia is not just a regional center but a world power.”
The most important lesson from Russia’s counterinsurgency history might be its Machiavellian reading of the politics involved. Moscow, when it succeeds, lays out clear aims and then methodically deploys force and political tools to reach them.
In Syria, Russia has sided with a rigid regime that has demonstrated a rigid unwillingness to entertain any compromise at all with an uprising that has engulfed most of the country. Its main partner is the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose political culture, regional interests, and long-term goals differ greatly from Moscow’s.
Putin might find his Syrian adventure meets even more obstacles than his increasingly bold interventions in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine. Although each of Putin’s previous interventions carried an increasingly costly international price tag, all of them came in the former Soviet space, in an arena where no outside power can freely maneuver.
Syria is a different story altogether, a civil war saturated with foreign proxies. Russia is intervening on behalf of a minority regime that has already been fighting at maximum capacity. On the other side is a fractured rebellion, trapped between government forces and the Islamic State — which despite its considerable failings and only tepid backing from the United States has managed to keep Damascus on the defensive.
In government-controlled areas, Assad supporters have fully swallowed the enthusiastic propaganda about the intervention, peddled by Moscow and Damascus both.
“It won’t be long now, it’s going to finish soon,” said one volunteer fighter for the Syrian regime, a 38-year-old militiamen in the National Defense Forces with the word “love” tattooed on his forearm, sipping juice at a seaside café near his base. By next summer, he predicted, the war would be over, thanks to Moscow. “There will be strong forces of Russians, Iraqis, and Syrians fighting together. We will be strong. We are at end of the crisis.”
History suggests a more pessimistic forecast. Russia might get lucky, winning a diplomatic settlement at an instant when the Islamic State’s attacks have prompted a confluence of interests. More likely, however, Moscow will settle in for a decade of crushing counterinsurgency in Syria, against foes with considerable legitimacy, who represent a possible majority of Syrians and have the backing of some of the world’s richest and most powerful states. Russia has the resources and security to wait and see how the long game plays out, but it’s unlikely to end with either the blitzkrieg for which Assad’s fighters yearn or the hasty and favorable political settlement that Putin’s diplomats are pushing.
ISIS fighters march in Raqqa, Syria. AP File photo.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
I broke the fast this summer one night during Ramadan in Gaziantep, Turkey, with a pair of activists who worked for “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.” At great danger, their organization documented the atrocities of the Islamic State in its de facto capital, the provincial Syrian city of Raqqa.
That day in June, the father of one of the group’s members had been murdered in Raqqa in retribution for the activists’ work. The clean-shaven younger one, named Ibrahim, spent most of the meal on his laptop, messaging contacts inside the part of Syria controlled by the Islamic State and uploading videos. Neither man ate. ISIS had announced a bounty on all their heads, but the citizen-journalists had no plans to give up.
“We are all worried,” Ibrahim said when he packed up his computer. “I will continue this work under any condition. We already have lost too much.”
Earlier this month, I learned that Ibrahim had been beheaded by ISIS — not like his friend’s unfortunate father in Raqqa, in the lawless badlands of the caliphate, but in his neighborhood in the city of Urfa in the supposed safe haven of southern Turkey.
Ibrahim’s murder jolted me — it was yet another instance in which ISIS had snuffed out another life and encroached on the area marked “safe” in my mind. Such encroachments have become all too commonplace, and this November ISIS has made a quantum leap beyond what some imagined were the group’s constraints.
In quick succession, the group claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner over the Sinai, a pair of suicide bombings in residential Beirut at rush hour, and then the paralyzing Paris attacks.
As with Ibrahim’s assassination at an Urfa apartment, ISIS wants to sow a sense of insecurity. It is part of the group’s message and ideology: There are no borders. You’re not safe anywhere.
While it’s natural to feel fear — more about that reaction in a minute — we can also remember our outrage and our own power. The temptation to strike back or lash out usually colors the first sorties after a cataclysmic terrorist attack. The response often feels dumb, brute, misguided: bombing in order to do something, joining a war on a fanatical adversary’s terms rather than reasoning out the most effective response.
We’re wiser today than we were in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — or at least we ought to be — and we have a great deal more data at our disposal. If we can sit still long enough to process our emotions and cut through the layers of obfuscation put up by the myriad combatants in today’s Middle East wars, we can see at least one clarifying truth: Bad government by bad rulers has created the most enduring problems.
An entire rotten cast of Middle East governments has spawned a lost era through misrule and repression. Rotten rulers are the root cause not just of the Islamic State but of hundreds of thousands of other deaths. A partial list of villains includes theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and secular nationalist states like Egypt and Syria.
Some of the killers are backed by the West, others by the East. Interventions and miscalculations have driven the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The hapless invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States and of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union are both on this list.
Not all the malefactors are equally responsible, but all have contributed to the regional order of miserable governance. Until it is replaced with new systems of rule — systems that are more transparent and representative, less dependent on torture, exclusion, and corruption — the Middle East will continue to host murderous conflicts whose strategic impact will ripple into the West despite the West’s best efforts to pretend those conflicts can remain local.
On one level, the bloody propagandists of the Islamic State can feel like master puppeteers. Until ISIS apparently blew up a planeload of vacationers returning to St. Petersburg, Russia was lackadaisically going after ISIS targets while concentrating its firepower on other, less gruesome, opponents of the Syrian government. The United States and the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition were making little more than a show of bombing ISIS targets while passively waiting for better partners to appear with boots on the ground. Everybody with a stake in the Middle East who could feasibly do something about ISIS has consistently preferred to make other struggles a priority. A partial list of actors whose rhetoric against ISIS has far outstripped any action includes the governments of Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United States.
Now, however, with our sense of relative safety punctured, ISIS is on everyone’s lips.
But it’s a mistake to fall into a war to annihilate one enemy (as a former US admiral, among many others, has now called for the West to do) while sparing the far greater culprit.
Bashar Assad, using barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and old-fashioned artillery, has killed far more civilians than the Islamic State — hundreds of thousands more. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have invested billions of dollars over decades in promoting intolerant education and preaching around the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia serves as a model of intolerant, repressive, sectarian governance, one of the richest and most influential of many such models in the region.
There’s not enough space to detail to the errant examples set by the most powerful countries in the Middle East, from the anchors of the Arab world (including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia) to the critical non-Arab states that flank it (Iran and Turkey). And of course, foreign powers deserve their share of blame for toppling some states and propping up others.
But it should be heartening to realize that something as simple, and fixable, as bad government is responsible for most of the deaths in the region and for the power vacuums and state failures in which pathological movements like ISIS thrive.
Ultimately, bad governance is a problem that can be solved. It’s daunting but also empowering, because we can do something about it.
Caliph Abu Bakr’s pornographically nihilistic shock troops have already destroyed life in much of Syria and Iraq. Now they have penetrated daily life far from their home base, and their bombastic threats against other cities suddenly carry weight. How much should we fear for Rome, for Washington, for other cities their sinister, buffoonish henchmen might mention in future videos?
A spiral of global attacks like those we’ve witnessed this November provoke the same rage of the powerless that many of us felt on 9/11: They’re everywhere, we can’t stop them, we must destroy them.
A short drive from where Ibrahim was beheaded in what he thought was his safe home beyond the war zone, on the frontlines of the conflict with the Islamic State, the casualties number in the thousands every month. Unlike in the West, jihadi fundamentalists have wiped entire communities out of existence and have managed to change the entire way of life in cities like Raqqa, Manbej, and Mosul.
This is a time of seeming mayhem, when events eclipse our ability to keep pace. Columns of men, women, and children stream across Europe, trudging through the mud from their destroyed homelands in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the periphery of the West’s foreign policy misadventures.
The horrifying images of displaced families and drowned babies look like some catastrophe from World War II. Such disasters are not supposed to occur in our modern world. Nor are failures like Syria, where no government has followed a constructive policy that could contain the chaotic spillover of the conflict, much less resolve it.
Fear is a natural first response when confronted with the stream of painful events such as we’ve witnessed this month and this year. So are despair and fatalism. They are understandable, but there is much we can do. We can overcome the temptation to surrender to impulsiveness or passivity. A starting point is to return to fundamentals. Unjust states that rule through routine murder, torture, and arbitrary detention, will only breed bad outcomes.
Washington is one among many international power centers that stakes its Middle East policy on utilitarian partnerships with unsavory regimes, placing a bet that stability requires deals with devils. These bets have gone bad for all the players, however, ensconcing an entire region of tyrants. The short-term stability has grown shorter and shorter, while the long-term misery and disorder have swallowed up most of the supposed benefits.
Rule of law and just government need to become the end-game for Middle East policy. It’s not only the right thing, it will better serve the interests of peace, stability, and saving lives than the current dirty partnerships and deals. Repression, corruption, and coercion rot the fabric of society and make for rotten alliances, policies, and governments.
Until we recognize that repressive governments are doing most of the killing and maintaining the perfect conditions for murderous strife and nihilistic extremism, our machinations against the Islamic State are likely to lead to nothing more than another dead end.
Last month I spoke at a very engaging one-day symposium organized by Dimitris Kerides and the Navarino Network in Thessaloniki. There were challenging presentations about the future of the European Union, the immigration wave, Russia, and the lessons we can began to learn now about the fall of the Iron Curtain and the transitions in Eastern Europe.
You can watch all the presentations here.
Published at The Century Foundation.
BEIRUT—On Thursday night, a team of suicide bombers struck at rush hour in the crowded southern suburbs of Beirut. The attack killed at least 40 people, and would have killed many more had it not been for the bravery of a man who tackled one of the bombers. According to some reports, a third bomber was blown up before he could detonate his weapon.
For a year and a half, the southern suburbs have been relatively safe after a crescendo of attacks in 2013. The last major suicide bombing in Beirut struck near the Iranian cultural center on February 19, 2014. Since then, a combination of factors abated the toll on civilians, although there was a steady trickle of smaller attacks and foiled bombings.
The formula that successfully calmed the situation in Lebanon was built on three pillars: (1) security cooperation between Hezbollah, the Lebanese Army, and the Internal Security Forces; (2) intelligence cooperation between the major state and non-state agencies (General Security, ISF, military intelligence, Hezbollah and others); and (3) a political commitment from bosses of all sects to discourage attacks on civilians, deter jihadis, and pressure targeted civilians to refrain from reprisals.
The fact remains, however, that Lebanon has become embedded in the Syrian war, and already was fully enmeshed in the regional struggle between interventionist powers including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Israel, and the United States.
Hezbollah’s decision to openly enter the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad made it inevitable that the war in Syria would reverberate in Lebanon, in one manner or another. Meanwhile, the Sunni community of Lebanon—whose share of the population is shrinking—has suffered a leadership that is inept, corrupt, and fragmented.
These dynamics have created a dangerous impasse. As in 2008, Hezbollah is demanding a greater share of government decision-making power, which from a realpolitik perspective is a winning argument. The Shia proportion of the population has continued to grow, and Hezbollah is indisputably first among equals in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system. It will never be strong enough to dominate the entire country, but today its raw power is unequalled: its base is hyper-mobilized, its militia is stronger than the national army, and it has a symbiotic, possibly controlling relationship with the armed forces and General Security.
And as in 2008, there is standoff over filling the presidency, which has been vacant since May 2014.
Hezbollah’s rivals can convincingly argue that party’s demand for more say over the government is distasteful, perhaps even morally wrong. But Hezbollah holds the winning cards right now, and will likely get what it wants—probably after some avoidable and bloody showdown, like the battles in Beirut and the Chouf in May 2008, which convinced the anti-Hezbollah bloc then that it was too weak to press its demands.
Over the short term (which I’ll loosely define as the likely span of the Syrian war, which will probably last another five to ten years), Hezbollah will remain the preeminent power in a Lebanese system that functions like a mafia oligarchy, controlled by a small number of undemocratic, unrepresentative leaders whose primary interest is enriching themselves and perpetuating their power. This cult-of-personality/balance-of-power bonanza of corruption and misrule has proved highly elastic.
In its favor, the system prevents any single strong group, even Hezbollah, from dominating the others outright, and for twenty-five years it has served as a powerful buffer against a renewal of civil war. Its downside is that Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing deal has evolved in true mafia style into a free-for-all for the dons and their foot soldiers, with literally nothing left for the citizens of the country. A poorly run failing state in the 1990s, Lebanon has slipped into a worse and worse condition such that today, almost nothing functions.
There is no president, and parliament can’t even meet to authorize disbursement of funds—which would mostly be siphoned off in corruption and patronage schemes anyway. Garbage processing shut down over the summer, and today Beirut’s trash is spirited out of wealthy neighborhoods and dumped in rivers, alleys, and the poor quarters while politicians fail to agree on a way to handle the nation’s waste. Bribes and inefficiencies are ubiquitous, affecting everyone; just this week, in fact, corrupt customs officials held up a set of house keys my friend had express-mailed back to me until we paid a $15 “tax” charge. Some citizens find it impossible to obtain basic services from the state, such as the issuing of an ID card or the registration of a contract. Even those willing to pay bribes sometimes can’t even cut through the mess.
In this environment, many factors augur poorly for the long term.
The conflicts in the Levant and throughout the Arab world are fully regionalized, connected to a web of external actors, transnational movements, and activist governments. Syria and Lebanon are both organic parts of a regional conflict, prey to local dynamics as well the Iran-Saudi regional struggle.
Hezbollah’s short-term position remains secure, because its base supports it more strongly than ever. Over the long haul, however, it has lost any credibility as an umbrella actor with a unifying national project in addition to its own agenda. Hezbollah, despite its history galvanizing resistance to Israel, today has been reduced in the eyes of many of Lebanese and regional observers to another parochial sectarian group that works in lockstep with a foreign patron.
Sunni leadership has fragmented, leaving its constituency vulnerable and exposed. As a result, many Lebanese Sunnis operate without a sense of political cover, and in many areas like the impoverished northern district of Akkar, without even the minimal services that most other Lebanese can enjoy. This disarray has left a vacuum in which extremists such as ISIS can operate and recruit, and in which Lebanon’s many political crises could climax into a destabilizing game of chicken.
None of the status quo actors want a civil war, which is the most compelling reason why even if today’s breakdown is resolved by a militia showdown, the violence is likely to be contained. Lebanese factions who want to shoot it out have ample opportunity to do so across the border in Syria.
Sometime in the next year or two there will be another deal like the one negotiated in Doha in 2008. That accord postponed a reckoning and committed Lebanon to a nasty bargain: a sloppy simulacrum of peace in exchange for a continuation of the warlord oligarchy. Lebanon’s blueprint forward is crisis, breaking point, and another version of the same bad compromise that has survived in various guises since the 1943 national accord.
But the country that set the regional standard for a functional failing state is failing more than ever before. Brand Lebanon is broken, and the country’s major political parties own its misrule. That means Shia Hezbollah and its allies, and Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement and its allies, are responsible not just for keeping a tense and violence-wrecked country from sinking into violent strife; they’re also responsible for the fact that nothing in the country works, for the failure of the government to deliver reliable electricity, water, or policing a quarter century after the end of the civil war, despite Lebanon’s obvious wealth and human talent.
In the long term, Lebanon will have to negotiate an entirely different system that creates a new level of accountability and representation for citizens. Failing that, Lebanon needs to find a way to function technically at the level of much poorer but better organized states in the Middle East North Africa region, such as Jordan and Egypt. Generations of corruption and mismanagement have driven Lebanon’s expectations to an abysmally low point, of which the limping state still falls short. Until that underlying failure to govern is resolved, Lebanon will simply cling on from crisis to crisis.
Ahmed al-Alaby comforts a neighbor who has lost a close relative in the conflict, outside the family home at a security checkpoint in Damascus’s Old City. Photo: Thanassis Cambanis.
DAMASCUS — The assassins struck the one place they knew Mohammed Ghassan al-Alaby would brave the death threats to visit: his beloved cousin’s grave.
Mohammed and his brothers rarely left the alleys of Damascus’s Old City after al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the murder of their cousin Ihab in the summer of 2012 and swore to kill them, too. The men of the Alaby family stood accused of betraying their sect: They are Sunni Muslims who had refused to join the anti-government uprising and instead were serving as guardsmen in a pro-government neighborhood watch group.
Ever since Ihab had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting, the Alaby brothers had kept a low profile — except for weekly visits to his grave in Bab al-Saghir cemetery, just south of the Old City’s walls.
On the day of the attack, March 8, 2013, Mohammed and his two brothers had just bowed their heads and recited the opening verse of the Quran, when an explosion blasted from the head of the grave. Mohammed fell forward onto the grave just as another bomb went off. His brothers believe he died instantly, his body absorbing the force of the second blast and sparing them.
The Alaby family hails from the Syrian civil war’s least understood demographic: fence-sitting Sunnis who eschewed the uprising but aren’t entirely trusted by the government. They’re trapped between religious extremists and a government that often treats them as second-class citizens. The Alaby brothers consider themselves defenders not of Bashar al-Assad’s government but rather of a neighborhood and a Damascene way of life, a society that welcomes anyone — secular, atheist, or a member of any faith. But for members of the predominantly Sunni armed opposition, they are traitors — co-religionists who have taken up arms to defend the Alawite-dominated government.
“We’ve never disturbed anybody,” said Mohammed’s brother Assad, 40, who is now guardian of his brother’s children and chief of the guard unit that operates out of his home. “We are only protecting our area.”
But despite their dire straits, Sunnis like the Alaby family might hold the key to Syria’s future. Sunnis made up about three-quarters of the pre-war population, and the country’s economy still revolves around a wealthy Sunni merchant class. Sunni industrialists in Aleppo, the country’s manufacturing base, have kept factories operating despite a degrading battle over the divided city, while displaced Sunni entrepreneurs on the coast have opened new business, often creating jobs for other displaced Syrians. Some Sunni business owners have fled or thrown their support behind the rebellion, but many rich Sunni industrialists serve as pillars of the regime. If they mobilize en masse, they could tilt the outcome of the war, and in its aftermath their buy-in will be a necessary building block of any sustainable new government.
In Syria’s conscript military, Sunnis traditionally made up a large number of lower-ranking soldiers, in proportion to their share of the general population, according to analysts who study the Syrian armed forces. Even today, rebel videos showing captured government soldiers reciting their names and hometowns almost always include Sunni conscripts, for example. Aron Lund, editor of the Syria in Crisis blog at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the government still relies on Sunnis to fill its fighting ranks.
“There are Sunni Muslim Syrians fighting on the front line for Assad even today, even though many may be conscripts or fight simply for a living wage,” Lund said. “The regime was really bleeding Sunni support in 2011 to 2013, but then it seemed to stabilize to some degree.”
The regime has always carefully cultivated support across sects, Lund said, filling the security services with loyalists of every religion and from major tribes. After a wave of defections in the early stages of the civil war, many Sunnis stayed on to play prominent roles, including the defense minister. However, the continued presence of high-ranking Sunnis in the military could be little more than window dressing. Historically, Lund said, “the over-representation of Alawites was tangible, and there was a tendency to favor Sunnis for publicly visible posts, like minister of defense or minister of interior, while the unseen deep security state remained mostly Alawite-run.”
Perhaps motivated by fear or simply for lack of a better alternative, many Sunnis remain on the government’s side. But for now, they’re often a hunted class of citizens. Many Sunnis like the Alaby brothers living in government-controlled Damascus describe living in a Catch-22: They risk their lives fighting to keep the extremists from al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, out of their neighborhoods — but the government they’re defending considers them potential fifth columnists, their loyalty always subject to question.
“Here in the Old City, everybody knows me, and I’d say they trust me 70 percent. Outside, I’m just another Sunni,” said one secular Sunni, whose entire family refuses to leave the Old City for fear of arbitrary detention at a checkpoint. “We have no future under this regime, but if ISIS comes, it will be worse.”
The Alaby family went a step further than other Sunnis in their neighborhood, many of whom sat out the rebellion. When Damascus came under sustained assault in 2012 and anti-government militants infiltrated even the heart of the capital, the brothers purchased guns and organized a watch group.
Soon men began calling the family’s home with death threats. They called the Alaby brothers shabiha, a derogatory nickname for pro-regime militiamen. In June 2012, they killed Ihab. The following spring, nearly a year later, Mohammed’s mother received a call. “We have prepared a special Mother’s Day present for you,” a voice said. On March 8, 2013, just a week after the call, her son was killed.
In the two-and-a-half years since, Mohammed’s surviving family members have continued to patrol their neighborhood. Their neighborhood watch is now part of the National Defense Forces, a network of local militias that operate in the areas where they’re from and are in part trained and fundedby Iran. The Alaby family members don’t leave the Old City: They are committed to protecting their neighborhood, not to fighting the government’s war on other fronts. And they’re convinced that al-Nusra Front spies track their movements; that’s how they were tracked to the cemetery for the attack, they said, and that’s why they continue to receive threats.
“These people, you can’t discuss with them,” Ahmed al-Alaby said of his enemies. “They will kill us directly. Our names are everywhere. We don’t fear for our own lives, but we are afraid for our children.”
They’re careful to refer to the current president of Syria as “sweet,” but say they are motivated by parochial neighborhood interests rather than a presidential agenda. They work at their business all day and with the National Defense Forces at night. The family metalworking factory in the suburb of Mleha produced pots, pans, and other metal housewares; since fighting broke out around the capital, the brothers say it has been too dangerous to reach. Now the three surviving brothers work on a much smaller scale out of their home in the Old City, producing a line of kettles and pots.
On a typical weekend afternoon, Assad, the eldest surviving brother, played a video game on his phone and smoked in the dark in his home office while waiting for one of the daily electricity cuts to end. The entire extended family, 23 members strong, has crammed into a tiny apartment — unable since 2011, the first year of the war, to return to their homes in the contested suburbs of Damascus. One day, they hope they’ll move back to their spacious homes outside the city.
The main room holds a kitchen with floor space for the family to sleep. On the right is the local militia office: clipped high on the wall — and safely out of reach of the children — are seven AK-47s. There are also portraits of Ihab and Mohammed, as well as former President Hafez al-Assad, though not of his son. A sophisticated radio system sits on Assad’s desk. Tucked beside it are four water pipes to smoke the long night-watch hours away.
“Many have been wounded by this war, one way or another,” Ahmed said, tugging at his undershirt to show the shrapnel scars on his chest from the graveside attack. Comfort, he believes, will come only from God.
One of their sisters immigrated to France before the war. The brothers have debated about whether to join her, but they hate the idea of abandoning their home and becoming refugees in a distant land. “There is no future for our kids here,” Ahmed, 29, said gloomily. “The only reason we think of leaving is for them. Life is hard. We are so many. It’s very expensive.”
Mohammed’s 5-year-old son wandered into the office and climbed into his uncle’s lap. Assad pulled a comb from beside his walkie-talkie and rifle, and straightened the boy’s hair.
“Where’s your father?” he asked.
“He was killed,” his nephew answered softly, smiling.
“Who killed him?”
“The free army,” said the boy, conflating the nationalist rebel group called the Free Syrian Army with the Islamist jihadis in al-Nusra Front who claimed responsibility for killing his father.
“Where is he now?”
“Now go play,” said his uncle, letting the boy slide off his lap.
Mohammed is now buried with his cousin in the plot where he was killed at Bab al-Saghir cemetery. Within the sometimes claustrophobic confines of the Old City, coexistence continues, but the war has deepened sectarian identities. The Alaby brothers have to sneak into the cemetery for their occasional visits, telling no one where they’re going.
Their world grows narrower every day, with fear and uncertainty the only constants of their lives, said Assad, the weary paterfamilias.
“Every day we leave our homes,” Assad said, “we don’t know if we will die on the way or never come back.”