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Opinion

Collusion across the Euphrates

Government forces, opposition fighters, and external actors must look beyond their short-sighted interests.

Last Modified: 18 Jun 2013 16:19
Larbi Sadiki

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).
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The war in Syria has claimed almost 100,000 lives since the government crackdown began over two years ago [AFP]

Both the government and opposition forces are doing Syria no favours. Nearly 100,000 people have died since the war began and the external actors involved (whether they are the Americans, Russians, Iranians, Arabs, or Europeans) only seem to care about their own short-sighted strategic interests. What the Algerians lost in a ten-year civil war, the Syrians have lost in less than two years.

In order to stop the war, all actors involved must think outside the realist box and go beyond zero-sum power calculus - to spare their people and their country further incontinence of anger to the point of self-hatred.

The war in Syria will not change until these reigning assumptions are called into question. Once the paradigm shifts, Syrians must resolve on their own terms the current miasma. This is where the opposition and the regime share the guilt of political failure. And if neither can do this to stop the haemorrhaging of an important Arab country, it will be difficult for Syrians to entrust their future to a fissiparous polity whose only art is thus far turning what began as a brilliant revolution into "mission impossible".

The logic of destruction - 'Lebanonisation'?

Much in the same vein as Beirut, after 15 years of "mutually assured killing" (from 1975-1990), many Syrian cities and villages do not look much different from Qunaitira, the very town the regime has kept intact since its destruction by the Israelis before they pulled out in 1974. This example epitomises the absurdity of war: in violence the line between right and wrong is very thin. There is no fundamental difference between Israeli soldiers destroying a Syrian town and Syrian soldiers destroying their own towns.

The very Syrian army that does not return fire when Israel raids not once, but thrice in one year, spares no amount of firepower to use against its own armed and unarmed people. There is something remiss in all of this: the logic of no return from the spiral of violence and counter-violence.

Regardless of who is right and wrong, Syrians are losing their livelihoods: their loved ones, homes, certainty, safety, quality of childhood, and even their sanity. How the Levant with its idiosyncratic penchant for the good life, wonderful music and food, poetry, creative literature, diverse faiths, vivaciousness and sociability summons the demons of death and hatred with such uncompromising cruelty is a puzzle in need of serious psychoanalysis.

Sectarian conflict?

Sunnis of all nationalities and Shias from as far as Afghanistan are converging upon Syria to butcher each other. In dogma, there may be more affinity between Shia and Sunnis than between Alawites and either one of the two largest Muslim sects.

It is self-interest, not sect, which may be the force shaping and informing the conflict.

Obama and Putin discuss Syria conflict

Because this point was missed early on, many Arab states not only severed ties with Persian Iran, but also, and clumsily, had not considered to use Arab Hezbollah to their advantage, as a mediator or turn it into a force of leverage. The irony of this tragic conflict is that Iran, which now manages the war to rescue Bashar and Hezbollah are amongst the two forces which can rid Syria of Bashar al-Assad. No other actor gets as close.

Politics do not have to be zero-sum game. Hezbollah's support of Bashar is shameful in moral terms, but in political terms, it is motivated by the defence of a supply route and source of weapons to sustain the party's mantra of "resistance", now tattered by unnecessary attrition, direct involvement in an unwinnable war, and support of a dictator who drew blood first in a criminal way.

Those who think the war in Syria is a Sunni-Shia conflict may be oversimplifying things. They ignore the disagreements amongst Syrian Sunnis who do not see eye-to-eye politically. These could boil to the surface if and when the al-Assad dynasty ceases to exist.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) may have a power calculus that belies her sectarian rhetoric. The KSA has matched neither Iran's boots on the ground nor material aid committed in defence of her policy preferences and political allies. Iran has mobilised its own forces, Hezbollah clients, and fighters from Iraq to the rescue of Bashar al-Assad. The hundreds of militias supported by KSA (eg Al-Faruq militia which fought in Bab Amr, Homs) are enough to irritate the regime but not hurt it. They pale into insignificance when compared with the fight the KSA had funded and supported against the former Soviets in the Afghan war. The so-called Jabhat al-Nusra, a hodgepodge organisation lacking in cohesiveness, is no match to the forces arrayed against them, of which thousands hail from Iraq.

Moreover, the KSA (along with the UAE) and Iran share antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, a majorly rising Sunni non-state actor. The KSA has a measurable Shia minority, which it fears Iran could use to foment rebellion. Of late, the KSA is assuming a major role in the conflict, partly motivated to rival or diminish Qatar, unashamedly the staunchest supporter of the Syrian revolution in the Arab region. And most recently, the KSA put its weight behind secular-liberals led by Michel Kilo's Syrian Democratic Union to gain seats in al-Itilaf. Similarly, the KSA did not endorse Ghassan Hito for the leadership of a government-in-exile, maybe as a way of downsizing Qatari influence.

Stalemate and internationalisation

Several months ago the global media narrative, including Al Jazeera, blew things out of proportion: the headlines conveyed the message that the Assad dynasty was on the verge of collapse in a matter of days. The Lebanese fought for 15 years; and, in theory, the Syrians could go on fighting as long as no single party is able to prevail.

There is obviously an entrenched military stalemate. Neither of the warring parties can win this war on its own. What deepens the stalemate is political incompetence and behind-the-scenes squabbling and disagreements between the various voices, forces and discourses lumped under the umbrella of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces - al-Itilaf.

Spotlight
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

Al-Itilaf must ask itself one important question: is stopping the bloodbath and the destruction of homes and a whole country a priority? If it is, then it must ask a second question: is it a noble end worthy of compromise? That is, what is more important - meeting this end with Bashar, even if temporarily, or without Bashar? As the sole representative of the Syrian people - for the US, EU, and a number of Arab states - it must re-focus its project on what is do-able now and what may be achievable later.

A parley with the regime must be a priority - a Geneva 2 even if General Salim Idriss, the Free Army's supremo, thinks the opposition cannot afford to go to Geneva when militarily weak. This is perhaps what Hezbollah and Iran are already doing: strengthening Bashar militarily to give him winning cards in the parallel diplomatic war.

Political solution?

All parties must recognise their moral weaknesses in order to burst the abiding myths of occupying the moral high ground. Countries who support popular Palestinian resistance groups against Israel for Syria cannot absolve themselves for the reprehensible acts of violence perpetrated against fellow Arabs, mostly civilians. Opposition militias with no real central command coordinating their tactics or strategy are locked into a seeming stalemate with government forces. 

Note that no French or American would ever abet in wars that destroy their countries and kill their people.

What is sad about the enthusiasm for war in Syria, including by well-known think-tanks, is the entrenched civilised-barbarian myth. Western powers, as well as Russia, are happy to supply weapons as long as their interests are advanced. It is not only physical war-making that scars and murders the Arab future; it is also the discursive wars that reproduce constructs of the "unruly" Arab that never fade away in Western imaginaries. This is exactly where "security" gurus fight and triumph.

A political solution must be about cessation of a tragic war, which has been costly on every front. Both the regime and the opposition must make painful sacrifices for the public good. This means the regime must stop renting out "strategic assets" or value to Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah in exchange for weapons and support. The opposition must reciprocate by not renting out its potential as future power-holders by seeking Western intervention on its behalf.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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