THE SYRIAN CRISIS ONE YEAR ON: A COMMENT
The opposition will have to rebuild itself to be more Islamic, militant and sectarian in order to take on the Assad regime. Opposition leaders on the ground, those who are actually fighting the regime, have already become more militant and Islamized. If the SNC doesn’t scramble to catch up, it will become irrelevant. I suspect that the upcoming opposition meeting in Turkey this Thursday and Friday (March 22-23) will reflect some of that shift. The recent high level defections within the the Syrian National Council suggest the opposition is responding to these pressures and new demands. The SNC is going through a period of soul searching and transformation in response to the government’s classic “clear and hold” operations carried out in Sednaya, Homs and Idlib.
The future strategy of the Syrian opposition will have to follow the outlines of a classic “phase two” insurgency predicated on guerrilla warfare. This phase is reached when the insurgent movement initiates organized continuous guerrilla warfare in an attempt to push government forces into a defensive role. “Phase three” insurgency is a war of movement. In this phase the insurgent can directly engage government forces and hold territory. The Syrian opposition prematurely tried to hold territory and take on the Syrian Army. This was a bad and costly mistake. In the first year of the Syrian uprising the opposition naively believed that the entire Syrian population would embrace it and abandon the regime or that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power. Based on the example of the North African uprisings, Syrian opposition members incorrectly believed a “Tahrir Square moment” would arrive within months of the uprising’s start, eliminating the need for a coherent military strategy, a defined leadership, or how to parry government counter-insurgency operations. The passions of Syrians who have tasted little but contempt from their own government led them to rise up in an act of incredible courage. Now, however, the reality of just how difficult attaining victory will be is setting in.
The Assad regime remains vigorous and will last longer than many thought. The reason that mass defections have not destroyed the regime are twofold: sectarian anxieties prevent Alawite defections, and the regime turns out to be more sectarian than many thought; and class anxieties are more important as well.
Members of the Sunni middle and upper classes are not defecting in the numbers the opposition hoped that they would. The reason that neither Damascus or Aleppo have become centers of the revolution is usually attributed to their privileged position in Syrian society. Wealthy Sunnis living in the West have joined the revolution, but that may be because they do not fear the disorder and incompetence of the opposition in the same way as those living in Syria. They have also experienced the freedom and dignity afforded by the rule of law. They look at the brutality of the Assad regime and wonder, “how come we cannot have this.”
Joshua Landis, "Upheveal within the opposition: defections, terrorism, and preparing for a Phase II insurgency." Syria Comment. 19 March 2012, in www.syriacomment.com.
"Increasingly, what we're going to see is the Islamization of the opposition, and that's causing a lot of soul-searching on the part of this largely external European leadership that doesn't approve of this--but they don't have an alternative because Syrians are Muslims, and the only available ideology to the insurgency in Syria is Islam. We have seen this play out in Iraq, in Palestine, in Lebanon, and in Afghanistan. If you need to take on a superior army or an occupying army, as they see the Syrian army, that has tanks, air force, helicopters, and superior weaponry, they're going to have to carry out martyrdom operations: terrorist attacks, assassinations, hit-and-run guerilla tactics. To do that, they're going to have to be highly motivated and willing to risk death at every turn, and only Islam can provide the cohesion and sense that victory is ultimately theirs, and that God is on their side.
We have seen fundraising rallies in Australia and in the United States, organized by Syrians to raise money and consciousness for the opposition. Those rallies have been following a pattern, which is extremely Islamist. They're not connected to the SNC. There's a new world of opposition that's getting organized and that's centering around highly Sunni, highly religious ideology. In these fundraisers around the United States and other places, we're seeing the resurgence of this Islamic language of an earlier age. It's quite radical--of martyrdom, anti-nationalism, and they're associating people like the Assad regime with the last hundred years of barbaric nationalist rule that's been imposed on the East by the colonial powers, which they want to undo, and that is what's causing people like Burhan Ghalyun and these other very Western Syrian leaders to balk at arming them or supporting them.
Why has President Assad not offered to really make a deal?
Because his Ba'athist, one-party state is extremely brittle. It's organized around loyalty to a family and ultimately one man. If you start tinkering with that system, it's going to collapse. You can't allow a parliament that's free. Syria has tinkered with this. When Assad first came to power in 2000, there was what was called a Damascus Spring, and he told Syrians to criticize and to say what they wanted, and within three weeks, almost every Syrian group that had organized itself was asking for an end to Allawite monopoly of the political power. They were asking for freedom and an end to dictatorship, and that's why the Damascus Spring lasted for only about a month. It was very clear that the system is highly corrupt and it's highly coercive, built on patronage and loyalty to a family. Once you undermine that, it will crumble".
Joshua Landis, "The Great Syrian Divide [Joshua Landis interview with Bernard Gwertzman]. The Council on Foreign Relations. 22 March 2012, in www.cfr.org.
With our now entering year two of the Syrian crisis, reading the latest thinking of Joshua Landis, who is, notwithstanding my occasion criticisms of him, probably the best American expert on Syria, is very much a worthwhile exercise. Having done that exercise, it would appear to me, that in the absence of Western military intervention, which at this time, absolutely no one anticipates anytime soon, the regime of Assad Fils, appears to be in a position to remain in power for quite awhile to come. As I have stated on this journal previously: those who argued that Syria would go the way of Egypt or Tunisia were suffering from a serious misreading of why politics in the Levant are quite different from the political situation in the former two countries. Given the religious and national divisions in the latter countries: Syria, the Lebanon and Israel, any political change will by definition me quite violent. A negotiated 'partial change of regime', along the lines of a Lampedusian 'if you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change', was never within the realm of possibility 1. Accordingly, the most likely outcome for Syria in the next year or two is simple a mixture of: i) economic deprivation and increasing misery for most of the population; ii) a low, but constant level of insurrection by an increasingly Islamist insurgency, funded & armed by the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia; iii) and an entrenched Baathist regime, which while not nearly as 'in control', as it was say eighteen months ago, will `a la Saddam Hussein, remain in power for quite some time to come. I should add, that the examples that Landis' cites for a 'Phase Two' insurgency (Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and the Lebanon), are in three of the four cases, examples of failed insurgencies. Only one of which (the Lebanon) in the case of Hezbollah, was there a successful insurrection. And even in that instance, the insurrection was against a foreign power. Whether or not this is a tragedy is a difficult question to answer. Obviously, from mere a Christian perspective, it is a tragedy for even one life to have been lost. However, au fond, it is a bit naive to think that even if in anno domini 2011, there was a 'peaceful' hand-over of power by the Baathist regime, that the situation in Syria would not have worsen `a Egypt and (a much better example) Iraq circa 2003. Once a dictatorship of the near-total variety of the Baathist regime comes apart, more likelier than not, a rather severe societal breakdown is almost inevitable. In the best of all possible worlds of course, Western military intervention, on a grander scale than say in Libya would have been preferable. But given the exhaustion and fear in Western capitals over the prospects of another military campaign in the Near and Middle East, the current, almost absolute 'non-interventionist' position is not very surprising. Given the less than inspiring examples of Iraq and Afghanistan, one wonders if perhaps that is for the best...
1. 'Lampedusian' is of course referring to the great mid-twentieth century novelist, Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, whose chef d'oeuvre, Il Gattopardo, is perhaps the greatest geschichte roman of the second half of the century. The quote cited above can be found in the standard English language translation by Archibald Colquhoun (1960).