Civilians inspected a burnt car after an airstrike in the rebel-controlled city of Idlib on Wednesday. Photo: AMMAR ABDULLAH/REUTERS
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
SYRIA HAS BROKEN down much worse than anyone expected. For more than five years, a wide and mostly unsavory cast of Syrians and foreigners has been going for broke fighting over the pivotal Levantine state — settling for massive amounts of human suffering and breakdown of order in the short term while gambling on total victory in the long term.
A quick inventory beggars the mind: hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, the rise of the nihilistic jihadi Islamic State, a refugee crisis that has fractured the European Union, violence and instability across most of the Middle East, a superpower standoff between Russia and the United States, and finally, the teetering of the entire Arab state system.
That’s just the major items on the list.
The Arab state system’s collapse today threatens basic order and livelihood in many areas, including war-torn Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. It also has corroded the European Union, with an immigration crisis that has strained Turkey’s relations with the bloc and fueled a climate so toxic that it has spurred British voters to quit the European project.
The war’s consequences and scope appeared dramatically different from a few short years ago. Previously, Washington thought that Syria’s crisis would have limited consequences, no matter how terrible for the country’s citizens. President Obama staked his position on a well-intentioned read of recent history. After America’s failed Iraqi policy and ineffective regional intervention, the president reasoned that the United States could at least do less harm, for if Syria was going to be ripped apart, let others be to blame.
In the early years of Syria’s war, analysts and politicians who claimed the Levant was more important than the White House realized were dismissed as credulous rebel partisans or knee-jerk interventionists. Today the consequences of Syria’s meltdown have proven even more far-reaching than almost anyone predicted in 2011.
MILITARY ESCALATION IN Syria today is the best of a set of bad options. Even dissidents in the US Department of State have gone public with their desire for it. The United States is already deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and has declared its desire to use force and humanitarian aid to promote a political solution to the conflict. The idea is sound but requires a greater commitment — a final chance to do better, with some of Syria’s infrastructure and institutions still intact, Turkey undergoing a regional realignment, and with interventionists in Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah reassessing their own goals with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The only intransigent parties, in fact, are Assad and the Islamic State — neither of whom is likely to be part of any political solution in Syria.
For the United States, the question is profoundly unsettling — how is it possible to do the right thing in a conflict this messy? Indeed, it might already be too late to save Syria. But if no one tries, more catastrophic outcomes are all but guaranteed: the full collapse of Iraq and Syria, the long-term enshrinement of the Islamic State, an acceleration of the regional war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a wave of state implosions around the entire Arab world that will resonate for generations.
In Washington, the debate has tended to break along two lines — extreme isolationists, who think the United States can only do harm by getting more involved, and extreme interventionists, who’d like to see the Pentagon invade. White House policy has actually straddled the divide, dedicating considerable resources to managing the conflict but claiming that it can’t do more. The United States has deemed Syria’s survival important but not so important as to be classified a core national interest.
The time has come, however, to admit that the policy hasn’t achieved its aims. At this stage, probably, no course correction will be able to restore Syria to its pre-war level of development and unity. But the fallout from Syria has proven that the integrity of the Arab state system, as flawed as it is, is a vital interest for the United States as well as for the denizens of the Middle East and their neighbors.
So, help Syria’s neighbors staunch the bleeding or intervene more actively in the conflict? It’s a painful question, especially in light of the historical destruction that the United States wrought with its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the cavalierly mismanaged military occupation.
Escalation appears to be plagued by a range of dangerous and risky options. (A study I recently conducted for The Century Foundation explores America’s choices in detail.) The United States has the power to end the Assad government’s indiscriminate use of air power to drop barrel bombs on civilians and make life impossible in rebel-held areas. With occasional retribution against government air assets and targets, it can raise the cost of tactics that are also war crimes. It can also use military assets to directly protect its vetted armed proxies, so they can more effectively fight the Syrian government and the Islamic State, and gain stature within the non-jihadi armed opposition.
After years of eyeing the United States, America’s rivals have assessed that Obama would stay out of Syria. They probably think the same today, given that the president has only a few more months in office. As a result, Syria has become a wild playground for the militaristic excesses of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the pivotal supporters of Assad’s government. These powers have opportunistically taken advantage of a void left by the United States, which has continued to intervene in the Syrian conflict but at a low ebb.
But a reinvigorated American role in the conflict would, paradoxically, make a political solution more likely once it became clear that Assad could never win outright. The greater chance of a political solution would not only save lives but also reestablish American stewardship of a world order that punishes war crimes, values civilians lives, and promotes rights, good governance, and open societies.
Unfortunately, a more robust American intervention would also bring the United States face to face with an expansionist Russia and Iran. Washington would have to use its military force with considerable skill and restraint in order to check these belligerent powers without being drawn into direct conflict. Fortunately, the US military has the technical capacity and experience to tilt the balance in Syria’s war without become a central party in the fight, and the last five years of conflict show that for all its bluster, the pro-Assad alliance has always carefully watched the United States and calibrated its war crimes and expansionist campaigns in line with its perception of what Washington will tolerate.
Left unchecked, Syria’s war will continue for another five to 10 years at least, with a full breakdown of the remaining national order. Syria will become a patchwork of villages ruled by competing warlords, without national institutions to govern and provide services. It will continue to export human suffering, refugees, and virulent ideologies like sectarianism and the Islamic State’s version of takfiri jihad.
The alternative — a US military intervention in Syria — is neither clean nor neat. With its local and regional partners, the United States would save some civilian lives and force some restraint onto the government side, perhaps reducing its worst war crimes. It would raise from zero to maybe 30 percent the chance of a negotiated settlement. It would also raise tensions between the United States and Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
Perhaps most importantly, however, military intervention would show allies and rivals in the region that the United States still takes seriously its responsibilities as the single most dominant world power. By escalating in Syria, the United States would lay down a marker that Washington sees an interest in the Middle East and in a global order that stops rogue governments like Assad’s. Unless it wants to be seen as a force for entropy, state breakup, and fragmentation, Washington needs to put is muscle behind the goal of national coexistence, starting in Syria, where it should do what it can at this late stage to preserve a unitary state that grants equal rights to citizens of different sects and ethnicities.
President Obama tried to steer a middle course, backing away from direct intervention, despite initially drawing a red line if Assad used chemical weapons. While seemingly every country with a finger in the Middle East has funneled weapons, trainers, or fighters into Syria, the United States has spent billions of dollars on humanitarian aid and has provided just enough military assistance to the armed opposition to prevent it from being wiped out. But it has studiously avoided any action that would topple Assad.
Nearly a year ago, in September, Russia stepped into the void with a major military campaign to help Assad reclaim territory he had lost. Even Russia’s massive aid has failed to restore the regime’s position from a few years earlier, despite indiscriminate bombing of civilians in rebel-held areas and a systematic campaign to destroy hospitals, clinics, and other key infrastructure.
Furthermore, the United Nations has strained under the pressure of the Syria conflict, which officials describe as the greatest challenge in the UN’s history. UN officials have chosen to partner with Assad’s government, allowing it to block access to areas inhabited by rebel supporters. As a result, the supposedly impartial UN has become party to starvation and siege tactics employed by the government to force rebel communities to surrender.
Even with a history of failure and seemingly endless complications of future engagement, America can still positively shape the situation. It’s time for more action — humanitarian, military, and political — in order to reduce the catastrophic human toll, contain the strategic fallout, and reduce the chance of Syria becoming a fully failed state.
If we stay on the same course, Syria is guaranteed to collapse with even more of the toxic consequences we’re already suffering — the Islamic State, refugee flows, violence spreading into neighboring countries that are allies. It might already be too late to prevent a full meltdown, but if the United States doesn’t try to stave off the collapse, a vacuum is guaranteed.
The United States can do more to achieve a political settlement—invasion and containment aren’t the only options.
• In its sixth year of war, Syria has reached a breaking point. Soon its remaining institutions will collapse and Syria will be a failed state. The United States has pushed hard for a diplomatic solution and intervened militarily on the side of rebel groups, but stopped short of action that could shift the conflict’s momentum. Meanwhile, Russia has intervened decisively on the Syrian government’s side.
• The human toll of the war has been catastrophic. Nearly half a million people have been killed and half the country’s population displaced, including 5 million refugees. War crimes are endemic. Civilians routinely suffer starvation, sieges, torture, extrajudicial detention and indiscriminate bombardment.
• Preserving Syria is a vital national security interest for the United States. If it doesn’t do more now, America and its allies will suffer even more of the consequences of an imploded state in the heart of the Middle East: jihadi attacks from the Islamic State and its ilk, a global refugee crisis, and violent militancy seeping deeper into every country on Syria’s borders.
• A robust U.S. intervention would expand Washington’s existing approach, which integrates humanitarian aid, diplomacy and military force, but needs much more of each to succeed. Washington should use military force to protect vetted opposition groups and curtail war crimes committed by the government in Damascus.
• Now might present a final opportunity. Russia and the United States have a rare overlap of interests. Syria’s war won’t have any neat outcomes; this conflict can only be managed, not won. A robust intervention will not bring an immediate end to the war, but could set the stage for an eventual political settlement.
• A forceful U.S. escalation now can preserve American interests and credibility and curb the worst excesses of the current violence, giving Syria a fighting chance of emerging from its civil war with intact institutions and a government that can represent every major group.
Kobani, Syria. Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
[Published in The New York Times Sunday Review.]
BEIRUT, Lebanon — NOOR, who is a commander in a pro-government militia near Damascus, thinks that President Bashar al-Assad will prevail in Syria’s civil war. But even so, he thinks it will take his country a generation to recover. “After we finish this war, we’ll spend another 10 years cleaning up the thugs and warlords on our own side,” he told me when I met him in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, in an apartment overlooking a highway where rebels and government forces clash nightly.
That was last fall, shortly after Russia began bombing in support of the government. This infusion of firepower changed the course of the conflict. After years of stalemate, Syria’s civil war became unstuck. But that hasn’t made it ready for settlement.
Negotiations over Syria’s future restarted in Geneva last week amid cautious optimism that the regime and the opposition may finally be ready to discuss a deal. Russian and American diplomats are talking about shared goals, and both countries finally seem willing to strong-arm their clients to the table. Opposition groups and their sponsors say they have achieved levels of unity that will enable them to force concessions from the government, and for the first time they have admitted in public that they’re willing to work with some regime figures.
But all of this misses the central point: Syria, one of the most important states in the Arab world, has cracked up, and no peace settlement can put it back together.
Despite talk of a “regime” and “opposition,” Syria today is a mosaic of tiny fiefs. The government has ceded control of stretches of land to Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Its opponents range from the apocalyptic Islamic State to a coterie of tiny insurgent groups led by local warlords reliant on foreign donors. On all sides of the conflict, warlords mark territory with armed checkpoints. These low-level bosses have tasted power; it’s hard to imagine they will readily submit to any national government.
The collapse of Syria poses a huge threat to Middle Eastern stability. For good and for ill, Syria has been a major player in the Arab world since World War II. It often acted as spoiler, string-puller or savior in the conflicts that ravaged its neighbors. It was a major player among the dizzying cast of foreign powers that intervened in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, and brought that conflict to an end with an outright occupation blessed by the United States.
Without Damascus, a rogue’s gallery of militant movements might never have survived. Hezbollah grew into a powerful regional actor with sustained aid from Syria. Hamas’s leaders weathered lean years in exile in Damascus. Many groups labeled terrorists by Western governments found refuge in Syria. The Assad government’s patronage of Iraqi rebels helped fuel the uprising against the American occupation, and provided crucial early support to radicals who today lead the Islamic State.
And yet, for all these destabilizing moves, Syria was a coherent focal point in a region short on leaders who could deal and deliver. On occasion, even the United States and Israel enjoyed close collaboration with Damascus.
Now, Syria seems destined to influence the region not as a puppet-master but as a black hole. Syria’s war already has spawned chaos, from the millions of refugees seeking safety beyond the country’s borders to the rise of the Islamic State and the tremendous traffic in weapons and cash to militants.
The next chapter could be even worse. Even if some fraction of the opposition can reach an accord with the government, the area they could try to rule would amount to a rump state. The nation’s industrial heartland and most populous city, Aleppo, has been almost completely destroyed. Before the war, Syria’s manufacturing economy, education and health systems all functioned well by regional standards; they are unlikely to recover. The postwar landscape will probably play host to extremists, entrepreneurs of violence and widespread graft.
So why does anyone have hope for the talks in Geneva?
One reason is superpower politics. Russia and the United States are looking for ways to calm tensions, and diplomats from both countries believe an accord could lead to progress on issues they consider more important, like Ukraine. Another critical factor is exhaustion: Iran and Hezbollah backed the regime for years but, without Russia’s assistance, were unable to help it hold ground, much less win. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States, the main sponsors of the opposition, have pulled back support whenever their proxies have surged, perhaps unsure that they’ll behave responsibly if they win power.
Syria’s civilians are desperate. The ranks of fighters are dwindling, especially on the government side. None of the parties have given up hope of outright victory, but an increasing number of rebels and midlevel government supporters acknowledge that they will either have to settle for a divided country or join forces with their sworn enemies. Some of the rebel commanders I interviewed in March said they believed the war had entered an endgame, but that it would take at least a few more years of fighting before serious negotiating would begin. Until now, none of the players have taken peace talks seriously.
Russia and America’s renewed engagement has drawn the notice of negotiators, but that means only that they believe they might be embarking on a real process — not that they expect a result soon. That rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia and the United States, will see eye to eye on a brokered deal to end the war is a long shot. But the idea that they would work together to prevent Syria’s continued decay into a zone of violence is an even longer one.
For now, Mr. Assad’s negotiators still consider the rebels “terrorists,” while the opposition insists that Mr. Assad, “the disease that struck Syria,” must step aside immediately. The state over whose fate they’re haggling, however, appears beyond salvaging.
[Originally published in Foreign Policy.]
ISKENDERUN, Turkey — The militia commander, a barrel-bodied man who hulks over his soldiers and playfully hurls epithets, was beaming. It was as if getting run out of his home base by al Qaeda was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Col. Ahmed Saoud, head of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Division 13, knelt in the antechamber of an underground infirmary in the Turkish port city of Iskenderun. But his mind was very much still back home as he calmly dictated orders to a deputy in Syria.
“My sheikh, you will make sure that tomorrow’s demonstration was bigger than today’s. Each day we will make them bigger,” Saoud instructed Sheikh Khaled, who had just been released after three days of detention by the Nusra Front, Syria’s powerful al Qaeda affiliate.
“God willing we’ll be back in a week and those animals, those donkeys from al Qaeda, will never return,” he declared.
For the past two weeks, the small rebel-controlled town in Idlib province has become the central battleground in a pitched power struggle between al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army, a confederation of nationalist militias that draws support from Western governments. It all began when Nusra Front fighters shut down a nationalist protest on March 11 – an act that escalated into full-blown clashes with Division 13, which al Qaeda eventually forced out of the town.
While the military confrontation is over for now, Saoud’s supporters in Maarat al-Nu’man are harnessing their public support in defiance of the dominant Nusra Front. FSA supporters have organized escalating protests of the town’s men and women against al Qaeda, sparking such anger at the jihadist group’s abuses that Nusra was forced to withdraw, at least temporarily. A religious court is deciding when and if either side can return. The fight is less about territory and military strength, where the Nusra Front still has a clear upper hand, than it is about legitimacy, popularity, and propaganda.
The FSA is gambling that it can leverage the popular backlash against the Nusra Front that followed the clash in Maarat al-Nu’man to argue that a popular nationalist revolution survives. For supporters of Syria’s original non-violent nationalist uprising, the entire project of fixing Syria is at stake. If the ragged coalition of activists and nationalist rebels who cooperate under the brand of the Free Syrian Army collapses, they say, Syria will be left with a bitter choice between two murderous and sectarian alternatives: Bashar al-Assad’s regime or Islamic fundamentalists.
Jihadists may have fared better on the battlefield because of their bigger budgets and unscrupulous tactics, FSA commanders claim, but they have failed to win the hearts and minds of liberated Syria’s civilians.
“How can they build their emirate if the people don’t want them?” Saoud asked.“When they see people waving our flag, it makes them crazy. Now Nusra is revealing itself, and its popularity is collapsing.”
In interviews at rebel safe houses and command posts in southern Turkey, FSA commanders and activists from across northern Syria said they believe that the current lull in fighting might represent the nationalist opposition’s last solid chance to take back momentum from the jihadists, who for several years have been the dominant force in the armed struggle against the Syrian government. Jihadist groups are better financed, better armed, and have been consolidating their command structures for years, while the fragmented patchwork of FSA factions has lost ground.
Russia has scaled back its military operations after a six-month campaign, and most of the non-jihadist rebel groups have stuck to a cease-fire with the government, allowing both sides to regroup while half-hearted negotiations take place in Geneva. The Nusra Front is not party to the cease-fire.
The partial cease-fire has also allowed for the resurgence of non-violent protest in rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Free from the constant threat of barrel bombs, artillery shells, and airstrikes, Syrians returned to the street to chant against Assad. In several towns they also hoisted the banner of the nationalist revolution, a tricolor Syrian flag with three stars. The Nusra Front had banned the revolutionary flag in areas under its control, and its cadres in Maraat al-Nu’man appeared incensed on March 11 when a crowd of thousands, emboldened by the cease-fire, renewed anti-government protests in the town center with nationalist poetry, chants for unity, and the nationalist revolutionary standard.
Al Qaeda fighters on motorcycles drove into the center of the demonstration and seized the microphone from a notable local poet. The demonstrators fought back and recaptured the microphone. On March 12, the Nusra Front set up checkpoints around Maraat al-Nu’man and arrested members of Division 13, the most popular FSA group in the town. Nusra surrounded Division 13 bases and demanded they surrender their weapons cache, which included anti-tank weapons supplied as part of the CIA’s covert train-and-equip mission.
So far, nothing about the confrontation was unusual. Hard-core Islamists in the Nusra Front have long outgunned the more secular, nationalist, Western-supported rebels. According to FSA officers, Nusra routinely harvests up to half the weapons supplied by the Friends of Syria, a collection of countries opposed to Assad, and has regularly smashed FSA factions that were corrupt and inefficient — or that Nusra thought were getting too strong or too popular.
What was different this time was the FSA’s reaction.
“We will fight and die rather than surrender our weapons,” a Division 13 officer told the Nusra Front, according to an activist who was in the barracks during the fight and subsequently fled to Turkey.
Seven fighters from Division 13 died and at least a dozen were wounded, Saoud said, in a fight that lasted all night. At least a dozen more men from Division 13 were taken prisoner. Nusra eventually won — in large measure because none of the other FSA factions in the town were willing to help their allies. Most prominent among the nearby FSA divisions that sat on their hands was another U.S.-backed faction, Fursan al-Haq, led by another Syrian Army defector, Col. Fares Bayyoush.
“I guess they were afraid that if they helped us, they’d be next on Nusra’s list,” Saoud scoffed.
With their weapons gone and survivors detained by Nusra, the rest of Division 13 fled. Another al Qaeda rout of the so-called moderate opposition was apparently complete.
But on March 13, the day after Division 13 was ejected from Maarat al-Nu’man, hundreds of residents took the town’s streets waving the nationalist flag of the original Syrian republic. Women and children drove Nusra out of the posts it had occupied and set them on fire. Rather than shoot civilians, Nusra fighters left town. The next day, an even bigger demonstration swept Maraat al-Nu’man. Men can be seen on videos climbing on walls and tearing down Nusra flags.
In official statements posted on Facebook, as well as in tweets by supporters, the Nusra Front derided the FSA for agreeing to a cease-fire, which it calls a “distraction from the real target” — the fight against the Syrian government. Nusra also tried to blame Division 13 for starting the firefight, but quickly backed away from that claim when evidence to the contrary surfaced. The al Qaeda affiliate quickly agreed to submit to arbitration by an ad hoc sharia court, which has ordered Nusra to release prisoners and return the weapons it took, although weeks later negotiations over the implementation of the ruling are still underway.
Three days after it conquered Maraat al-Nu’man, the Nusra Front had withdrawn its main fighting force from the town under pressure from the sharia court, and began releasing its prisoners from Division 13.
“Jabhat al-Nusra asks of all its members to hold their breath and maintain the highest degrees of patience,” said a Nusra Front statement, which urged calm and tried to point out that Assad and his allies were the biggest beneficiaries of internecine strife among the rebels.
The struggle over this remote Syrian city will reverberate as far away as Geneva. The non-jihadist factions negotiating in Switzerland hope to form the nucleus of a post-Assad Syria. But in order to credibly represent the opposition, they’ll have to shift the balance of power on the ground, where the far stronger Nusra Front often dictates the course of events in rebel-held areas.
Civilian activists in Idlib province also said that they wanted to reclaim the initiative after being sidelined during years of grinding fighting.
“The larger the number of protesters, the more pressure it puts on the armed factions,” said Ammar Sabbouh, a member of the Maraat al-Nu’man local council, speaking by telephone from the town.
About 150 people have joined the daily protests since the clashes — enough, he said, to rattle Nusra because it shows locals no longer fear them.
“Before the truce, people were afraid of barrel bombs, shells, bombs,” Sabbouh said. “Demonstrations lasted 15 minutes. Since the truce, the peaceful side of the revolution has gained strength.”
But Sabbouh is well aware that driving the Nusra Front from rebel-held areas is not so simple as returning power to the people. He cautioned that all the armed factions, including Nusra, had popular followings. Maraat al-Nu’man is one of a handful of towns famous for its nationalist, sometimes even secular, revolutionaries — but even there, some powerful clans are evenly divided between al Qaeda and the FSA. Meanwhile, many other towns in Idlib province passionately support the Nusra Front or other jihadi factions.
There had been little public objection when the Nusra Front had wiped out other U.S.-backed FSA factions in Idlib, as the groups had engaged in widespread corruption. Division 13, however, has a reputation for being fair and relatively uncorrupt. Its leader, Saoud, is a defector from the Syrian Army who was detained by the Islamic State in 2014. He is popular with his fighters, which he claims number 1,700 men.
But seasoned observers of the Syrian war caution that even if public opinion runs against Nusra — which might not even be the case — the al Qaeda affiliate’s unified command and compelling ideology suggest it will continue to play a dominant role.
“Nusra commands deep support,” said one Western official who meets regularly with emissaries of Syrian rebel factions, and who believes that Islamists from less extreme factions will eventually shift allegiance to Nusra. “They’re not going away anytime soon.”
It’s notable that Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful, nationalist-leaning jihadi group, has taken the FSA’s side in the latest dispute with Nusra. After the Nusra Front clashed with protesters, Ahrar al-Sham leaders tweeted that Syrians had the right to protest and carry flags of their choice. Many view Ahrar al-Sham, which supported the cease-fire, as a kingmaker group, with jihadist credibility but aspirations for national Syrian leadership.
Critics inside northern Syria say that the Nusra Front initially masked its intentions, but that over the last year and a half, residents in Idlib province have realized that al Qaeda is just as repressive as the Islamic State or the Syrian government.
The Jabhat al-Nusra Violations group sprung up in Idlib a year ago to track the Nusra Front’s use of kidnapping, torture, and child soldiers. Its founder, who lives in Turkey because he said he is wanted by Nusra, believes that the jihadists will ultimately alienate even conservative and religious Syrians.
“The more people learn about Nusra, the more they will reject them,” he said.
That’s the FSA’s hope as well.
“I have a strategy to set all Syria on fire against the extremists in Nusra, ISIS, and the regime,” Saoud said. “The demonstrations will teach other leaders how to break the fear of al Qaeda. The checkpoint of fear is being shattered.”
[Originally published at TCF.org.]
REYHANLI, Turkey—Peace in Syria might appear less remote today than it has in recent years, but rebel commanders on the ground—like Colonel Hassan Rajoub, commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Division 16—aren’t betting on it.
Col. Rajoub is taking advantage of the current lull to do what he thinks is wisest: stockpile weapons and plead with American and other foreign officers to provide enough support to resist a triple threat facing the FSA.
“We are at a very dangerous crossroads,” Rajoub said in an interview in Rehanli, the Turkish border town that serves as rear area for most of the rebel groups that openly take military support from the “Friends of Syria,” an alliance that includes the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
Since a February 27 cessation of hostilities, Russia has suspended its major air offensive, although it could quickly resume if it chose. Talks are underway in Geneva between the Syrian government and an opposition delegation backed a number of rebel groups, but not all. Increasingly, it appears that the United States and Russia share a desire for a political transition that allows a more effective military campaign against ISIS.
According to rebels in the Turkish border zone, weapons have flowed steadily into Syria since the ceasefire began. Even those who hope for a political settlement aren’t betting on one any time soon. Instead they’re stockpiling for the next round, which they expect will be as desperate as the last. Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov say they want a transition by the summer, none of the rebel commanders in northern Syria expect a political settlement before 2017.
Up close, however, to commanders like Rajoub interviewed in mid-March during an extension of the ceasefire, the patchwork of diplomatic developments looks less like momentum toward a settlement and more like a timeout.
Aleppo’s state of play underscores just how difficult it would be to work out the details of a lasting settlement. It has proven impossible, even with massive Russian support, for the Syrian government to fully encircle the rebels in Western Aleppo. It isn’t known whether Russia made a tactical decision not to allow a full government takeover of Aleppo, in order to prevent government overreach, or whether it wasn’t able to. Moreover, despite indications that the Syrian civil war might be tilting toward a punishing stalemate, the factions around Aleppo—once the economic and industrial hub of Syria—have plenty of fight still left in them. During the ceasefire, skirmishes have continued over city’s strategic choke points. Militias have shifted their forces in anticipation of major battles they expect as soon as the ceasefire breaks down. And commanders with access to foreign arms, like Rajoub and his FSA colleagues, are shopping across the border in Turkey.
“We ask the Friends of Syria and they give us,” Rajoub said with a smile. “They have just now given us new supplies of everything. But we want some special weapons to give us a little bit of leverage.”
In the past, FSA commanders ritualistically complain that the United States won’t let them have high-tech missiles (man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS) that would enable them to shoot down government bombers and helicopters. But during interviews this with nearly a dozen FSA commanders, none of them lingered on the issue of MANPADS.
Instead, several FSA commanders said the United States had been forthcoming during the ceasefire period, replenishing arms stocks and leaving open the possibility that some anti-aircraft missiles might be released into northern Syria.
“We expect a surprise,” said one satisfied commander.
Another commander, who runs the operations room in Aleppo that coordinates among all the factions, nationalist and Islamist, fighting in the city, said that the February bombardment had driven many insurgent militias into retreat, but they had re-infiltrated most of their important positions since the ceasefire.
“We still are counting on the supporting nations, and we emphasize the United States because it is the ‘indispensable nation,’” said the commander, who goes by the sobriquet Abu Ahmed al Amaliat (which loosely translated means “Ahmed’s father, the operations guy”).
A complex web of combatants with very divergent agendas is competing for Aleppo. The FSA battalions, nationalist in orientation and allied with the Friends of Syria, wants Bashar al Assad gone but strongly favors a unified post-war Syria that preserves the institutions of state.
Hard line jihadists, including the Al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front and ISIS, are not party to the ceasefire and are trying to establish their extreme version of Islamist governance in areas under their control. They can be distinguished from all other rebel groups because of their practice of takfiri jihad, through which they declare other groups apostate and then believe they are justified under religious law in using any tactic against them, no matter how nihilistic.
Kurdish forces have fought effectively against ISIS, and have at times collaborated with the United States, Russia, and the Syrian government, but they hope for an autonomous Kurdish region—a position anathema to all the other factions, which oppose federalism and support a unitary state.
The government wants to reconquer the entire city, and has employed its own forces, and has drawn as well on support from Iran and Russia, along with militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are also wild cards, such as the powerful Islamist rebel faction Ahrar el Sham, which has nationalist and jihadi constituents but hasn’t yet decided whether to break decisively in favor of an alliance with the FSA or with Nusra.
The government side of Aleppo is still home to an estimated 1.5 million people. The population on the rebel side has dwindled to about 300,000 living under horrific conditions: near constant bombardment, and shortages of everything. Rebel Aleppo can only be reached by one route, the Castello road, which is sandwiched between government forces on one side and jihadists on the other. Rebel-held Aleppo has lived in fear of a total siege for more than a year. Aleppo residents have watched the regime employ a siege-and-surrender tactic against places such as Eastern Ghouta and Madaya, where starvation has become common.
Opposition administrators are stockpiling food, fuel, and medicine, and working feverishly to unify their political and military leadership, but opposition leaders say that the decisive development won’t occur in Geneva but on the battlefields of Syria.
Rajoub said he planned to request fifty tons of explosives that night at meeting with with foreign officers at the Military Operations Center, or MOC. He said that fifteen nations have officers stationed in the MOC; they ask detailed questions about planned operations and demand thorough accounting for the weapons distributed. Rajoub had prepared satellite photographs of his area of operations with overlays showing his positions, enemy positions, and planned operations, which he displayed on his smartphone. His division is fighting around Aleppo, and if the government of Bashar al-Assad managed to reunite the divided city, it would mark a decisive turning point.
“The U.S. military commanders are always with us,” Rajoub said. “We ask. They are very cooperative. They understand our needs.”
He said he still fantasizes about MANPADS, but figured that the FSA could turn back its opponents without them.
In the midst of a continuing meltdown, it striking that plenty of actors, as angry as they are about a perception of American indifference, still welcome American help: activists, humanitarians, and military commanders arrayed against Bashar al Assad’s cynical dictatorship—which we ought to remember, played the most pivotal role in abetting ISIS and continues to devote resources to smashing nationalists while leaving ISIS, for the most part, untouched.
A close look at the Battle for Aleppo suggests it is far from won, and that progress on the ground, or stalemate, is ultimately what will determine the stance of the delegations in Geneva. Russia and the United States are trying to shape a military balance on the ground that will encourage their local allies and proxies to accede to a Moscow-Washington deal. But contested battlegrounds with so many factions are notoriously hard to shape, especially when many of the militias are fighting for their own neighborhoods and villages, or for what they view as a matter of ethnic or sectarian survival.
The budding superpower diplomacy, and even the tentative talks at Geneva, give cause for hope. But the military machinations around Aleppo should temper any unbridled optimism. In a destructive round-robin, where so many sides have lost so much, it’s a surprise how many still think they can win outright.
Photo: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A member of the Syrian government forces waved as he sat on the road leading to Gaziantep on the outskirts of the village of Kiffin on Thursday.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
ONE OF THE BIGGEST developments in Syria’s five-year civil war came with the surprise announcement from Munich, that the warring factions had agreed a temporary cease-fire and to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas. If the agreement can hold, it would be a remarkable turn in a conflict that has seemed to defy all efforts at a peaceful resolution.
The ultimate breakthrough may have come not at the table but on the battlefield. A Russian blitzkrieg on Aleppo broke the stalemate around the most important contested city in Syria, threatening to cut off millions of rebel supporters and eliminate the last major bastion of the opposition not dominated by jihadis.
Diplomats accused Russia of stringing the United States along with negotiations; Syrian opposition fighters spoke of betrayal; and an American intelligence official told Congress that Russia had “changed the calculus completely.”
The move on Aleppo outraged and stunned American policy makers, but it shouldn’t have. Russia was treading on familiar territory when it forced new facts on the ground while simultaneously engaging in peace talks.
On the contrary, any policy maker interested in predicting what might work long-term in Syria can turn to the rich body of scholarship on civil wars, almost perfectly suited to align expectations with reality. “History can tell us a lot about this kind of situation and this kind of conflict,” said Christopher Paul, a senior social scientist who studies modern insurgencies at the RAND Corporation. “There’s always a danger in getting caught up with what’s unique about a case while it’s going on rather than with the clarity of hindsight.”
One of Paul’s recent projects analyzed 71 conflicts fought between 1944 and 2010; he identified a series of seven steps that led to negotiated settlements — necessary preconditions for a diplomatic solution to a civil war. The odds he tabulated should humble expectations: Only 13 of the 71 insurgencies he studied were resolved by a political negotiation.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 an increasing share of conflicts were fought within states rather than between them, prompting social scientists to delve into the study of civil war with particular intensity. The Pentagon funded academic examinations of every civil war and insurgency of the last century. There was an unusual confluence of theoretical and practical interest, with scholarly studies of civil war designed to help policy makers deal with the ongoing conflicts of our times. Researchers probed thorny questions of identity, sectarianism, and ideological grievance that often bedevil social scientists but play a crucial role in civil wars.
The research tells us how long civil wars tend to last and what factors prolong or resolve them; what steps tend to lead to a negotiated settlement and what presages a resolution established on the battlefield.
When Russia raced to Aleppo, the real mystery is why anyone was surprised.
FRATRICIDAL CONFLICTS are most effectively won, not negotiated. Sadly, in practice, the most enduring way to resolve a civil war is often the one with the most horrific human costs. Most other outcomes, including peace accords reached under international pressure, tend to be unstable and marred by continuing flare-ups of violence. Until last week, Syria has offered a painful illustration of this cold fact.
Incredulous Syrian rebels in interviews and private conversations before the announced truce said bitterly that the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons would only negotiate after they’d already won as much as they could and destroyed what’s left of the original uprising. US officials complained in public that Russia was tanking any prospect of a fair or humanitarian end to the war, although they were more sanguine in private. Two senior officials said that as much as they decried the Russian approach, they expected Moscow to push for the best outcome it could get. They didn’t expect Russia or Syrian President Bashar Assad to sign away territory or make political concessions until they had seen what a year or more of vigorous Russian military intervention would yield.
Years of study have confirmed what’s intuitively obvious: No one wants to negotiate seriously until they’ve given up hope of winning on the ground. With Russian support, the Assad regime seemed to believe it could reconquer most of its territory — so why seek a deal before it was ready?
The war appeared deadlocked on the ground because the two international coalitions appeared balanced, said Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist who helped pioneer contemporary study of civil wars. “The question to ask is. . . what are the costs they pay to keep fighting?”
Overall, civil wars last about 10 years. If all sides get used to a stalemate, a war can go on far longer. The greater the number of factions and international sponsors involved, the longer a civil war tends to last. Syria’s civil war is now in its fifth year.
Some experts compare Syria’s war to the grinding, decades-long conflicts in Congo and Afghanistan, which also involved more than two factions and deeply implicated foreign sponsors of proxy armies. Other scholars, like MIT’s Fotini Christia, argue that Bosnia is a better parallel, because like Syria it had a high level of education and development before collapsing into strife, and its domestic factions relied on nearby foreign backers.
Breakthroughs historically occur when both sides finally acknowledge that they can’t win — or when one side finds that it actually can.
PAST CONFLICTS SHOW that a stable equilibrium doesn’t usually come with a victory for the good guys (or better guys if all sides are unsavory), the establishment of justice, or any of the moral outcomes that the international community tends to promote.
About 70 percent of civil wars end with outright victory, roughly 40 percent of the time for the government and 30 percent of the time for rebels, according to several data sets. After the fall of the Soviet Union, negotiated settlements, while still the exception, became more common, because international coalitions were willing to sponsor negotiations and then enforce the settlements with peacekeepers.
Unless one side wins outright, fighting factions only see an incentive to negotiate when they run short of fighters and their international patrons lose patience.
Political settlements usually involve a division of power that reflects the territorial disposition of the war, said Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. In Syria’s case that’s a long shot long-term — a settlement based on the current front lines would cede major areas to the Islamic State and Nusra Front and would require the Assad regime to share power with Sunni rebel groups, a prospect that all sides still categorically reject. Effective settlements also require international guarantors willing to enforce an agreement.
Three years ago, Walter judged the likelihood of a negotiated settlement in Syria as “close to zero despite the efforts of the Obama administration to convince us otherwise.”
Today, she says, “what’s changed is that the incentives to stop fighting and start seriously negotiating are becoming more prominent.”
Outside sponsors were tiring of spending money on the conflict, Walter said, while edging closer to the view that a compromise might benefit everyone.
Walter believes it’s possible for Syria’s warring sides to eventually agree on a power-sharing formula. But she said finding peacekeepers, the third precondition of successful peace accords, would be more elusive. “How do you enforce an agreement over time?” Walter asked. Iraq, for example, failed under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki because no neutral power was able to enforce the power-sharing agreement between Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.
For scholars steeped in dozens of civil war case studies, and who aren’t advocating for any particular policy course, the evidence in Syria points to a slow, messy resolution. “There is probably no long-run military solution to this war in the sense it is extremely hard to see how you could get back to Assad ruling the country as he did in, say, 2010 or 2005,” said James Fearon, a Stanford political scientist. “I can imagine a partial victory that implies a rough and messy de facto partition of the country, that would drag on with lots of skirmishing.”
Civil war research offers a sobering warning to those in Syria and the international community who seek a major shift in Syria. Similar conflicts in Afghanistan and Congo stretched on for decades. Neighboring Iraq has hosted an ongoing civil war-cum-insurgency for nearly 13 years, featuring many of the same players involved in the Syrian war.
“A major concern about the current policy debate is there is so much pressure to resolve this conflict quickly, and history suggests that it will take time,” said RAND’s Paul. “Push hard and aggressively, by all means, to encourage settlement, but don’t be surprised if it’s hard and things break down repeatedly. It takes time, and requires strategic patience.”
Social science isn’t always the answer, but when it comes to civil wars and insurgencies, it can be a helpful corrective. The fighting factions in a civil war and the states that back them are often unable, or unwilling, to make clear-headed assessments of their own prospects. They have little incentive to be realistic about their chances of victory or concerned about the humanitarian costs of their actions.
If the tentative cease-fire announced at Munich is implemented, the scholarship warns us to be patient and temper our hopes; it often requires several rounds before there’s enough trust among warring parties for the truce to last, and implementation can prove as tricky as the initial negotiation.
Political science doesn’t tell us everything, said Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, but it outlines what’s possible and what’s impossible. In the case of Syria, long studies of civil wars that have become “internationalized,” with multiple outside powers reinforcing their proxies and blocking victory by their opponents, make clear that quick and easy victories are impossible. A decisive Russian intervention could have changed the war but couldn’t end it on its own; in a similar manner, Lynch says, a full-on US intervention wouldn’t have decisively resolved Syria’s civil war either.
Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
HOMS, Syria — More than four years of relentless shelling and shooting have ravaged beyond recognition this city, which once served as the symbolic capital of the revolution.
The buildings hang in tatters, concrete floors collapsed like sandcastles, twisted reinforced metal bars and window frames creaking in the wind like weather vanes. The only humans are occasional military guards, huddling in the foundations of stripped buildings. Deep trenches have been dug in thoroughfares to expose rebel tunnels. Everywhere the guts of buildings and homes face the street, their private contents slowly melting in the elements. Ten-foot weeds have erupted through the concrete.
As far as the government of Syria is concerned, the war in Homs is over. Rebel factions were defeated more than a year ago in the Old City, and the last holdouts, who carried on the revolt from the suburb of al-Waer, signed a cease-fire agreement this month. A few weeks before Christmas, busloads of fighters quit al-Waer for rebel-held villages to the north, under what the Syrian government and the United Nations hailed as abreakthrough cease-fire agreement to bring peace to one of the Syrian war’s most symbolic battlefields.
Gov. Talal al-Barazi, an energetic Assad-supporting Sunni, has been instrumental in pushing the cease-fires in Homs’s Old City and recently in al-Waer district. But almost none of the pro-uprising Sunnis who once filled its center have returned, and at times he seems to be presiding over a graveyard — an epic ruin destined to join Hiroshima, Dresden, and Stalingrad in the historical lexicon of siege and destruction.
By the end of a two-year siege of the Old City, the entire population of about 200,000 had fled, and more than 70 percent of the buildings in the area were destroyed. Today, according to the Syrian government, less than one-third of those who left have returned to the Homs area — but the ravaged city center is largely uninhabitable. Barazi said the cost of physically rebuilding the city would be enormous; without help from Russia, Iran, China, and other international donors, he said, full reconstruction would be impossible. Experts estimate it will cost upwards of $200 billion to rebuild across the entire country, or three times the country’s pre-war GDP.
And yet the Syrian government hopes to turn this shattered city into a symbol of its resurgent fortunes. Authorities showcase the reconstruction of Homs to spread a clear message: They intend to regain full control of the country. If they can tame Homs, a Sunni city where the majority of people actively embraced the revolt, they can do it anywhere.
There’s another more menacing message in the Homs settlement, however, as the neighborhoods that wholeheartedly sided with the revolution were entirely destroyed and have been left to collapse after the government’s victory. Almost no Sunnis have been allowed to return. Displaced supporters of the revolt from Homs understand that this is the regime’s second wave of punishment — they might never be allowed to go home.
This is the Homs model from the regime’s perspective: surround and besiege rebel-held areas until the price is so high that any surviving fighters surrender. The destruction left behind serves as a deterrent for others. Supporters of the government say that fear of a repeat of the ravaging of Homs is one major reason why militias around Damascus, like Zahran Alloush’s Army of Islam, have largely kept their indiscriminate shelling of the city center to a minimum.
The rebels, of course, take a different lesson: Assad will annihilate any opposition he can, unless the rebels fight hard and long enough to win, secure an enclave, or, at the very least, force the government to allow safe passage to another rebel-held area. Only force can extract concessions from the state.
A recent visit to Homs laid bare the deep divisions in the city and the near-impossibility of restoring what existed there before: a majority Sunni, but markedly mixed, community, more conservative and provincial than Damascus, but one that managed to successfully coexist despite profound communal differences.
As I stood in the middle of Khaldieh’s main square, in the center of Old Homs, I could recognize the bones of a familiar cityscape. Storefronts and five-story apartment blocks surrounded me. Avenues led in six directions from the roundabout.
I had seen this place before in video footage, when it played host to popular protests and later guerrilla fighting, and still later to a relentless barrage of Syrian government artillery intended to bludgeon all resistance. What remains today is an obliterated landscape that would be worthy of a dystopian sci-fi flick, if it weren’t so real.
The only sound, the ubiquitous sound, is the whistle of the wind, as loud as in the desert but incongruous in the heart of an ancient urban core.
My government minder fell silent after pointing out now-vanished landmarks. As we prepared to leave the square, she gestured dejectedly. “You can’t rebuild this,” she said.
The desolation continued for blocks in every direction, only abating up the hill toward Hamidiyeh, a mixed neighborhood to which a few dozen families, some Sunni, some Christian, have returned.
A bicycle parked outside a bombed schoolhouse is the only sign that you have reached the re-inhabited part of Khaldieh. Two boys kicked a soccer ball in a narrow courtyard delineated by rubble and broken walls. They pointed us in the direction of Maamoun Street, which begins at a grand Ottoman-era house, with a fountain and interior courtyard. One window had been refashioned into a sniper’s nest, a car frame shoved into the window.
Abdulatif Tawfik al-Attar, 64, is one of the few Sunnis to have returned to the Old City, the historic district near the center of Homs. Perhaps he was trusted by the government because of his outspoken criticism of the rebels, whom he said “came and destroyed everything.”
Now Attar is slowly rebuilding his shattered life. His wife and daughter live in a rented apartment on the outskirts of Homs while he restores their home to livable condition, room by room. Before the war, he worked as a mechanic at a government refinery. Now he repairs bicycles in his entryway.
He cherishes what he considers his ample blessings. All three of his children survived the war, he still draws a government salary, and the walls of his home are still standing. “For me, the situation could be far worse,” he said.
A chatty man who dropped out of high school for his first job, Attar finds it difficult to sit still. He’s ready to brew tea on a portable burner hooked to a car battery or prepare a water pipe for guests who like to smoke. But in the Old City, hardly anybody drops by to visit, except for a middle-aged neighbor also painstaking reconstructing his house.
“It is lonely here sometimes,” Attar admitted. He apologized for the spartan conditions in his home. His son invited the family to join him in Saudi Arabia, but Attar said he wasn’t interested. “I love my country,” he said. “I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
Quietly, he began to cry. “We have lost a lot in Syria, especially in Homs,” he said. “We didn’t used to have women begging outside the mosques.”
After a moment he said, “Homs will be back.”
The local Ministry of Information official charged with supervising journalists in Homs, an Alawite who also hails from the city, began to cry as well. One of her sons died fighting for the government in Daraa; her husband and remaining two sons are still on active duty in the military.
“We have lost so much,” she agreed, fingering the gold pendant she wears around her neck engraved with her slain son’s portrait. “Even our own children.”
Attar squeezed the official’s arm to comfort her. “Don’t be sad,” he said. “No one dies before it is written. People run away from the war to escape death, and they die in the sea. People went on the hajj, and 800 died in a stampede.”
One day the war in the rest of Syria will come to an end, they said, as it has in Homs — but if Syria is to recover, it will have to transcend the sectarian divisions exacerbated by the war.
“Those men who have hurt us have hurt themselves, too,” Attar said. “God knows what everyone has done. Human beings make mistakes.”
The minder quoted a saying she attributed to former President Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria’s current leader: “Religion is for God, and the nation is for everyone.”
“That’s how we grew up,” she said. “If you live in a country with government, land, home, you want to forgive so that you don’t lose everything.”
These pro-government Homs residents expressed nostalgia for a version of coexistence that worked for them. But the Assad government so far has offered rebels few options beyond submission and surrender — nothing that looks like increased rights for the majority of citizens. Homs Gov. Barazi, for instance, argues that as the city limps back to life, people will return, including Sunnis who might have sympathized with the uprising.
“Between Christmas and New Year’s, you will see a new Old Homs,” Barazi said, in an interview on the sidelines of a conference in Damascus about how to reboot the Syrian economy. “Once the shops open, you will see the things go back to life.”
He said the occasional car bomb or shell that strikes Homs didn’t threaten the city’s overall security. “It’s much safer in Homs than in Damascus,” he said.
Many government supporters don’t like the cease-fires that Barazi has championed, especially because they allow some fighters to flee and continue fighting elsewhere. The recent deal in al-Waer allows those rebels who surrender their heavy weapons to remain and govern their neighborhood. Activists suspect the government might round up rebels and dissidents later.
His strategy is to start with quick anchor projects in the worst-hit parts of Old Homs: rebuilding schools, historic places of worship like the Notre Dame de la Ceinture Church and the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, and now 400 stalls in the old marketplace. He is counting on Russia, China, and Iran to foot the bill of what will be an enormously expensive project. He estimates that maybe one-third of the displaced residents from Old Homs have returned to the city, if not yet to their original homes.
Several Christian parochial schools reopened this fall in the Hamidiyeh quarter of Old Homs. About 200 students came to the first day of school, out of a pre-war enrollment of 4,000 in the neighborhood, according to Father Antonios, a priest who helps run the Ghassanieh School. At pickup time, parents said they still didn’t feel safe in their old neighborhood. “We’re doing a lot of work to reassure people,” the priest said.
The government’s strategy overlooks the daunting, practical obstacles to resuscitating a city as thoroughly ravaged as Homs. It also ignores the bitter feelings of the people who supported the revolution and will never reconcile themselves to Assad’s rule.
Homs might yet be a model, but perhaps not the one intended by Syrian government officials — it might end up as this war’s lasting symbol of ethnic cleansing or urban siege war without restraint. The government’s showcase plan doesn’t make room for the legions of Homs natives who rose up demanding rights from a government that systematically tortures its citizens and allows them no say over how they’re governed. Anti-government activists also say that Sunnis are systematically denied permission to return to the Old City because authorities suspect that a reconstituted Homs will continue to act as a bastion of resistance.
“People still support the revolution,” said a retired resident, who never left Homs throughout the war. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution against his family members.
Homs proved the futility of expecting the Syrian government to reform, this resident said. He lamented how it responded to peaceful protests with lethal force and indiscriminate arrests and torture.
“For six months, no one carried so much as a knife. When the regime began killing them, they defended themselves,” the resident said. “I’m so sad about Syria. I stopped thinking about the future a long time ago. I live one day at a time.”
Periodically during the siege of al-Waer district, this resident smuggled in food and meat to civilians. With like-minded friends, the resident cheered advances of the rebel Free Syrian Army on battlefronts around the country. Today, the resident said, depression has set in, with the government precariously in charge of a city that once felt like the first liberated place in Syria.
“I feel like I will explode,” the resident said. “All these people died, in every possible way, for what? I can’t believe that everything will finish and Bashar al-Assad will still be president. I would rather die.”
Old friend and colleague Eric Westervelt spoke with me on WBUR’s Here & Now about the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war, and the historical arc of the crisis in the Arab state system. You can listen here, or read the highlights as compiled by WBUR.
What are some takeaways from your time in Syria?
“There’s a bizarre sense of the clock having stopped somewhere in the 1960s or ‘70s when you step into regime-controlled Syria. The propaganda operation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the way it’s still trying to hold onto an absolute monopoly of dishonest manipulation and a denial of the barrel bombs and torture state. All these really crusty mechanisms of trying to maintain an old-fashioned authoritarian dictatorship seem really out of tune for 2015. We start with really small things, from just outright denial up until recently that the regime was losing the war, up to really big issues like that the secular authoritarian dictatorship hasn’t figured out a way to talk about how it wants to control a country that contains minorities but also religious Islamists, and we get to sort of this big historic arc of what’s happening in the region. The Arab state system that came into being at the end of the colonial period in World War II has proven unable to serve its citizens and it has set up a sort of horrible binary choice between secular dictatorships on one hand, and Islamist extremist groups like the Islamic State on the other hand. And neither of these poles represent the vast majority of citizens, and yet in the case like Syria’s, the regime and the Islamic State have wiped out almost every force that is moderate or even just less extreme and located between these two poles, so we have a region that’s still struggling to find avatars of the aspirations of the majority of its people.”
On the extreme “poles” Syrians are forced to decide between
“The regime and the Islamic State have wiped out almost every force that is moderate or even just less extreme… so we have a region that’s still struggling to find avatars of the aspirations of the majority of its people.”
“The Arab states like Bashar al-Assad, or Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, or you could really pick your favorite offender, made a sort of dirty deal with the republics half a century ago. They said, we’re going to oppress you but we’re going to deliver modernity and progress, but ultimately they failed on their end of the deal. So people were oppressed and they also started getting poorer, less healthy, less educated and were missing out on what were supposed to be the benefits of this dictatorial trade-off. By design of these despots, the only viable opposition that was allowed to exist was extremist Islamist, and that self-fulfilling prophesy has led to a lot of the destruction in the region and yes, now we’re witnessing a tug of war between these extremes but the generational fight that we’re just at the beginning of is one where there’s going to be a third pole, which might not be liberal or democratic, but it certainly is not going to be something as extreme as the Islamic state. And that is, I wager, what is going to be dominating the region after this period of upheaval.”
On the views of ordinary people in Syria
“Well there’s two major groups that haven’t turned against the dictator. And one, are the real die-hard supporters of the old order, they’re not a small group. These are the ones who are, whether for ethnic reasons or because of their wealth and their well-being are tied to the regime support, aren’t going to abandon it. The other group, which is more interesting because they could shift, are folks like all the displaced Sunni Arabs and Palestinians I spoke to, who are turned off by the violence and extremism of the opposition groups, but they are in no way loyalists for the regime. What they like about regime-held Syria is that it’s a place that has room for many sects and many ethnicities and that welcomes people who are religious and people who are not religious. Beyond that, they are abused victims of the regime, like many people in the opposition areas and you can tell – some of them actually were able to speak openly about this to me – that they are yearning for some alternative, someone to be able to come and topple the regime but not replace it with a fascist religious order.”
How close is the war for people in Damascus?
“The suburbs of Damascus, many are still in rebel hands. The period I was there in early October was relatively quiet, which means I would hear dozens of barrel bombs every night and more outgoing artillery than incoming, but there were several hits a night on the city and usually a dozen or so casualties ending up in Damascus hospitals. You realize when you drive around Damascus, you have to go around rebel-held areas to join the highway going north, that this really is a city surrounded by oppositionists and that it’s very tenuously held by the regime.”
Is there anything that gives you a glimpse of hope in Syria?
“The most positive thing about Syria is the one thing that’s always been positive, which is the tremendous human capital and talent of its people. Sadly today, a lot of the most promising Syrians have taken the refugee trail to Europe or are laboring away in exile as activists who are just trying to survive here in Lebanon, in Turkey, in refugee camps elsewhere. But there is an unbelievable amount of promise among this population and it’s a population that’s become very politically awakened and mobilized over the course of this uprising. So we have a reservoir of politically savvy, educated, polyglot skilled young people – young and middle-aged people – a lot of them with real technocratic experience. So in the very slim eventuality that Syria had a political transition, you’d be able to draw on a tremendous diaspora and population of recent emigrants just from the last five years who would have a better chance, maybe than any other Arab country, of building a functional creative successful new political order. So if I were looking for a ray of hope for the next five years or the next generation in Syria it would be that.”
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.
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.”
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.