Beyond Syria's "truce" and interventionism

The April 12 truce between the Syrian military and the armed opposition groups under the Free Syrian Army umbrella is fragmenting as reports continue to come out of Syria showing that violence is continuing while the UN is preparing a ceasefire monitoring mission. Syrian blogger Maysaloon, on the catch–22s for the Syrian Army and the armed resistance:

The Syrian Foreign Ministry has announced that the regime will not withdraw its armed forces from Syrian cities until it has a written guarantee from the opposition to abide by a ceasefire. To add insult to injury the statement asks that the guarantee also provide for the handing in of weapons by the different groups and also to allow for the “state” to reassert its control over all parts of the country. Apparently the Ministry wished to “clarify” the Annan proposal; in effect what the regime is demanding is a surrender document from the opposition.

What is most absurd is that Syria does not have one opposition, but many oppositions. It also does not have one Free Syrian Army, but many different groups fighting loosely under that label. So getting them to agree and provide one document - even if we assume they were going to accept this demand - is nearly impossible. And that, of course, is the whole point of the regime’s demands.

Saudi and American hawks continue to call for the arming of Syrian opposition group. On the other side of the coin, “liberal interventionists,” now including French president Nicholas Sarkozy, are urging, with hints of support from Turkey, that Western countries should establish “humanitarian corridors” for the tens of thousands of refugees who have been making for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Even Kofi Annan, according to Al Arabiya, knew going in that Syria was violating the letter of the agreement by not withdrawing its heavy weapons - i.e., the hardware of the Republican Guards and 4th Armored Division (both units are commanded by Maher al-Assad, Basher’s younger brother) - from the cities and reducing the number of army checkpoints in neighborhoods. Annan reportedly hopes that the ceasefire will enable him to build pressure on Assad through Russia, China and Iran to withdraw his troops.

The Stimson Center’s Mona Yacoubian thinks this is unlikely, and Jadaliyya’s Bassam Haddad also is not optimistic the ceasefire will hold:

Even if the uprisings are led by … millions of simply perfect [M]arxist feminist anti-imperialist Syrians that are even more radical than the anti-imperialists who also criticize the opposition[1], the regime will not tolerate it. It will not tolerate even so much as serious discursive criticism if it emanates from Syria. It’s not a puzzle.

Haddad has here, and elsewhere, discussed the “zero-sum relationship between itself and society since the late 1960s and early 1970s” that he feels defines the regime’s worldview, much like commentaries from Nir Rosen and Patrick Seale. For a timeline of how the Baathists, Assads and Alawites clawed their way to the top in the former French protectorate after WWII, Slate Magazine outlines the main events, from the first CIA intervention in Damascene politics to the “Corrective Revolution” and the 1982 siege of Hama that firmly set the Assads and their so-far mostly loyal (and mostly Alawite) secret police chiefs, militia commanders and officer corps on top of Syrian society.

Looking ahead to a possible political solution that removes the Assads (and, by extension, the present national security leadership, which has the real power), that zero-sum relationship represents a near-insurmountable problem for the opposition. Not just because the opposition is still not a unified front - there is both nonviolent and violent resistance going on, and the “Friends of Syria” group’s preferred interlocutor, the Syrian National Council, is not recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian people - but because it has to convince the Alawites that there’s still a place for them in Syria. Asli U. Bali and Aziz F. Rana offered this suggestion in, which mirrors, among other conflict resolution proposals, how the Romanian Army decided to halt its crackdowns and backed a “reformist” faction in the country’s communist party:

Ultimately, the best way to reduce violence is to pursue negotiations for a political transition that would include rather than explicitly threaten the Assad government. Given the mortal fears of communities on each side of the conflict, the first goal has to be making clear that all groups have a future in a new Syria… . Some will argue that we shouldn’t engage with the Syrian government or its backers. But further isolation tells the Assad government and its social constituencies that their only options are victory through mass violence or annihilation.

The Romanian analogy – one I invoke, not the authors – is a loose one at best because the death toll in Syria is much higher than it was in Romania in 1989, and the fighting has been going on for much longer. Moreover, while Romania had minority divisions which played out during the “brief” revolution there, Syria’s ethnic divisions are far more acute in light of the Alawites’ monopolizing power for so long, the 1976–1982 “counterinsurgency” campaign against the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood and the “Kurdish Question" that also affects Turkey and Iraq (the SNC, for its part, is increasing its overtures to Kurdish groups in the country). Novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab, explains how the regime will continue trying to use sectarianism to justify itself (h/t Maysaloon):

… the French were successful in building [a colonial] army of minorities. The troupes speciales were recruited disproportionately from hitherto oppressed rural minority groups. This was the basis of the national army which first took over the country (with CIA help) in 1946, and which has ruled for most of the time since.

The ugly history has to be understood now most urgently because the regime has instrumentalised sect so savagely since the uprising began. It has done so through its propaganda and, more dangerously, by arming Alawi thugs and sending them to kill and rape in Sunni neighbourhoods. The ruling gang’s objective is to encourage Sunni hatred of Alawis so as to scare Alawis into loyalty to their ‘Alawi’ president. It doesn’t need to be said that the Alawi community as a whole is, or will be, the prime victim of this policy.

Additionally, in Romania the U.S. and NATO had no part play and the USSR refused to step in on behalf of the dictator: Syrian demonstrators and regime loyalists have been overburdened with Turkish, Iranian, Saudi, American, Russian and Lebanese proxy aspirations since before the (nonviolent) protests started in 2011. That such an analogy is not really applicable here illustrates just how far any peace plan has to go, UN mission or not.


  1. A not-so-subtle dig at those Western intellectuals judged by some Syrian activists to be apologists for Assad.  ↩