SYRIA: An Algerian Solution to the Civil War is Within Grasp.  The Will to Adopt it is Not!

“So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous and cruel, as you are”, said T.E Lawrence, aka ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in David Lean’s movie. In the scene, Lawrence was addressing a group of raucous rebels, whom he led against the Ottomans. The actual Lawrence wrote in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ : “They [the Syrians] were discontented always with what government they had; such being their intellectual pride; but few of them honestly, thought out a working alternative, and fewer still agreed upon one.”

Lawrence had not fully grasped the scope of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which would split the Middle East among British and French spheres of influence. Lawrence had an idealistic vision of the Arabs organizing their own government, after defeating the Ottoman occupiers. His anger reflected his doubt that the Arabs might ever achieve the transition from tribal society to that of a modern European- style state. The actual T.E Lawrence noted the tribal and religious barriers that impeded the rise of a united and secular Arab state. Of course it was ironic that Lawrence proffered his concerns of unity, while his countrymen died in ‘the Killing Fields’ of Europe. But, he was prescient. The phenomenon, unfortunately described as ‘the Arab Spring’ was nothing other than the latest manifestation of Major T.E. Lawrence’s fears. Nevertheless, he expressed hope that if left alone, the Arabs, or the Syrians, might reach a lasting stability.

The Middle East, since independence from the Ottomans and – later – Europe, has struggled against itself. Secularists have fought Islamists, in varying degrees of intensity. Even modern Egypt, emerged first as the struggle of republicans vs. monarchists, and immediately thereafter as those advocating a secular model, similar to that which Ataturk established in Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. While for long years often regarded as unimportant and ignored by the media, Syria faced a lengthy struggle before stabilizing in 1970 under the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Asad’s father Hafez.

The ongoing Syrian civil conflict, which has more of the whiff of a world war, has revived the element of foreign intervention. This is what makes resolving the war so difficult. Given the diversity and obstinacy of the various factions, resolving this war seems impossible at best. The only ‘legitimate’ foreign players are the Russians, Iranians and (Lebanese) Hezbollah. They are legitimate, because they are there at the behest of the (UN recognized) Syrian government in Damascus. If the Syrian opposition truly represented the aspirations and interests of all Syrians, it would have more legitimacy. But, such is the dosage of foreign interests, that the opposition loses all legitimacy.

Left to itself, Syria might find a solution.
Indeed, it doesn’t have to look too far to find it. The solution involves a premise and a model for recovery. The premise is that the various international players interested in toppling Asad, terminate the flow of weapons and money to the largely jihadist elements that now make up the so-called Syrian opposition. The second is that Syria look to Algeria and the way it resolved its own sanguinary ten year old civil war (1992-2002). Algeria was able to recover because, the anti-government militias, despite their roots in a legitimately elected Islamist party, received minimal foreign support.

The solution to the Syrian war has never been far away. Stop the flow of weapons to jihadists and eliminate the sanctions that the ‘international community’ has imposed on Syria. It’s worth remembering that the disastrous foreign interference in Syria, began to punish the crackdown that the Asad regime led, against so-called ‘peaceful’ demonstrators who chanted the slogan: "Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin". While the slogan clearly showed that sectarianism was the driving force of the protest, the Western media was all too happy to describe it as a call for "more democracy" and reforms.

Unfortunately, that pattern of reporting has continued to the present day. This has misled the citizens of the many governments, which still have the impudence of suggesting that the Syrian opposition, at least the ones represented by the militias on the ground, now has a shred of democratic aspiration. Nowhere has this contradiction been found to be more evident than in Aleppo.

It would seem fair that the media should report those killed in the government controlled West Aleppo by regular mortar and artillery fire, as eagerly as those in the rebel controlled eastern part, which they don’t. At a time when the horrific Aleppo scenario is about to be repeated in the Daesh-held city of Basra, with this time the US-led Alliance leading the bombing war on the city, rather than the Russians, which reliably will be characterized in the west, by double standards in their judgements.

Such reporting also fails to explain that the population in East Aleppo (by some sources now estimated at just over 150,000), acts as a convenient human shield by the fighters, exactly as it will in Basra. This being classically what is known as asymmetric warfare, beloved of rebel fighters (but the Syrian war has been subject to asymmetric reporting).

Indeed, without that human shield, it would be far easier for the Syrian army and its allies to quickly take full control of the city and end the agony of not just East Aleppo, but the whole city. From the outset in March 2011, the media has conveyed the Syrian civil war, failing to differentiate those who have been assaulted from the aggressors. This approach contrasts from the North American media’s coverage of the U.S. punishment attacks against Fallujah in Iraq in 2004 –(or consider the 2014 Hollywood film ‘American Sniper’) – and the various Israeli invasions and assaults on Gaza; or even the war against Hezbollah in 2006. In the latter cases, the insurgents were and are presented as the problem, despite the fact they were the actual ‘invaded’ parties.

There is no question the war has been brutal on all sides
Only a short time before, the Syrian government had developed such a reputation for intolerance to dissent, that the CIA sent more than a few suspected islamists there in the aftermath of 9/11, for ‘special’ interrogation in Syria, fully aware that this would incur torture. But, if it’s peace and a return to a modicum of a normal life, including regular access to water, electricity and of course security for all Syrians, the war must stop.

A unilateral cease-fire will not stop it. One such ceasefire was implemented in early 2016. It did not work, because the "moderate rebels" are such, only in the mind of the US government (whilst unrecognizable as such in reality). Many, particularly amongst the ‘jihadists’, have no stake in the country being not even of Syrian nationality. Most in Syria are intertwined with such terrorist groups as al-Qaida. In East Aleppo; for example, the Russians and Syrians have offered safe passage for them and those who have with them their families (a tactic that has been applied successfully in at least 700 other cities and villages in Syria).

The problem has always been international interference
Since 2011, several countries - Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey particularly, and the United States - have been promoting the uprising against Bashar Al Assad. The migration crisis is the other aspect that has made the Syrian civil war so ‘global’ In August 2013 the media accused the Syrian government of having gassed civilians in Ghouta, near Damascus. Journalist Seymour Hersh showed this was false in a famous report published by ‘the London Review of Books’, even though the fact that Syrian authorities had hosted a unique UN observers group visit on the very day of the attack, should surely have raised suspicions? A knee-jerk western media followed by their governments, condemned Asad, apparently never suspecting they had collapsed into a huge trap. On the contrary, the United States was already warming up the jet engines of its fighters aboard an aircraft carrier heading for the Syrian coast to intervene. Fortunately President Obama or key advisors, seem to have ‘smelt a rat’ and intervention remained clandestine.

The rebels (those classed as more or less moderate), are supported by the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The government of Bashar al-Asad is supported directly by Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran, Russia and Iraq and indirectly from China, Venezuela, Belarus, Algeria and Egypt. It is therefore by all accounts a full-scale international war, even if by proxy. It has never been either simply a revolution, or a civil war. It broke out when Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States decided to bring down the Asad government in 2011. They thought it would only last months. Conveniently, the governments of Tunisia, Libya and especially Egypt were in the middle of their own turmoil. The only reason that it has dragged on this long with the Baathists still in power, is that at various points, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have stepped in, preventing the establishment of a collapse of government in Damascus replaced with a proverbial ‘black hole,’ which can now be seen to have had al Qaeda’s ‘al Nusra Front ‘poised to go’ in a bid for power, which would have served as the basis for a ‘Greater ISIS’.

Russia has geopolitical interests in the country, most notably the small port of Tartous. But Russia has also used the Syria conflict as the platform to rebuild a ‘superpower’ status that sank with the Soviet Union. Hezbollah and Iran’s Pasdaran meanwhile, helped stem the tide of Wahhabi extremists masquerading as ‘moderate’ rebels as well as the new ‘monster’, ISIS. The presence and continuing interest of these many international players, makes finding an agreed solution to the Syrian conflict almost impossible. The Russians have tried on several occasions to co-operate with the United States, but to no avail. The US would say exactly the same! The main problem is that everything the West proposes, revolves around the ouster of Asad, who symbolises the Shiite resistance to the extremist Sunni outsiders which to both of them, makes it ‘a holy war’ or by another measure, a proxy Saudi Arabia - Iranian war.

The only solution for ending the civil war is a return to the pre-March 2011 situation
The appalling truth is the only thing about which, the warring parties can agree, is to pursue the low-intensity civil war. Syria acts as a regional, or international, shock absorber of the tensions that would otherwise sprout elsewhere. Even as it supports the so-called ‘moderate’, largely Sunni fanatics, the United States cannot allow them to win outright. They have allowed ISIS to develop, apparently in full awareness that they were being funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to emails sent to Hillary Clinton, published by Wikileaks. At the same time, the United States has allies in the region, from Israel to Iraq, already concerned by Washington’s opening to Iran. So, the U.S. is performing a tightrope act to keep the ‘status quo’ of low intensity war running, keeping a number of actors busy in Syria. Israel is watching and inasmuch as it would benefit by a weakened Syrian defense of the Golan (where Damascus still has a strong presence), it too, rightly worries about the Sunni fanaticism that could spread in Gaza. It also fears that Hezbollah might emerge even stronger from an outright Asad victory in Syria – just as it emerged stronger in 2006 after their Israeli war.

It would never be the same for Asad himself, and even Russia might ask him to step aside eventually. But, his continued government would allow for a necessary cooling off phase to begin, in as stable a situation as one could hope for under the circumstances. The disastrous example of Libya is clear. That country is broken - divided in two or even three main parts with dozens of smaller statelets, controlled by Islamist, Berber and tribal lines.

The key to Resolving Syria is Algeria
Syria still has the chance to follow the example (seldom mentioned in this context) of Algeria. The North African country has already led a diplomatic effort to reduce tensions between Syria and Turkey. Turkey, probably affected by President Erdogan’s position after the military coup in July, has softened his positions on Russia and Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Algeria has never wavered in its insistence that Syria’s sovereignty be respected. As a 99% Sunni country, nobody can accuse Algeria of partisanship with respect to the Alawites or Shiites. Algeria did not encourage the foreign intervention to aid the revolt against Qadhafi in Libya; in Syria, it took the Asad side from the start.

Algeria also has good relations with most countries of the Arab League. It has played diplomat in times of crisis among Arab countries. More recently, Algiers refused to be drawn into the war that Saudi Arabi is leading against the Houthi-Shiite tribes in Yemen, which has also involved on ‘the Saudi side,’ the United States. More importantly, Algeria survived a civil war broadly based on an Islamist challenge against the government from 1992 to 2002. The Arab Spring has often been presented by overly optimistic analysts, as the awakening of the desire for democracy in the Arab world. But, there was a previous democratic experiment in Algeria, that clearly pointed to ‘what kind of democracy’ would emerge in an Arab republic under the present socio-economic and cultural conditions.

In 1989, amid economic restructurings promoted by low oil prices, Algeria tried to reform, allowing a number of new political parties to emerge in 1989. The Islamist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) led by the charismatic Abassi Madani, put up the most credible political challenge to the ruling and secular FLN (National Liberation Front) – the same party that led the war of independence from France. In the first round of elections in 1991, the FIS won the majority of local councils, which pointed to a likely victory in the next round. But a member of the FIS, a figure much more radical - Ali Belhadj, of ‘al-Qaida in the Maghreb’ infamy - explained that he would stop holding elections when his party would take power, dissolving all state institutions. The Algerian army intervened and finally cancelled the second round of elections, preventing FIS from savouring an almost a guaranteed victory.

FIS called on its supporters to take up arms against the government and all those who opposed them, treating them as "unbelievers" and plunging the country into a downward fratricidal war. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it strongly resembles the present conflict in Syria. During the 1990s, Algeria was isolated. The FIS spawned a number of more or less radical groups and militias. They engaged in ISIS-like beheadings of their enemies – typically young national army soldiers. One of these groups, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), drew many recruits from the Arab mujahedin, who had returned from Afghanistan ‘rich’ with experience. Indeed, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) might be considered a progenitor of ‘al-Qaida in the Maghreb’. They set off bombs against civilian targets, including schools and hospitals. Since August 1992, the declaration of a State of Emergency until 2002, the war left thousands dead. Estimates vary from 50,000 to even 200,000. It also prompted a refugee crisis, displacing a million Algerians to neighboring countries. Countries like Libya were on maximum alert. In the 90’s it was enough for a young man to be sporting a beard to get him stopped at checkpoints. It was also the period, when Qadhafi increased the arrests and interrogations of suspected Islamists. The isolation of Algeria, ironically, proved useful in showing the path to bringing the war to an end.

Algeria was left to find its own solution.
Algeria did not have to please or endure the needs and machinations of foreign powers – not even those of France, its former colonial master. Syria is facing the exact opposite problem. More importantly, Algeria did not alter its government, nor did it hold new elections with the discredited FIS. The Arab nationalist style government of Chedli Benjadid was taken over by a succession of Army officers until a new president was elected – the FIS dissolved – in 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who continues to hold office to the present day. Not surprisingly, Algeria did not experience a ‘spring’ in 2011. It had already experienced and survived it.

We relate this because Algeria offers an important example for Syria. The absence of foreign fighters and interests, allowed Algeria to find the solution that best suited its needs. In Syria, the foreign fighters and regional Machiavellian games are the real drivers of the effort to eliminate the "Assad regime. In Syria, the initial demonstrations demanded the fight against cronyism and in favor of more pluralism. This promptly transformed out of anyone’s control into an international jihad. Whereas the Algerian terrorists were allowed to weaken, tired and lacking ammunition, the ones in Syria are being fuelled and replenished with equipment, funds, international political support and perhaps, ‘best’ of all, western media bias. In the end the GIA and the other Algerian rebel factions had nobody left to recruit.

The army-friendly Algerian President Bouteflika of the FLN, the same party that ruled Algeria before the failed 1991 elections, pardoned anyone who had taken up arms against the state. More specifically, Algeria held a popular referendum, which a wide majority approved, pardoning fighters who were not involved in attacks against civilians, or rape – a GIA trademark. A similar effort of national reconciliation – and isolation, perhaps challenging the idea that the West could have done more – has taken place in Rwanda after its brief but brutal civil war in 1994. That country has developed into one of the most vibrant of the whole continent.

If the anti-Asad forces were to withdraw support for the rebels, the war would end in Syria, leaving the legitimate government in a position to lead a reconciliation process. Such a process might eventually include a top-down led democratisation process, in the style of Gorbachev. After all, it can be argued, that the Soviet Union, did not collapse in a bloodbath because the last Soviet president led a gradual decentralization and opening. In the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional State that is Syria, only a gradual deconstruction can lead to a meaningful political change. But, the Asad government – which still enjoys strong support in fact – can lead it.

Saul of Tarsus who converted to Christianity and as St Paul, to its leadership, fittingly, on the ‘Road to Damascus’, told the Romans that “everyone has sinned”. As far as Syria is concerned, that observation has never been so accurate as it is today. Indeed, destruction has come from all sides, but for a solution to emerge the most important thing is for external forces – by that is meant those not cooperating with the ‘legitimate government’ - involved in the Syrian conflict must withdraw. Turkey is now facing its own problems and Saudi Arabia, which devoted much of its military capacity to the war in Yemen, is looking for ways to get out, while saving face.

This gives Syria the opportunity to regain control of the war and to work for a progressive return to peace and for the west to concentrate on battling ISIS. Reports that some opposition fighters have decided to fight on the side of the Syrian army, have offered the first hints that Asad might follow an Algerian model. The problem will be what to do with the thousands of foreign fighters, many from North Africa who will seek to return to their home countries, just as did the Arab mujahedeen in the early 90’s. They formed radical Islamic groups of their own. Ultimately, this is what T.E. Lawrence the foreign interventionist, who fought to secure the Arab’s independence only to be betrayed by his own government, would surely have suggested. He urged that the Arabs be left alone to find their own solutions, warning that foreign meddling would fail.

Alessandro Bruno