Syria: Shattered but still Standing

There are No Alternatives to Bashir al-Asad in Syria Until the War is Over 
The situation in Syria has been difficult to distinguish from medieval descriptions of hell. It is a hell for the pain and agony of all its victims, regardless of whose side they are on, and it is a quagmire for those trying to make sense of it. The Syrian war is after all, a combination of different and overlapping wars. There are more conflicts and groups at stake than solutions. There are also different opinions as to how to untangle the mess. The West,that is NATO led by the Americans, has since the outbreak of fighting taken what can be described as an ambiguous approach. Generally, it has backed the various rebel groups, preferring such secular groupings as could be identified, arming them and financing their efforts, through ‘local powers’, which indicates that the dominating, well-resourced Islamist groups may also have benefited, other than the rather sparse non-religious 'freedom-fighters' that are the officially intended recipients. However that might be, the Islamist groups have taken possession of substantial quantities of US arms and ammunition and indeed wiped out or co-opted many of the earlier ‘secular,’ that is, not primarily Sunni volunteers. Many of these are foreigners, fighting jihad, receiving salaries and being financed by wealthy Saudi and Gulf Salafist sponsors and it is in this area that causes European governments most concern about their repatriating themselves with their killing ways, forming networks in their former nations of origin.. 

The emergence of Islamic State (aka ISIS), a phenomenon directly born out of the Iraq war, and it’s spread to Syria, has made the war even more complex - and more brutal. While many of the rebel groups have different goals, often fighting each other – the Kurdish groups have generally fought against the Free Syrian Army and the various al-Qaida offshoots – they have all considered the official Syrian government of President Bashar al-Asad as a ‘legitimate’ target. The West has not attacked al-Asad’s regime directly, apart from President Trump’s recent rocket attack, discussed below. The Americans have however ‘accidentally’ targeted some Syrian Army bases and Israel has throughout frequently bombed or rocketed Syrian military targets, that they label as Hezbollah arms depots, or units, knowing that the Syrian government have their hands full with the civil war and who indeed, have scarcely retaliated. 

Allegations of the Asad Regime Using Chemical Weapons 
Donald Trump deliberately launched 60 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base in April 2017 addressing (as yet still unproven) allegations, that Asad’s forces used chemical weapons against civilians in a village near Idlib held by an al Qaeda offshoot, in northern Syria on April 4. 

President Obama had earlier been about to involve the United States in the Syrian war, much more deeply, in August of 2013. That’s when the White House was ready to launch an attack against Syrian government forces after allegations it had attacked civilians in the Ghouta quarter of Damascus. Doubts about the source of the attack, raised by UN inspector Carla del Ponte, followed by the Parliament of his British allies voting against involvement in such retaliation, convinced President Obama to abort American intervention. Russia undertook to ensure that Syria would rid itself of all chemical weapons. A UN Security Council Resolution (2118) established a timeline to this end, which Syria fulfilled by June 30, 2014. 

The Ghouta attack was the crisis that Asad realised could have risked his presidency. Therefore, he knew then and knows now that chemical weapons are the ‘red line’, that should he cross, would draw an American attack. On April 4, 2017, the Syrian air force allegedly attacked a village with chemical weapons, causing the deaths of 72 people, including 20 children, in Idlib province, Syria. Various sources, including the ever-present one man ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights;’ and activists related to the Oscar winning (but rather shady) ‘White Helmets,’ managed to secure a strong international condemnation, beginning with that of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump, who ordered a strike against a Syrian air base. Yet, despite the unanimous condemnation, there has never been absolute certainty even now, that the attack was the work of Asad's or indeed, of any airforce. The international media echoed the allegations without any verification, as many of them are liable to do (another day- another story). It remains the case that the media and the various governments ‘should be’ more cautious in delivering accusations. They risk becoming trapped in the propaganda skills of the jihadist rebels, not to be underestimated, who are playing their latest desperate card to confront the Syrian government, which thanks to Russian, Hezbollah and Iranian help has scored ever more military victories, giving a glimpse of an end to hostilities. 

After Trump’s Tomahawk attack, Damascus’s allies Iran and Russia, have stated they would no longer accept Trump's unilateral actions. They issued warnings that they would react with firmness to any external aggression against Syria, regardless of whom the aggressor might be. Let us note that when Israel used white phosphorus in 2006 against the military targets in Lebanon and in 2008 Gaza, the Israelis dismissed criticisms, citing that these were used legitimately. A UN Security Council investigation, also launched following the destruction of the UN headquarters there, confirmed Israel used white phosphorous missiles. In the face of this war crime, however, the international community has remained largely indifferent (as it generally would where Israel is concerned). A very different attitude to Syria's Assad, whose use of unconventional or banned weapons in this six year war, remains to be proven. 

As for Trump’s reaction, it remains to be seen if the missile attack will remain isolated as when Bill Clinton launched missiles in 1998 at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, accused of producing chemical weapons. There was no follow up and apparently no chemical weapons. The operation appeared to some cynics to be a distraction to throw the media’s ‘sniffing’ away from the emerging Monica Lewinski scandal. So far, it seems that Trump's action remains an isolated act. The U.S. president had wanted to send a geopolitical message to the Russians, but also at the time, the Chinese (President Xi Jinping was actually having dinner with Trump at the latter’s Mar a Lago residence in Florida, when he ordered the Tomahawk strike); and of course to the North Koreans and Iranians. Without doubt, the best outcome for the situation would be for Moscow and Washington to resume talks and discuss the Syrian question. 

Should both superpowers manage to reach an agreement and a mutual goal for Syria, it will be possible to investigate and prosecute war crimes while also moving the country toward peace. As for the recent chemical attack, there should be an independent inquiry into the episode. An MIT expert said that from his point of view, in this case Asad did not order a chemical weapons attack, because the number of victims would have been far bigger had he done so. It’s possible that a conventional bombing hit a depot where Sarin was preserved, which then killed the seventy civilians. This is of course just a possibility, because we still have no evidence of it, apart from the fact that the Russians argue that Assad did not use chemical weapons and that it was a matter related to the rebels. It is hard to see why the Syrian president would need to employ such brutal methods, risking attracting the wrath of the whole international community at a delicate moment, as happened, when he is clearly winning and the jihadist rebels seem to be in great difficulty? The international media only covered the incident superficially, since only superficial facts were ever available. 

Still if ISIS has these weapons, as it has been said for some time that they do –as also the al Qaeda offshoot controlling that part of Idlib province where apparently poison gas was used - either terror group could use them in Syria, Iraq, Libya or the rest of the world!

A deeper investigation is urgently necessary. 

The Human Rights and War Crime Problem in Syria 
After years of analyzing Syria during the very period when American-led forces were in country, trying to export and grow the seeds of democracy to Iraq, readers might forgive Newnations for taking a sceptical view of this Syrian ‘civil’ war; especially of the democratic pretensions of the rebels. The fact that the West has limited its response in Syria to promoting proxy armies and issuing economic and political sanctions against the Asad government suggests, there is, as there ought to be general scepticism about the rebels’ democratic aspirations in Washington, London and Paris, as well. Yet, someone somewhere, has calculated there are gains to be had by removing Asad, or by perpetuating the war. It is even difficult to describe the Syrian conflict as ‘civil war’. Syria has long stopped being the arena of an internal power struggle. Rather, since the very first weeks of the rebellion, when the Syrian government could still have contained it, the country became an international battlefield with Salafist volunteers from North African and other middle eastern states including Iraq, the Russian Caucasus, Europe and the Islamic world generally (even Chinese Xinkiang). It’s difficult to see what stake Syrians have left. They were never the real protagonists. 

Within Syria, the conflict is not even primarily confessional, as many have often painted it. The Alawi (a branch of the Shiites) dominated Baath Party, led by President al-Asad has always relied on a largely Sunni army. The Lebanese civil war it is not! Syrians themselves have become minor pieces, the disposable pawns on a chessboard, which represents no less than the struggle for Middle East hegemony. 

This six-year long battle would not have been possible without the vacuum of power left by the collapse of the Baathist regime in Iraq (which counterbalanced the rival Baathists of Syria); Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States and of course Russia, are the key players. Iran and Russia have backed the al-Asad dictatorship. Turkey, the United States, France, the UK have intervened in support of the rebels, nuances notwithstanding. In context, this has allowed Bashar al-Asad's regime to survive. The opposition, the real opposition on the ground, rather than the ‘democracy’ purveyors formed by exiles in London and Paris, have catalyzed around Islamists supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. ‘Salafists’ that is, better recognised as the severe centuries-old Sunni Wahhabi cult from Saudi Arabia, whose rigid beliefs in their theocratic state, have become a common factor, the agenda even, amongst Islamist terrorist groups overseas. It is notable that in this troubled part of the mid-east, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf States are nations ‘untouched,’ not themselves plagued by the horrors of Islamic extremists. It is as though these smaller nations have already achieved in every sense like Saudi Arabia, a Wahhabi defined plateau of secular-religious harmony which their zealots believe should be the norm for Islamic nations in their vicinity or indeed the world. Syria, so close, yet with its unique tolerance of other Moslem sects and a myriad of other religions as well, was always an offensive presence to the true believers since ALL of these are heretical ‘kaffrs’ for whom eternal punishment is prescribed.

Islamic State took advantage of the extremely fragmented and warlike regional context to establish a potential rival to Asad’s hegemony. Islamic State’s rise should be traced back to the anti-American and anti-Shia guerrillas (Shia being the majority within Iraq), organized by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2005/2006. In Syria, ISIS established it’s capital in the now infamous Raqqa. After a successful assault on northern Iraq in June 2014, during which it occupied Mosul, it spread within Syria and spectacularly in neighbouring Iraq. 

The emergence of ISIS prompted the United States and NATO to intervene, using air power only. Russia, which never relented from backing al-Asad, deployed ground and air troops in September 2015 to back the weakening Syrian government after six years of war. Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, still maintains a (not large) military and naval base in Tartous ( it’s only naval base in the Mediterranean). 

The course of the Syrian civil war has run in parallel and without doubt, been influenced by the outcomes of the so-called Arab Spring revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and especially in Libya. Apart from Tunisia, which despite a surge of terror attacks, may eventually give birth to a true democracy in North Africa, no rebellion has succeeded in establishing freedom - much less prosperity. Rather, Libya has become the setting of an even more complex regional and international battlefield where ISIS have become established, which exports terror and now appears to have been responsible for the frightful ‘massacre of the innocents’ a week ago, young people, particularly young girls attending a sold-out concert in the English city of Manchester. 

Fears that Syria, a country that borders with Israel, that could serve as the final stage of important oil and gas pipelines, could end up like Libya, have no doubt favoured Asad. 

The fate of Afghanistan after the defeat and retreat of the Soviet Union, into a chaos that continues and which gave the world the Taliban – and the related fears that this could happen again if NATO should leave – have also persuaded many governments to limit their actions against Asad, to righteous rhetoric and funding proxy militias, or if involved militarily, as in Iraq, to restrict this primarily to hit and run air strikes and /or training government troops. 

The emergence, rise and continuity of Islamic State and al Qaeda, put the opposition's claims against the regime on the backburner. The growing fears of fundamentalism and the refugees it produces have also persuaded – even if many would not speak of it in public, although Trump is doing just that – the West to pursue the annihilation of ISIS. The latter is the most cohesive and organized opposition as well. Al Qaeda has reformed in Iraq and Syria and should never be underestimated. If Assad had fallen, it is their ‘al Nusra Front’ that was poised to try to grab power in Damascus. Obama’s decision not to strike Assad and Damascus was seen by many specialists to have been a key factor in averting that. The remainder of the rebel front in Syria is still formed by a myriad of local militias and minor formations, many of them not Syrians, as indeed with ISIS and al Qaeda, devoid of any political vision and closer to wild bandits, than valid counterparts upon whose rock the Western powers might build a government. 

To entrust this,’ the opposition,’ to form a government and establish control over the territory, requires a leap of faith no religion has yet conceived. It would leave the territory open to an ISIS or a possible derivative, to establish a stronghold from which to thrive. In this overall context, human rights have been the overriding victim. No party has been immune from committing atrocities, but only one party has the means to re-establish security, a secular administration, institutions to rebuild the infrastructure and indeed the nation, however bad it may be, and that is the Syrian government.

Idealism can only go so far in the current Arab world, until it must face the problem of Islamic fundamentalism, for which read Saudi Arabia’s homegrown version, Wahhabi-ism . Sixty years ago, it would have met Arab nationalism. The West should surely have learned by now, that to encourage a ‘revolutionary’ approach to regime change in the Middle East, leads to disaster. Fostering government to government and using that dialogue to slowly encourage change, based on the gradual erosion of mutual suspicions, remains the only way. The West must give up the notion of imposing ‘regime change’. It has not produced any regime worth emulating. 

Of the Arab Spring revolts, the most successful has been the first, the one in Tunisia. It worked, because the previous secular dictatorships, however corrupt, built strong state institutions able to serve as the platform for a new form of government. Tunisia did not have to re-invent the wheel. Tunisia, also did not have strategic resources like oil and neither did it’s post-colonial governments encourage tribalism (as happened in Libya). 

It is no coincidence that at the Vienna talks in 2015, which were supposed to re-launch the international peace negotiations in Syria, there wasn’t even a Syrian representative, rebel or government! It is also significant that talks in Astana in 2017 with the rebels have also produced little so far. The Syrian opposition abandoned the talks in early May of this year. 

Idealism Can only Come After Realpolitik 
The solution may sound harsh, but realpolitik, or realism often is. Before Syria’s – eventual hopefully – future political course can be decided, there can be no alternative to Asad. It does not help matters that Russia and the United States are barely talking. Donald Trump winning the White House was supposed to change that, but so far there are few signs of reconciliation. An agreement between Washington and Moscow on Syria could help to reshape Syria in such a way that the more ‘moderate’ or reasonable rebels would be able to secure an official voice in Damascus. The unattainable idea of democracy (there is hardly one in the entire long-established Arab League (see World Audit), should be sacrificed in the name of stability. 

The modern Middle East of nation states is less than 100 years old. It was the product of a broken, largely theocratic entity the Ottoman Empire, where divisions were not based on national ethnicity or language, but religious affiliation. You might have been a Muslim from Damascus or a Christian from Baghdad. Middle Eastern Arabs, as opposed to the North African ones in other words, who are still struggling with the concept of national identity. Moreover, the idea of spreading democracy in the Middle East is really very new. It was largely championed by George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Iraq is the showcase of the spectacular failure of that venture. Before democracy took root in Europe, Christianity itself over centuries, slowly changed and evolved, its institutions eventually losing ‘earthly power,’ allowing greater freedom of thought at all levels. Democracy was one of the results of that ‘enlightenment’, which continues to produce groundbreaking changes in science and the organization of society itself. That’s a process that took several centuries, let alone decades. To think that the Arabs can simply skip these steps is naïve. They can benefit from the Western experience, but Islam itself must change, as indeed much of it has, to accommodate a more flexible vision of society; indeed, of the world, which simply means becoming cultural rather than political, thus surrendering earthly power. 

The Syrian rebels have shown precious little willingness to pursue any kind of progress. They have not shown any reason why anybody should support their anti-Asad quest. Yet, the Asad dynasty government, long before the 2011 revolt started, was notorious for its secret police, the Mukhabarat; repressive politics against opponents and even torture. In the so-called ‘war on terror’ years after 9/11, the United States used Syria as a popular ‘rendition destination’ for interrogating suspected al-Qaida types in a manner that no US or western court could have found acceptable. 

Peace cannot be achieved without justice, without giving the people the confidence that those responsible for violence will answer for what they have done. That is clear and it helped pave the way for reconciliation in Rwanda, after a conflict so vicious in 1994 that it makes even Syria look like a mere skirmish. War is an indescribable horror and dictatorship is an intolerable regime. But, the evidence suggests that in the Middle Eastern context, it has no alternatives. There is Israel which is for its citizens a democracy, but it is not inclusive - a long way from being so for those Palestinians that it controls. Paradoxically, the only regional regime, apart from Lebanon, approaching at least the standard of parliamentary democracy, is Iran, the so-called Axis of Evil "rogue state" that Senator McCain still wants to bomb and that Benjamin Netanyahu painted as the ‘leading terror-sponsoring state’, a cry absurdly taken up by President Trump on his recent excursion to Saudi Arabia, it’s mortal enemy 

The Islamic Republic of Iran demonstrated its gradual progress toward full democracy in May, with a huge voter turnout and the re-election of reformist President Rouhani. It is ever so gradually making progress. It is absurd to blame Shi’ite Iran for the hard-line Sunni al Qaeda and ISIS, full-on militant Salafists that are responsible for exporting terrorist outrages to the world, but President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu find Iran an acceptable target for such abuse because they are still pursuing within Iran, their own version of Islamist rigidity and cruelty, just as does Saudi Arabia. 

Torture, disappearance, police and secret services have been the norm in the Arab dictatorships rather than the exception. The Egypt of al-Sisi has certainly kept up the sad practice, as does the Libya of al-Sarraj /Haftar (depending on which government you pick). It is most certainly the case in the West’s ally Saudi Arabia, which has just ordered $350 billion in American weapons over the next decade. Even the United States has practiced torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It was in the latter place that ISIS founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi set the roots of his movement, the caliphate. Several of the repressive nations mentioned above had suspects interrogated under torture sub-contracted to them by US Agencies, who did the questioning. The Syrian leadership should certainly be made accountable for its role in torturing dissidents, but it is not the West’s job to do that. 

Such a goal can only be pursued in a context of a re-stabilized Syria. The idea of investigating Syrian war crimes – there’s no doubt there have been many on all sides – without any chance for international inspectors under the auspices of the United Nations, to enter Syria, is not viable of course, at any rate in finding justice, rather than revenge. 

The U.N. has appointed a Commission of eleven members, including Carla del Ponte, which claims not to have received permission to investigate (even if it is compiling evidence gathered from various organizations), on the ground. Meanwhile, some organizations are moving independently, using evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes to make documentaries. But, while they can make a valid case of atrocities, such accusatory documents offer little by way of solutions. 

Forcing Asad to step down might be desirable, but only if a better alternative were offered in his place. Whatever the resolution of the conflict is, the best way to bring peace to Syria is to initiate unbiased, inclusive, and credible justice processes that will avoid the temptation of revenge. The winners will have to avoid imposing ‘winners justice’, as happened in Iraq facilitating the rise of blowback groups like ISIS and fostering the resentment of the losers. It is a process that, as happened in Europe after WWII, will last for decades. Yet it will also be an indispensable effort to avoid radicalization processes that could generate more extremism. 

Alessandro Bruno