Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country – supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike – he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.
This is the final of a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera upon his return. Catch up by reading his comments on Syria’s armed opposition, the country’s protest movement, sectarianism and daily life in Syria.
Al Jazeera: To quote General David Petraeus in Iraq: ‘Tell me how this ends.’
Nir Rosen: The regime can survive for a long time, even if it steadily loses control of territory within the country. It is very unlikely that there will be any large-scale international military intervention. In Washington, there is a great deal of frustration. Zionists and advocates of the muscular use of US power, including several Republicans, are calling for Obama to arm the opposition. Even the neoconservatives are climbing out from under their rocks to call for a US military intervention. Fox News has seized on this cause too.
Having confirmed with US officials – and contrary to conspiracy theories – the Obama administration has not, until now, made the policy decision to aid the opposition on the ground, let alone provide it with weapons. US and European officials who would like to intervene in Syria complain that there is no “silver bullet” or easy option for them. They don’t even know who to support inside Syria. The exiled opposition, such as the Syrian National Council, are too busy fighting among themselves and too disconnected from events on the ground, so the outside powers do not even have a convenient local collaborator or proxy to deal with. They also complain that the SNC has completely failed to reach out to minorities, especially Alawites. They agree that opponents of the regime will have to pry Alawite community from the administration. The Alawite pillar must be removed, they say. I know that the United States, like the United Kingdom, has envoys among the Syrian opposition. After speaking with diplomatic and intelligence figures, it is clear to me that it is only a matter of time before the SNC is officially recognised by the US and UK as the main interlocutor, but they are pressuring the SNC to get its act together first.
One more factor militating against US support for a hasty collapse of the regime is the fear over Syria’s vast chemical weapons arsenal as well as its tens of thousands of portable anti-aircraft missiles and anti-armour missiles. The US will as always be sensitive to Israeli concerns on this proliferation issue as well. It’s always better to have a postal address where to retaliate if you want deterrence to work. While foreign intervention of one kind or another is probably inevitable (regardless of whether it is desirable), those countries who would be most likely to intervene are ill-prepared.
Turkey has certainly become more influential in the region, but the United States foreign service probably has more Arabists in its embassy in Cairo than in the entire Turkish foreign policy establishment. The Turks are not yet prepared for their new role in the region, lacking experts and Arabic speakers, which limits their ability to intervene. On their own, Jordan or Turkey cannot give enough support to the opposition to make a difference, and an international coalition appears difficult to cobble together without the opposition being strengthened.
Israeli intelligence does not deserve the reputation it has. Its academia and foreign policy establishment lack real experts, given their Zionist bias, an inability to conduct field work and a tendency to view the Arab world through Orientalist or military prisms. The days when the Israelis could field Arab Jews who were fluent in the language and could pass as locals are long over. Israeli intelligence has suffered a string of humiliations in Lebanon in recent years. Likewise, US intelligence has recently been humiliated in Lebanon – and given its poor performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should not intimidate the Syrian regime. So, for the various countries who will want to play a role, there is no easy entry point.
Only a “Hama” could change the equation. Nobody can say exactly what that would entail, because “Hama” has become an epithet, a symbol, it just means for something terrible to happen. So, until now there is no Hama-type event that the opposition or international media could use to give leaders in Turkey or the West a pretext for humanitarian intervention or to delegitimise the country’s leadership. Such an incident would have to be so grave that international opponents would use it to obliterate the Russian and Chinese veto in the United Nations, and to criminalise those two countries for their backing of the Syrian regime.
In past interventions there has been such an incident or picture. Think of the 1999 Racak massacre in Kosovo, or the emaciated Bosnian Muslim man photographed through a barbed-wire fence. A satellite image of a neighborhood before and after it has been destroyed could also galvanize popular support for an intervention. Until now, the regime response seems calibrated to avoid this. But in a situation where the Syrian army has difficulty manoeuvring in opposition strongholds because of the insurgency’s IEDs, snipers and ambushes, it is conceivable that a frustrated military or political leader might turn increasingly to ordering indirect fire that could flatten a neighbourhood – or that an out of control security unit or group of shabiha [“thugs”] could punish an entire village after suffering losses. Likewise there will be some elements of the uprising who could provoke such a harsh response, perhaps with a suicide bomb, an attack against an Alawite village or a significant humiliation inflicted on a security unit.
The opposition cannot articulate a clear narrative for how the regime is to fall. Instead of leading, the Syrian National Council has been following the increasingly radical demands of the uprising on the street. Its demands preclude a transition and make civil war more likely. The “international community” still prefers a negotiated transition, what one senior western diplomat in Syria called “a soft landing”, but there is little sign that the regime is interested or able to make the concessions that would lead to a ceasefire – especially while the regime does not feel like it is losing. The country’s leadership is confident, so it sees no reason to negotiate. It seems to believe that, as long as it has the backing of Russia, China and Iran – as well as some others – it can proceed with its nominal reforms and contain the demonstrations, while punishing recalcitrant towns such as Homs.
“Early on, the administration hesitated at the crucial moment and didn’t kill enough people to crush the uprising in a single blow. Now there is no turning back.“
– Nir Rosen
Security officials I have spoken to do not seem particularly distressed by the fact that half the country has risen up against them.
Early on, the administration hesitated at the crucial moment and didn’t kill enough people to crush the uprising in a single blow. Now there is no turning back. And the opposition on the ground has moved past the point of having any willingness to negotiate, anyway. Like the US in Iraq before the “surge”, the Syrian regime can focus its security and loyal army units on one area and regain it temporarily – but this just allows another area greater autonomy. And it encourages the popular embrace of insurgents and radicalisation, because village residents under threat know what’s in store.
If the struggle drags on, the local civilian “political” leadership of the revolution will lose influence, and the more moderate Sufi sheikhs who exercise an influence over armed groups will also lose control. The insurgency and its supporters will become increasingly radicalised. They will condemn those leaders who looked to the outside world for support, and those who called for restraint. Those voices who say Islam is the only solution will become loudest; those voices calling for a declaration of jihad will be raised, and they will, in my opinion, target Sunni rivals as well as Alawites and other minorities. This scenario is also possible if the regime kills or captures enough senior leaders of the revolution.
On the other hand, even if Assad and his family wanted to leave power – or even leave Syria – how would they explain this sudden about face to their supporters? The regime’s fans, especially its base among the Alawites, may also be radicalised, embracing maximalist violence out of fear. And what happens to the cronies who benefit from the system as it is, and to the security forces who have nowhere to go? Do they just go home – or do they fight to the death out of fear of extermination, and then hang on as some kind of insurgency against any new regime installed with the help of the West, Turkey and the Arab League?
If we assume there will be no such “Hama” incident, then this struggle can drag on for years. The regime knows that Russia, Iran and Iraq will back it to the end. The regime will have to tighten its belt, but Alawites and Christians will back it no matter how bad things get, because of their fear of Islamists. Some businessmen will be co-opted and will benefit from the increased smuggling. Those businessmen who think of leaving will find their assets confiscated by the regime. The country is reorienting its economy towards Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in Asia. It will increasingly rely on smugglers, just as Yugoslavia did under Milosevic.
As long as the regime can continue to pay its security forces, it can survive. It has hundreds of thousands of armed men under its control – so even if it loses a few tens of thousands, so what? And if it loses Daraa or Idlib, who needs them anyway? The regime will also eventually lose Aleppo, and increasingly the country’s population will feel like the administration cannot fix the situation, and the business class will be running out of resources. Once the regime loses its grip on Aleppo, some of the large clans there will start fighting each other, while its surrounding countryside will be in the hands of Islamists.
The insurgency will gradually carve out autonomous zones, from Idlib to Hama to Homs and approaching the suburbs of Damascus. Foreign intelligence agencies will eventually provide covert assistance to the insurgency. But Iranian – and possibly Russian – advisers will likely provide advice to the regime in counter-insurgency. So parts of the country will fall into opposition hands, and parts will remain in the hands of the regime. Alawites in Homs may flee to the villages they originally came from. Christians will flee to their former villages or to Damascus. Both of these trends have already started. Sunni remaining in Latakia will be vulnerable, and in the event of Alawites returning to Latakia’s mountain villages, fleeing from other parts of the country, the region’s Sunni may also be forcibly displaced.
In this scenario, some villages in rural Hama and Homs governorates will fight between each other. Damascus will see further assassinations and bombings. Working class Alawite neighborhoods of Damascus, where members of the security forces live – such as Ish al Warwar, Mazze 86 and Sumeria – will be besieged, or face reprisals from angry Sunni. In Aleppo, powerful rival Sunni clans – who hate each other and have access to arms – will turn on each other and feud as soon as the state weakens. The elites of Aleppo might once have preferred for the Assads to stay in power, but increasingly they are giving up hope that he can pull them back from the abyss.
The divide in Syria is not merely between Sunnis and Alawites. In Daraa and Suweida, Druze and Bedouins may clash once again. So too with other sects further north in Misyaf.
If this civil war comes to pass, it will lead to a humanitarian crisis. Already, there is a diesel shortage in much of Syria. And in much of the country, electricity is shut down at least some of the time – even if this is often done for punitive or offensive security reasons. In opposition strongholds, normal government services have ceased. Garbage is piled high; children do not go to school. Eventually, if this continues, infrastructure will start to collapse. Electricity will cease to be available. People will turn to generators if they have access to them. Fuel for cooking and heating will be even harder to come by. Already medicines for children and chronic conditions is hard to obtain in opposition strongholds. Neighbourhoods will be besieged, and tens thousands of families will flee for safety to other parts of the country.
Syria is crumbling before our eyes, and a thoroughly modern nation is likely to be set back many decades.
Look out for more features from Nir Rosen to be published here on Al Jazeera over the rest of this week.
Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @NirRosen
The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.