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Syrian Contradictions


“Shame on you!” boomed the voice of a Syrian intellectual in my phone half an hour after I had returned from Damascus to Beirut. He was so incoherent in his rage that it was difficult to know his precise objections, but my sin seemed to be that I had been in Damascus, talked to members of the Syrian government and concluded that it was not going to collapse any time soon.

Our conversation was not of a high intellectual calibre. After an acerbic exchange, I asked why, if he felt so strongly, did he “not stop being rude to people like me, go to Aleppo and fight beside the rebels instead of spending all your time in the cafés of Beirut”. Shortly afterwards, there was a mutual clicking-off of mobiles.

Driving the short distance between Damascus and Beirut is like shifting from one planet to another. What seems obvious and commonsensical in the Syrian capital becomes controversial and a minority viewpoint over the border in Lebanon. Outside Syria there have been repeated media and diplomatic forecasts of imminent victory for the rebels and defeat for Bashar al-Assad. Ignored in this speculation is the important point that Assad’s forces still hold, wholly or in large part, all the main cities and towns of Syria.

The difference in perceptions inside and outside Damascus is explained partly by the way the international and regional media describes the war. There are few foreign journalists in the Syrian capital because it is difficult to get visas. By way of contrast, the rebels have a highly sophisticated media operation – often also foreign-based – proffering immediate details of every incident, often backed up by compelling, if selective, YouTube footage.

Understandably, the rebel version of events is heavily biased towards their own side and demonises the Syrian government. More surprising is the willingness of the international media, based often in Beirut but also in London and New York, to regurgitate with so little scepticism what is essentially good-quality propaganda. It is as if, prior to the US presidential election in November, foreign journalists had been unable to obtain visas to enter the US and had instead decided to rely on Republican Party militants for their information on the campaign – moreover, Republican activists based in Mexico and Canada.

It is true that there is the rumble of artillery in Damascus, but the city is not besieged. The roads north to Homs and south to Deraa are open, as is the road to Beirut. When the rebels do capture a district, government artillery pounds it, killing some and forcing others to flee. For those living in undamaged areas of the capital, there is an ever-growing fear of what the future holds, combined with increasing difficulties in day-to-day living because of cuts in electricity and a shortage of bread and cooking gas.

The rebels are making some progress on the ground but, overall, Syrians face a political and military stalemate. The rebels’ assaults on Aleppo and Damascus have faltered, but the government forces do not have the strength to push them out of enclaves they have taken over. In the north, in particular, the rebels are making ground in the countryside around Hama, Idlib and Aleppo, but their advance is still slow.

The revolution has turned into a civil war. The uprising of Syrians against a cruel police state that started in March 2011 increasingly looks to Alawites, Christians, Druze and other minorities like a sectarian campaign aimed at their elimination. They watch YouTube pictures of Alawite officers being ritually decapitated and wonder what fate awaits them if Assad is defeated.

On top of this, there is a simple fear of anarchy on the part of middle-class urban Syrians who have seen Aleppo devastated and believe the same will happen to Damascus. When I arrived in the capital at the start of the month I asked a friend about the mood and he said: “Fifteen per cent for the government, 15 per cent against and 70 per cent want this war over before it ruins us all.”

Can the present stalemate be broken? It does not really look like it unless the rebels receive a massive transfusion of money, training and guns, and this would not immediately have a decisive impact. Alternatively, Washington and London have long been hoping for a split in the Syrian leadership, but this has not happened. Even a string of well-publicised defections in recent weeks has not come from the core of the regime.

The furies of civil war grow ever fiercer. The war has long ago reached the stage of what in Northern Ireland we used to call “the politics of the last atrocity”, in which too much blood is being spilled to allow for negotiation and compromise.

The policy of the US and its allies is increasingly bizarre: on the one hand, they recognise the opposition National Coalition as the legitimate government of Syria but, on the other, they label its most effective fighting force, the al-Nusra Front, as “a terrorist organisation” linked to al-Qa’ida. Just as in Iraq after 2003, Syria has become a magnet for jihadi fighters across the Muslim world. Washington is showing ever-decreasing enthusiasm for an outright rebel military victory that would strengthen jihadi militants and dissolve the governing machinery of the Syrian state.

A problem for Syria in this crisis is that so many conflicts are wrapped into one. Secular supporters of the uprising emphasise that it is about “the people against the regime”. They downplay its sectarian nature, saying this is being exaggerated and manipulated by the government. But sectarianism and democracy are intertwined in Syria, just as they were in Iraq. In Iraq, a fair election meant rule by the Shia majority replacing the Sunni. In Syria, it means rule by the 70 per cent of the population who are Sunni replacing the Alawites and their allies. In both countries, democratic change has had, or will have, explosive sectarian consequences, because majority rule means a change in which community holds power.

The Syrian crisis is further complicated and exacerbated by being at the centre of two long-running regional struggles. These are [1] the growing confrontation between Sunni and Shia across the Muslim world and, secondly, the conflict that pits the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their allies against Iran and its few friends.

It is difficult to see how the present stalemate is going to be broken. Damascus, Aleppo and Homs feel increasingly like Beirut during the 15-year civil war. Parts of these cities cling to normal life while, a few blocks away, snipers have their hideouts in buildings shattered by artillery fire. Neither side has the strength to checkmate the other. Warlords, small and big, become the real rulers of the country. In Aleppo, the commercial heart of Syria, the rebels’ main preoccupation is looting the city. The militarisation of the uprising is degrading its original democratic purpose. Barring full-scale foreign intervention, a negotiated settlement is becoming inevitable though it may be a long time coming.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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