Syria's atamans

Atamanschina” is a Russian word that translates to “time of the atamans.” It refers to the period of the Russian Civil War when anti—Bolshevik Cossack bands — led by their “atamans” — dominated large swaths of Siberia with Japanese backing. These bands’ “anti—Bolshevik” campaigns were characterized mainly by pogroms against local populations and systematic extortion of refugees.

While Syria’s opposition — in larger part due to international (in)action — faces these pitfalls at present, it is Damascus’s forces that bear the greatest resemblance to these long—dead atamans. Despite the under—strength, under—armed and sometimes brutal actions of the anti—Assad armed opposition, the Assad regime already has its own Cossack hosts, in the form of its shabiha paramilitaries, and its most trusted atamans are the Syrian President’s relatives.

The dissident Yassin al—Haj Saleh notes that this relationship is termed “al—salbata” in Syrian Arabic, and “is a uniquely Syrian term for the way in which state authority is exercised in Assad’s Syria: It is an amalgamation of salab (looting or plundering), labat (the act of knocking someone down) and tasallut (the unfettered exercise of power).” Alongside it is the phrase “al—taballi … roughly equivalent to ‘informing,’” which “means falsely accusing a person of doing something for which they will pay a heavy price.” Such statements often mean a one—way trip to the torture chambers run by a counter—intelligence obsessed regime. The Syrian national security establishment is led by minority officers, and have long been dependent on brute force and extortion to maintain order. Their strongest supporters are those who’ve most benefitted from official largesse — from institutionalized discrimination and extraction, that is — and they must hope that those who haven’t benefitted remain cowed and distrustful of an armed opposition with Islamist and (other) foreign influences. It is, increasingly, a losing bet.

So far, it has worked within Syria. The Syrian Army, despite its setbacks and fear of defeat, continues to hold or contest the main population centers. Defections are reportedly limited, and the regime’s forces are (usually) better—armed and possess numerical superiority over their opponents. And the Ba’athist repressive machine still operates on a national scale. The fact that Syria has not collapsed entirely is, according to Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, is because overall, the opposition’s “efforts are what have kept society together, despite a growing and worrying pattern of confessional, criminal and revenge—inspired violence” — that is, most activists’ refusal to play ataman themselves along the lines Yassin al—Haj Saleh has documented.

And most importantly, no single unified force exists domestically to organize resistance to Assad. Some of the severely divided opposition groups that exist, inside or outside of Syria, armed and not, have so far failed to secure support for direct foreign military intervention as occurred in Libya last year despite their lobbying for it.

Unlike Assad, who aside from Iranian largesse (and Russo—Chinese diplomacy) depends mainly on foreign inaction to stay in power, the armed opposition grows desperate for direct foreign assistance from NATO and the GCC. In the West, for some observers it is only a matter of time until the Iranian elephant in the CENTCOM situation room is cited to massively increase assistance to anti—regime militias, with all parties seeking out their favored agents of influence. Tokyo threw money, advisors and arms at its favored Siberian proxies — so too will the US and Saudi Arabia.

A political solution cannot occur without a military one, but a military solution alone — one that does nothing to address the constant disruptions of ordinary life, at the very least — does not guarantee stability or security, even in the short term.

While armed Sunni companies kitted out with the latest MILAN anti—tank missiles and liaising with officers from, hypothetically, SOCOM or the Saudi National Guard, may be able to fight better against Assad, the temptation for such groups to increasingly rely on their foreign support to supplant the state’s forces as the powers—that—be will be great. People could be effectively trading one national dictatorship for local ones when such armed bands roll into town.

However, for many Syrians this is a purely academic consideration. Support for the armed opposition, or direct intervention from, say, the Turkish Army, would be more than acceptable. It could mean an end to the shelling, torture and sniping carried out by Assad’s forces in their towns. It could mean the possibility of averting another Houla massacre — the recent murder of almost 100 Syrian civilians, reportedly by Alawite shabiha, in villages near Homs — that are regularly occurring throughout the country. Worrying over the SNC and Muslim Brotherhood’s bickering, Kurdish separatism and the machinations of Iraqi opportunists in Al Anbar, comes far behind the urgency of not being shot at while crossing the street, or finding ways to get local life return to some semblance of normalcy: food deliveries, electricity access, restoration of sanitation services.

But if NATO and the GCC members really did desire to give Syrians the space in which to advance their own self—determination, their civilian leaders would have prioritized far sooner offering international aid to the Syrian populace where and when they can. Factionalism within the Syrian political opposition is exacerbated by wartime exigencies — opposition councils in Syrian cities must manage much with very little while groping towards a cohesive national resistance. With clearer non—military logistical and diplomatic support, presented as fait accomplis to Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Yang Jiechi — Assad’s two greatest international assets right now — as the last stop before providing military support to anti—regime militias, the “Friends of Syria” would had a stronger hand to push the Assad regime’s supporters to chose among desertion, defection or defiance. Now, the US is trying to push a “Yemeni” outcome as the UN Supervision Mission looks even more irrelevant. It could be possible to avert “ten years” of festering civil war by pushing that choice. By making it so that it is not only a choice between a President Bashar al Assad or a General Mustafa al—Sheikh. But as the Dubai School of Government’s Fadi Salem noted, “‘The world’ does not exist. Individual powers have conflicting interests on Syria. The humanitarian lens doesn’t apply.”

The Independent’s Musa Okwonga likewise noted this weekend, despite “widespread knowledge of atrocities,” “vested interests keep the slaughter going.” That is the primary risk of escalating Syria’s proxy battles along existing ethno—sectarian fault lines. And should foreign support dry up and the anti—regime militias lose support among Syrians, then initiative may return to the Assads. When you eliminate all the alternatives, you are left with only one victorious force. In Russia, that was the Bolsheviks. And it was the Bolsheviks who, in the years after the victory over the atamans, unleashed industrial—scale pogroms and extortions that far dwarfed the puppet atamans’ own depredations. That is the price of arming the opposition — and then casting them aside once they’ve served the purpose their armorers had in mind: foils to Tehran, Salafist agents of influence, “humanitarian” success story — all of which fall well short of the stated goal of effecting a political transition in Syria. The final stretch of the 20th century has seen so many stillborn policies birthed from such interventions in Bosnia, in Afghanistan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Iraq, in Somalia. Conflicts left to fester when attention moved on, or when the world grew tired of dashed expectations for “peace.” Syria would not be an exception, so once again, it is necessary for commentators to ask proponents of these policies where the “responsibility to protect” begins and ends. As Jillian C. York has noted, many of those in the Syrian Army are hardly serving there by choice or out of any sense of loyalty to the regime — any political solution must bear this in mind.

While foreign military intervention remains an extremely destabilizing choice, yet more and more Syrians may be willing to accept it, to accept anything that ends with Assad’s departure from Syria, one way or another. As a result, there are fewer and fewer avenues leading away from an incipient “Atamanischina”, actions that avert “Lebanonization”. But looking down what avenues are left, how much of a price can Syrians be expected to pay waiting for the “right” policy to appear on the horizon, and how long can all this go on as those “vested interests” move to arm their favored parties in order to secure “influence” in the country?