World Braces for Syrian Trainwreck
According to Russia’s TASS news agency, a grim milestone was achieved in Syria: several peaceful demonstrators in Aleppo were massacred. The twist is that the demonstrators were calling for protection by the Syrian army to end the destruction of the city; they were shot by insurgents. A single, thinly sourced news item is not needed to demonstrate the profound moral and strategic disarray afflicting the Syrian insurrection as the country totters toward collapse. A handier and more reliable reference point is the abrupt and forcible reorganization of the overseas Syrian opposition at the behest of the United States.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) is now just a junior partner in a broader opposition grouping, the “Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” (SNCORF). Reportedly, this new group was formed at the insistence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is retiring in a few weeks and apparently wished to pull the plug on the ineffectual SNC and replace it with something less overtly Sunni/Muslim Brotherhood-esque. The SNC’s major sponsor, Qatar, and the great minds at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institute responded with the marvel that is SNCORF.
SNCORF is striving for rainbow-coalition inclusiveness. The big tent includes secularists, Christians, Alawites, and women – and also 22 SNC/Muslim Brotherhood holdovers – but, for the time being, no Kurds. Also, none of the Western reporting indicated that representatives of the most inclusive and legitimate in-country opposition, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, led by Hassan Abdul Azim, attended the meeting. In an attempt to have its communal cake and eat it too, SNCORF announced that this inclusive grouping would be headed by a Sunni cleric, an ex-imam of the Umayyad Mosque, one Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, who appeared in a suit and tie to advertise, if not his secularism, his secular-friendly taste in attire.
A Throwback in a Suit
Judging from the comments of Asad Abu Khalil , the acerbic “Angry Arab” observer of Middle East shenanigans, the motto for SNCORF and America’s Syria policy may well turn out to be “Reorganize in Haste…Repent at Leisure.” Abu Khalil reported on several interesting items he gleaned from al-Khatib’s web postings:
I spent last night reading the writings of…Ahmad Ma’adh Al-Khatib: a clear follower of the Muslim Brotherhood and a disciple of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi [an important theological mentor to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood]. He has many views that his Western sponsors did not know about. Take his treatise on masturbation here: he maintains that this “sinister habit” causes tuberculosis and tears down the flesh. Here, Mr. Ahmad Ma’adh Al-Khatib calls for Jihad to rescue the ummah [the posting referred to now appears to be inaccessible]. Enjoy him, please, especially those in Western governments which approved him and promoted him without reading a word of his writings. I am sure that the US Zionists who approved the appointment of Mr. Al-Khatib as head of the exile Syrian opposition did not know that he referred to Zionism as a “cancerous racist movement.”
Mr. Ma’adh Al-Khatib says here [see above note on access to the posting] that Saddam has virtues among them: “that he terrified the Jews.” This kook (who could not have been appointed to the position of preacher in the Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus without the approval of the Syrian regime intelligence apparatus) here declares that Facebook is a US-Israeli intelligence plot. Read to believe.
Good luck, Secretary Clinton, with that Syrian opposition re-boot. There was, perhaps, a more significant element to this reorganization that was largely overlooked – the relative absence of Saudi Arabia at SNCORF’s coming-out party. The meeting in Doha was orchestrated by the United States, Turkey, and Qatar. Qatar’s prime minister keynoted the opening session and “presided” over the expanded meeting of the Syrian opposition.
Apparently, no Saudi Arabian heavyweight attended. That is significant because the reorganization of the Syrian overseas opposition was a reaction against the inadequacies of the Qatar-backed SNC, but also a response to the crisis caused by the mushrooming influence of Saudi-funded jihadis inside Syria.
Foreign efforts to support the insurrection had largely turned into directionless dithering, thanks in large part to Western unwillingness to validate and empower the expatriate and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated SNC with significant amounts of arms. Saudi Arabian Salafists displayed no such qualms about dispatching arms and jihadis to Syria, with the result that extremists have filled the revolutionary vacuum.
News coverage of the uprising now often includes reporting on gruesome atrocities perpetrated by insurgents, the occasional raising of the al-Qaeda flag, and the profound weariness and disgust Syrian citizens are expressing against the insurrectionists as well as the government. With blowback into Lebanon and Turkey, and Israel now firing on Syrian armor, the situation is generally acknowledged to be getting out of hand – and the SNC, never much more than a stalking horse for the Muslim Brotherhood and a convenient propaganda front for the foreign powers seeking to unseat Bashar al-Assad, is definitely not the group needed to bring order out of the chaos.
SNCORF, with its Muslim Brotherhood component sufficiently diluted (or, if you prefer, with its internal politics now satisfactorily factionalized so that the US and Europe can expect to exert a controlling influence on its policies and actions), is being positioned as a suitable and properly vetted vehicle for formal recognition of the Syrian opposition as a government-in-exile and conduit for foreign military aid. SNCORF might best be regarded not so much as an attempt to level the playing field with al-Assad as an initiative to level the playing field with the Salafist jihadis who have been filling the power vacuum created by the civil war in Syria.
Can the reach of the Salafist jihadis on the battlefield be rolled back so Syria can enter the liberal democratic nirvana promised by the West? The Syrian toothpaste is pretty much out of the tube, Syria appears headed for national collapse, and it is open to question whether SNCORF, even with the superpowers bestowed upon it by its inclusiveness, democratic aspirations, loving coverage in the Guardian, and Western and Gulf Cooperation Council diplomatic and military support, can bring peace and unity back to the torn and bloody nation.
Death Squads Missing from Action
SNCORF has its work cut out for it, and it’s worth wondering if Syria’s emigres and dissidents – characterized as “reliable technocrats,” not “insurrectionists with fists of iron” – can tear the leading role on the Syrian battlefield away from the jihadis and the local bandits, bullies, and heroes who make up the Free Syrian Army and the multitudes of local anti-government militias. There is one remedy for Islamic extremist insurgencies that is perceived as extremely effective by its US practitioners but is unfortunately out of reach of SNCORF, at least for the time being: death squads. Syria is now at a point similar to that of Iraq in 2006 – a Sunni insurrection has fought the central authority to a standstill, but at the cost of Salafist extremists hijacking local power.
In Iraq, the Sunni opposition to the US occupation eventually fractured as Sunni tribal leaders, threatened by the bloody-minded ambition of their jihadi allies and incentivized by US money, arms and protection, set aside their anti-American, anti-Shi’ite, and anti-Iran sentiments, at least for the time being, turned on the jihadis and cleansed Iraq’s Sunni heartland – Anbar Province – of al-Qaeda militants. The BBC provides some context of this event, the “Anbar Awakening,” describing a situation that looks a lot like today’s Syria:
But by 2006, in one of the many unintended consequences of the invasion, foreign fighters such as the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had pledged themselves to al-Qaeda and received funding directly from Osama Bin Laden, had come to dominate the insurgency. Their control extended over vast swathes of Iraq.
Their ruthless exercise of power threatened to rip the country apart…
For Sheikh Jabbar, desperate times required desperate measures and this was the moment he triggered what would become the Awakening, a military counter-offensive in which he and his supporters joined forces with their former enemies, the Americans, to confront al-Qaeda.
Sheikh Jabbar sought help from the Americans to break al-Qaeda’s hold on Anbar province. In late 2006, he arranged a meeting with Colonel John Tien of the US Army in which he asked for weapons and ammunition for his men to take on al-Qaeda. The Awakening had begun, marking a key turning point in the fortunes of Iraq. Although at the time they numbered in the dozens, the forces who would later be known as the Sons of Iraq swelled to a 100,000 or so.
The leaders of the Sunni Awakening in Anbar Province were the leading figures of their communities, tribal big shots with extensive local familial and patronage relationships. They were also working hand in hand with the US military occupation, a rather capable killing machine. This tag-team arrangement helped make the Iraq al-Qaeda hunt a success. In a study of the Awakening published in the Washington Quarterly, John McCrary quoted the son of one of the Anbar sheiks:
The Coalition Forces has the very strong military ability. The civilians and the tribes, they have a difference that the Coalition Forces doesn’t have. It’s that they’re local – they found and know who comes from outside. They know who are the insurgents and who are al-Qaeda in general, such that there is no more al-Qaeda or anything else. You wouldn’t believe me. I’m not exaggerating that in two months, in two months everything was finished.
Anbar Province, which resisted US pacification for four years, became one of Iraq’s safer places after a few months of “Awakening.” The US component of this effort was JSOC, the no-holds barred assassination initiative. JSOC was described by Bob Woodward while promoting his Iraq War book, The War Within:
Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the US military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the US government.
Senior military officers and officials at the White House urged against publishing details or code names associated with the groundbreaking programs, arguing that publication of the names alone might harm the operations that have been so beneficial in Iraq. As a result, specific operational details have been omitted in this report and in The War Within.
But a number of authoritative sources say the covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it. Several said that 85 to 90% of the successful operations and “actionable intelligence” had come from the new sources, methods and operations. Several others said that figure was exaggerated but acknowledged their significance.
Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) responsible for hunting al-Qaeda in Iraq, employed what he called “collaborative warfare,” using every tool available simultaneously, from signal intercepts to human intelligence and other methods, that allowed lightning-quick and sometimes concurrent operations.
Asked in an interview about the intelligence breakthroughs in Iraq, President [George W] Bush offered a simple answer: “JSOC is awesome.”
Looking at Syria through the lens of what happened next door in Iraq, it would appear that the best way to bring order to the country would be for a transition that would reach beyond intransigent but incapable anti-government emigres to ally in-country moderate Sunni elements with the dominant local military force – in this case, the Syrian Army – and kick off the national reconciliation exercise by a purge of Salafists.
It appears that there were glimmerings of a “negotiated transition,” aka deal cutting, with the Assad regime in the early stages of the SNCORF process but unsurprisingly the maximalist “Assad must go/no negotiations” approach prevailed. This is regrettable – at least to people who would like to see a negotiated end to the inconclusive butchery – but understandable.
Flip-Flops have their Limits
The US and the West are heavily vested in the “Assad must go” position. Presumably, the US could only flip-flop in response to a unanimous declaration in favor of negotiations by the Syrian opposition, but this was not to be, “Some of the last holdouts said they suspected that the agreement was a sly way for the international community to negotiate with Mr. Assad about a transition to a new government. So one clause in the agreement specifically bars such talks.” One might speculate that the “last holdouts” for the maximalist charter are not only motivated by overwhelming moral scruples and/or irrational rage against ending Syria’s carnage by dialogue with Assad; they are also opposing an attempt to marginalize and subsequently purge extremist Islamists from the redefined movement.
Amidst all this, there was the usual tired effort to shame Russia and the People’s Republic of China into solving the West’s self-created Syria problem by pressuring Assad. The PRC’s four-point proposal for supporting the UN peace process was, not for the first time, shoe-horned into a West-gratifying narrative of China trying to repair damage to its global reputation caused by Beijing’s obstruction on Syria at the UN Security Council.
There are a couple big flaws in this tale of Western neo-liberalism tutelage of the morally obtuse PRC. First, since July 2012 the United States has been exploring the “Yemen solution,” i.e. Assad hands over power to a carefully chosen group of supporters and opponents who perpetuate the status quo albeit in a modified, more democracy-friendly form. Does anybody remember Manaf Tlass, the Syrian military princeling/defector unsuccessfully touted as the great uniter of the loyal and insurrectionist opposition this summer? Maybe not.
US equivocation on its own stance – and drift toward the Chinese position – not only from four months ago but also in the days of haggling leading up to the formation of the SNCORF is not an example or incentive for a Chinese flip-flop on Syria. Also, as patient and retentive readers of Asia Times Online will also recall, the PRC has been pushing its Syria initiative since early 2012, with the sound, if as yet unrewarded, calculation that its most persuasive Middle Eastern role is as the alternative to democratic chaos for authoritarian governments – aka Saudi Arabia – and managed democracies – aka Iran – in the neighborhood: in other words, leveraging its role as the world’s biggest customer for Saudi and Iranian oil to act as the guarantor of economic development and supporter of political stability in the region.
This is a relatively sound geopolitical strategy, especially since the United States is successfully weaning itself off Middle Eastern oil – and the need to share fully and deeply in Saudi Arabia’s local security anxieties – thanks to domestic fracking and a coming boom in oil sand crude imports from Canada. Judging from the journalistic tea leaves, there is no sign that China is abandoning its Middle Way strategy in order to act as the West’s clueless trained ape, mindlessly endorsing the merits of externally promoted regime change to its own detriment, a role that that foreign observers for some reason believe Beijing will happily fill in order to gain the approval of the US and European Union.
Unsurprisingly, Xinhua’s analysis sniffed that SNCFOR was “dubious,” commented unfavorably on its rejection of “dialogue,” and also reported on some pushback in-country members of the Syrian opposition who, Xinhua implies, are more qualified to discuss Syria’s fate that the emigres in Doha:
Luai Hussain, head of the opposition Building Syria State party, said his party rejects everything that comes out of the overseas-based opposition.
“We reject the formation of any transitional government abroad and any other decision…and we regard such act as direct and real aggression on Syrians’ right to choose their leadership and determine their destinies.”
He said his party will mobilize Syrian public opinion to thwart efforts to form a government abroad. “The formation of any interim government abroad would be conducive to increasing division in the Syrian society, and thus would widen the platform of a civil war,” he added.
Along with other leading opponents, Hussain did not take part in the Doha meeting apparently because he was not invited.
Xinhua interviewed Luai (who spent seven years in Syrian prison) in Damascus; while Western outlets confide themselves largely to war reporting, war tourism, atrocity journalism, and deriding the Assad government, Xinhua has stepped up its in-country presence in an attempt to promote the visibility and credibility of the PRC’s proposed political solution. Luai advocated “international consensus” to solve the crisis; in Syria-speak, this is the Chinese position of foreign powers ceasing aid to the rebels and switching the international focus from regime change to compelling dissidents to enter the political dialogue track preferred by Russia and China.
If, as appears likely, Saudi Arabia is chafing at the snub administered by Qatar and the United States, the PRC has a chance to present itself as the Kingdom’s understanding buddy and redirect King Abdullah’s vision toward economics and his country’s future as China’s energy partner. Perhaps Saudi Arabia will decide its anti-Shi’ite/anti-Iranian crusade has yielded most of the benefits that can be expected, and it is time to ring down the curtain on the extremist-Sunni escapade inside Syria.
However, the idea of imploding Assad’s regime is probably irresistible to Riyadh, and in any case the window for happy-talk political solutions is rapidly closing.
Assad’s government has lost control of a lot of territory. Judging by its increasing reliance on air power, the government has determined that the battered Sunni conscripts of the regular army and the dubious shabiha paramilitaries are not up to the job of fighting street to street and house to house to get territory back, and the regime is mainly interested in denying key assets and strongpoints to the insurgency by use of jet bombers and attack helicopters. That’s not a good augury for the city of Damascus if and when the mayhem moves to the capital from Aleppo.
The initiative in the insurgency appears to lie with aggressive, opportunistic and none-too-popular militant outfits, whose efforts to destroy the Assad regime are frustrated by suspicious Western governments unwilling to give them the money, arms, and support needed to finish the job – and Syria. Under these circumstances, a political settlement, however desirable, seems unlikely unless a major force – probably not SNCORF, more likely a new Sunni strongman with a taste for order emerging from the Syrian army – tips the scales one way or another.
For the United States and the West – which are primarily interested in finessing their way out of a Syria mess that they, to a significant extent, helped create – the end will come soon enough. For the PRC, which, for reasons of energy security, is committed to playing the long game in the Middle East, bloody chaos in Syria is just another challenge and opportunity for Beijing to advance its interests in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. For the people of Syria, it must feel as if the agony will go on forever.
This article was originally posted in Asia Times Online.