How Syria Became a More Dangerous Quagmire Than Iraq
For the first two years of the Syrian civil war foreign leaders regularly predicted that Bashar al-Assad’s government would fall any day. In November 2011, King Abdullah of Jordan said that the chances of Assad’s surviving were so slim he ought to step down. In December last year, Anders Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, said: ‘I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse.’ Even the Russian Foreign Ministry – which generally defends Assad – has at times made similar claims. Some of these statements were designed to demoralise Assad’s supporters by making his overthrow seem inevitable. But in many cases outsiders genuinely believed that the end was just round the corner. The rebels kept claiming successes, and the claims were undiscriminatingly accepted.
That Assad’s government is on its last legs has always been something of a myth. YouTube videos of victorious rebel fighters capturing military outposts and seizing government munitions distract attention from the fact that the war is entering its third year and the insurgents have succeeded in capturing just one of the 14 provincial capitals. (In Libya the insurgents held Benghazi and the whole of the east as well as Misrata and smaller towns in the west from the beginning of the revolt.) The Syrian rebels were never as strong militarily as the outside world supposes. But they have always been way ahead of the government in their access to the international media. Whatever the uprising has since become it began in March 2011 as a mass revolt against a cruel and corrupt police state. The regime at first refused to say much in response, then sounded aggrieved and befuddled as it saw the vacuum it had created being filled with information put out by its enemies. Defecting Syrian soldiers were on television denouncing their former masters while government units that had stayed loyal remained unreported and invisible. And so it has largely continued. The ubiquitous YouTube videos of minor, and in some cases illusory, victories by the rebels are put about in large part to persuade the world that, given more money and arms, they can quickly win a decisive victory and end the war.
There is a striking divergence between the way the Syrian war is seen in Beirut – just a few hours’ drive from Damascus, even now – and what actually appears to be happening on the ground inside Syria. On recent trips I would drive to Damascus, having listened to Syrians and non-Syrians in Beirut who sincerely believed that rebel victory was close, only to find the government still very much in control. Around the capital, the rebels held some suburbs and nearby towns, but in December I was able to travel the ninety miles between Damascus and Homs, Syria’s third largest city, without any guards and with ordinary heavy traffic on the road. Friends back in Beirut would shake their heads in disbelief when I spoke about this and politely suggest that I’d been hoodwinked by the regime.
Some of the difficulties in reporting the war in Syria aren’t new. Television has a great appetite for the drama of war, for pictures of missiles exploding over Middle Eastern cities amid the sparkle of anti-aircraft fire. Print journalism can’t compete with these images, but they are rarely typical of what is happening. Despite the iconic images Baghdad wasn’t, in fact, heavily bombarded in either 1991 or 2003. The problem is much worse in Syria than it used to be in Iraq or Afghanistan (in 2001) because the most arresting pictures out of Syria appear first on YouTube and are, for the most part, provided by political activists. They are then run on TV news with health warnings to the effect that the station can’t vouch for their veracity, but viewers assume that the station wouldn’t be running the film if it didn’t believe it was real. Actual eyewitnesses are becoming hard to find, since even people living a few streets from the fighting in Damascus now get most of their information from the internet or TV.
Not all YouTube evidence is suspect. Though easily fabricated, it performs certain tasks well. It can show that atrocities have taken place, and even authenticate them: in the case of a pro-government militia massacring rebel villagers, for instance, or rebel commanders mutilating and executing government soldiers. Without a video of him doing so, who would have believed that a rebel commander had cut open a dead government soldier and eaten his heart? Pictures of physical destruction are less reliable because they focus on the worst damage, giving the impression – which may or may not be true – that a whole district is in ruins. What YouTube can’t tell you is who is winning the war.
The reality is that no one is. Over the last year a military stalemate has prevailed, with each side launching offensives in the areas where they are strongest. Both sides have had definite but limited successes. In recent weeks government forces have opened up the road that leads west from Homs to the Mediterranean coast and the road from Damascus south to the Jordanian border. They have expanded the territory they hold around the capital and trained a militia of sixty thousand, the National Defence Force, to guard positions once held by the Syrian army. This strategy of retrenchment and consolidation isn’t new. About six months ago the army stopped trying to keep control of outlying positions and focused instead on defending the main population centres and the routes linking them. These pre-planned withdrawals took place at the same time as real losses on the battlefield, and were misinterpreted outside Syria as a sign that the regime was imploding. The strategy was indeed a sign of military weakness, but by concentrating its forces in certain areas the government was able to launch counterattacks at vital points. Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.
The protracted conflict that is now underway in Syria has more in common with the civil wars in Lebanon and Iraq than with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya or the even swifter regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring. The civil war in Lebanon lasted 15 years, from 1975 to 1990, and the sectarian divisions which caused it are as marked as ever. In Iraq, 2006 and 2007 are usually described as being the worst years of the slaughter – three thousand people murdered every month – but sectarian killings began immediately after the US invasion in 2003 and haven’t stopped since. According to the UN some seven hundred Iraqis were killed in April: the highest monthly total since 2008. Syria is increasingly resembling its neighbours to the west and east: there will soon be a solid bloc of fragmented countries that stretches between the Mediterranean and Iran. In all three places the power of the central state is draining away as communities retreat into their own well-defended and near autonomous enclaves.
Meanwhile, foreign countries are gaining influence with the help of local proxies, and in so doing the rebels’ supporters are repeating the mistake Washington made ten years ago in Iraq. In the heady days after the fall of Saddam, the Americans announced that Iran and Syria were the next targets for regime change. This was largely ill-informed hubris, but the threat was real enough for the Syrians and Iranians to decide that in order to stop the Americans acting against them they had to stop the US stabilising its occupation of Iraq and lent their support to all of America’s opponents regardless of whether they were Shia or Sunni.
From an early stage in the Syrian uprising the US, Nato, Israel and the Sunni Arab states openly exulted at the blow that would soon be dealt to Iran and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: Assad’s imminent fall would deprive them of their most important ally in the Arab world. Sunni leaders saw the uprising not as a triumph of democracy but as the beginning of a campaign directed at Shia or Shia-dominated states. As with Iraq in 2003, Hezbollah and Iran believe they have no alternative but to fight and that it’s better to get on with it while they still have friends in power in Damascus. ‘If the enemy attacks us,’ Hossein Taeb, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, recently said, ‘and seeks to take over Syria or Khuzestan’ – an Iranian province – ‘the priority is to maintain Syria, because if we maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.’ Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, made it very clear in a speech on 30 April that the Lebanese Shia also see Syria as a battleground where they can’t afford a defeat. ‘Syria,’ he said, ‘has real friends in the region and the world who will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri groups.’ He believes the very survival of the Shia is at stake. For many in the Middle East this sounded like a declaration of war: a significant one, given Hezbollah’s experience in fighting a guerrilla war against the Israelis in Lebanon. The impact of its skill in irregular warfare has already been witnessed in the fighting at Qusayr and Homs, just beyond Lebanon’s northern border. ‘It probably is unrealistic to expect Lebanese actors to take a step back,’ a study by the International Crisis Group concludes. ‘Syria’s fate, they feel, is their own, and the stakes are too high for them to keep to the sideline.’
The Syrian civil war is spreading. This, not well-publicised advances or withdrawals on the battlefield, is the most important new development. Political leaders in the region see the dangers more intensely than the rest of the world. ‘Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish the other off,’ Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said earlier this year. ‘If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq.’ Of these countries, the most vulnerable is Lebanon, given the division between Sunni and Shia, a weak state, porous borders and proximity to heavily populated areas of Syria. A country of four million people has already taken in half a million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunnis.
In Iraq, the Syrian civil war has reignited a sectarian conflict that never entirely ended. The destabilising of his country that Maliki predicted in the event of an opposition victory has already begun. The overthrow of Saddam brought to power a Shia-Kurdish government that displaced Sunni rule dating back to the foundation of the Iraqi state in 1921. It is this recently established status quo that is now under threat. The revolt of the Sunni majority in Syria is making the Sunni minority in Iraq feel that the regional balance is swinging in their favour. They started to demonstrate in December, modelling their protests on the Arab Spring. They wanted reform rather than revolution, but to the Shia majority the demonstrations appeared to be part of a frighteningly powerful Sunni counter-offensive across the Middle East. The Baghdad government equivocated until 23 April, when a military force backed by tanks crushed a sit-in protest in the main square of Hawijah, a Sunni town south-west of Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people including eight children. Since then local Sunni leaders who had previously backed the Iraqi army against the Kurds have been demanding that it leave their provinces. Iraq may be disintegrating.
The feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt is growing across the Middle East – for the first time since Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. ‘It is the end of Sykes-Picot,’ I was told repeatedly in Iraq; the reference was to the agreement of 1916 which divided up the spoils between Britain and France and was the basis for later treaties. Some are jubilant at the collapse of the old order, notably the thirty million Kurds who were left without a state of their own after the Ottoman collapse and are now spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They feel their moment has come: they are close to independence in Iraq and are striking a deal with the Turkish government for political rights and civil equality. In March, the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK declared an end to their thirty-year war with the Turkish government and started withdrawing into the mountains of northern Iraq. The 2.5 million Kurds in northern Syria, 10 per cent of the population, have assumed control of their towns and villages and are likely to demand a high degree of autonomy from any postwar Syrian government.
What will the new order in the Middle East look like? This should be Turkey’s great moment in the region: it has a powerful military, a prospering economy and a well-established government. It is allied to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in supporting the Syrian opposition and is on good terms with the US. But these are dangerous waters to fish in. Three years ago, Ankara was able to deal peaceably with Syria, Iraq and Iran, but now it has poisonous relations with all three. Engagement in Syria on the side of the rebels isn’t popular at home and the government is clearly surprised that the conflict hasn’t yet ended. There are signs that the violence is spilling over Turkey’s 510-mile frontier with Syria, across which insurgent groups advance and retreat at will. On 11 May, two bombs in a Turkish border town killed 49 people, almost all Turkish. An angry crowd of Turks marched down the main street chanting ‘kill the Syrians’ as they assaulted Syrian shopkeepers. Arab politicians wonder whether the Turks know what they are getting into and how they will handle it. ‘The Turks are big on rhetoric but often disappointing when it comes to operational ability,’ one Arab leader says. ‘The Iranians are just the opposite.’ The recent deal between the government and Turkey’s Kurds could easily unravel. A long war in Syria could open up divisions in Turkey just as it is doing elsewhere.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it changed the overall balance of power and destabilised every country in the region. The same thing is happening again, except that the impact of the Syrian war is likely to be less easily contained. Already the frontier dividing the western deserts of Iraq from the eastern deserts of Syria is ceasing to have any physical reality. In April, al-Qaida in Iraq embarrassed the rebels’ Western supporters by revealing that it had founded, reinforced with experienced fighters and devoted half its budget to supporting al-Nusra, militarily the most effective rebel group. When Syrian soldiers fled into Iraq in March they were ambushed by al-Qaida and 48 of them were killed before they could return to Syrian territory.
There is virtually no state in the region that hasn’t got some stake in the conflict. Jordan, though nervous of a jihadi victory in Syria, is allowing arms shipments from Saudi Arabia to reach rebels in southern Syria by road. Qatar has reportedly spent $3 billion on supporting the rebels over the last two years and has offered $50,000 to every Syrian army defector and his family. In co-ordination with the CIA it has sent seventy military flights to Turkey with arms and equipment for the insurgents. The Tunisian government says that eight hundred Tunisians are fighting on the rebel side but security sources are quoted as saying the real figure is closer to two thousand. Moaz al-Khatib, the outgoing president of the Syrian National Coalition, which supposedly represents the opposition, recently resigned, declaring as he did so that the group was controlled by outside powers – i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar. ‘The people inside Syria,’ he said, ‘have lost the ability to decide their own fate. I have become only a means to sign some papers while hands from different parties want to decide on behalf of the Syrians.’ He claimed that on one occasion a rebel unit failed to go to the rescue of villagers being massacred by government forces because they hadn’t received instructions from their paymasters.
Fear of widespread disorder and instability is pushing the US, Russia, Iran and others to talk of a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Some sort of peace conference may take place in Geneva over the next month, with the aim at least of stopping things getting worse. But while there is an appetite for diplomacy, nobody knows what a solution would look like. It’s hard to imagine a real agreement being reached when there are so many players with conflicting interests. Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.
By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. He is probably correct in predicting that diplomacy will fail, that his opponents inside and outside Syria are too divided to agree on a peace deal. He may also be right in believing that greater foreign intervention ‘is a clear probability’. The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.