Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Syria: It's more complicated than you think.

And yet again a conflict in the Middle East consumes most of the media attention... The crisis in Syria is a very complicated issue, the resolution of which is much more elusive than is portrayed by the 2 minute media segments. Indeed, it is more complicated than most people realize. In this post I would like to point out some of the complexities of the Syrian crisis, in particular the complexities of the two sides.

Side A: Assad’s regime. He is not the most popular fellow in the Western media. His regime has allegedly killed over 100 000 people; although, it is quite likely that the rebels have greatly contributed to that number in same indiscriminate manner. Assad also allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians, although no one ever actually given any proof of that. This accusation painfully reminds me of similar accusations that USA has made when it came to Iraq (Sadam Hussein and his alleged nuclear weapons). However, it should be pointed out that Assad’s regime has been quite cooperative with the demands of the international community. Assad has cooperated with the UN on the chemical weapons issue, and he is open to attending Geneva 2 peace talks. Of course, he does not consider his resignation as a possible option, but he is open to discussing other options (which he does not really need to since his troops have been doing pretty well on the ground. Furthermore, the rebels have been losing the territories they gain due to lack of people’s support in those areas.)

Assad’s regime is supported by Russia, China, and Iran. Russia supports Assad’s regime because of their economic ties (arms exports and major investments in Syria's infrastructure); plus Russia worries about the spread of Islamic militancy in the region – which is very likely if the rebels win. Iran needs Syria to balance against Saudi Arabia and USA. Since USA took out two of its neighbours -Afghanistan and Iraq- and since Iran sits in between them, it rightly feels a bit uncomfortable at this point thus it needs Syria. Furthermore, Assad’s regime is mostly Alawites, which is a Shiite offshoot. Since Iran population is mostly Shiite Muslims, there are also religious ties/loyalties. As for China, it was Syria's third-largest importer in 2010; thus it has some economic interests, plus, for obvious reasons, it wants to discourage the liberal intervention theory that allows other countries to meddle in the internal affairs of nations. Now to the other side, which is favoured by the West.

Side B: the rebels or the opposition, which vaguely reminds me of the Lernaean Hydra - lots of heads none of which are of much use. The Hydra’s body, that gives rise to the numerous heads, consists of three main regional actors: Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Acting in clumsy unison, this beast does not have its heart (or heads) set on peaceful and functioning Syria.

Why? Well, Turkey (and USA for that matter) has long disliked Iran, who has close friendly relations with Syria. If Syria is to fall, Iran becomes more vulnerable . As an added bonus, Turkey will be able to take a bite out of a fallen or weakened Syria (more land for Turkey = possible revival of Ottoman Empire in their eyes?). Furthermore, religious (Wahhabi sect of Islam as the state religion – it is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam) Qatar and Saudi Arabia also have something to gain – a fall of secular government in the region. Thus it is not surprising that the majority of rebel groups are extreme Islamists that would like the Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) to take power in Syria (which has not worked out well for Egypt thus far). Although the majority of the Syrians are Sunnis, a lot of these Sunnis are not supporting the rebels but instead side with Assad. (Assad also gets a lot of his support from the minorities, who are Shias, Alawites, Twelvers, Ismailis, Christians, and etc, which in addition to some of the Sunnis give him a somewhat strong support base. )

Now, back to the rebellious heads of our Hydra. I choose to call them rebels rather than “Syrian” “opposition”, because they do not act in unison thus they do not deserve a title that suggests they are singular in mind or action. It also does not seem that they actually have Syria’s best interests in mind, considering they are backed by countries that have their own interests in mind as discussed above.  Currently, this Hydra now has more than 20 heads, all of which seem to agree only on destruction. The stories from the field about the rebels are quite repulsive. They seem to be spending most of their time on creating destruction and chaos, rather than co-operating with each other or thinking about their “grand strategy” for Syria. Unsurprisingly, most of them are not thinking of going to the peace talks, because they don’t want to talk if there is a possibility of Assad remaining in power.
Considering that Assad is doing well military wise and support wise from minorities and some Sunnis ( thus he has some legitimacy – close to 50% of the population), one would think that the rebels would realize that the best way to end violence is to begin talking and eventually develop a compromise. However, a compromise is a non-starter for a lot of rebel groups and some even threaten to severe ties with their fellow rebel groups who attend the peace talks, if the talks focus on compromising with Assad. If the rebels are truly fighting Assad because they want to stop a “blood thirsty monster”, they should jump at the chance to stop the bloodshed. As they are not, it makes you wonder if stopping bloodshed and creating peace is actually something they want.

However, the West chooses to ignore the above mentioned points (of which it is well aware) and strongly supports the rebels. Some intellectuals suggested arming the rebels in order to help them fight Assad, because a Hydra with some[more] firepower will almost certainly bring peace to Syria. Perhaps our super-powered Hydra will destroy Assad’s regimes, but then… we are left one ugly fiery Hydra to deal with! The rebels are already being armed by their home countries, but  the West does not need to contribute to that. Moreover, the guns we give out do not exactly come back to us; instead they contribute to the militarization of and instability in the region – as demonstrated by our experience with Libya, where our arms contributed to militarization of Libya and Niger.

At very least, before providing military support, we should put a leash on this unwieldy monster. We need ensure that there is only one head and it truly desires to act in the best interests of Syrians (SNC is falling apart due to internal disagreements). Furthermore, we need to be thinking about what if our lovely sea monster will turn around and try bite our head off once it gets its steady footing. Meaning, are we alright with the idea of an extremist Islamist government in Syria? Do we believe such a government is the key to a sustainable peace in Syria? We don’t have all of the answers, but we need to get some answers before making any concrete moves military wise.

Indeed, we need to learn from our past failures. In Libya, we flew in, killed Gadaffi and flew out. Now, the country is falling apart at the seams. Lets not get ahead of ourselves and let what happened with Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq happen to Syria. If we think Assad needs to go, we need to have a better plan than just hoping that the rebels will make up, brighten up and lead Syria to a stable peace once we help them to dispose of Assad.

I do realize I did not go into enough depth on a lot of points, because I did not want to make the post too long. Thus I think I’ll write an article on this topic in a month or so… So keep an eye out for that! Also, feel free to posts your thoughts on the complexities in the region or Syria’s situation :)


  1. I liked your post on this topic. The illustration of the Hydra IMHO was dead on. I have heard it said a reason the west wants to oust the Assad regime is due to his staunch opposition to gas pipelines being built through the region. This is assisting Russia a close ally maintain a monopoly on natural gas. It may be noted that there have been several attempts to transport gas through this region to Western markets without success. Thanks for the well written explanation.

    1. You are absolutely right. I have heard that as well and I think gas pipelines issue has played a very big part at the onset of this conflict. I think it's rather odd that Assad was in power for years and there wasn't a problem... and then out of the blue he was a tyrant. I think a different variable must have caused the start of the conflict ( other than his "tyrannical rule"), and the gas pipelines issue could have been it. Thank you for pointing that out!

  2. Side A: 1)excellent objective analysis in the first paragraph especially that you used the word allegedly
    2)Why would Assad resign? His fate is an internal matter, it is the Syrian people that decides and the majority supports him. What are the alternatives ?

    Organized Chaos like in Iraq,Libya,Afghanistan and the whole region.

    Syria didn't work out as planned by the West for the government and army to collapse in a matter of days , officials

    resign,defect and drop out like flies ,the reason is that their army is indoctrinated ,they are a part of the Resistance movement along with IRan,and

    Hizbullah against Israel and any military intervention would be a gamble by the West where the outcome is not guaranteed.

    3) Russia's consistent veto in the United Nation's security council against Nato's strike isn't just solely based on economic interest or the presence of

    their only military base in the Middle East ,or the gas pipeline ,they are all valid reasons ,it is actually a matter of existence , how many times we've

    heard George Bush and Condalisa Rice talking about the new world order ,a New Middle East ,basically drawing up a new World map .

    The danger in Syria's downfalls is that Iran is next on the list and then you will have American military bases holding a gun to Russia's head.Internally,

    the presence of I think 7 or 8 Russian Islamic Republics (Chechnya,Dagestan,Altai,etc) who have exported thousands of extremist fundamentalists to Syria

    will also have damaging consequences on Russia if the tide is not stemmed (look at the recent Volgograd's bombing) .

    4)Shiites are offshoots of Alawites is a common inaccurate phrase thrown around ,Shiites or the Shiites twelvers ,follow a similar concept like Jesus and his

    12 disciples and the Jews with the 12 tribes of Israel ,Shiite Muslims believe in the 12 Imams(Leaders) who succeeded the last prophet Muhammad and they are

    all from his progeny . Alawites only believe in Ali ,the the direct successor of the prophet ,so Alawites can't be offshoot of Shiites,and by the way

    Alawites are one of the most oppressed minorities in Syria.
    Did you know that the majority of the army is Muslim Sunnis , Syria was never a sectarian country, there's definitely opression and Assad has many faults but

    it's not secterianism.

    On the other hand,why are countries who have close ties to the US are not villified in the North American press,take Saudi Arabia for example formerly known

    as Hijaz,ruled by one family ,changed the country's name after their family name! No parliament,no elections,no women's rights,no churches allowed to be

    built,they have been financing terrorism for ages ,I think 8 of the 911 hijackers were Saudis,and the list goes on ,but we never hear a public outcry that

    the King has to go or the regime , So it's not really about democracy that the US keeps preaching.