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.”
After Eid I spent ten days in Syria, doing my best to collect as many individual impressions as I could. Everything about the trip was limited, but I was lucky enough to have many people share some part of their stories on what was ultimately a very fragmentary, kaleidoscopic, picaresque jag through government-controlled Syria on an itinerary and schedule largely not of my own design. And yet, the human stories seep through — even in these amateur snapshots I made with my phone. These images offer but a sliver of perspective. Yet still I believe they’re worth scanning through, to catch a glimpse of quotidian life.
Syria’s president paid a visit to Moscow this week, maybe to say thank you, maybe to pay fealty to a sponsor, maybe to hear some requests. Some compared the visit to the obligatory calls Lebanese presidents used to have to pay the Assads in Damascus. PRI’s The World talked to Neil McFarquhar about the visit, and then asked me about the lives of everyday Syrians I met on my visit to Syria earlier this month. You can listen here.
“There’s a sense of relief that the cavalry coming from Moscow is going to be much closer to the Syrian elite’s way of life than the Iranians who had been rescuing them until now,” Cambanis says.
For evidence of the comradery, consider the affectionate nickname Assad supporters have given Putin — “Abu Ali.”
“It’s a way of saying this guy is one of us, he’s going to be the godfather of our victory, and he’s a little bit of an old-fashioned strongman.” Cambanis says. “It’s sort of silly, propagandistic sycophancy. On the other hand, it reflects this thirst for an outside savior.”
I visited government-held Syria in October at a pivotal moment, gaining a rare glimpse into the part of the country still controlled by President Bashar al-Assad. The Century Foundation, where I am a fellow, asked about my impressions.
Q: What timing—the week you arrived, Russia unleashed its new military campaign. How did that change the outlook of the people you spoke with?
A: Russia came up in almost every conversation I had, whether with officials, fighters, or regular citizens. The war has dragged on for nearly five years, and whatever they claim, most people in Syria understand that it’s a stalemate that neither side is likely to win outright. For people living in government-controlled Syria, the Russian intervention has—for now—lifted the sense of fatalism. With Russia boldly on Bashar al-Assad’s side, the thinking goes, maybe the Syrian government can win outright. That’s created a palpable wave of optimism. Many people in the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia told me they thought the war would now end within a year.
Q: Do you think it can end so quickly?
A: I doubt it. Russia’s move has completely shifted the geopolitics of foreign intervention and imposed new constraints on the United States and its allies. But most of the Syrians fighting against the government consider themselves patriots and are fighting on their own home ground. Contrary to Syrian government propaganda, which paints the rebels as foreign fighters and mercenaries, most of them are actually locals who prefer to die rather than surrender. Even if the government can defeat them with the massive push it has received from Russia and Iran, it will take a long time—probably two to five years—before they can reconquer the main rebel strongholds. And the buoyancy among government supporters (or even those who just want the conflict to come to any sort of end) will fade when they see that the rebels fight back, and that foreign interventionists on the rebel side can keep the fight going for a long time just by maintaining supplies of money, ammunition, and weapons.
Q: You had not visited Syria since 2007. What were the biggest differences that you noticed?
Government-controlled Syria feels beleaguered and utterly militarized. Assad’s Syria was always a heavy-handed police state, with intelligence agents everywhere and a huge web of agencies that detained people, tortured them, and kept them in fear. Today, the government has lost a great deal of its resources, holding maybe one-third of the country’s territory and controlling half or less of its remaining population. Yet, it retains its old heavy-handed style, and the displaced people living in the government areas are terrified of saying anything that might be construed as subversive.
Damascus is a beautiful city, and it was clean and well-run in 2007. For all the shortages today, it’s still functioning, but there are constant power cuts and real shortages of personnel and certain imported goods. There are checkpoints everywhere, and most of the men under 40 are either in uniform or are off-duty fighters.
Q: What was most on people’s minds?
A: In addition to the Russians, almost everyone I met openly talked about emigrating. They were either saving up to take a smuggler’s boat to Europe, didn’t have enough money but were desperate to raise it, or had considered it and postponed their decision point because of family reasons. Some said outright that they saw no future in Syria even if and when the war resolves. “It will take ten years to end the war, and god knows how long afterward to restore the country,” one pro-government militiaman told me. Most the people who have either left Syria this summer or plan on leaving are young, with careers ahead of them, or have children for whom they see no prospects inside Syria. Many of the people who have remained in Syria by choice retain the option to flee anytime because they have money or a second a passport, or they already have sent their children abroad and have remained in Syria because of their jobs or businesses. Antique dealers in Old Damascus would ask me if I thought it was a good idea for them to sell their shops at fire-sale prices to smuggle their kids to Europe. Off-duty soldiers driving taxis at night asked me how much it costs to get from the island of Lesbos to Germany. Getting out is the ubiquitous fixation, more even than what will happen in the war.
Q: Why were you able to visit Syria now? How closely were you monitored?
A: The government slightly opened the door over the summer to Western reporters. Perhaps they think they have a good story to tell now, about a government that is secular and protects minority rights defending itself against rebels whose strongest contingent is dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. Maybe they’re newly confident that they’re winning, with the support of their allies and the absence of meaningful American action.
When I traveled outside Damascus, a government official from the ministry of information accompanied us on our interviews. Sometimes there were also minders from the military or intelligence services, although some were vague about their affiliations. After working hours, I was free to move around Damascus unfettered.
Q: What’s the most important thing Americans should know about government-held Syria?
A: That’s a tough question because there is a lot that is important to know but impossible to assess, such as how deep the support for the government runs among the remaining population. But two key points surfaced again and again on this trip. First, Assad’s government has not changed any of its fundamental ways, in terms of how it runs the country, stifles dissent, and is completely uninterested in changing the nature of its system. And second, many Syrians who don’t particularly care for Assad’s way of running the country, who in fact fear the president, also fear the rebels on the other side, whose vision they find sectarian, intolerant or even nihilist. That middle ground of public opinion is still not free to speak on the regime side, but they could hold the key to a future Syria that reflects something freer and less corrupt than Assad’s government, and at the same time less sectarian and extreme than the jihadists on the opposition side. The war in Syria, sadly, looks like it might go on for another decade.
Photo: SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
DAMASCUS, Syria — Until civil war broke out in 2011, Iman enjoyed a comfortable life in Mezze, the center of middle-class Damascus and a popular neighborhood for Syrian government employees. The 39-year-old devoted herself to her two sons, never dreaming her family could ever slip out of the comfort that, after all, was an explicit promise of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist state.
Today, the endless grind of war has reduced Iman’s life to a constant state of anxiety. She keeps her sons in hiding, afraid they’ll be drafted by a government hungry for conscript soldiers or simply grabbed by militiamen, who have been known to arbitrarily arrest innocent civilians and hold them for ransom or even forget them in detention. Her psychologist husband quit his practice because he made better money driving a taxi — but then the war made the roads too deadly, and now he says he hasn’t left the house in months. Iman, meanwhile, cleans houses for $3 day — not enough to buy food — and begs her casual employers to pay her utility bills.
Sitting at a café popular with government supporters and members of the security service, she spoke openly about her fears and her desperation to find a path to Europe.
“I live in fear for my sons every day, that they will be drafted or disappeared. There is no solution for this crisis,” Iman said. She placed her tongue against her front teeth and made a long, low whistle. “It will be long, long, long.”
Iman’s plight is shared by thousands of Syrians living in today’s Damascus. Their stories all point to a central quandary facing Assad: How long can his beleaguered government keep its supporters engaged in the fight, as Syria struggles with colossal human losses and economic deprivation?
Few supporters of the government are switching sides to the opposition these days, but many are simply exhausted by the immense toll exacted by the war. Half the country’s people have been pushed from their original homes. The infrastructure is creaking. Even some supporters of Assad say they feel that government-held Syria is hollowing out, running on fumes.
In private, people discuss the point at which they’ll give up. One says they would flee if the road from Damascus to the coast were permanently cut. Another says the breaking point would come if the Islamic State entered central Damascus. For the Assad government, all this worry is driving the Russian- and Iranian-backed campaign initiated last month to save Syria’s urban heartland — a narrow belt of cities stretching from Damascus to the coast — even as the hinterland slips away from the government’s grasp.
The answer to whether Assad’s forces can keep that heartland lies with Syrians like Iman, who have chosen to remain in government-controlled areas and consider themselves neither rebel sympathizers nor government boosters. Iman is a Sunni who wears a headscarf, and some of her relatives are in prison — enough to make Iman herself suspect in these days of heightened sectarianism.
“My neighbors all work for the government, and as long as we walk straight, they leave us alone,” Iman said. “Unless someone writes a report about us.”
Her gripe, however, isn’t with the state or its leaders. She had no intention of leaving until the Syrian currency collapsed, along with her husband’s livelihood.
She dreams of Germany’s free medical care, which she hopes can treat her older son’s eye problems and younger son’s asthma. But she’s terrified that before she can amass the $6,000 she thinks it would cost to smuggle her family to Europe, her sons will be swallowed up by the Syrian military. With their health problems, she’s convinced they wouldn’t survive long in uniform.
Life during wartime
Over the course of a recent 10-day visit, Damascus residents said they feel less embattled than they did a year ago, but the war is still an inescapable reality of everyday life. Every night, dozens of mortars still land in the city center, sending wounded and sometimes dead civilians to Damascus General Hospital. From the city’s still-busy cafés, clients can hear the thuds of outgoing government guns and the rolling explosions of the barrel bombs dropped on the rebel-held suburb of Daraya.
Army and militia checkpoints litter the city. In some central areas, cars are stopped and searched every two blocks. Still, rebels manage to smuggle car bombs into the city center. According to residents, explosions occur every two or three weeks, but are rarely reported in the state media.
Workplaces across the country have emptied out over the summer, as Syrians with a few thousand dollars to spare risked the trip to Europe via Turkey and a boat ride to Greece, taking advantage of a newly permissive Syrian government policy to issue passports quickly and without question.
Employees in government offices, international aid organizations, and private Syrian corporations estimated that anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of their coworkers left the country this summer.
“The government doesn’t care if people leave. It can’t stop them,” one middle-class Syrian, who has chosen so far to remain in Damascus, said of the exodus. “The war seems like it will go on forever. People see no future for their children. The only people who are staying are the ones who have it really good here or the ones who aren’t able to leave.”
Over the last year, the Syrian military has suffered a major manpower shortage, which Assad acknowledged this summer in a rare, frank public assessment of his vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, Syria’s currency tumbled to one-sixth of its prewar value, causing an economic crisis for all but the wealthiest citizens. Rebels have made steady territorial gains throughout 2015, until the recent Russian military intervention threatened to turn momentum in the government’s favor.
Yet for all the danger signs, Assad’s government tries to project confidence. It has lost key territory in the north and east, but it still controls most of the important urban centers from Damascus to the coast, where anywhere from half to 80 percent of the population lives. Members of all of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian communities, including many from the Sunni Arab majority, continue to support the government.
The government showcases its readiness at Damascus General Hospital, whose emergency room treats the capital’s civilian casualties. Despite nationwide shortages and difficulties created by Western sanctions, hospital administrator Dr. Khaled Mansour said the hospital still strives to keep six months of supplies on hand.
“We are prepared to continue serving the population even in the case of a siege,” Mansour said. It has been tough to keep sophisticated machinery like scanners working, he said, and to maintain reserves of diesel and water. Imported medicines are more expensive after the currency collapse, and many pharmaceutical factories are located in areas now under rebel control.
It’s also hard to keep doctors from emigrating. According to Mansour, rebels have kidnapped some medical professionals and forced them into service, and Syria’s well-trained doctors find it relatively easy to emigrate. About 200 out of 650 doctors left the country over the summer, Mansour said, while adding that the hospital had more than enough “spare capacity.”
The brain drain, however, is evident in the examining rooms.
“We used to have the best doctors in Syria,” one patient said wistfully. Now, he said, quality was down; during a recent medical appointment, two young doctors had consulted Google on a smartphone to decide which medicine to prescribe.
Boomtown on the coast
If Damascus can feel like a city under siege, the Syrian coast resembles a booming war economy. Millions of Syrians fled the fighting early in the war and relocated to the safer coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The coastal cities are considered strongholds of the Alawite minority, of which the Assads are members. But they have sizable populations of Sunnis and other groups, and tensions have grown as displaced people, mainly Sunnis, have fled to the coast from war-torn parts of the country.
The displaced have driven up rents and strained the infrastructure, but they’ve also brought money, and many have reestablished their old businesses. The Ministry of Social Affairs has created dozens of new positions to employ displaced people. Down the street, Mohammed al-Heeb, a pastry shop owner originally from Aleppo, has created 30 extra jobs for displaced people, mostly make-work positions to help families in need. Despite the charity, he’s still turning a profit.
The fight has become an integral part of daily life, directly affecting almost every family from every type of background. Throughout the coast, photographs of the war’s casualties adorn every block. Each neighborhood has a wall of martyrs, some of them featuring hundreds of dead — part of an effort to build a martyrdom culture not unlike that which sustains loyalists of Iran’s ayatollahs and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both of which provide key support to the Syrian government.
The government avidly pursues draft dodgers and, at the same time, has made a special effort to burnish the cultural cachet of the families making sacrifices to defend Assad’s state.
The sanctification of martyrs
In the hills above Tartus, the provincial governor in early October unveiled an art fair entitled “Tartus: Mother of Martyrs.” For the exposition, the governor commissioned 30 sculptors to build marble tributes to Syria’s fallen. Most of them included literal representations of mothers, along with local motifs encouraged by the governor, like Phoenician boats and a phoenix rising from ashes.
Hundreds of war-wounded and relatives of soldiers who died in the conflict gathered in the hilltop village of Naqib for the unveiling of the statues. Parents wept as a local official read the names of the fallen — nearly 180 just from the village and its environs, an area with a population of about 80,000 people, according to the mayor.
“This is our destiny,” said Ahmed Bilal, an Alawite cleric who was circulating in a shiny white robe and chatting with the assembled families. A long line of fighters predating the establishment of modern Syria had resisted foreign invaders, he said, and gave inspiration to today’s soldiers.
“Even if we lose one-third of our young men, we will still have the rest to live,” Bilal said. “They died so that the others should have life.”
Saada Shakouf, one of the bereaved mothers, sharpened her sense of Syrian identity after her son died fighting rebel forces in March in the battle of the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. The opposition victory, which was accomplished by a coalition that included the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front as well as U.S.-backed, Free Syrian Army-linked groups, created a sense of panic in government circles. From Jisr al-Shughour, the rebels had a gateway to the coast, allowing them to directly threaten strongholds like Latakia.
Shakouf’s son, Nabil, was 23 years old when he died along with his entire unit. He had been “stop-lossed,” a procedure for extending a soldier’s service beyond his or her time of enlistment, and was in his fourth year of military service. According to his mother, Nabil and his companions were burned to death in barrels. She didn’t know if they had hidden there — or if the rebels placed them in the barrels and set them on fire as a grisly form of execution.
Government forces are fighting for a model of coexistence and tolerance that is vanishing from the Arab world, Shakouf said. She had lost her enthusiasm for the pan-Arab cause that had once been so central to Syria’s political identity.
“We used to say the Arab nation was one, and we supported the rest of the Arabs against Israel. Where are those Arabs now? They are attacking us; they are attacking other Arabs,” Shakouf said with bitterness. “We don’t believe in the Arab nation anymore.”
An official from the Ministry of Information who was monitoring the interview interjected: “You can’t say that!”
Shakouf, however, refused to back down.
“We are only Syrians,” she insisted. “Syria can protect itself alone. We don’t need anybody to help us.”
Times could get much leaner than they are now in Tartus, and families like Shakouf’s will be called upon to continue to support the fight. Strained by dwindling resources, she said, the resolve of Syrian government loyalists would only grow. She promised that her surviving daughters and 15-year-old son said they would join the military if called.
“We fought the Ottoman Turks for 400 years,” Shakouf said. “There is no way we will fall. We have been fighting five years for our existence, and we will not lose.”
Syrian citizens stood near a burning truck that was destroyed by two cars bombs in the Jaramana neighborhood, a suburb of Damascus, in 2012. Photo: SANA VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
DAMASCUS — THE GOVERNMENT militiaman named Noor leaned out from the narrow service balcony and pointed at the trees flanking the airport highway a hundred yards away.
“We are fighting in that area to keep them from entering our street,” he said. A few months earlier, Noor said, the situation “was critical. They were too close.” Now, he said, rebels have been pushed a few miles away.
The war in Syria is a war of neighborhoods. Foreign fighters and foreign intervention have fueled the conflict, but at its heart is an intimate civil war between neighbors and relatives. Noor, a retired soldier, was running a family store when Syria’s popular uprising rapidly transformed into a bitter nationwide battle four years ago. He quickly formed a neighborhood militia, which was eventually absorbed into the paramilitary National Defense Force, that fights for the Assad government and is funded and trained by Iran.
In recent years, his neighborhood, Jaramana, remained a leafy and sprawling suburb of Damascus crowded with schoolchildren and informal sidewalk cafes by day. At night, it was a battleground, as rebels in neighboring suburbs attacked the strategically critical airport highway and lobbed shells indiscriminately, mirroring the government’s own tactics.
Noor’s apartment building in Jaramana exudes middle-class respectability. Half its current residents have fled the fighting elsewhere in Syria, but they are well-heeled refugees, wealthier and more comfortable than many of the other 1.6 million newcomers to Jaramana. Those with money rent spacious apartments. Poorer displaced people rent basement rooms at inflated prices, and some squat in unfinished construction sites.
On the ground floor lives a judge who fled Raqqa when the Islamic State made the city into its Syrian capital. Upstairs from Noor lives a retired tax official and Baath Party member displaced in 2012 from Idlib province, who serves coffee and juice in an immaculate set of china and crystal.
The tax official’s son Ahmed al-Basha, 20, studies law, but in his free time he volunteers with Noor’s militia unit. At first, he would borrow his father’s pickup truck and deliver food to the fighters stationed on the edge of Jaramana, a harrowing but quick drive from his home.
“Now I know how to work a gun. I’ve experienced combat,” Ahmed said shyly, proud that despite his lack of military training he’s been able to help the government’s war effort.
His father, Mohamed Sharif al-Basha, 60, said that masked gunmen came to his home in northern Syria in 2012 and ordered him to quit his government job. When some of his colleagues were murdered, Mohamed filed a resignation letter and fled, eventually making his way to Jaramana. His sons work, and he collects a government pension.
He is well off and donates fuel and other supplies to the militiamen whose pro-government struggle, in his view, is an extension of his own personal desire to reclaim his house and job in Idlib province.
Syria’s war is often viewed through the prism of geopolitics, but from up close, the conflict appears intensely localized as well. Like dozens of other Syrians interviewed during a recent trip to the government-controlled portion of Syria, Noor and his neighbors were well-versed in the role of Russia and Iran and speeches of President Bashar Assad. Day to day, however, many government supporters aren’t off fighting ISIS, or to reclaim the half of the country’s territory that has slipped from Assad’s grasp. They are fighting for the blocks they live on or the roads that connect them to the city centers where they shop or work.
IN THE FIFTH YEAR of the war, the Syrian government has lost much of the country and is now primarily restricted to a corridor running from Damascus to the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia. The main highway leading north out of the city toward the coast is beset by rebels, and drivers have to bypass a stretch immediately north of the city that’s still being fought over. About one-third of the country’s population is displaced inside Syria, and 4 million have left the country altogether. Government-held Syria, encompassing what French colonial officials termed “useful Syria,” hugs the edge of the vast deserts in the interior, spanning approximately a third of the country’s territory and by some estimates only half its remaining population.
A spring rebel offensive in Idlib threatened the government’s safe zones along the coast, while the Russian intervention that began in September appears to have shifted the momentum in the government’s favor. At least that’s how supporters view it. “God willing, it’s just a matter of a year now, and we can go back to normal,” said one government fighter interviewed on the coast.
But parts of government-held Syria are encircled and besieged. Rebels regularly smuggle car bombs into Damascus, despite ubiquitous checkpoints. The overwhelming majority of men on the streets are uniformed fighters, and many in civilian clothes turn out to be off-duty soldiers making extra money with part-time work driving taxis or helping at shops.
The war punctuates daily life and divides families. In private, many Syrians talk about relatives fighting on several sides of the conflict — some with the government, some with the nationalist rebels in the Free Syrian Army, and some with the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group the Nusra Front.
One night over dinner in Damascus, a pro-rebel wife tangled with her pro-government husband over the conduct of the war.
“It’s inhumane,” the wife said of the vast number of civilians killed by the government.
“The terrorists are much worse,” her husband retorted.
An exploding barrel bomb in the nearby suburb of Deraya interrupted their argument. The sound is unmistakable — the steady beat of a helicopter’s blades and then for several seconds a low swelling boom.
“People are dying!” the wife exclaimed in tears.
“Not people,” her husband said. “Just fighters. All the people left Deraya long ago.”
Fear and combat long ago became normalized throughout Syria, where front lines are rarely far away. Around the capital, rebels in areas like Jobar, Deraya, and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk can lob mortars into the city of Damascus whenever they choose. Daily civilian casualties arrive in the city’s emergency rooms, victims of rebel shelling, doctors said — at a time when rebel shelling has been significantly restrained compared to the levels a year ago.
One of those casualties is Ashtar al Ahmed, a 23-year-old who was preparing for her final graduation project at Damascus University, where she studies graphic design, when a shell crashed onto her veranda in the Old City on Sept. 11.
“I saw a flash of light. I didn’t hear the bomb because I was in the center of the explosion,” Ahmed said. Her legs were shattered and she lost blood, but she was lucky. After a series of operations, her doctors said she would walk again and be able to go home after two to three months in the hospital.
The Ahmed family embodies the Damascene tradition of cosmopolitan coexistence. Ashtar and her twin brother speak English, French, and Arabic. Their mother is an academic who works for an international agency that protects Syrian folklore, and the twins frequent the Old City’s lively bar scene with a mix of friends less interested in sectarian background than in their ambitions to travel and launch careers. Both had options to leave Syria during the war but chose to stay to finish their university courses in Damascus.
“It happens every day in our neighborhood,” Ahmed said of the bombing. “We stay up late, we go out and party.”
“It’s normal life,” said her brother.
“If I had gone to a bar, maybe I’d be fine today,” she said.
She sees herself as a defender not of the Syrian government but of the Damascus way of life, which she believes doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.
“War cannot stop me from doing what I love and living where I live,” she said.
INTENSE FEELINGS AND propaganda color all sides of the fight. Syrian rebels interviewed this summer at their rear bases in Turkey said many of the government’s front-line soldiers fight lackadaisically. They believe Assad keeps his most competent soldiers in reserve to defend Damascus and other parts of the government’s strategic heartland.
Government propaganda, meanwhile, portrays the rebels as mercenaries without a cause. In the days immediately following the beginning of the Russian bombing campaign, Syrian government outlets spread unsourced and never confirmed reports that thousand of rebels, terrified by Russia’s might, had dropped their weapons and fled into Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.
On the government side, information remains as tightly controlled as it was before the war. State outlets focus almost exclusively on the statements of the president and a few top officials. Government supporters who want a little more information or context along with the official line turn to Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese network that supports Assad but provides a more rounded news diet.
Secret police monitor cafes and hotel lobbies, despite the government’s manpower shortage, and in private some regime supporters say their greatest fear isn’t rebel shells but unscrupulous pro-government militiamen who might shake them down or arbitrarily detain them at checkpoints.
Many casual boosters of the government harbor hopes for a quick finish, fanned by a rush of breathless official reports of unparalleled battlefield victories since the Russian offensive began. But veterans involved in the fight, like Noor, the government militiaman on the edge of Damascus, expect the fight to drag on for another 10 years.
An entire generation of young men on all sides of the conflict has grown up under arms. Many have committed atrocities or resorted to extortion, even on the government’s side, Noor admitted: “We’ll have to deal with them after we resolve the political conflict.”
Forgiveness is not high on anybody’s agenda. President Assad has offered amnesty to fighters who surrender their weapons, but there is little evidence that any rebels have successfully been pardoned and reintegrated into government-controlled Syria.
And if amnesty ever became a government policy, Syrian officials might have trouble getting their foot soldiers to embrace it.
“We wouldn’t accept even the guys who give up their weapons,” Noor said. “We refuse anyone who even sympathized with the revolutionaries. They killed our friends, and we buried them. We will not forgive them. We won’t take them back. If the government wants to forgive them, that is their problem. We won’t.”
I’m going through my notes and photographs from ten days in Syria, but I had the chance on the radio to process some of my impressions while they’re still swirling around in my head. My old friend Kelly McEvers at NPR asked me about the differences I noticed since my last previous visit in 2007. Marco Werman at PRI/The World wanted to know how supporters of Bashar al-Assad were reacting to the Russian intervention. These conversation are small unfiltered snapshots of my first take.
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
QARDAHA, Syria — The sonic boom of a fighter jet momentarily cut short the conversations at the hilltop mausoleum of former President Hafez al-Assad. The engineer in charge of enhancements to the manicured park and shiny marble shrine to the founder of Syria’s ruling dynasty broke out into a wide grin.
“The Russians!” said one visitor.
“The plane is Russian, but I bet the pilot is Syrian!” he said with a laugh.
Syria’s coastal cities were buzzing this week with anticipation that a muscular Russian contingent would alter the momentum of a war stretching into its fifth year, giving backers of the regime a catalytic push to victory.
Qardaha is the former president’s birthplace as well as his final resting place, and it symbolizes a Syrian regime whose Baathist and Arab nationalist ideology is inextricably intertwined with the ruling Assad family.
Syria’s leadership has staked its future on preserving its prewar ruling constituency. In almost every conversation here, fighters opposed to the government were called “terrorists” rather than rebels, and the civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and has displaced 12 million others is still called “the crisis.”
The war’s grinding toll hasn’t dampened the optimistic rhetoric of government officials and supporters, like the shrine supervisor Maan Ibrahim.
With the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other allies, he promised, Syria would prevail against its enemies. “War has been raging for five years,” Ibrahim said. “All these terrorists will meet their end here and now.”
Analysts have been trying all week to untangle the thicket of overlapping interests driving the Kremlin’s escalation in Syria. On the ground in the part of Syria still tightly under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, however, the strategy was far clearer than would appear from the speeches and statements emanating from world capitals. Scores of interviews with regime supporters and local officials in the Alawite heartland could be summed up in a simple plan: no quarter, no compromise.
Whether it’s likely to succeed or not, the regime has persuaded its own constituents to support Assad’s blueprint, regardless of any ambivalence they might express in private.
The plain is straightforward: consolidate Damascus’s control over the axis that runs from the capital through the contested cities of Homs and Hama and to the coastal strongholds of Tartus and Latakia — an area that represents the bulk of Syria’s prewar population. Eliminate all armed rebels from that heartland, and then reconquer the economically critical city of Aleppo along with farther-flung districts that have fallen out of the government’s control.
Westerners have parsed the distinctions among the Islamic State, jihadis like the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and the U.S. backed Free Syrian Army. Supporters of the regime, on the other hand, view all armed rebels as sectarian terrorists determined to wipe out or marginalize Syria’s religious minorities and therefore as equally deserving of whatever firepower Assad or his foreign allies are able to muster against them.
“The ones who accept President Assad’s amnesty can come back and be part of Syria,” said a pro-regime fighter relaxing at a cafe in the port city of Tartus. “The other traitors will stay abroad or fight until we kill them. They cannot return.”
The fighter, like many other government supporters, expressed a hope that with the new Russian engagement, the long conflict would come to an end quickly. “We’ll take back all the land in a year,” the fighter said. “After that we’ll only have to worry about sleeper cells.”
Syrian officials believe that the international tide is turning in their favor and that the question is no longer in what condition the regime will survive — but rather how long will it take for the regime to win outright.
That new confidence was on display as the governor of Tartus province received visitors in his ornately re-created Ottoman-style office, while smoking cigarettes and sipping an orange-flavored soft drink. An aide in the waiting room coyly avoided direct praise for the Russian involvement until he found an updated story on his smartphone from the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
“It’s confirmed on SANA!” he said with excitement, and read aloud a long account of Russia’s first airstrikes.
The governor, Safwan Abu Saada, said it was only natural to feel optimistic. He had been in charge of the northern province of Idlib until a year ago, when the government’s losses forced him to move.
“Syria is like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” he said.“We welcome the help of friendly countries, working with our invitation and under international law. I’m sure I will be visiting Idlib again soon.”
Answers to the many questions about how such a major shift would come about, however, still remain unclear. Assad’s regime already has been throwing all its resources into the conflict, with generous military and financial support from Iran and Russia. The new Russian intervention — fighter planes, anti-aircraft systems, and advisors — comes after a six-month period in which the regime lost ground in Idlib province, dangerously close to towns such as Qardaha and the strategic heart of the regime, where public support runs strongest.
Latakia, the largest of the coastal cities, embodies many of the challenges to the government’s strategy. The population of the city and its suburbs has nearly doubled over the course of the conflict to around 3 million people, according to Syrian officials. Displaced people from Aleppo and other provinces have flooded into the city, straining its infrastructure but also spurring an economic boom.
Almost every block is festooned with photographs of martyrs from the military or paramilitary units. Anxiety in Latakia spiked this spring when neighboring Idlib province fell to a rebel advance of a new coalition called the Army of Conquest, spearheaded by a coalition of jihadis including al-Nusra Front, fighting alongside Free Syrian Army units.
Pushing the rebels farther away from the coast is a much higher priority for regime supporters here in the Alawite heartland than the eradication of Islamic State strongholds in places like the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, which lies hundreds of miles inland.
An off-duty army officer, recovering from an end-of-week lunch, said that Syria’s fundamentalist enemies “would pay for every drop of blood they had spilled, and every drop of whiskey.”
But he was less sanguine than some of his peers in his assessment of the Russians. “The Russians are part of the process, with their airstrikes, but it’s a little part,” said the officer. “In the end it is Syrians who are on the ground fighting.”
Getty Images/Globe Staff Photo Illustration
[Review of Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: ISIS for The Boston Globe.]
As its name makes clear, the Islamic State is after something far more permanent than its nihilistic, destructive methods might suggest. Over the past few years the movement has come terrifyingly close, confidently deploying modern tools of warfare and propaganda to establish a blood-soaked caliphate whose barbarity feels prehistoric. In his new book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick sets out to explain how a motley group of criminals considered too unruly by Al Qaeda transformed into the world’s most successful and savage jihadi group.
Warrick’s account centers as much on American missteps as it does on the jihadi long game to build capacity. He telegraphs his disgust with ISIS without turning his book into a two-dimensional jeremiad and takes pains to include accounts of the group’s thinking, evolution, and internal political disputes.
The Islamic State, better known here by the acronym, ISIS, swept into American consciousness about a year ago when it conquered northern Iraq and almost toppled the US-backed government in Baghdad. But ISIS didn’t come out of nowhere. Inhabitants of the Arab heartland had followed the steady entrenchment of jihadi groups in the region.
Since Sept. 11, America’s counter-terror establishment has been obsessed with kill lists, personalizing Al Qaeda and its offshoots as the fiefdoms of a few easily demonized leaders.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Syria, and on computer screens around the world, a vast, well-funded network recruited legions of talented and capable individuals, learned from its setbacks, innovated, and built effective institutions to buttress a durable reign of horror.
“Black Flags” tries hard to explain how ISIS came of age and why so many supposedly moderate or conservative forces in the Arab world have been willing to stand with extremists.
Most bracing of all is Warrick’s historically-grounded corrective, which blames the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the single most pivotal factor in the organization’s creation.
Warrick spends plenty of time on a riveting and detailed biographical account of the man who founded the group that became ISIS, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian thug whose commitment to violent religious extremism was forged in jail. Blithe prison officials allowed jihadis free reign and then carelessly released them to curry political favor for the new king.
The US government made Zarqawi famous by naming him as the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, part of the spurious grounds to justify the Iraqi invasion. America’s mistakes were a bonanza for Zarqawi, who hired from the ranks of newly jobless soldiers and intelligence officials and capitalized on the disenfranchisement of Sunni tribes suddenly in need of a new protector.
Zarqawi reengineered the parameters of violence — no small feat in a neighborhood where despots like Saddam Hussein and the Assad dynasty in Syria already had spawned a vast torture complex. He personally beheaded civilians on video; directed suicide bombs at targets that other jihadis considered off limits like the UN, NGOs, and Arab embassies; and struck Shia religious targets with the ultimately successfully goal of provoking a destabilizing Sunni-Shia civil war. Even Al Qaeda thought he was going too far, Warrick notes, but Zarqawi’s methods proved to have enduring traction long after his death in 2006.
His successors built ISIS into an organization determined to go much further than Al Qaeda and implement a brutal caliphate immediately. Today ISIS runs oil fields, banks, and a formidable military. The group’s executions grab our attention, but ISIS applies equal zeal to tax collection, education, and indoctrination — all good reasons to suspect that it may remain part of the scene for years to come.
There are a few missing pieces in this otherwise fine book. Warrick neglects the rich context of torture, abuse, and extremism fed by Arab governments and international patrons, including the United States, in the decades before Al Qaeda and then ISIS came to maturity. He mentions but does not delve deeply into the widespread sympathy for hardline Islamist ideas among the Arabian peninsula monarchies and many supposedly mainstream Sunnis.
Also some big questions remain at the end of “Black Flags,’’ including the mystery of the group’s technical achievements. How did ISIS refine its training, military tactics, and administrative abilities so thoroughly that it could control a nation-sized swath of Syria and Iraq? Warrick’s account fills in important conceptual blanks, but doesn’t explain why this time around the same old cocktail of takfiri jihad, Gulf money, and impressionable testosterone-filled volunteers yielded an army and government-in-waiting more effective than any of its regional peers.
Overall, however, Warrick’s book might be the most thorough and nuanced account of the birth and growth of ISIS published so far. “Black Flags’’ is full of personalities, but it keeps its gaze carefully focused on the wider arc of history.
BLACK FLAGS: The Rise of ISIS
By Joby Warrick
Doubleday, 344 pp., illustrated, $28.95
Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on September 28, on the heels of a shrewdly publicized deployment of new Russian troops and military equipment to Syria. Simultaneously—and not for the first time—the Kremlin has rolled out the prospect of a “Moscow Track” to peace in Syria, marketed as a pragmatic alternative to the failed U.S.-run Geneva Process.
Moscow’s latest moves have begun to shift the ground, and ultimately the United States will have to choose between two different, equally messy courses: standing aside and letting Russia and Iran shape the conflict unimpeded; or making a real diplomatic and military commitment in the hopes of influencing the Syrian civil war’s final disposition.
Already, a chorus of analysts and political actors is advocating a “hold-your-nose-and-make-a-deal with Russia” approach,1 claiming the United States must either sign on to Moscow’s plans against ISIS, or else plead guilty to promoting terrorism through American inaction.
But framing the choice as a binary one plays into the rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad and his sponsors, and ignores the fact that substantial American action can still reshape the dynamics and alter the outcome, just as surely as decisive Russian, Iranian, and Syrian moves could. The more time passes, however, the fewer options remain for the American camp.
Until President Obama decides to invest in a new Syria policy or else completely relinquish any stake in the conflict in the Levant, there’s little to discuss with Putin. Russia comes to the table with clear aims and a plan to achieve them; the United States needs its own goals and strategy before engaging in a conversation.
The most effective approach for the United States right now would be to quickly commit to a program that supports alternatives to Assad and opposes ISIS—while making clear that America would back peace talks that include all foreign sponsors and all domestic players in the conflict, with the exception of ISIS and other jihadis.2
This brief argues that such an approach is an essential precursor to any “Moscow Track” for Syria, and could well render it obsolete. It lays out where American and Russian interests in Syria overlap and where they diverge, and examines the limits of Russia’s going it alone. Finally, it outlines a course of U.S. action that would expand the options for the Syria crisis beyond the limited and troublesome alternative solutions currently under consideration.
Russia’s Interests—and America’s
Syria is Russia’s most solid foothold in the Arab world, and offers a strategic alliance, military contracts, and a critical naval base in Tartus. So, in the short term, Russia’s ramp-up is only an increase in the degree of Moscow’s long-running commitment to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.3 Many foreign and domestic constituencies are also influencing the course of Syria’s war. Arab monarchies in the Gulf, along with Turkey, have kept alive a Sunni-dominated insurgency that has fought the regime and its backers to a stalemate. The fighting has catastrophically crippled the nation’s institutions and infrastructure.
If the United States does not respond to Russia’s latest move with a concrete shift in policy soon, it will effectively cede the theater to Damascus, and its patrons in Iran and Russia. Eventually, momentum could shift in the regime’s favor. If Russia solidifies its presence in Syria further and installs better air defenses, the United States will no longer be able to easily consider pivotal interventions, such as establishing a no-fly zone.
Not all of Russia’s interests and intentions in Syria conflict with those of the United States, however, and in fact several overlap:
- Moscow and Washington abhor jihadi extremists and are obsessed with protecting their homeland from terrorist attacks.
- Both fear “blowback” from movements they have fought abroad.
- Neither power likes a power vacuum in a strategically sensitive Middle East; despite Washington’s looser rhetoric, both powers are fundamentally conservative about regime change.
- Both want to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state and keep its borders intact at the end of the current civil war. In fact, both powers are invested in the existing Arab state system and do not wish to see the emergence of new states or the redrawing of borders.
But a number of crucial differences separate the two powers:
- While Russia sees Bashar al-Assad as a solid partner, the United States sees him as a long-term strategic threat who cynically allowed jihadis to flourish in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and backed militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
- Russia supports the Iran-Syria alliance and an arc of anti-American regimes and non-state actors from Tehran to the Mediterranean. For obvious reasons the United States sees that alliance as a threat to its hegemony in the region and to the rough alliance of U.S.-allied Arab states.
- Russia and the United States are at loggerheads elsewhere: over the Ukraine, energy supplies to Europe, and the Iranian nuclear program.
- The two powers exhibit vastly different levels of willingness and capacity to fight ISIS.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Russia has much more narrow and easier to fulfill strategic aims: shore up a local client dictator, preserve a military foothold, and dent jihadist capabilities. The United States on the other hand has a wide range of hard-to-reconcile regional aims; and for all its equivocation, Washington’s aim is to stabilize the region. It does not have the luxury and clarity of a spoiler’s agenda.
What Can Russia Actually Achieve?
Much of Washington’s reaction to Russia’s surge has been devoid of context and long-term perspective. Of course, an injection of Russian fighters and equipment will change the dynamics of the fight; but there is no evidence that Russian intervention will have a conclusive impact. By way of comparison, a considerably larger U.S. occupation force in Iraq was unable to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s precursor. And the Soviet Union’s attempt to decisively shore up a local partner against jihadi rebels—in Afghanistan in the 1980s—failed mightily.
Russia and Iran both benefit from an inflated reputation in Syria. Both powers have spent considerable funds and manpower to prop up a regime that has steadily lost ground during four years of war. Betting on the regime has been costly, and Russia’s decision to double down exposes it to still greater risks and costs. It will take time to see whether Russia is engaging in a limited and achievable intervention—striking ISIS while shoring up the regime’s heartland—or a more far-fetched all-out venture to win the war outright for Assad.
Syria’s dynamics are unique, of course, but there is no sound reason to predict Russia can wipe out the anti-Assad rebellion as it now stands. Foreign influence has shaped the Syrian war for years—through the limited impact of previous gambits in Syria by the United States, Iran, and the Arab Gulf monarchies—but has not been able to decide its outcome, underscoring the need for modest Russian expectations.
Russia and Iran together can probably assure that their local partner in Damascus remains in power over some portion of Syria, but it is less clear whether they can re-extend Assad’s ambit beyond the rump state he controls today. It is even less clear what will survive of Syria’s national institutions. And there will surely be blowback. Fighters from Chechnya and other former Soviet republics already are fighting with the Syrian rebels. Their ranks are almost guaranteed to swell now that Russia has publicly upped its ante in Syria.
How Should the United States Respond?
Until now the United States followed a wishy-washy course, typified by the “non-strike event” in the summer of 2013,4 when Washington backed down from its threat to intervene against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.5 Once America abandoned its fixed red lines,6Washington downgraded its already limited leverage over the conflict, while remaining vulnerable to its consequences. Ever since, the major players in Syria have vastly lowered their expectation of any U.S. involvement whatsoever, whether political, economic, or military.
The United States wants Assad gone, but has done little to hasten his fall because the available options to replace him are poor. Washington wants “moderate” rebels, but also does not want to get dragged into a civil war. As a result, it has not given any meaningful support to any militia that has a serious combat presence, and it has not exercised any political or military muscle that would change the balance of power on the ground.
At times, Washington has even appeared to believe that a quagmire in Syria would somehow serve U.S. interests by draining the resources of a gang of bad actors: Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Russia, the money men in the Arabian peninsula, ISIS, and Al Qaeda.7Counterterrorism officials seemed to believe that the threat from ISIS was local, and could be bottled up in the Levant without any blowback beyond Syria’s borders.
All the assumptions underlying American inaction, however, were blown apart by a series of cataclysmic events: the concurrent implosion of Syria and Iraq in 2014 at the hands of ISIS, followed by the entrenchment of a sustainable jihadist empire headquartered in Mosul, and finally a human wave of displaced people remaking the demographics of Syria’s neighbors and flowing through Europe. No matter how hard the U.S. government has tried to contain, cauterize, or ignore the Syria war, its strategic ramifications continue to demand notice.
Putin’s showmanship has once again created a sense of urgency, just as the refugee crisis, the emergence of ISIS, and the use of chemical weapons did in early periods of the war. In response, some analysts and politicians in the United States have focused on the public relations fallout from Russia outmaneuvering Washington.8 In the case of Syria, that image reflects reality. Russia is achieving its admittedly simpler, Machiavellian goals far more successfully than the United States because Russia is far more committed, has dedicated far greater resources, and has a solid ally in power in Damascus.
If, after all the political calculations are made, the United States is unwilling to shoulder the risks of a heavier involvement in Syria, then it must make a clear case that inaction is a safer, smarter, and more responsible course than intervention. It must argue that any greater military involvement would make the human toll worse. And if it decides to pursue inaction and still wants to maintain some semblance of its role as a humanitarian world leader, the United States must also make a serious production of spending money and resources to contain the wider fallout of the conflict in terms of contagion and refugees. Washington has led international donations to the Syrian refugee response and insists it is a priority, but American contributions have been inadequate to address the crisis. United Nations appeals remain massively underfunded, and millions of refugees live without any secure status in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. If the United States decides to limit itself to addressing the humanitarian needs, it must immediately commit to resettling a number of refugees in the six figures, and ought to commit enough money to fully fund the UN’s Syrian refugee appeals.
A better course of action would be to get off the fence and aggressively pursue a plan that promotes an inclusive national solution to the Syrian conflict, one that would address core concerns about governance, corruption, and the disenfranchisement of many Sunnis.
Such a course would be fragile and full of risks, but the alternative is worse: a de facto alliance with Putin, Assad, and Tehran in shaping the future of Syria. In that scenario, the very same parties that drove Syria to collapse and green-lit the unfurling of a massive international jihadi wave would dictate the terms of a counter-jihad, with the United States playing a supporting role. An American junior partnership with Assad and Putin would be bad geopolitics for the United States—and it also would be unlikely to bring peace to Syria.
What would a more effective solution look like? The United States cannot wisely sign onto an anti-ISIS alliance composed solely of Assad, Russia, and Tehran. A genuine anti-ISIS campaign must have support from Syrian Sunnis if it is to have any chance of success. A national coalition backed by all the major non-jihadi players would be the only viable vehicle for fighting ISIS and stabilizing Syria as a whole. It would be a long shot—and it would become a possibility only if the United States decided to provide a significant counterweight to the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran alliance.
That position would entail a serious and major U.S. commitment, including a no-fly zone and safe havens, and partnerships with any non-jihadi militias willing to rhetorically embrace basic values of pluralism and shared governance.
Crucially, this American involvement must be accompanied by a new diplomatic initiative from Washington, inviting all the conflict’s foreign sponsors and all its domestic stakeholders—except for the jihadis—to take part in designing and supporting a transitional government. Assad and his circle would have to be part of that negotiation.
Talking to Putin about Syria will not make America look more ineffectual and disconnected than it already does. On the other hand, there is no reason to start a dialogue unless the White House has something to say. Articulating and putting resources behind a regional strategy to resolve the Syrian problem would be a good opening statement in any conversation with Russia.
1. Dmitri Trenin, “Like It or Not, America and Russia Need to Cooperate in Syria,” Carnegie Moscow Center, September 17, 2015,http://carnegie.ru/2015/09/17/like-it-or-not-america-and-russia-need-to-cooperate-in-syria/ihuf.
2. Thanassis Cambanis, “A Plan for Syria,” The Century Foundation. July 28, 2015, http://tcf.org/work/foreign_policy/detail/a-plan-for-syria.
3. Borzou Daragahi and Max Seddon, “This Is What’s Behind Russia’s Push Into Syria,” BuzzFeed News. September 16, 2015,http://buzzfeed.com/borzoudaragahi/this-is-whats-behind-russias-push-into-syria?utm_term=.hxEzEKAKj5#.am50r2PlPE.
4. Patrice Taddonio, “‘The President Blinked’: Why Obama Changed Course on the ‘Red Line’ in Syria,” Frontline, May 25, 2015,http://pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/obama-at-war/the-president-blinked-why-obama-changed-course-on-the-red-line-in-syria/.
5. Mark Landler and Jonathan Weisman, “Obama Delays Syria Strike to Focus on a Russian Plan,” New York Times, September 10, 2013, http://nytimes.com/2013/09/11/world/middleeast/syrian-chemical-arsenal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
6. Josh Rogin, “Syria Crosses Obama’s New Red Line,” Bloomberg View, March 19, 2015,http://bloombergview.com/articles/2015-03-19/syria-s-chemical-attacks-cross-obama-s-new-red-line.
7. Thanassis Cambanis, “How Do You Say ‘Quagmire’ in Farsi?” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/13/how-do-you-say-quagmire-in-farsi; and Thanassis Cambanis, “Should America let Syria fight on?” Boston Globe, April 7, 2013, https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/04/06/should-america-let-syria-fight/UUtDpctZYyeymgSjgRSBWK/story.html.
8. Jonathan Broder, “Can Putin Save Assad in Syria?” Newsweek, September 16, 2015, http://newsweek.com/russia-syria-isis-putin-obama-assad-372864.
This BBC NewsHour segment features Eugene Rogan and me discussing what would happen if the West tried to partner with Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. Rogan suggests it’s unpalatable option but the only viable way to preserve a Syrian state while curtailing ISIS. I argue that history suggests Western governments would be naive to count on Assad, especially given Assad’s role in catalyzing the collapse of Syria and the rise of ISIS.
Photos: Youmna El-Khattam/Collage: by Nermine El-Sherif
[Published in the Carnegie Reporter. Preview available on Carnegie Corporation website.]
Research on the edge
Even in the early days of Syria’s uprising, it was nearly impossible to do independent research. From early on in the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, which began in 2000, very little leeway was allowed for any work that might challenge the regime. Academics, journalists, political activists, even humanitarian workers were subject to harsh measures of control. The situation worsened after peaceful protests erupted across the country in 2011. Nonviolent activists were imprisoned, exiled, or killed, and armed insurgents took their place. From the start, the conflict restricted movement around the country. Even worse, authorities on the government side and later among rebels wanted to manipulate any research or reporting from their tenuous zones of control. Analysts began to call Syria a “black box,” an unruly place off-limits to credible researchers.
Into this confusion stepped two Syrian-born academics: Omar Dahi, an economist at Hampshire College, and Yasser Munif, a sociologist at Emerson College. They practiced traditional disciplines at reputable research institutions, but they wanted to conduct unconventional research. How were Syrians adapting to the transformation of their society and the disintegration of an old order? Dahi and Munif wanted to bring systematic rigor to studying the experiences of the thousands, eventually millions, of Syrians who were building new modes of self-governance, beyond Assad’s control, or who were adapting to new lives and identities in the maelstrom of exile. They believed they could conduct meaningful social science in the “black box.”
“Most of the research about Syria revolved around geopolitical conflict and strategies, interested in a top-down perspective,” Munif said. “I was interested in the other way around. I wanted to understand participatory democracy, the different ways people were conducting politics after the collapse of the state.”
Like other radical developments that accompanied the Arab uprisings and government backlash, Syria’s crisis demanded sustained scholarly attention. And research in a rapidly evolving war zone, in turn, required support from a flexible and imaginative institution. Dahi and Munif found their backer in the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, a quietly transformative venture that’s been midwifing a network of Arab scholars to more confidently practice a new brand of social science that rises directly from the concerns of a region in turmoil.
Dahi and Munif applied in the fall of 2012 for the first batch of funding offered by the grantmaking organization, known by its acronym, the ACSS. Dahi wanted to study the survival strategies of refugees. By the time his grant had been approved and he began research, the number of refugees had swollen from a few hundred thousand to nearly two million. He partnered with researchers and activists in the region who were devoting much of their time to the urgent needs of resettling refugees and defending their rights. Munif wanted to study the way local people took charge of their own lives and governed themselves. He chose a provincial city called Manbij, in northeastern Syria. By the time he began his field research, government troops had been driven from the city, leaving it in the hands of local civil society groups and rebels.
By 2014, Munif had to interrupt his own work prematurely when Islamic State rebels conquered Manbij. “Without the ACSS, I wouldn’t have been able to do this type of work. They funded the entire project from A to Z,” Munif said. “ACSS is willing to experiment with new types of research, new methodology. With the Arab revolts they are funding some interesting projects that would not get funding from traditional sources.”
Arab social science
It’s worth pausing for a minute to look at the research that came out of Munif and Dahi’s loose collaboration, because it conveys a sense of what a different kind of social science looks like—in the terms of ACSS, a “new paradigm” that addresses questions of concern to people who live in the Middle East and North Africa.
In his work among Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, Dahi identified ways that humanitarian aid manipulated the politics of the refugees, in some cases fostering deeper sectarian division, and in others strengthening a more inclusive kind of citizenship. At the same time, Dahi helped to build an online portal that will serve as a data resource for other scholars. He found many willing collaborators within the active community of regional researchers, advocates, and activists. Munif has already published extensively on the local governance and decision-making structures he discovered in Manbij, and he’s currently working on a book that counters “the dominant narrative about Syria,” which in his view “reduces the Syrian uprising to violence, chaos, and nihilism.”
This project is but one of dozens supported by the ACSS since it set up shop in 2010 with a tiny staff but grand ambitions to foment change in intellectual life in the Arab world. Formally, the Arab Council incorporated in October 2010 but only hired staff and began operations from its Beirut headquarters in August 2012. The experiment is still young, but after two major conferences to present research, two business meetings of its general assembly, and the third cycle of grants underway, ACSS is moving from its organizational infancy into adolescence.
Still, some might see its mission as exceedingly quixotic: to foster a standing network of engaged activist intellectuals who set a critical agenda and use the best tools of social science to address burning contemporary questions. And all this ambition comes against the backdrop of a region governed by despots for whom academic freedom is in the best cases a low priority, and in the worst, anathema. “We’re enabling conversations that hadn’t taken place,” said Seteney Shami, the founding director of the ACSS. “It’s too soon to say how we’ve affected social science production, but we have created new spaces. I think we have made a difference.”
The method is as straightforward as the idea is bold. Solicit proposals, especially from researchers who aren’t already part of well-funded and established networks, or who are working on different questions than the mainstream Western academy, which still dominates the research landscape. Invite researchers (ACSS-funded or not) from the region to join the ACSS as voting members who ultimately control its policies and agenda. See what happens.
Since doling out its first grants in 2013, the ACSS has awarded $1.162 million to 108 people. Its annual budget has grown from $800,000 in 2012 to close to $3 million in 2015. The first round of research has been completed, and voting members of the Council’s general assembly this year elected a new board of trustees. (There are 58 voting members out of a total of 137 in the general assembly, according to Shami.) It’s been a dizzying journey for a small organization that supports a type of research criminalized throughout much of the region.
The founders and original funders were determined to promote regional scholarship. Carnegie Corporation in particular has aimed much of its funding in the region toward local scholars, with the intention of stimulating and enabling local knowledge production. The Arab Council complements a number of other efforts in the region to strengthen research and social science. New universities, think tanks, and research centers are emerging in the Arabian Peninsula. Arab and Western academics have formed partnerships, sometimes individually and sometimes at the level of academic departments or entire universities. The magnitude of the ACSS’s impact will only become clear in the context of a wide web of related ventures—all of them taking shape at a time of enormous change and pressure.
All across the Middle East and North Africa, academic researchers face daunting obstacles. There are bright spots, like the active intellectual communities in the universities in Morocco and Algeria. But some of the oldest intellectual centers, like Egypt, struggle under aggressive security and police forces as well as university leaders whose top concern is to ferret out political dissent. War has disrupted intellectual life in places like Syria and Iraq. Government money has poured into the education sector in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, but the lack of academic freedom has dulled its luster.
“The Council was conceived at a time when repression was high but the red lines were clear,” Shami said, referring to the years before the uprisings, when the ACSS was in its planning phase. The current logistical challenges underscore the difficulty of the changing conditions for researchers in the Arab region. An organization dedicated to free inquiry, the ACSS chose to incorporate in Lebanon, where it could operate without governmental restrictions and draw on a vibrant local academic community. Even that location is an imperfect choice.
Members from Egypt, for example, now face new restrictions when they want to visit Lebanon. So far it’s not impossible for Arab scholars to travel around the region, but it’s getting harder. Lebanon’s excessive red tape has thrown up numerous hurdles. For example, the ACSS is currently seeking special permission from the government of Lebanon to allow its international members to vote online on internal policy questions. Equally important, according to Shami, is that work permits for non-Lebanese people are becoming more difficult to obtain, which makes it challenging for the ACSS to hire staff from different parts of the region.
Many resources other regions take for granted don’t exist in the Arab region, where governments restrict access to even the most mundane archives. Data about everything from the economy to food production to the population is treated as a state secret. Permits are difficult to secure. Until the ACSS compiled one, there wasn’t even a comprehensive list of the existing universities in the region. It was these challenges that the founders of the ACSS had in mind, but by the time the organization incorporated in borrowed space in Beirut, the ground had begun to shift. Tunisia’s popular uprising in December 2010 began years of political upheaval across the region. The horizons of possibility briefly opened up, until the old repressive regimes returned in full force almost everywhere except Tunisia.
“We started off at a moment of heightened expectations about the role social sciences could play in the public sphere,” Shami said. “Now we’re in a situation that is far worse in every possible way. These are all big shocks for a young institution. But so far, so good. People are saying it’s impossible to work, but the evidence is that they’re still producing.”
Everything all at once
The ACSS put a lot of balls into the air from the start. Its founders wanted to create a standing network for scholars from the region and who work in the region. Their goal was to empower new voices, connect them with established academics, and nurture the relationships over a long term. That way, even scholars at out-of-the-way institutions, or smaller countries traditionally ignored by the global academic elite, might get a hearing. The Council also wanted to integrate Balkanized research communities, bringing together scholars who often published and collaborated exclusively in Arabic, English, or French.
Other long-term goals factor into the project’s design. Some of the grant categories, like the working groups and research grants, explicitly aim to change the discourse in academic social science. Others, like the “new paradigms factory,” intend to bring activists and public intellectuals into conversation with academics. The ACSS is a membership organization; each grantee can choose to become a permanent member with voting privileges—a sort of institutional democracy and accountability in action that the Council hopes will filter into other institutions in the region.
Finally, this summer (2015) the Council will publish its first in-house work, the Arab Social Science Report, a comprehensive survey of the existing institutions teaching and doing research in the social sciences in the region. The ACSS has established theArab Social Science Monitor as a permanent observatory of research and training in the region and hopes to produce a new report on a different theme every two years, in keeping with its role as a custodian as well as mentor of the Arab social science community.
The inaugural survey demanded an unexpected amount of sleuthing, said Mohammed A. Bamyeh, the University of Pittsburgh sociologist who was the lead author on the report and helped oversee the team that produced it. In some cases it was impossible to obtain basic data such as the number of faculty at a university or their salaries. “If you call them, they will never tell you,” Bamyeh said. “For some reason, it’s a secret.”
In the end, however, a year’s worth of legwork produced a surprisingly thorough snapshot of social science in the region. Researchers identified many more academics and other researchers than they expected, and a wider range of periodicals and institutions. Freedom of research turned out to be a better predictor of quality than funding did, Bamyeh said. The quality varied widely, but Bamyeh said social science in the region is “mushrooming.” We may not have appreciated this growth because we don’t have an Arab social science community,” he said. “We have a lot of individuals doing individual research but they are not connected to each other.”
Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut, has studied knowledge production in the Arab world and is intimately familiar with the paucity of quality peer-reviewed journals, professional associations, and the unseen scaffolding that supports top-notch research. He was one of the founding members of the ACSS and currently sits on its board, but he is pointed about the bitter challenges impeding research in the region.
“Social science in the Arab world is in crisis,” Hanafi said. “Social sciences are totally delegitimized in the Arab world.” Repressive states wanted only intellectuals they could control, he maintains, so they starved institutions that could produce the large-scale research teams required for any serious, sustained research. The problem has been compounded, Hanafi said, by ideologues and clerics who want to fulfill the role that social science should rightfully play: providing data, assessing policy options, and generating dissent and criticism.
Quality research anywhere in the world depends on money, intellectual resources, and the support of society and the state, according to Hanafi. “In the Arab world, this pact is still very fragile,” he said. “You don’t have a strong trust in the virtue of science.” He hopes that the ACSS can play a part in a wider revival, in which social scientists reclaim their influence and beat back the encroachment from clerics and authoritarian states. “The mission and vocation of social science in this region is to connect itself to society and to decision makers,” Hanafi said. He believes the Arab world needs stronger institutions of its own, including independent universities, governments sincerely committed to funding independent research, and professional associations for researchers. Efforts like the Arab Council can help pave the way.
Participants at the ACSS conferences are encouraged to present and publish in Arabic. The Council also emphasizes the value of its members as a collective network. Pascale Ghazaleh, a historian at the American University of Cairo, said it was “mindblowing” to meet scholars she’d never heard from around the region at the the ACSS annual meeting in Beirut in March 2015. She said she was moved to hear her colleagues discussing their work in their own language. “It was the first time that I’d been surrounded by people who were unselfconsciously using social science terminology in Arabic,” Ghazaleh said. “It’s something to be proud of.”
The language is part of an intentional long-term strategy to anchor the Council and its social science agenda in the region. Although many of its founders have at least one foot in a Western institution, Shami said that “we see ourselves as fully homegrown and firmly based in the region but interacting with the diaspora as well.” The majority of the trustees, for instance, are based in Arab countries.
“It is an ongoing conversation as to who decides the main questions of research for social sciences,” Bamyeh said. “Can there be something like an indigenous social science that has its own methods? It is essential for social sciences in the Arab world to develop a strong sense of their own identity.” As an example he cites an Egyptian sociologist in the 1960s who discovered at the post office a bag of unaddressed letters, most of them containing prayers and pleas for help from the poor written to a popular folk saint. A clerk was about to throw them away. The sociologist took them home and produced a seminal study of Egyptian attitudes and mentality.
That’s the sort of approach that Bamyeh said he hoped to see employed after the Arab revolts. Instead, he was disappointed to find many American sociologists trying to apply existing Western models to the cases of Egypt and Tunisia. “It was an opportunity to acquire new knowledge,” Bamyeh said. “We need an independent Arab social science that feels its own right to ask questions, questions not asked by the European and American academy. It’s not nationalistic, although it might sound that way. It’s really a question of a scientific approach that comes out of a local embeddedness.”
The architects of the ACSS have embraced that quest, encouraging research that springs from local problems, and supporting work from outsiders and nonacademics. In Beirut, the ACSS supported an atypical multidisciplinary research team that explored the misuse of public space and the confiscation of people’s homes. As a result of that research project, Abir Saksouk, an architect and urban planner without an institutional home of her own, launched an ongoing public campaign to save the last major tract of undeveloped coastline in Beirut.
Today she is spearheading one of the most dynamic and visible grassroots social initiatives in Lebanon: the Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche. The Dalieh is the name of the grassy spit of rock that flanks Beirut’s iconic pigeon rocks. Cliff divers used to perform death-defying Acapulco-style style leaps from the Dalieh’s cliffs until last year, when developers suddenly fenced off the last publicly accessible green open space in Beirut. The campaign that Saksouk helped initiate wants to stop the Dalieh from being transformed into a high-end entertainment and residential complex.
“ACSS was a huge push forward,” Saksouk said. It wasn’t the money, she said, so much as the people with whom it connected her. She was mentored by academics, given a platform to publish in Arabic, and introduced to other people thinking about ways to engage with their city. “My activism on the ground informed what I wanted to focus on in my research, and the paper I wrote for the ACSS informed my activism,” Saksouk said.
The Civil Campaign has started a contest, soliciting alternative, public-minded proposals for the Dalieh peninsula. The point, Saksouk said, is to energize a social movement and change the way Beirutis think about their city’s public space. Her research collaborator, Nadine Bekdache, studied the history of evictions, and together the pair explored the concepts of public space and private property. These are theoretical concepts with explosive implications, especially in a place like Beirut where a few powerful families dominate the government as well as the economy.
“A lot of people are sympathetic but don’t think they can change anything,” Saksouk said. “We’re accumulating experiences and knowledge. All this will lead to change.”
Egypt: In the shadows of a police state
In contrast, the clock has turned backward on the prospects for reform and innovation in Egypt, long considered a center of gravity for Arab intellectual life. Egypt has some of the region’s oldest and biggest universities, and historically has generated some of the most important thinking and research in the Arab world. But Egypt’s academy has suffered a long, slow decline as successive dictatorships suppressed academic life, fearing it would breed political dissent.
In the two-year period of openness that began after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, university faculty members won the right to elect their own deans and expel secret police from their position of dominance inside research institutions. Creative research projects proliferated. The ACSS was just one of many players during what turned out to be a short renaissance. A May 2015 U.S. State Department report on Egypt’s political situation found “a series of executive initiatives, new laws, and judicial actions severely restrict freedom of expression and the press, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process.”
At least one well-known the ACSS grant winner, the public intellectual and blogging pioneer Alaa Abdel Fattah, languishes in jail; he was detained before he could complete the paperwork to start his research. Officials even took away his access to pen, paper, and books after his prison letters won a wide following.
Universities have seen a severe decline in academic freedom and some researchers have stopped working or have fled. Outspoken academics like Khaled Fahmy, a historian who has been a critic of military rule and also a spokesman for freer archival access, are waiting out the current turmoil abroad. Political scientist Emad Shahin (who left Egypt and now teaches at Georgetown University) was sentenced to death along with more than a hundred others in May 2015 in a show trial. Some Egypt-based researchers have left since 2013, many grantees remain. The ACSS continues to receive applications from Egypt, and has become all the more vital to that country’s scholars.
Cairo native and historian Alia Mossallam used her research grant to hold an open workshop about writing revolutionary history. As protests roiled the capital, Mossallam quietly organized a workshop that drew 20 people, some from the academic world, some activists, and some professionals and workers who were intrigued by her proposal to study the historiography of “people who are written out of histories of social movements and revolutions.”
Tucked away on an island in the Nile in Upper Egypt, Mossallam’s workshop brought professional historians together with amateur participants. They studied the history of Egyptian folk music and architecture, they looked at archives and newspaper clippings, and then the students used their new skills to produce historical research of their own. Mossallam carefully avoided politics in her open call for workshop participants, but any inquiry into the history of revolution and social movements at Egypt’s present juncture is by nature risky.
Contemporary politics might be a third rail, but in her workshop the Egyptian participants could talk openly about past events like the uprising and burning of Cairo in 1952, or the displacement of Nubians to build the Aswan High Dam. At a time when political speech has been banned, history offers a safer way to talk about revolution. “These workshops are a search for a new language to describe the past as well as the present,” Mossallam said. “Watch out for how you’re being narrated. A lot of the things the participants wrote engaged with that fear, the struggle to maintain a critical consciousness of a revolution while it’s happening.”
Her project wouldn’t have been possible without the Arab Council’s forbearance. The Council encouraged her to find creative ways to engage as wide an audience as possible and gave her extra time to recalibrate her project as conditions in Egypt changed. No other Arab body gives comparable support to Arab scholars, Mossallam said. “They ask, are we asking questions that really matter?” she said. “Are we trying to reach a wider public?”
Can it last?
Sustainability remains an open question. Although the ACSS is registered as a foreign, regional association under Lebanese law and considers itself a regional entity, the organization currently depends on four funders from outside the Arab world for its budget: Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the International Development Research Centre of Canada, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. If at some point in the future those funders turn their attention elsewhere, the ACSS, for all its promise, could quickly reach a dead end. According to Shami, “It’s as sustainable as any other NGO that depends on grants.”
While it’s politically tricky for an Arab institution to take Western money, funds from various regional sources can come with strings attached. Ideally, Shami said, the ACSS would like to find acceptable funding sources from within the region.
The Arab Council’s accelerated launch has attracted wide interest, creating new challenges as the organization matures. “We’ve built up a lot of expectations. People think we have unlimited resources,” Shami said. “We might be coming up against hard times. We might be starting to disappoint people.” Just as important as money is the political structure of the region. Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco remain the only relatively free operating environments for intellectual work in the region, and that freedom is always under threat from militant movements, authoritarian parties, and regional wars.
Deana Arsenian, Carnegie’s vice president for international programs, attended the March 2015 meeting and was impressed by the enthusiasm of the several hundred participants, whose optimism for research far exceeded their expectations for their region’s political future. “The act of creating a network across multiple countries is in and of itself a major feat, given the realities of the region,” Arsenian said. “While it’s a work in progress and many aspects of the association have to be worked out, the interest among the members in making it succeed seems very strong.”
ACSS came at a moment of great change and opening in the Middle East, and was rooted in a region that needs to be heard from. From the beginning the ACSS has intentionally included all those who reside in the Arab region regardless of ethnic or linguistic origins, as well as those in the diaspora. As it moves past the startup phase, the Arab Council’s scholars will have to decide whether their aim is to increase the visibility in the wider world of scholars of the region, or whether it’s to create a parallel universe. It will also have to grapple with its definition: what is an “Arab” council? Shami herself is of Circassian origin, and there are plenty of other non-Arab ethnicities and language groups in the region: Kurds, Berbers, and so on. Many of the early success stories in the ACSS are geographical hybrids, trained by or based at Western institutions, which she points out reflects the global hierarchies of knowledge production.
The Council might also have to refine the scope of work it supports. So far, in the interest of transparency and interdisciplinary research, the ACSS has been very flexible and open to all communities of scholars, knowing that as a result the work of its grantees will be uneven. Another question is whether, once the novelty wears off, the ACSS conference will become a genuine source of scholarly prestige for social scientists. Its second annual conference, in March of this year, attracted four applicants for every presentation slot. Almost nobody who was invited to present dropped out.
Arab Council has already identified a greater breadth of existing scholarship in the region than its founders expected. Over time, it will gauge the quality and rigor of that work. “It’s too early to see the dividends or the fruits, because these fruits depend on how social science is professionalized or institutionalized,” Hanafi said.
Dahi, the economist from Hampshire College who researched Syrian refugees, has stayed involved with the ACSS, helping to organize its second conference this year. Regional research has grown harder, he said, because of the “climate of fear” in places like Egypt and the impossibility of doing any research at all today in most of Syria, Iraq, and Libya. “The carpet is shifting under our feet in ways that academics don’t like,” Dahi said. “Academics like a stable subject to study.”
He believes the Council will face a major test over the next years as it shifts from dispersing grants to pursuing its own research agenda, like other research councils around the world. “The key challenge will be this next step, because you need to create this tradition of quality production of knowledge,” Dahi said. “I’m optimistic. Supply creates its own demand. I don’t believe that in economics, but I do believe it in knowledge production.”
Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
The Arab world can’t feed itself, and that’s how the region’s dictators like it.
“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”
As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.
Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.
Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.
The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets.
So far, the bakeries haven’t run out of loaves in two of the region’s biggest bread battlegrounds, Egypt and Syria. But the sense of plenty is only an illusion. Food is expensive, people are poor, and repressive regimes rely on imported wheat financed through foreign aid. It’s an unsustainable and volatile cocktail.
“You have a system where access to food is a primary mechanism of social control,” said journalist Annia Ciezadlo, author of the book “Day of Honey,” who has written extensively about food subsidies, unrest, and the use of food as a weapon in the Middle East. “The moment something happens to that supply of subsidized food, everything can go out of control.”
THE ARAB UPRISINGS of 2010 and 2011 offered only the most recent glimpse of what it would look like if people got hit where it hurts the most: at the dinner table.
In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt managed a feat that had been considered impossible when he broke with the entire Arab world and initiated a peace process with Israel, even traveling to Jerusalem to address the Knesset. The bread conundrum, on the other hand, proved much more intractable.
Sadat tried in January 1977 to cancel Egypt’s expensive wheat subsidy at the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Riots swept nearly every major city, and in two days Sadat caved. He restored the bread subsidy that has remained in place ever since, and the Egyptian military took control of many crucial bakeries to ensure that the government could control the bread supply in a crisis. That awkward status quo prevails to this day. The government’s bread economy is inefficient, unstable, and nearly entirely dependent on foreign imports. But any attempt to tinker with bread prices or subsidies still terrifies the country’s rulers and enrages its citizens.
Regimes took heed. Hafez al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, extolled peasants in his rhetoric and made food independence a central pillar of his regime. For decades, Syrian officials constantly bragged they didn’t need to import wheat.
Dictators in the Arab world learned that one of the best routes to dominance runs through the bakery. Rulers the world round usually deploy some variant of pocketbook politics, rewarding their loyalists with perks like community centers, jobs, and payola — and punishing opposition areas by scrimping on their basic services like roads and schools. In many Middle Eastern countries, the level of control was more basic: Without the government, citizens would starve.
The brittle, undemocratic regimes had, however, no mechanism of oversight and little resilience to withstand outside shocks. So distant events like a bad crop on the Black Sea or low rainfall in Canada could quickly translate into a political crisis in the Levant or North Africa. In 2008, world food prices spiked, and, once again, bread riots broke out across the Middle East. Regimes scrambled to cover the shortfall with handouts and subsidies, on the assumption that their populations might tolerate repression but not hunger.
Indeed, rising commodity prices were one of the triggers in the 2010 to 2011 uprisings. Protesters in Tunisia brandished baguettes. In Egypt, many of the revolutionary chants talked about food, and a central demand was for “bread, freedom, social justice” (it rhymes in Arabic).
The first Syrians to rise up against Bashar Assad included many poor farmers who had been displaced by drought and the government’s neoliberal disinvestment from agriculture. Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C., argue that a series of droughts in Syria from 2006 to 2010 created the preconditions for the uprisings — crop failures drove farmers off their land and raised the level of desperation until Syrians directly challenged their ruler.
Saudi Arabia’s ultrarich monarchy calculated that it could survive any challenge from political dissidents critical of the country’s lack of rights and freedoms — as long as it could keep its citizens in material comfort. The king quickly increased handouts to citizens, and after a brief rumble, Saudi Arabians sat out the regional wave of protests that swept through nearly every other Arab state.
Yet the obsession with food sovereignty and security remains close to the region’s despots. Saudi Arabia has purchased land in fertile water-rich countries like Ethiopia in order to secure its food supply.
In Syria, unscrupulous combatants on all sides have made food one of the war’s central battlegrounds. The regime blocks delivery of food aid to rebellious regions; its blockade of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus has also kept out truckloads of UN food aid, causing years of famine in the camp. Further afield, the regime routinely bombs bakeries in areas that fall under rebel control, in a method colloquially referred to as “starve-or-surrender.”
The Islamic State, for its part, has made control of the food supply a basic part of its blueprint for power, starting with the bakeries and wheat warehouses, and even facilitating the international aid deliveries that have kept some parts of northern Syria from suffering the same fate as Yarmouk.
THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.
In the Middle East, that means conditions are still ripe for a tempest. “At the end of the day, we can explain the crisis in terms of political economy: corruption, crony networks favored over rural populations. Droughts don’t cause civil war in Los Angeles,” said Woertz, who studies food and security at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, a think tank.
And it can’t be ignored that droughts have been a fact of life in the arid Arab world as long as there has been agriculture, and bread riots on their own have yet to transform a dictatorship into a democracy. That’s because the problem is much larger: People in the Arab world have been kept poorer than they should be by corrupt repressive governments that hog national wealth for a tiny elite. Until that changes, hunger and food insecurity will remain yet another symptom of the region’s terrible governance.
With the Iran nuclear negotiations concluded, attention ought to shift to a political solution for the troubling war in Syria, which has killed about a quarter-million people (estimates range from 230,000 to 320,0001), while displacing 4 million refugees into the Levant and Turkey.2
The United States remains an indispensable source of influence in the Middle East—when it chooses to get involved. It can shift the dynamics of the Syrian civil war by taking two steps. First, Washington should pour a new, higher level of support into the northern front of the civil war, in coordination with key allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Second, it should continue to promote an end to the war through political negotiations that include all the key domestic and international actors in the conflict and exclude only the most extreme jihadist rebels.
A sustained intervention through proxies on Syria’s northern front would be a messy and inconclusive affair, but if carefully tailored, with pragmatic expectations, it could completely shift the political horizon for the Syrian civil war. No foreign intervention can create an idealistic group of democratic, secular rebels ready to take over the entire country of Syria and replace the regime. With international support, however, it is possible to create a coalition of nationalist rebels capable of making gains against both the regime in Damascus and jihadist extremists, including ISIS, the Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. An invigorated nationalist opposition could provide the final incentive needed to bring Syria’s combatants into a productive negotiating process.
The conflict is newly ripe for a diplomatic resolution, requiring only a catalyst. Russia, focused on the Ukraine crisis, would entertain an end to the war that preserved its status quo security interests in the Levant. The political and economic windfall from the nuclear deal in Vienna could prompt Iran to increase its aggressive involvement in Syria,3 but it might simultaneously make Iran more open to discussions of a settlement.4 An insecure and aggrieved Saudi Arabia will need to be wooed, as its leaders are irritated by the prospect of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement.5 Yet, the rise of entrenched jihadis and the civilian bloodletting in Syria is equally troubling for the Saudis.6 Turkey is increasingly facing the risk of a spillover effect from the conflict in Syria, and would benefit from a calming of the crisis along its borders.7
All these factors suggest that a well-designed U.S. initiative, coupled with a concerted push to shift the military balance of power on the northern front, could trigger a genuine effort to negotiate an end to the war in Syria.
Existing Intervention: A Sorry Mess
Currently, the Damascus regime and its Iranian backers have encountered little resistance to their maximalist, often criminal tactics. The regime appears to continue to use chemical weapons with little consequence.8 Its armed forces and semiofficial militias have massacred tens of thousands of civilians by dropping barrel bombs, naval mines, and other indiscriminate explosives on neighborhoods under rebel control.9 Yet, the international community has raised no meaningful objections.
American involvement in Syria has been desultory. More than a year ago, when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) expanded its dominion in Syria and Iraq and captured the city of Mosul, Washington vowed to do something; it would no longer consider the war in Syria a strategically inconsequential problem that could be ignored. But a year later, the United States has lagged on its promise to train and equip Syrian rebels. The latest venture, approved a year ago with a $500 million budget, just sent its first class of recruits into the field in July—a paltry contingent of sixty.10 The Pentagon is hamstrung by its obsession with vetting fighters, and its standards are so impractical and unrealistic that they disqualify most credible commanders. The train-and-equip program is further hampered by the insistence that its graduates only fight Islamist jihadists rather than the regime in Damascus.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has not even decided what kind of support to give to the soldiers it has dispatched into northern Syria under the latest iteration of train-and-equip. “I think we have some obligations to them once they are inserted in the field,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told a congressional committee. “They know that we will provide support to them.” But he could not specify what that support would entail: “We have not told them yet,” Carter said the week the newly trained fighters were deployed.11
The U.S. air campaign against ISIS has struck limited targets. With few trusted local proxies on the ground, the U.S. Air Force can have only minimal impact. For now, the only local proxy with fighters on the ground that can regularly ask for U.S. air strikes is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).12 The YPG has successfully taken some territory from ISIS, but is anathema to Turkey. Whenever the YPG is too successful, as in June when it captured the border crossing of Tal Abyad between Turkey and Syria,13 the Turks become alarmed and resentful. Ankara considers the YPG as indistinguishable from the PKK, militant Kurdish separatists who have waged an on-again off-again violent campaign in Turkey. The Turkish government will never support an anti-ISIS or anti-Assad campaign dominated by the YPG Kurds.
Meanwhile, as U.S. efforts have floundered, ISIS continues to deepen its state structures, military capacity, and territorial control, and it looks more like an established entity with each passing day.14
With all this bad news and so many unreliable partners on the ground, it’s no wonder that President Obama has kept his distance. Rebels willing to do business with the CIA, DOD and other government agencies have proven a mixed bag. In 2014, for instance, the United States invested considerable resources in Jamal Maarouf’s secular nationalist Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), which then took control of much of Idlib province. U.S. involvement initially was viewed as a success; a modest amount of money, along with anti-tank missiles, had shifted the battle in favor of “moderate” rebels. In practice, the rebels proved not so moderate, and the success was short lived. The SRF’s governance of Idlib was capricious and riddled with corruption. Civilians in Idlib came to resent the inconsistency and predatory abuses of their liberators. The province suffered punishing regime air strikes, as do all areas liberated by rebels. Eventually, Islamists took over the province and roundly defeated the SRF, which then collapsed.15
Today, the liberated areas of Idlib province are controlled mostly by the Nusra Front (Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate), and Ahrar el-Sham, a jihadi group that has won plaudits for being more homegrown and nationalist than ISIS and Nusra, but which in practice shares their extreme views, which are incompatible with a pluralistic or secular state. The areas of Idlib province controlled by secular nationalists under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) survive as timid oases of relative moderation. FSA commanders interviewed in Reyhanli said they do not even try to control local governance, the economy, or social services (as Islamist militias do in their domains), and they admit that they must surrender some share of their resources and weapons to the Islamists who control the FSA’s access to Idlib. They rely on the black market for fuel, sometimes indirectly buying the diesel for their tanks and vehicles from ISIS.
The good news is that there are still plenty of commanders willing to fight under the banner of the FSA, do business with the United States, and espouse political principles and talking points that make them palatable to mainstream Syrians. A recent visit to the Turkish-Syrian border showed a growing group of commanders who control boots on the ground, have a nationalist, rather than Islamist style, and have demonstrated an ability to learn politically.
“At the end we will support any government that gives all Syrians their rights,” Colonel Fares Bayyoush, an army defector who commands an FSA brigade in Idlib province, said in an interview at his headquarters in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. “From our side, we are going to behave like Syrians. . .If we in the FSA get power, we will protect coexistence.” Half a dozen FSA commanders interviewed in Reyhanli and Gaziantep voiced the same refrain: they want a resolution to the Syrian war that protects all sects and ethnicities, and they want to eliminate the jihadist groups while reintegrating their supporters into society. They have demonstrated a history of coordinating military operations with Kurds and with Islamist fighters. They express a willingness to negotiate with elements of the regime, and they claim to include Christians, Druze and Alawites among the ranks of their fighters.
Much of this sentiment is probably tailored for Western consumption, but it also marks a considerable shift compared to a year ago. Interviews in the same border towns with the same groups in the summer of 2014 had revealed a propensity for grandstanding, Sunni triumphalism, and petulant demands that the U.S. military intervene directly and win the war for the opposition. Today, the same commanders have learned a new political language. The rhetoric of rights and national unity in the hands of pragmatic fighters signals the beginnings of a national accord that could lead Syria out of its fratricidal war.
So long as the United States is looking for a functional alliance and not for idealized founding fathers, it can find what it needs to shift the Syrian dynamic among the grab-bag of Syrian nationalists clamoring for American money and weapons on the northern front.
The framework for forming this alliance already exists. The United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other aligned players dispense military aid and cash to their preferred rebels through coordinating bodies—known colloquially among fighters as “military operations rooms”—in Reyhanli, Turkey and Aleppo, Syria. Some powers are believed also to fund favored proxies independently on the sly, but the operations rooms were founded with the stated goal of streamlining and unifying the funding of anti-Assad rebels.
And there is evidence to support this approach. Whenever the major outside powers work together to direct their weapons, funding, and intelligence in tandem, there are considerable gains on the ground as witnessed in the regime losses in Idlib and Aleppo provinces over the last year.16 When foreign powers work at loggerheads, fractiousness increases, along with infighting within and between the nationalist FSA, the Islamists, the Kurds, and the regime.
Changing the Dynamic on the Ground
The groups seeking aid through the operations rooms have proven their elasticity. Some, like the Noureddin Zinki Brigades, temporarily lost American backing when some of their weapons ended up in the hands of jihadists.17 Much of this leakage is unavoidable. For example, in Idlib province, the secular nationalist FSA brigades desperate to keep American support still operate at the pleasure of the militarily dominant Islamists.
This is a dynamic that the United States can change. First, it must make some tough choices in tandem with key allies: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and perhaps other regional players such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. There are at least a dozen rebel groups well known to foreign governments. The foreign backers of the anti-Assad forces must agree on a small number of commanders and groups acceptable to all
Perfection will be the enemy of progress. None of the FSA militias are ideal, but most of them have nationalist roots and agree on the key points that inform long-term U.S. goals: preservation of Syria’s borders, a pluralistic state that safeguards the rights of all ethnic and sectarian communities, and an end to foreign domination of the state. Saudi Arabia will dislike Muslim Brotherhood militias. Turkey will prefer groups with a Sunni Islamic flavor and will seek to minimize the role of the Kurdish YPG militias. The United States will want a commander who pays lip service to America’s political vision for Syria. These lowest-common denominator characteristics can be found in a single militia.
The nationalist groups whose long term goal is to hold power in Syria also have come to understand that it’s not feasible to massacre members of minority groups, dictate terms to foreign powers, or transform Syria into an Islamic republic. A year ago, many FSA commanders interviewed in the border region were not willing to openly espouse nationalist political goal, or did not understand the type of political language that would enable them to win international support. Today, many of them have learned an entirely new vocabulary. FSA battalions have united in a coherent communications structure, which is ripe for sustained international backing.
An effective strategy would have to follow a long-term plan that includes, at a minimum, the following elements:
1. Coordinated backing of a single commander, or small number of commanders. The United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia would have to direct their resources in harmony to selected groups and exclude funding and weapons for all others. As has occurred throughout the Syrian conflict whenever funding shifted, fighters would abandon atrophying brigades and join the well-funded and well-armed groups.
2. Effective governance of rebel areas. The foreign backers, led by the United States, would have to keep their proxies on a short leash, forcing rather than trusting them to behave well. That means long-term funding and arming that is dispensed in weekly bursts and carefully monitored. If a proxy group mistreats minorities, or engages in black market fuel trade, or extorts money from civilians, it will forfeit its weekly cash payment. The United States and others will also have to send huge amounts of nonmilitary aid to enable effective governance in liberated areas, which would require a full buy-in from Turkey.
3. Security in liberated areas. Unless liberated areas are safe for civilians, the regime will win even when it loses. There are many options, but all of them require an end to the Damascus regime’s unfettered control of Syria’s airspace. Curtailing the Syrian regime’s sovereignty would entail a significant change in U.S. commitment, which will require a change of position by the White House and political legwork domestically to win approval. The most maximal option is a no-fly zone supported by the United States and Turkey. In a less dramatic move, the United States could back a no-fly zone enforced by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. It could politically support a middle option whereby Turkey would shoot down regime bombers and helicopters using land-based systems in Turkey. Or, at the most minimal, international teams of special forces (from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey or the United States) could sporadically shoot down regime bombers using portable surface-to-air missiles. This last option would introduce enough risk and uncertainty for the regime that it would be forced to reduce its indiscriminate bombing. One reasonable objection is that most liberated areas are currently controlled by Islamist extremists: Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra, and ISIS. The United States understandably does not want to be seen acting as Al Qaeda’s air force, which is why it’s crucial that air cover evolves in tandem with backing for nationalist, non-jihadi rebels. Air cover and an internationally backed safe zone should be extended as a start over any area held by non-jihadi rebels.
4. Shifting the political and military balance of power. Gains by nationalist rebels would weaken the Islamists (ISIS, Nusra, and Ahrar) and would also weaken the regime. It is crucial that nationalist rebels, backed by the United States and others, win support and trust from fence-sitters, tribes, and rural religious Sunni Arabs who currently tilt toward Islamist groups or the regime. The U.S.-backed rebels would have to avoid sectarian massacres or Sunni triumphalism. They would have to continue showing an ability to work with all Syrian sects and ethnicities and continue espousing a commitment to a secular nationalist governing ideology that preserves Syria’s territorial integrity and opposes Islamist extremists. Such a position would make the rebels palatable to mainstream Syrians as well as to political actors with whom the opposition will ultimately have to reconcile in a negotiated settlement: quiescent members of the business class from every ethnic and sectarian background, the ruling elite, and its international backers.
5. A peace process. U.S.-orchestrated intervention on Syria’s northern front can feed a process of negotiating a political settlement. Rebels cannot win outright; neither can the regime or the Islamists. But a consolidated front of nationalist rebels can make peace with a subset of the regime and begin the arduous process of reconstituting the Syrian state. For a new strategy to succeed, the United States would have to regularly renew its invitation and commitment to support an inclusive political negotiating process to end the war.
A Long Haul
The United States has been mysteriously AWOL in Syria, even since “declaring war on ISIS” a year ago and undertaking a desultory bombing campaign. Now, with the peril of Iran’s nuclear program apparently contained, the United States ought to ramp up its diplomatic and indirect military engagement in Syria, with the intention of forcing a fair political settlement.
A concerted and sustained U.S.-orchestrated campaign to empower one faction of nationalist rebels could do wonders to change the dynamics of the fitful negotiations to resolve the Syrian civil war. There’s nothing the United States could do to make the anti-Assad rebels win, even if it wanted to. But by placing its thumb on the scale with a vigor that it has so far avoided, the United States could propel its preferred faction to dominance within the fractured milieu of anti-Assad forces.
The United States could alter the dynamic of the war and the position of key outside sponsors of the conflict—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—with a sustained political and military commitment to nationalist rebels who express a commitment to a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian Syria within its current borders and based on an inclusive definition of citizenship.
Such a partnership is feasible, so long as it has realistic aims: not to win the war for one faction or hope to eliminate jihadist extremists overnight, but to make all parties to the civil war realize that a political compromise will leave them better off than a continued war.
The mechanics are clear. First, the United States must acknowledge that a resolution in Syria will require the involvement of all the parties to the conflict, including Washington’s unsavory allies and its persistent rivals. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey will have to be at the negotiating table. So will some unseemly Islamist rebel factions. Any party excluded from negotiations, like ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, must be instead roundly defeated with military force. It is not possible to ignore the extremist groups and yet concede them the territory under their control.
Any new approach could still take years to change the overall direction of Syria’s war. A shift in the U.S. approach to the northern front would require considerable diplomatic work with Turkey and Arab allies. But a pragmatic plan could get the key players onside and frame the goals for the conflict in a more realistic way. Nothing will change as long as each group of combatants thinks it can achieve total victory. But the political dynamics will change as the balance of power on the ground shifts, and the only proven force that has affected the course of the conflict to date has been the sustained flow of money, weapons, and foreign political attention.
At worst, the United States will fail to persuade all its allies to fully cooperate with the strategy and will end up with a few tighter partnerships among the rebels, but no major strategic yield. At best, the United States will convince the other sponsors of the Syrian conflict that they no longer have free access to run killing fields and that they will have to pay a much higher price to stick with the status quo—or else will have to look for political compromises.
1 Estimates from the United Nations and Western news agencies place the minimum death toll at 230,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates a minimum death toll of 320,000.
2 In addition to the 4 million refugees who have fled Syria, nearly 8 million internally displaced people have been forced from their homes but still live in the country. See Nick Cummings-Bruce, “Number of Syrian Refugees Climbs to More Than 4 Million,” New York Times, July 9, 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/09/world/middleeast/number-of-syrian-refugees-climbs-to-more-than-4-million.html?_r=0.
3 Sean D. Naylor, “Will Curbing Iran’s Nuclear Threat Boost Its Proxies?” Foreign Policy, July 20, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/20/will-curbing-irans-nuclear-threat-boost-its-proxies/.
4 Jessica Schulberg, “Obama: No End to War in Syria Without ‘Buy-In’ From Iran,” Huffington Post, July 20, 2015,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/15/obama-iran-deal_n_7802768.html.
5 Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand,” Foreign Policy, May 12, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/12/its-time-to-stop-holding-saudi-arabias-hand-gcc-summit-camp-david/.
6 David Gardner, “The Toxic Rivalry of Saudi Arabia and ISIS,” Financial Times, July 16, 2015, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/8bba2ab4-2b00-11e5-8613-e7aedbb7bdb7.html#axzz3gdqpeelg.
7 Semih Idiz, “Turkey Needs to Drop Its Dead-End Foreign Policy,” Al-Monitor, July 21, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/07/turkey-west-european-union-us-time-to-readjust-compass.html.
8 Adam Entous, “Assad Chemical Threat Mounts,” Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/assad-chemical-threat-mounts-1435535977.
9 Lucy Westcott, “United Nations: Assad’s Barrel Bombs Continue to Kill Syrian Civilians,” Newsweek, June 27, 2015,http://www.newsweek.com/united-nations-assads-barrel-bombs-continue-kill-syrian-civilians-347782.
10 Jennifer Rizzo, “Carter: U.S. Trains Only 60 Syrian Rebels,” CNN, July 7, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/07/politics/united-states-training-syrian-rebels-ashton-carter/.
11 See Roy Gutman, “First contingent of U.S.-trained fighters enters Syria,” McClatchy, July 16, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article27446395.html, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Syrian rebels get their first U.S.-trained fighters,” Washington Post, July 15, 2015,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/first-us-trained-syrian-fighters-reenter-their-country/2015/07/15/6e6c0551-353d-4e17-961b-98995321576c_story.html.
12 See Denise Natali, “The Coalition’s quagmire with Syrian Kurds,” Al Monitor, July 14, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/07/coalition-quagmire-syrian-kurds.html#. See also Roy Gutman, “U.S Moves Its Syrian Air Campaign to the West,” McClatchy, June 30, 2015, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article25909303.html.
13 Thomas Seibert, “ISIS is Losing in Northern Syria, but Ankara is Unhappy,” Daily Beast, June 16, 2015,http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/16/isis-is-losing-in-northern-syria-but-ankara-is-unhappy.html.
14Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as a Tool” New York Times, July 21, 2015,http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/world/middleeast/isis-transforming-into-functioning-state-that-uses-terror-as-tool.html.
15 See Liz Sly, “U.S.-backed Syria rebels routed by fighters linked to al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, November 2, 2014,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-backed-syria-rebels-routed-by-fighters-linked-to-al-qaeda/2014/11/02/7a8b1351-8fb7-4f7e-a477-66ec0a0aaf34_story.html. Zack Beauchamp, “American strategy in Syria is collapsing,” Vox, November 4, 2014,http://www.vox.com/2014/11/4/7150473/american-strategy-in-syria-is-collapsing. A similar collapse struck another U.S. favorite, the Hazm movement; see Ian Black, “US Syria policy in tatters after favoured ‘moderate’ rebels disband,” Guardian, March 2, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/02/us-syria-policy-tatters-moderate-rebels-disband.
16 Firas abi Ali, “Syrian Opposition Success in Idlib Province Likely to Threaten Aleppo, Latakia, and Assad’s Hold on Power,” IHS Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, April 27, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/51012/syrian-opposition-success-in-idlib-province-likely-to-threaten-aleppo-latakia-and-assad-s-hold-on-power.
17 Author interview with Noureddin Zinki Brigades official, Antakya, Turkey, June 2015.