Half-light in Syria

Millions of civilians, through no act or contract of their own, are now ensnared in an urban war, writes Brahimi.

Unrest in Aleppo
The Free Syrian Army claims to control more than 70 per cent of Syrian territory [EPA]

The Syrian night is deepening, with no sign of the dawn. The deputy head of United Nations Peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet, wound up the UN monitoring mission last month with the observation that “it is clear that both sides have chosen the path of war, open conflict and the space for political dialogue and cessation of hostilities and mediation is very, very reduced at this point”. The death toll stands at more than 20,000, with tens of thousands more injured or displaced.

Fighting in Syria’s second city, Aleppo, rages on for a 10th week, with no certain outcome save for more civilian suffering. In addition to food and fuel shortages, lawlessness pervades. Bashar al-Assad’s forces have pounded rebel-held areas with mortar rounds and air-to-ground missiles. Noting that at least 10 bakeries were bombarded in the month of August, Human Rights Watch has accused the regime’s air force of deliberately “targeting civilians” queuing for bread. At the same time, regime loyalists and their militarised political opponents engage in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. 

“We are fighting a regional and global war,” said Assad in a television interview. Though the violence is fundamentally rooted in the regime’s decades of oppression and its fierce repression in the face of last year’s protests, the regional and global underpinnings of the crisis are clear. Equally evident are the conflict’s grim regional repercussions, with massive refugee flows into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, sectarian kidnappings in Syria and Lebanon, inter-communal violence in northern Lebanon, and an upsurge in PKK bombings and military offensives in Turkey. In Syria itself, is there really no end in sight to the violence?

Rebel gains

The Free Syrian Army, which last month claimed credit for shooting down a regime MiG fighter jet in Idlib, has become the most popular revolutionary grouping in Syria and in Syrian refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The umbrella group, comprised of more than 100 different brigades, is seeking to cement its recent gains – both territorial and political – by unifying its ranks, in terms of command structure as well as personal rivalries (the most prominent being between the commander of the FSA, Riad al-Assad, and the head of its military council, Mustafa al-Sheikh). 


 Inside Story – Syria: An act of desperation?

It is difficult to verify the FSA’s repeated claim to have seized control of more than 70 per cent of Syria’s territory. However, in recent weeks, and despite having been pushed out of the well-publicised flashpoints of Homs and Deraa, the FSA’s brave fighters have made significant advances in the country’s northernmost provinces and in its economic capital, Aleppo. These northern inroads are critical to the FSA’s objective of holding territory because they abut the friendly Turkish border as well as newly autonomous Kurdish enclaves, which could become an important supply hub. 

However, some features of the rebels’ advance appear to be double-edged. While the FSA has been successful in taking the fight to the Leviathan heartland in Damascus and now Aleppo, its advances have only invited an uncompromising military response in these major cities. Millions of civilians, through no act or contract of their own, are now ensnared in an urban war. This reality is sure to heighten resentment of the opposition by the regime’s support base (one rebel commander acknowledged that the majority of Aleppo’s inhabitants are pro-regime), and to breed it among neutral parties as well as civilians who support the revolution in its aims but not its means. 

In addition, defections among the lower ranks of the regular army have been loudly broadcasted by the FSA leadership – indeed, one pillar of the FSA’s evolving strategy is to focus on infiltrating the armed forces in order to foment defections. However, this trend may well develop along sectarian lines, with the majority Sunni rank and file more likely to turn coat on their Alawi officers. This could eventually render the Syrian army a predominantly Alawi fighting force, deepening the sectarian faultline of the conflict and thereby prolonging it.

Compounding the crisis

In the end, a decisive military victory by the rebels may only become possible through a large uptick in both the nature and the scale of weapons’ consignments to the FSA and/or some form of international air support, perhaps starting with the establishment of a buffer zone. However, owing to the logic of war, both of these courses threaten to compound the crisis confronting Syria.  

In the first place, it would be impossible to ensure that such armaments remained in the hands of nationalist Syrians as opposed to militant extremists and, as demonstrated by the scores of militias still unwilling to disarm in Libya, it will be very difficult to retrieve them once the game is up. There can be no doubt that, just as it has long been reported that the Salafi ideology is prevalent among the foot-soldiers of the FSA, scores of foreign (Sunni) nationals have joined their ranks.

Given that Syria is a Sunni-majority country with a teetering government – and on the doorstep of Israel, no less – it is unsurprising that these foreign fighters have been lured to the battlefront. They are sometimes viewed as uniquely competent and heroic by local rebels who are, equally unsurprisingly, thankful for any support that comes their way. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood, so dominant in the exiled Syrian National Council, has no meaningful presence on the ground in Syria, let alone among the fighting units, so it cannot serve as a moderating force on radicals and the increasingly radicalised.  

Any air intervention in the rebels’ favour would also yield new risks. Turkey will soon call for international support in establishing a 12-mile buffer zone – an initiative supported by France – but a no-fly zone and perhaps thousands of ground troops would be required to police it. Any such action by outside powers would surely form a new equation on the ground, and ensure the further mutation of the conflict. Its imperialist connotations – real or imagined – would be trumpeted by the Syrian government and its allies and, in a variety of regional, international and domestic quarters, such a move would be viewed as a western-sponsored act of aggression. 


 Inside Story – Will Syria become
‘another Afghanistan’?

Furthermore, as the situation currently stands, a buffer zone would have to be mandated outside the UN Security Council, given the almost certain guarantee that Russia and China would oppose it. According to the former head of the French air force, “the entire US war machine” would be needed to neutralise the regime’s air capability. But, at a time when the US has only just managed to shake free of the decade-long debacle in Iraq, it will be hesitant about any bullish military involvement in Syria.

The invasion of Iraq likewise took place without UN authorisation. In that conflict, the US military came face-to-face with the hydra-headed enemy that is inevitably unleashed by a “war of self-defence” at this juncture of the region’s history. Washington, and indeed Central Command in Tampa, will be reluctant to repeat the experience. 

In any case, it seems unlikely that, after one year of bloodshed and more than 40 of oppressive minority rule, a decisive military victory by either side can deal with Syria’s wider crisis.    

Stepping back?

But is it possible that the major regional and international players in the Syrian conflict are beginning to realise that the brinksmanship under way in Syria cannot guarantee any winners?  The recent hardening of battlelines and the increasingly stark realities of full-blown warfare – the regional repercussions of which are demonstrated by the Shia militiamen allegedly bussing in from Iraq and the monthly salaries being dispensed to foreign Sunni fighters – may well prompt a collective rethink. 

Looming large over Turkey are the possibilities of losing control over developments on the Kurdish issue and of being dragged into two uncertain military campaigns (against Assad and against the PKK). In addition, Ankara does not want a full-blown fight with Iran. As the international stand-off over its nuclear programme intensifies, Iran does not need a regional war with bad long-term odds. Its leaders must also be aware that the fitna they so fear is being accelerated by their allies in Damascus.

Iran’s allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, face the very real prospect of electoral defeat, losing the Lebanese street, and having to retain control through force of arms. For Russia, the global imperative of balancing the United States and ensuring that Syria remains within its regional sphere of influence must surely be offset by the increasing absurdity of its hopes for Assad to hang on to power through “reforms”. Moscow knows that its global and regional standing is also comprised of reputation, and as the Syrian government continues with its brutal campaign, the Russians and Chinese look like enablers.

The major American headache (shared by Russia) is the prospect of a security vacuum in Syria and the resurgence of religious militants in the heartland of the Levant – remember that even in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where political transformation did not involve large-scale violence, recent developments concerning extremism and militancy are alarming enough. In a similar vein, Riyadh must realise that there can be no guarantee that any Sunni extremists it supports on the Syrian battlefield will not later turn around and train their sights on Arabia. 


 Syrian refugees in Jordan

In addition, all powers stand to lose economically. Is there some small scope for the main actors to blink at the same time?

To that end, two recent developments offer some promise. Firstly, Lakhdar Brahimi will tomorrow take over from Kofi Annan in an attempt to meditate a solution to the crisis. Instead of focusing on the (deadlocked) UN Security Council, the veteran Algerian diplomat will concentrate on negotiating a transition in which all can save face so long as they move back from the precipice. As Ayman al-Amir has pointed out, “Brahimi is known for negotiation tactics that, to the maximum extent possible, leave no disgruntled losers”.  

Secondly, Cairo is opening the Syria file and there is potential for post-Mubarak Egypt to play the role of an honest regional broker. Recognising the responsibility of regional powers for the unfolding situation in Syria, President Mohamed Morsi last week called for the formation of a Regional Contact Group on Syria, to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. The new government in Cairo, which has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for over two decades on account of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, believes that Iran can be “part of the solution, not part of the problem”. Morsi, who has travelled to Beijing and has not yet visited the White House, has already held two rounds of talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

The latter of these audiences occurred this week at the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, where Morsi enraged Damascus by telling delegates that “our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost all legitimacy is an ethical duty as it is a political and strategic necessity”. However, Morsi also emphasised the need for a peaceful “transfer to a democratic system in Syria in a way that would spare Syria a civil war and partitioning”. That is, although Egypt agrees with the Syrian opposition, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the US that the Assad regime is beyond the pale, he seems to believe that its downfall cannot and should not be sought on the battlefield. 

Brahimi’s commitment to painstaking negotiations, coupled with Morsi’s belief that the crisis in Syria is the responsibility of regional powers, combine to offer the only fragile hope, at this juncture, for ending the bloodshed in Syria and preventing its multiplication throughout the region. A deadlocked international community, sectarian regional rivalry and the unfolding human tragedy make it unlikely that either set of alliances will ever be able to claim an outright victory in Syria. Yet the current trajectory of the conflict promises a great many losers. The gamble, for now, is that all parties will recognise that reality and agree to make do with the half-light.

Dr Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics. She received her doctorate from the University of Oxford.