The Syrian Stalemate

Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao had an interesting question to discuss during their summit in Beijing.  Is it good business and good geopolitics to acquiesce to a Sunni Arab triumph in Syria?  Or is Syria the place to hold the line against a destabilizing and counterproductive projection of Saudi Arabian power into Iran’s near beyond?

Absent from the discussion is the United States, which has abdicated any claims to moral or political leadership and contents itself by bleating from the sidelines as the Western media pleasures itself with fantasies of righteousness.

Meanwhile, Syria bleeds…and bleeds…and bleeds.

The simplest explanation for the massacre of almost 200 villagers at Houla and Qubeir is brutal payback by regime irregulars with a dash of ethnic cleansing.  The possibility of a false flag operation—a massacre orchestrated by regime opponents in order to discredit the Assad regime and polarize opinion—would appear to be unlikely.  Murder will out, as Shakespeare put it, and it would be nice to think that even amid Syria’s chaos the most brutal strategist would shrink before the political risks of trying to murder scores of civilians and try to pin it on the other side.

However, accurate details of the massacres have yet to emerge.  Most recently Rainer Hermann, Middle East correspondent of Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung further muddied the waters by accusing the rebels of committing the Houla atrocity.

If one steps back and adopts the standard of cui bono?—who benefits?—to the atrocities, it is undeniable that the massacres have been a propaganda godsend to the opposition.

Post-Houla, broadcasting dire warnings of an impending massacre of civilians seems to be becoming a staple of rebel media management whenever it faces a regime counteroffensive.  Most recently, the rebels assaulted the town of al Haffeh.  When government troops appeared to seal off the town and prepare to retake it, the Free Syrian Army warned of another impending massacre and announced to the avid international media it was spiriting civilians out of the city to safety.  For its part, the government broadcast wiretaps of what it claimed were rebel provocateurs discussing plans to stage a Houla-style outrage at Haffeh and the nearby town of Tal and blame them on the government.

The cry of (looming) massacre also encourages the deployment of what one might term “the Benghazi gambit”—using claims of imminent civilian peril to short-circuit discussion and investigation at the international level, push for a quick military solution, and then take advantage of the “winners write history” privilege to bury any traces of error, skullduggery, and dishonesty by the good guys.

The narrative of escalating Syrian government brutality is important to Assad’s enemies, as it counters another, more embarrassing narrative: the increased flow of money and material aid to the rebels, aid that is in contravention of the ceasefire, helps elicit more brutal government action to quash the rebellion, and thereby justifies the provision of more clandestine aid to “protect civilians” while rendering the failure of the Annan mission even more likely—a virtuous cycle, at least for the opposition committed to Assad’s downfall.

A sure sign of the increased flow of aid to the rebels was the deployment of publicly unsubstantiated accusations by the US State Department that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria.  Perhaps the State Department has unique insights into the flow of military materiel from Russia to Syria, but the key change in Syria is not in the order of battle of the government forces; it is the increase in military capabilities of the local rebels thanks in significant part to foreign supply of arms.

Likewise, escalating foreign outrage over the Assad regime’s brutal excesses and the emergence of the detested irregulars—the shabiha—as regime shock troops has paralleled the climbing death count of government security forces.

The fact remains that the only clear path to a negotiated solution of the Syrian crisis requires a military stalemate, not regime overthrow.

Assad’s strategy (and that of Russia and China) appears to be to neutralize the armed opposition militarily, and then goose the political process by releasing the domestic moderates among the hundred thousand or so political prisoners his secret polices services have placed in their grim inventory.  Indeed, that’s where things were headed after Assad’s forces crushed the rebels at Babu Amr in Homs and held parliamentary elections…and before a flood of international condemnation and an increased flow of arms heartened the opposition.

The fact that the United States is working toward the exact opposite end by encouraging the armed struggle now remorselessly polarizing the country and grinding away at the regime’s legitimacy (or more accurately, just letting Syria collapse into chaos) is, I suppose, a subject that the infinitely capacious and flexible American conscience will find a way to deal with.

To be fair, the United States, the EU, and Turkey have been paragons of timidity when it comes to effecting the overthrow of Bashar al Assad.  The overt military option is off the table and Turkey, which by rights should be seizing the regional leadership role, has apparently acquired a serious case of cold feet now that the inclusive liberal revolution has turned into a sectarian-tinged uprising that threatens to bring unrest and anxiety to Kurdish populations in Turkey as well as Syria.

Attempts to tease out the significance of Houla and Qubeir, together with the impression that the Assad regime is on its last legs, has turned interest to a possible endgame: a bloody spasm of ethnic cleansing in the Alawite homeland of the coastal mountains, followed by some sort of hunkering down by pro-regime forces as they negotiate for their future with a triumphant new regime in Damascus.

This speculation fueled comparisons with Bosnia—another gateway justification for increased foreign intervention

There are indeed some interesting historical precedents for Alawite separatism.

Alawite communities, which now constitute about 12% of Syria’s population, were marginalized during the Ottoman empire thanks to widespread condemnation of their heterodox and esoteric religious practice by Islamic authorities.  Indeed, traditional Alawi belief apparently includes some unique elements, particularly the deification of Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, that would make it extremely difficult for it to pass muster with mainstream Muslim practitioners.

The Ottomans categorized Alawites as apostates, referring to them by the dismissive term of Nusayris (a term that has re-emerged in heated discussions of the Syrian situation on Muslim-related message boards and even in media accounts).

Until 1870, clerical fatwas declared it was permissible to slay Alawites and take their possessions; in the latter decades of the Ottoman empire Alawite thieves were still occasionally crucified or impaled for their transgressions—a punishment that was not applied to Muslims and had been eliminated for Christians almost a hundred years before.

At the fall of the empire, only one “city”—a Christian town with a population of 2600—allowed Alawites to reside within its walls.  The rest lived in small hamlets under conditions of medieval poverty and subjugation to the Sunni political, economic, and administrative elite residing in the important coastal towns of Latakia and Tartus.

French assumption of the Syria mandate after World War I, though resented by most Syrians, was a godsend to the Alawites.  The French, applying the proven divide-and-rule template, supported the Allawites’ aspirations to equality and dignity, at least for a time, as well as enrolling them disproportionately in the military force it created to slug it out with the Syrian nationalist uprising.

The French administration also promoted the use of the more dignified term “Alawite” instead of “Nusayri”.  From 1922 until 1935, when the French government achieved a satisfactory accommodation with the local governing authority in Damascus, the Alawite areas enjoyed autonomy as the “Sanjak of Lattakia”, with their own rulers and flag, albeit with a French tricolor in the corner.

After World War II, when decolonization was clearly in the cards, Alawi leaders fruitlessly agitated for the creation of another Lebanon—another island, in other words, of protected non-Sunni minorities—encompassing the Alawi heartland along the Syrian coastal range or, at the very least, autonomy.   However, the French stood aside, and the Damascus regime reasserted control over the Alawi areas after a series of skirmishes that were little more than bandit suppression exercises.

With their dreams of independence dashed, Alawite religious and political leaders began the difficult process of affirming their Arab identity and loyalty in an environment of intense Arab and Syrian nationalism after an inglorious interval serving as France’s colonial assets, and the even dicier task of redefining their religion so that their faith and its adherents would be accepted by the greater Syrian community, which is overwhelmingly Sunni.  Syrian Sunni acceptance was slow and grudging.  Only in 1952 did the Syrian state extend even partial recognition of the Islamic character of Alawi religious observance. [see Nationalism and the politics of Za’ama: The collapse of Republican Syria, 1945-1949 Joshua Landis unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, Princeton U., 1997]

In response to their difficulties, Alawite religious leaders unilaterally identified themselves as part of the “Twelver” strain of Shi’ism, a claim that was only fitfully and incompletely acknowledged by the Twelver hierarchy in Lebanon over 40 years, until ties were formalized in 1973 by the renowned Twelver leader Musa al-Sadr (whose subsequent disappearance in Libya and apparent murder at the hands of Qaddafi still roils Libya-Lebanese relations).

Alawi re-invention was completed as Alawi soldiers leveraged their leading position in the French and early Syrian armies and came to dominate the officer corps as well.  When the time came for a coup in 1971, the Alawites—in the form of Hafez al Assad—were there to take control of Syria’s central government, beginning the unlikely forty year reign of a sect that was almost totally marginalized twenty-five years before.

If, as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again, this probably rings truer for the Alawis than any other group in Syria.  The legitimacy and authority of the Alawi elite is embedded in the matrix of Syrian nationalism and centralism, and not the abandoned flirtations with local independence or autonomy.  Add to that the fact that the major cities of Latakia and Tartus still have sizable and demonstrably restive Sunni populations, the prospects for retreating to a defendable haven in western Syria appear extremely remote.

Finally, it is unlikely that Russia, China, or even Iran would defy international sanctions to prop up the Assad regime with economic and military aid if it shrank to an Alawite coastal enclave.

The Assad regime’s political strategy, in other words, is predicated upon clinging to central political power and some legitimacy, not trying to leverage its dubious separatist option.

If the example of Lebanon resonates with Syria’s Alawite leadership, it is probably in the context of the 1989 Taif Agreement, an episode of externally-negotiated power sharing led by Saudi Arabia and Syria that brought an end to the most violent phase of the Lebanese civil war—one that demonstrated the bloody futility of efforts by Lebanon’s close analogue to the Alawites, the overly-represented and heavily-armed Christian minority, to protect and assert its privileges through the establishment of sectarian enclaves.

Under the accord, the various foreign sponsors persuaded their respective Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, and Druze clients to get off each other’s throats and instead divvy up powers and offices based on their respective power and inclination to do mischief (as a conflict avoidance measure, Lebanon has refrained from conducting an official national census, which would demonstrate that the dwindling Christian population still enjoyed offices and parliamentary seats vastly disproportionate to its current share of the population).

The Taif process enjoyed across-the-board support from the Arab world, the United States, and the USSR.  Syria, which had traditionally called the shots in Lebanon, accepted a diminution of its clout (though it honored its obligations to withdraw its troops from Lebanon “in the breach”, as it were) and leadership of the Sunni interest by Saudi Arabia’s anointed choice, Rafik Hariri.

It is safe to say that, post Arab Spring and with the explosion of domestic dissent, Bashar al Assad recognized the futility of trying to suppress the aspirations of Syria’s Sunni majority, and hoped for some smooth Taif-esque exercise in power sharing enabled by the good offices of Saudi Arabia and the United States, that would give the political representatives of the Sunnis greater access to offices and power while preserving a healthy amount of Alawite privilege.

Not to be, clearly.  Saudi intransigence on the issue of political transition in Syria is the big and largely unreported story of the Syrian conflict.

It has its roots in the political fragmentation of the Arab realm in the modern era, and the unending opportunities it offers for mutual meddling by the dozen or so compromised and ethnically fractured states that compose it today.

Since the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1921, there has been a strong if frustrated impulse toward Sunni Arab nationbuilding in the “Fertile Crescent”, at least the Sunni-majority portions that encompass western Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.  The heartland of the Muslim religion is Mecca and Medina; but the spiritual core of Islamic empire lies in the agricultural lands to the north and its heart is, arguably, Damascus, capital of the Umayyad Caliphate—a period regarded as a golden age both for the political and military advance of Islam and for the unity and righteousness of the Islamic umma.

The dream of pan-Arab nationalism in World War I, cynically incited by the British and sincerely encouraged by T.E. Lawrence, was to replace detested Ottoman rule with a united Arab nation stretching from Aleppo to Aden under the rule of the family of the Sharif of Mecca, the Hashimites.

Famously, soon after Prince Feisal joined the triumphant liberation of Damascus in 1918 (commemorated in the closing scenes of the film Lawrence of Arabia), a secret French-British agreement jobbed him out of the Kingdom of Greater Syria—which would have encompassed the Arab remnants of the Ottoman empire all the way from the Turkish border down to the Sinai–and he ended up ruling the newly-created Kingdom of Iraq instead as a consolation prize.

The British government subsequently installed Feisal’s brother Abdullah as King of Transjordan (the area beyond Palestine and west of the Jordan River that the British didn’t want to govern themselves); the Hashimite family still rules there today in the person of King Abdullah II of Jordan.

People with long and grim memories of Western shenanigans leading up to the war to remove Saddam Hussein may recall that the idea was floated of installing a disgruntled uncle of King Abdullah II as Saddam’s successor, thereby reintroducing the glories of Hashimite rule to the people of Iraq while removing a troublemaker from the Jordanian scene.

In any case, after all this imperial slicing and dicing all that was left of “Greater Syria” after the French grabbed Lebanon, the British set up shop in Palestine, and various sandy interior reaches were turned over to the Hashimites, was “Lesser Syria”, the Syria we know today.

Geopolitically, Syria had a Goldilocks problem: it simply wasn’t the right size or shape to satisfy its Greater Syria aspirations or find a happy role in pan-Arab nationalism.

In 1947, Syria haltingly participated in the disastrous pan-Arab campaign against Israel.  In the 1950s, it feared subversion from Transjordan, whose king contemplated grabbing a slice of Syria as compensation for his own Palestine-related setbacks.  In the early 1960s, Syria drank deeply from the well of pan-Arabism and rushed into a misguided political union with Nasser’s Egypt (forming the short-lived United Arab Republic) and came close to a similar tie-up with Iraq.

Then in 1966 the Ba’ath Party split into Syrian and Iraq factions, and the separate cells came to rule their respective countries.  The murderous, outsized ambitions of Saddam Hussein then compelled Hafez al-Assad to ally with that traditional bête noire of Arab nationalism and Sunni religion, Shi’ite Iran.  With pan-Arabism in the dustbin, Assad carefully and cannily pursued a Greater Syria agenda by serial meddling in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia assumed leadership of the Sunni states by virtue of its stewardship of holy sites, its gigantic oil revenues, and its inclination to project its power throughout the Middle East by means of richly endowed Islamic initiatives in the conservative Salafi vein.

In Syria, Bashar al Assad attempted to migrate to a conception of Syria as a viable nation-state and good neighbor both to Turkey and his Sunni Arab brethren to the south and an west, an ally to Iran and the Shi’ites of Lebanon, and a useful black intelligence and interrogation asset to the United States, but has learned to his bitter disappointment that the role of regional linchpin is not to be afforded to “Lesser Syria”.

Today, there is no international consensus and a shrinking domestic commitment to sustaining Syria—a diminished, artificially constructed rump with almost no oil and no atomic bomb (with hindsight, Assad’s failed clandestine attempt to get Syria into the nuclear business appears wise instead of reckless)—as a successful multi-ethnic state.

Instead, the role of regional Sunni lawgiver is being fought over the prostrate hulk of Syria by two regional powers: Saudi Arabia, backed by its outsized petroleum reserves, and Turkey, which is beginning to feel its Ottoman oats thanks to a successful program of political and economic reform, superimposed on a local struggle between liberal reformists and the authoritarian regime.

Turkey dashed out on a limb, expecting to midwife a quick and easy Arab Spring victory and a grateful liberal-minded, pro-Turkish regime on its southern border.  However, the Assad regime has not gone quietly and the burgeoning violence has made Turkey think twice about tossing more gasoline on the flames.

Saudi Arabia apparently has no such qualms.  Together with its regional ally, Qatar, it has been employing the maximalist rhetoric in public while secretly funneling money and arms to opposition forces, thereby driving the international response.

The hostility of these two autocracies toward Assad, of course, has nothing to do with the illiberal shortcomings of his regime and everything to do with his alliance with Iran.

Not neighboring on Syria and relatively indifferent to the consequences, Saudi Arabia sees the opportunity to consolidate a bulwark of anti-Iranian Sunni states by seeing to it that Assad does not survive to dilute the anti-Iranian fervor of whatever successor regime emerges from the Syrian chaos.

The question that should be asked is, should the events in Syria be driven by an opaque, insecure kingdom that seeks geopolitical influence by exacerbating sectarian and ethnic divisions?

That is a question the United States is in no position to ask, since the aggressive unilateral Saudi push against Iran and Shi’ism is in large part driven by the recent memory of the United States allowing the regime of another heavyweight Middle Eastern ally (and unsavory autocrat) go down the tubes in the name of democracy: President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

It is a question that China and Russia have answered, to their own satisfaction at least, in the negative.

Their vision for the Middle East includes Iran somehow emerging from the morass of US-led sanctions and assuming its rightful place near the heart of central and south Asia, and a major, secure economic partner and ally for Moscow and Beijing.

As for Syria, Moscow treasures its Mediterranean port-of-call at Tartus, and Beijing has deep qualms about enabling continued Western experiments in externally-promoted regime change.  Certainly, if the Saudis bought into a more peaceful, negotiated transition—per the Russian proposal for a conference on Syria that would include both Saudi Arabia and Iran and protect Russian and Chinese influence and interests—it would be welcome.

But it is also likely that Russia and China would acquiesce to the sacrifice of Bashar al Assad’s regime if Saudi Arabia made it clear that a pickup in Syria would serve as a satisfactory exclamation point to the anti-Iranian campaign and everybody could just go back to pumping oil and making money.

However, Saudi Arabia has yet to give such a signal.  The trend seems to be going the other way.  Recently, the Saudi government went out of its way to insult Russia by giving a low level reception to a visiting Russian commercial delegation on account of Russian support for the Assad regime while darkly muttering than the Kingdom would have no problem turning elsewhere for “iron and wheat”.

Parsing Saudi intransigence, Putin and Hu Jintao probably see little incentive to throw Assad under the bus and, effectively, give a free hand for continued mischief to the Middle East’s richest but least competent, most backward, and perhaps most extremist hegemon…one that might run out of oil before it runs out of spleen.

At the end of their summit in Beijing, Putin and Hu issued a statement condemning outside interference in the Syrian crisis and called for all interested parties to put their efforts into support of the Annan ceasefire initiative.

An op-ed by the Chinese pundit Tian Wenlin in People’s Daily laid out China’s case against regime change in Syria.  It is not, in my opinion, doing any violence to his meaning if one substitutes “Saudi Arabia” for “the West” as the target of his statements:

Obviously, the Western nations have considered it more beneficial to overturn the current Syrian regime than to retain it. …

The West is ambitious about the Syrian issue at present, but actually they have been blinded by its expanding hegemonic desire to promote regime changes: Libya is followed with Syria. And subsequent to the Syrian collapse, they will target Iran. The unlimited greed and shortsightedness will only widen the gap between its ability and intention, and between its means and objectives.

In other words, if Saudi Arabia, the homeland of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, could pause from beating up Bahrain long enough to look in a mirror, it might see an overreaching, overfunded theocracy that is more the cause than the victim of the instability it reviles.

With Vladimir Putin at the reins again, Russia will probably be less interested than ever in yielding to Western moral suasion over Syria.  China, which is reaping oil, opportunities, and profits on the Shi’ite side of the fence will have a strong inclination to follow the Russian lead.

As for the people of Syria, the international stalemate will simply prolong their suffering.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org

This article was originally published by Asia Times.

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.