What is Happening In Syria - A War No One is Winning

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A War No One is Winning

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.

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  • Math
  • May 31, 2013, 6:55 pm
You might be interested


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  • 4

    Hello friends, I do not want to sound like someone who is sympathetic to Assad but having family in both Iranian and Syrian Intelligence let me tell you that the rebels aren't the democracy loving people we are made to think they are in western main stream media, the very few secular democratic fighting rebels are mostly gone and weak, the ones left over are foreign mercenaries from mostly Gulf Arab nations (mainly young Saudi Arabians) Assad is no Angel I agree, but reform will take place eventually and he is the best Syria has had for a while. I assure you the rebels are very desperate right now and have been smuggling cannisters of Sarin gas which they use and then blame on the Syrian government, the rebel factions are now mainly comprised of Al-Qaeda affiliated insurgents who behead people in a town my uncle is gathering intelligence in, they have promised to destroy the secular system in Syria and impose sharia on christians and non-sunnis in Syria, these are the same people who seek the destruction of the west yet the UK and France are hell bent on taking out Assad just to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, it has nothing to do with democracy. Thank you Math, I made an account just for your post, it's really good :)

    • SydG
    • May 31, 2013, 9:27 pm
    thank you
    - MissRandom May 31, 2013, 9:31 pm
    I found this and thought I'd share as is the point of this site. Thank you for your reply.
    - Math May 31, 2013, 9:32 pm
  • 3

    i was crying the whole time while reading this
    i still can't believe this is happening
    i haven't been to syria in four years now and i still have family there who are struggling to survive
    i can not even start to explain the amount of pain and suffering i feel due to this
    thanks matt.. that was very enlightening.
    EDIT: can i have the link to this please

    - Math May 31, 2013, 8:23 pm
    I am so sorry that this is happening in your homeland and I hope many many people take note!
    - Math May 31, 2013, 8:23 pm
    thank you
    i really appreciate it
    - MissRandom May 31, 2013, 8:24 pm
  • 3

    Well, that was certainly an interesting read. Admittedly I don't tend to follow a lot of news. I was aware that some things were going on in Libya, Syria and surrounding areas last year. I didn't know that this was still going on to the extent it is.
    I also did not realise the extent of the conflict - that so many different parties are all caught up in each other over the same piece of land. It just seems so crazy, and even confusing.

    The problem is, I never really know what to say in these situations. To me, it doesn't look like there is a clear right or wrong way to do things. The friendships these countries, and groups between the countries make things difficult. The US moved in to Iraq years ago to try to fix a problem. Arguably, that problem was fixed, now a greater one exists meaning that the US can't safely just leave without repercussions, but if the US never invaded originally, things could have been far worse.

    Because I haven't really followed these events in the news, and because reading that story was so tangled, I can't really make a clear decision as to who should or shouldn't win. I would say though, that I hope it gets resolved soon. I have been fortunate enough to not be involved directly in any kind of war, but I can't imagine how horrible it would be to either be in the war or just part of it. So my thoughts go out to everyone involved. Those who lost their lives needlessly. And just to hope that some kind of treaty does form soon.

    SkinnyBill, I've been doing my best to pay attention to this war, but it's such an ungodly mess that I hardly blame you. There's been a disturbing trend in the middle east lately where dictatorships end up getting replaced with even more dangerous Muslim theocracies (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya to some extent, etc.) if the rebels win, Syria could be headed that way.

    However, I would like to point out (since you brought up Iraq) was that Saddam never posed any real threat to the US. Lets face it, they were only after his oil. The Bush admin contrived the WMD story and had been looking for an excuse to invade since Bush got elected. Not only that, but by getting rid of him, they gave Iran an ally it never had before. (Notice how I grouped Iraq with the others.) Iraq went from secular dictatorship to Muslim theocracy like the others. So you could argue that the US made things worse.
    - CrazyJay June 1, 2013, 3:16 pm
    Fair enough. I did try to avoid making any strong points about the US invading Iraq, like I say, "Arguably fixed".
    In all fairness, I'm 17 years old - so in 2000, I was 4/5 years old. Not really old enough to understand or care about these problems. Additionally, I'm from the UK, not the US, so arguably it doesn't affect us as much. So in all, I don't know too much about the reason why the US invaded, except it was something to do with "terrorism", and as a result, mine and other countries armies are now locked in a situation out there that they shouldn't have needed to be involved in.

    I really do wonder about what goes on in the US sometimes. I don't want to start some kind of political flamewar with this comment, but for a first world, western country, the US government seems to make some very backwards decisions sometimes.
    - SkinnyBill June 1, 2013, 4:50 pm
    being from the US and also being a soldier who's been to the middle east, i can firmly tell you that nobody knows what goes on in the politicians heads. i've heard the WMD stuff was fed to the politicians by the CIA, i've also heard companies paid the government to do it for the oil. there's no clear idea or reason behind it.

    personally, if there was a term limit on politicians (senators and whatnot) this problem would be actually fixed instead of patched and left for someone else. we've got too many older people who think they know best but they're so attached to the power and money they don't really know what IS best.

    now before anyone even attempts to get on my case about being a soldier i'll just say, i'm in it because i love my country, not the politicians behind it, i need the benefits and the deployment money is good. if i die over there the life insurance will cover my family until they can recover.

    and yes, i've caught a lot of flak over the years
    - MIKYTEY June 1, 2013, 6:12 pm
    Hmm, I see, so these dictatorships are a good thing. It's a good thing the Obama administration isn't dumb like the Bush administration and isn't sending aid to the rebels of Syria/Egypt/Libya to help them establish muslim theocracies. Oh wait...
    - casper667 June 2, 2013, 10:07 am
    I never said Obama was any better on this. In a lot of ways, he's worse. Nor am I saying dictatorships are a good thing. They're the lesser of two evils at best.
    - CrazyJay June 2, 2013, 1:59 pm
  • 3

    I've tried to keep up with the conflict as much as possible, watching footage from the ground, reading news articles from multiple sources not just western outlets, even doing research into the weapons being used by both sides. What I've gathered is that this is an absolute cluster fuck that will end badly no matter which was it goes, if the rebels win sharia will be imposed and hundreds if not thousands will die in the genocide that will ensue, and if Assad regains control democide will ensue.

  • 2

    I've been following this conflict closely, shit got pretty tense when Israel launched those missiles. Israel should in no way intervene in this conflict. There's not a whole lot that can be done I don't think, both sides seem pretty terrible and supporting either one of them will no doubt have some pretty shitty outcomes. I guess they just need to sort themselves out, we've all seen how westerners intervening in muslim countries works out and it's usually not pretty. If we don't help them they hate us, if we do help them they hate us. So basically whatever we do they'll always hate us.

    i love you
    does that count?
    - MissRandom June 4, 2013, 1:36 pm
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