Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game

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Author: Musa al-Gharbi – Middle East Policy
Volume 20, Issue 1, pages 56–67, Spring 2013

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Assad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue, particularly given our experience in Iraq.
60,000 Syrians Killed

One of the primary reasons offered for supporting regime change in Syria is the Assad regime’s supposed “indiscriminate butchering” of its “own people.” On January 2, 2012, the United Nations released its first comprehensive study,1 estimating that more than 60,000 lives have been lost in the Syrian conflict since March 2011.2 The obvious problem with this statistic is that, independently (as it is usually presented), it provides no differentiation of who has been killed in the conflict (How many are civilians, how many combatants, from which sect/ethnicity?) nor who killed them (Did they die at the hands of the regime, the rebels, or is it unclear?) nor how they died (Were their deaths accidental? Were they combatants? Were they victims of a massacre or other war crime?).

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Author Information

Musa al-Gharbi: Outreach scholar with the University of Arizona’s  Center for Mideast Studies, and a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Mideast Conflict (SISMEC). He is a former FLAS Fellow and graduate teaching assistant in the Philosophy Department at the University of Arizona.

The Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist

Aron Lund for
March 16th, 2013-

Is the FSA losing influence in Syria? How many people are in the FSA? Is the FSA receiving enough guns from the West, or too many? Will the FSA participate in elections after the fall of Bahar el-Assad? What is the ideology of the FSA? What’s the FSA’s view of Israel? Is Jabhat el-Nosra now bigger than the FSA? What does the FSA think about the Kurds? Who is the leader of the FSA? How much control does the central command of the FSA really have over their fighters?

All these and similar questions keep popping up in news articles and op-ed chinstrokers in the Western media, and in much of the Arabic media too.

They all deal with important issues, but they disregard an important fact: the FSA doesn’t really exist.
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Syria’s expensive fight for freedom

The common man is paying the price for a brutal regime, pathetic opposition and an international society that cares only about its own national interests

  • By Marwan Kabalan | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 March 7, 2013

As the Syrian revolution is about to enter its third year, a political solution to the crisis remains as remote as ever. The regime has so far locked itself in a state of denial as it continues to claim that it is fighting a global conspiracy aiming at destroying ‘the axis of resistance’. This conspiracy is executed by transnational terrorist organisations, most notably Al Qaida. Whether this argument makes sense or not, it lets the Syrian regime justify the use of deadly force, including medium range Scud missiles, against its own people.

The opposition, on the other hand, remains as politically naive as it ever; believing that its regional and international allies have a real interest in the success of the Syrian revolution. The opposition is yet to accept the fact that the West is interested only in protecting its most basic interests rather than establishing democracy or stopping the shedding of Syrian blood. It will also have to cease calling upon President Bashar Al Assad to step down and look for other ways to force him to do so.

In fact, the positions of the regime, the opposition, and the regional and international actors with interest in Syria have not changed much since the early days of the revolution. The reason for that might simply lie in the fact that nobody was really prepared to deal with a problem of such magnitude and fraught with complications because nobody had expected the Syrian people to ever revolt against Al Assad’s regime in the first place. The failure to spot signs of a brewing storm led to disastrous consequences.

The regime in Damascus thought that it was immune to revolution. Merely six weeks before the uprising, Al Assad told the Wall Street Journal that his country is very unlikely to go through the turmoil that hit Tunisia and Egypt because the foreign policy of his country had tremendous support among Syrians.


“If you want to talk about Tunisia and Egypt, we are outside of this … We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries, but inspite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas,” Al Assad said.

Indeed, this line of argument helped explain the protest movement in terms of foreign conspiracy, but that proved to be another fatal mistake. Instead of bowing to popular pressure for reform, Al Assad decided to punish those who dared revolt against his political and economic policies.

By using deadly force to suppress the uprising from the very beginning, Al Assad was wittingly turning peaceful demonstrators into armed militias, fighting not only to bring his regime down but also to protect their lives, honour and properties. Furthermore, by getting his own sect — the Alawites — to commit heinous crimes against their Sunni brethren, he prepared the ground for a full-fledged civil war and drew in jihadists from all over the world to take part in a conflict that is increasingly turning sectarian.

Grand sectarian war

Given the inhomogeneous societies of the Levant, Al Assad’s intention might be to get the region involved in a grand sectarian war. To survive, he may even decide to play his final card — starting a regional war. On several occasions, he threatened to set the whole region on fire should his regime collapse. His arsenal of Scud missiles with approximately 700 warheads can hit deep inside Turkey. His arsenal of chemical weapons is also frightening and, should he approach the end of his political life, he might choose to use it. This is what many dub as the Samson Option — the choice in the absence of choices.

This was Al Assad’s strategy and intention as he faced the much unexpected revolution. So what was the opposition’s? The opposition’s response to the revolution was pathetic, to say the least. Having been absolutely illiterate about the regional and international context, it called for foreign military intervention that would never come.

The opposition also estimated that the regime would collapse in a matter of weeks or months under pressure from peaceful demonstrators. It underestimated the regime’s determination to fight and misjudged the US and the Russian positions. The inability of the opposition to provide reliable leadership for the revolution is also prolonging the life of the regime and presenting those who are looking for excuses for not supporting the revolution with what they need.

All in all, Syria is paying today the price for a brutal regime, pathetic opposition and an international society that cares only about its own national interests.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.

Piling mistake upon mistake

The only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria is through the regime. Destroying the state will lead to a power vacuum and chaos

For two years, the United States and the European Union have done everything short of sending their own troops and aircraft into battle to evict Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. Only recently have they begun to realise that they have made a historic mistake: in the euphoria created by the Arab Spring, they are in imminent danger of handing over the entire Arab world to Islamists for whom democracy is anathema.

In a front page editorial titled ‘The Death of a Country,’ The Economist has warned that if the West now simply draws back and lets the civil war run its course, Syria will become “a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant.”

“Almost everything America wants to achieve in the Middle East will become harder. Containing terrorism, ensuring the supply of energy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction … Syria’s disintegration threatens them all.”


Where The Economist goes dangerously wrong is in heaping all the blame for this on Mr. Assad. Had he not “embraced a policy of violence from the start” and “attacked the Arab Spring with tanks and gunships” and turned his Alawite praetorian guard upon Sunnis, he would not have “turned peaceful demonstrators into armed militants” and drawn the jihadi hosts into Syria.

To prevent Syria from turning into another Mali, therefore, it asks the U.S. and the EU to administer the same medicine it fed to Qadhafi in Libya — impose a no-fly zone, destroy Syria’s air force and missiles, and arm ‘non-Jihadi rebel groups’ with surface-to-air missiles. These prescriptions reveal a profound ignorance of the situation in both Libya and Syria.

What is more immediately relevant is that its view in not shared by any leader of the democracy movement in Syria. On the contrary, in an article in The Guardian on June 22 last year, Haytham Manna, the chairman of the 16-party National Coalition for Transition to Democracy, and Mr. Assad’s most trenchant critic in the early days of the insurgency, placed the blame for the sidelining of the democracy movement squarely upon the West’s complicity in allowing the Istanbul based Free Syrian Army to recruit Islamist foreign fighters for the assault on Syria.

Six months later, on December 18, he wrote that the Syrian people had come to regard the foreigners not as liberators but as oppressors. “When the Syrian army attacks al-Nusra it is not as the suppressor of the popular movement, but the guarantor of the unity of Syria’s diverse society … It is the alliance between foreign jihadists and some Syrians that risks tearing the country apart, leading to religious extremism, long-term sectarian war, and the persecution of minorities and various civilian groups.”

The Economist correctly perceives that as Syria disintegrates, the jihadis could use “lawless territory as a base for international terror (and) menace Israel across the Goal Heights.” But what it does not perceive is that the collapse of the Assad regime will hasten this process and end by putting Israel in mortal peril. One has only to trace the likely aftermath of its collapse to understand why.

First, the end of Mr. Assad will not necessarily mean the return of peace. As happened in Afghanistan, it will make 5,000 to 6,000 foreign jihadis redundant and turn them into loose cannons in the country. Repatriating them will be far from easy because the ‘Arab Spring’ has shattered their home economies and left millions without work. This is why Libyans make up the largest contingent among the foreign fighters in both Syria and Mali.


But they cannot stay on indefinitely in Syria either for, with no common purpose left to unite them, the rivalry between the jihadis and more moderate opponents of Mr. Assad will almost certainly erupt into a struggle for power. Unlike the proxy war that it was able to wage upon Mr. Assad, this is a war the West will not be able to stay out of.

The moderates within the newly created Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary forces (SNCORF) already fear this. That is why within three months of being elected, its President Moaz al Khatib, a former Imam of the Omayyad mosque in Damascus, declared himself willing to attend a conference with Bashar al-Assad to chalk out a peaceful transition in Syria. But his weakness was exposed when the diehards in the SNCORF forced him to retract his offer within days. The only remaining option is also the easiest. This is to channel their fervour into a new jihad. The inevitable next target will be Jordan because it lies on the direct route to Al Quds (Jerusalem) and the Al Aqsa mosque, the second holiest shrine in Islam.


Jordan will either cave in or give them free access to the West Bank. That will leave Israel surrounded, and isolated. Any pre-emptive action it takes to make its borders more secure such as re-occupying the Sinai to block access to Gaza will alienate the Arabs, increase the sway of the jihadis, and blight the prospect for a return to democracy and religious moderation in the foreseeable future. It could also put a question mark over the long-term survival of Israel.

If Barack Obama wishes to arrest the development of another, infinitely more dangerous, quagmire in Syria and Jordan, he must do the opposite of what The Economist is proposing and heed, however belatedly, the pleas of the original Syrian National Council, and other leading democracy activists like Manna, to stop the inflow of arms and foreign fighters. This will, admittedly meet stiff opposition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Libya. But Mr. Obama does not have the choice of shirking hard decisions, because he or his successors will face worse ones in the future.

Second, Mr. Obama needs to recognise that the only way to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy is through the regime, as is happening in Myanmar, and not after its destruction. Creating a power vacuum by destroying the state does not make way for democracy but chaos. The resulting vacuum is always filled by the most organised, ruthless and therefore undemocratic groups in a society.

In his January 7 speech to his country, Mr. Assad invited all remaining Syrian opposition groups to a second conference on democracy and threw the doors open to a fresh election and the formation of a new government. He should be strongly urged to hold it as soon, and with as few preconditions, as possible. Haytham Manna and his colleagues should be encouraged to attend the conference. Moaz al Khatib also wants to attend it: Mr. Obama should make it possible for him to do so.

Note: This article has been withdrawn from the website without any explanation

(The writer is a senior journalist)

Alawites, From Separatists to Masters

By Amin Elias

Merely by surveying the events of the last hundred years, we can see just how much is happening today in Syria. What is going on there in fact is not simply a battle between the Baath Party and its opponents, nor a merely regional conflict, but a settling of accounts that could change the whole international equilibrium.

Territory divided up between numerous vilayet during the Ottoman epoch (1516-1918), and then a region made up of four states during the French mandate (1920-1946), Syria took on its present form only with the Franco-Syrian Treaty that was signed in Paris on 9 September 1936 when the ‘independent State of Damascus’ and the ‘government of Aleppo’, which had already been unified in 1923, the ‘autonomous territory of the Alawites’ and the ‘Jebel-Druze’, were fused into a single entity – the Syrian Republic.

One section of the Alawites was not favourable to this fusion. The archives contain documents that demonstrate their hesitation as regards this new Syrian entity. In two letters addressed in 1936 by Alawite notables to the Lebanese President of the time, Emile Eddé, and to the Maronite patriarch, Antoine ‘Arîda, the authors proposed to annex the Alawite region to the ‘state of Greater Lebanon’ proclaimed by General Gouraud on 1 September 1920 and seen by the Maronites as the ‘end of their struggle’ and the ‘achievement of their historic dream’. In a memorial (n. 3547) addressed by these notables to the French Prime Minister, Léon Blum, on 15 June 1936, they rejected the fusion of their region with a Syrian state dominated by the Sunnis. According to this document, the ‘Alawite people’ was different from the ‘Sunni people’ both because of its ‘religious beliefs and because of its traditions and its history’. The ‘Alawite people refuses to be annexed by Muslim Syria’ because the Muslim religion, the ‘official religion of the state’, sees the Alawites as ‘infidels’ (kuffâr). This refusal was translated at the beginning of 1939 into a separatist revolt in the Alawite region against the central Syrian power of Damascus. But this insurrection failed.

In parallel with this separatist current, there also existed amongst the Alawites a current made up of intellectuals and activists which shared Arab nationalist aspirations with other personalities of the various confessions that then existed in Syria and Lebanon. One of the primary figures of this current was Zakî al-Arsûzî. After finishing his studies in philosophy in France, al-Arsûzî returned to Syria and in 1932 he became a teacher at a school in the Sanjak of Alexandretta. A strong defender of the arabness, in 1934 al-Arsûzî founded the Arab Resurrection Party (al-ba‘th al-‘arabî). In 1938 he reached Damascus after being expelled from Alexandretta by the authorities of the French mandate. He announced the rebirth of the Arab nation and brought together many young men around his ideas. After being persecuted and forbidden to teach in all schools by the French, he abandoned active politics to dedicate himself to the study of the roots of Arabic words in a philosophical work which glorified the contribution of the arabness to history: ‘The Genius of the Arabic Language’ (Al-abqariyya al-‘arabiyya fî lisâniha).

For the Sake of Arab Resurrection

In parallel with the political activity of al-Arsûzî, two young Syrian intellectuals became involved in Damascus in political life and exalted the Arab rebirth. The first, Michel ‘Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox who had graduated in history at the Sorbonne, and the second, Salâh Bîtâr, a Sunni who had taken a degree in mathematics, managed to unite around them a large number of teachers and students. In 1942 they called their group the ‘Baath movement’ (harakat al-ba‘th). This provoked a reaction from al-Arsûzî who argued that they had misappropriated the name of his movement. Despite a large number of attempts at reconciliation between ‘Aflaq and al-Arsûzî, the two men continued to hold irreconcilable positions. But this fact did not impede a fair number of the ‘Arsûzîsts’, including Wahîb Ghânim and Hafez Assad, from joining the Baath movement founded by ‘Aflaq and Bîtâr, above all after the withdrawal of al-Arsûzî from political life. The movement was baptised at the beginning of 1945 with a new name: the ‘Baath Party’ (Hizb al-ba‘th). This party brought together the followers of al-Arsûzî, amongst whom were a fair number of young Alawites, and the ‘‘Aflaqists’.

Immediately after the withdrawal of French and English troops from Syria at the end of December 1946, and a few days before the declaration of the independence of the ¬Syrian Republic, 247 young men from all the regions of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Trans¬jordan took part on 4 April 1947 in the first conference of the Baath Party. The participants in this conference, who elected Michel ‘Aflaq president of the party as well as an executive committee, adopted a constitution. This date is seen as the official date of the creation of the ‘Arab Baath Party’ (Hizb al-ba‘th al-‘arabî).

During the first years of independence, Syria experienced a notable democratic vitality and a political plurality which was translated into the birth of a large number of parties. In addition to the Baath Party, another six parties occupied the political scene. The National Party, which was formed in 1947, was the child of the National Bloc which was founded in 1927 to call for Arab unity and the independence of Syria. It brought together numerous famous figures such as Shukrî al-Quwatlî, Fâris al-Khûrî and Jamîl Mardam, as well as other representatives of families in whose hands the wealth of the country was concentrated, above all in Damascus. The second, the People’s Party, was created from a scission within the National Party. It brought together personalities who represented the economic interests of Aleppo and the northern region of the country. The third was the Syrian People’s Party which had been founded by Antûn Sa‘âdih in 1932 and whose project was a ‘Greater Syria’ that would include Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq and Cyprus. The Muslim Brothers, a movement founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Bannâ, had supporters in Syria, above all in Hama, Homs and Damascus. Communism was also represented on the political scene by the Syrian Communist -Party, which was led by the inevitable figure of Khâlid Bikdâsh. Lastly, the Arab Socialist ¬Party was founded by Akram Hûrânî in 1950. It was with this party, on the occasion of the ¬second congress of June 1954, that the Arab Baath Party decided to merge in order to create the Socialist Arab Baath Party (Hizb al-ba‘th al-‘arabî al-ishtirâkî).

A Midland

Situated between Egypt and Asia Minor, on the one hand, and between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, on the other, and being the northern door of the Arab peninsula, ¬Syria was seen as the key to the East. For this reason, during the second part of the 1940s and for the whole of the 1950s, the country was the subject of a conflict between the two principal poles of the Arab political scene: Iraq and Egypt. For both of these countries leadership of the Arab States as a whole was possible only through the conquest of ¬Syria. This last was, in addition, that axis around which revolved the principal diplomatic moves of the international powers. Many decisive battles took place in the field of internal politics at the time of the adoption of the Pact of Baghdad and the Eisenhower doctrine (which Syria rejected).

These rivalries between the regional and international forces were a part of the shift from simple democratic competition to the brutal coups d’état carried out by the generals of the Syrian army. The seven coups led by these officers between March 1949 and March 1963, and the union with Egypt between February 1958 and September 1961, clearly demonstrated the increasing role of the army. As regards the relationship of the Baath Party with Nasserism, at the beginning of the 1960s a Baathist Military Committee (BMC) was formed which was made up of five members, three of whom were Alawites: Mohammad ‘Umrân, Salâh Jdîd, and Hafez Assad. These figures opposed the policy of ‘Aflaq and ¬accused him of accepting the ‘Egyptianisation’ of Syria. After the failure of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in September 1961, in secret they prepared a double coup d’état against the Syrian government and the political office of the Baath Party chaired by ‘Aflaq.

Alawites Step Forward

The 1960s witnessed the appearance of the Alawites, and above all their generals, on the Baathist and Syrian scene. In his book Al-Nusayriyyûn al-‘alawiyyûn (‘The Alawite Nusayris’), Abû Mûsâ al-Harîrî observes that certain Alawite notables and Baathist generals, amongst whom ‘Umrân, Jdîd and Assad, met on a number of occasions between 1960 and 1968 with the aim of finding a way of taking over the Baath Party and the Syrian army in order to control central power in Damascus. Al-Harîrî also refers to another plan which sought to encourage the emigration of the Alawites from their mountains (Jibâl al-nusayriyya) towards the major cities of Tartus, Latakia and Homs with a view to founding an Alawite state with its capital in Homs. This information is not based upon certain evidence but on 8 March 1963 the coup d’état of the BMC was successful. After eliminating the Nasserites and the Communists, the BMC, dominated by Salâh Jdîd and Hafez Assad, was faced by the historic leader of the Baath Party, Michel ‘Aflaq. Three years later, the BMC carried out a second coup d’état on 21-25 February 1966 against ‘Aflaq. The Constitution was suspended. A new regime was created in which any separation of the Baath Party and power was impossible: ‘power is the Baath Party’. The ‘Aflaqists were eliminated and he himself had to flee to Lebanon before later finding refuge amongst the Baathists of Iraq.

However, the struggle for power between the two new leaders, Jdîd and Assad, was not late in beginning. Their rivalry emerged after the defeat of the Syrian army during the Israeli-Arab war of June 1967, a defeat which led to the loss of the Golan Heights. To this defeat were added ideological debates between the group led by Jdîd, who aspired to a radical Marxist doctrine, and the group led by Assad, whose principal concern was to restore the Syrian army without increasing ties of dependence with the USSR. This group wanted economic and military cooperation with the other Arab countries without adopting a Marxist or progressive approach toward them.

The annihilation of the ‘Palestinian resistance’ by King Hussein of Jordan in September 1970, and the attempt by Jdîd to involve the Syrian army in this battle on the side of the Palestinians, something to which Assad was opposed, made the relations between the two leaders of Syria irretrievable. This situation, made worse by the death of Nasser, led Assad to act. He first proceeded to arrest members loyal to Jdîd and to take control of the most important sections of the army. On 19 October 1970 he ordered his soldiers to surround the offices of the civil organisation of the Baath Party and the next day they arrested its most important leaders, including Jdîd. From that moment onwards Assad concentrated all the powers of the Baath Party and the Syrian government in his hands and appointed one of his followers, Ahmad al-Khatîb, as Head of State in Syria. Knowing that the promotion of an Alawite to the office of president would have wounded the sensitivity of Syrian Sunnis (the Alawites are seen as non-Muslims), Assad asked the Lebanese Shi’ite imam, Mûsâ al-Sadr, a friend of his, to promulgate a fatwa which proclaimed that the Alawites were Shi’ite Muslims. Nominated by 173 members of the Assembly of the People as candidate for the presidency of the Republic, Assad became president on 12 March 1971 following a referendum. This action of Assad was baptised ‘the rectification movement’ (al-haraka ¬al-tashîhiyya). In 1973 he proceeded to modify the Syrian Constitution and to eliminate the clause which laid down that Islam had to be the religion of the President. He then had to address fierce opposition on the part of the Syrian Sunni ‘ulamâ’ who threatened to mobilise Muslim crowds against him. As regards military policy, Assad governed everything connected with the army with an iron fist. Because of this policy, top army positions could be held only by Alawite officers or by Sunni or Christian Baathists who had demonstrated strong loyalty to Assad. The opponents of the Baath Party, and in particular the Muslim Brothers, were not authorised to attend military academies. These same rules were applied in the recruitment of members of the secret services. The system was handed down from father to son. Aware of the importance of the army, the current President, Bashar al-Assad, has managed to maintain control over it. No soldier can be mobilised without his approval, as is demonstrated by the challenge that this army has had to address since the outbreak of events in Syria in March 2011.

It was with Assad that Syria, up to that time the subject of conflict between the regional and international powers, was transformed into an active regional force which exercised its influence on the Middle Eastern scene. After establishing a strong central power in Damascus and imposing its authority with all means, including violence, in all the neighbouring regions, the Assads were able to make Syria the central core of a political, military and geo-strategic alliance running from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon, passing by way of Iraq. The Sunni leaders of the region such as the King of Jordan, ‘Abdallah; the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak; and the King of Saudi Arabia, ‘Abdallah, identified this alliance with Shi’ite Islam and called it the ‘Shi’ite crescent’ (al-hilâl al-shî‘î). This was condemned by the United States of America which was able to place it in the ‘axis of evil’. It is in this context of geopolitical rivalry between the United States of America and its allies, on the one hand, and Iran and its allies, on the other, aggravated by Jewish and Sunni and Shi’ite Islam confessional effervescence, that one may understand more effectively what is presently happening in Syria. The positions of Russia and of China in relation to the events in Syria make the landscape more complicated. For many observers, the crisis in Syria is no longer an internal question between the Syrian opposition, on the one hand, and the Baathist regime, on the other, nor a regional confrontation between the Sunni axis, on the one hand, and the Shi’ite axis, on the other. It has become a question that may shift the international balance that was established after the fall of the USSR.


Georges Corm, Le Proche-Orient éclaté, 1956-2010, Gallimard, Paris, 2010.

Henry Laurens, L’Orient arabe. Arabisme et islamisme de 1798 à 1945, Armand Colin, Paris, 1993.

Pierre-Jean Luizard, Laïcités autoritaires en terres d’Islam, Fayard, Paris, 2008.

Patrick Seale, Asad. The Struggle for the Middle East, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990.

Al-Dustûr (the Constitution of the Baath Party), Baath Party Information Office, Damascus, 1976.

Turkey, the Unhelpful Ally


AMERICA’S stated goal is to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. The United States also insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. However, this rosy vision of a moderate and secular Syria after Mr. Assad’s downfall will not be achieved if the United States continues to depend on regional allies that have little interest in such an outcome.

President Obama has relied heavily on Turkey in seeking to oust Mr. Assad and Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit the Turkish capital, Ankara, later this week. But Turkey is part of the problem. It is exacerbating Syria’s sectarian strife, rather than contributing to a peaceful and pluralistic solution.

While the Obama administration has encouraged a broad Syrian opposition coalition, in which the influence of Islamists would be circumscribed, Turkey has not been of any assistance whatsoever. Instead, the Turkish government has continued to throw its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood dominated the Syrian National Council, which is headquartered in Istanbul, and has succeeded in eclipsing other groups within the new opposition coalition, effectively thwarting the American effort to empower non-Islamists.

Moreover, while sponsoring the Sunni cause in Syria, the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.

Turkey has provided a crucial sanctuary for the Sunni rebels fighting Mr. Assad and has helped to arm and train them. Even more ominously, Turkey is turning a blind eye to the presence of jihadists on its territory, and has even used them to suppress the aspirations of Kurds in Syria. Last November, Islamist rebels from Jabhet al-Nusra, which has reputed links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, entered the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain from Turkey and attacked fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the P.Y.D., which had wrested control of parts of northeastern Syria. The Nusra fighters were initially repelled, but have continued to cross into Syria from their safe haven in Turkey.

Mr. Obama has invested considerable political capital in Turkey, cultivating a close relationship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. American and Turkish officials have held regular operational planning meetings since last summer, aimed at hastening the downfall of Mr. Assad. In a recent interview with the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, Mr. Obama thanked “the Turkish government for the leadership they have provided in the efforts to end the violence in Syria and start the political transition process.”

But this praise is undeserved. America can’t expect the Sunni Arab autocracies that have financed the Syrian uprising, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to help empower secular and moderate leaders in Syria. However, Turkey, a NATO ally, should be expected to promote a pluralistic, post-Assad Syria. It has not.

The Obama administration must therefore reassess the assumption that Turkey is playing a constructive role in ending the violence in Syria; it must also take a hard look at its own role in contributing to religious strife.

America’s policy of punitive sanctions and not-so-veiled military threats toward Iran has encouraged Turkey to assert itself as a Sunni power. The perception that Turkey enjoys American “cover” for a foreign policy that directly confronts Iranian interests emboldened the Turkish government to throw its weight behind the armed Sunni rebellion against Mr. Assad, Iran’s main regional ally.

Turkey quickly abandoned its stated ambition to have “zero problems with neighbors” and decided to join the United States in confronting Iran. It agreed to the deployment of parts of NATO’s antimissile shield, which is meant to neutralize a supposed Iranian missile threat.

Turkey’s shift flowed from the belief that it would gain power and stature and reap the benefits if America succeeded in rolling back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

All of this suited the United States. Washington no longer had to fear that Turkey might be “drifting eastward,” as it did during the short-lived Turkish-Iranian rapprochement a few years ago, when Turkey broke ranks with its Western partners over the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey also appeared to be an American asset insofar as it could potentially offset the influence of more conservative Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia.

But the Syrian crisis has had a radicalizing effect on all parties, including Turkey’s more moderate Islamist government. Under more peaceful circumstances, Mr. Erdogan might be able to live up to American expectations and promote a pluralistic vision for the Middle East. That won’t happen if the region is increasingly torn apart by violent religious conflict and its leaders believe that playing the sectarian card will enhance their power.

Removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 2003 had the undesirable consequence of empowering Iran. A decade later, America’s effort to remove Mr. Assad is partly an attempt to remedy this geopolitical setback. But, as in Iraq, it has had unwelcome consequences. Moreover, American policy toward Iran is encouraging opportunistic Sunni assertiveness that threatens to trigger Shiite retaliation.

The United States must beware of doing the bidding of Sunni powers — especially Turkey — that are advancing sectarian agendas that run counter to America’s interest of promoting pluralism and tolerance. Left unchecked, rising sectarianism could lead to a dangerous regional war.

Halil M. Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, which are affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, and with the Institute for Security and Development Policy, in Stockholm.

The Arabs Between Turbulent Revolutions and Stable Tyranny

By Dr. Hamad Al-Majid, Asharq al Awsat 18/0/2013

God fights against oppression and tyranny but they still remain, despite their enduring connotations of hardship, corruption, injustice, tragedy, and brutality. Like alcohol, oppression and tyranny are primarily a great source of sin, but that is not to say they have no advantages. One of the biggest virtues of tyranny is its accompanying security and economic stability, and this is exactly what the states of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Somalia have lost. It is important to point out here that the latter two, Iraq and Somalia, are completely different cases to the Arab Spring revolutions, as change did not come about as a result of a mass popular movement. The regime in Iraq was overthrown by a superpower that attacked it, and as for Somalia, Siad Barre’s rule was reliant upon a contract structured around tribal and ideological complexities. But the common factor that brings Iraq and Somalia together with the rest of the Arab revolutions is the “forced” change of a strong and stable regime, regardless of who actually carried it out. The Saddam, Mubarak, Assad, Ben Ali, Saleh, Barre, and Gaddafi regimes were all controlled by leaders who held onto power with an iron fist. It is true that they suppressed their people, squandered their wealth, and ravaged, destroyed, and killed, but in return they ensured a stable country and a strong central government.

So far, in all of the Arab Spring states without exception, there does not appear to be anything on the horizon to warm the hearts of the masses. Some tyrannical figures were executed and others overthrown, and the revolutionaries breathed in the air of freedom and finally expressed their opinions, but nevertheless the Arab Spring, in some cases, left behind massive destruction, tens of thousands injured or dead, and millions displaced, as in Syria. At best it left behind weak central governments, fragile security, teetering economies, and disturbances in the street out of the state’s control, as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. As for Libya, the government’s control does not extend beyond the capital Tripoli, while the rest of the country remains under the control of battalions affiliated to tribes or armed groups motivated by different ideologies.

I am certainly aware that the most notorious consequences of revolutions—whether ancient or modern, Arab or non-Arab—are what we are witnessing now in the countries of the Arab Spring, from fragile security, political unrest, to economic stagnation. The post-revolution situation in these countries is like a patient after an operation to replace his heart or to remove a large tumor from his brain; a long period of recovery is needed. However, the most important observation in this regard remains that the price paid was too high and too dangerous. The Arab revolutions, in terms of their danger, were exactly like a high-risk medical procedure; either it leads to complete success, death, or the patient remains in a critical condition. In the Arab Spring states, no country has been restored to full health but none are resting with the dead either.

The key issue is that the majority of people in the Arab states where revolutions did not break out still consider the Arab Spring as an inspiration for change. They have become intoxicated with the overthrow of tyrannical leaders, energized by the roars of the masses in their million-man marches, but still they completely overlook the critical conditions created by these revolutions. Theses sentiments, coupled with the state of congestion caused by corruption, poor management, and declining popular participation in decision-making, create a favorable climate for infection. As a result, a number of Arab states are no longer safe from the fire of revolutions, regardless of whether they feel immune themselves. Here it would be wrong to rely on changing the convictions of people, for this is nearly impossible. It is more realistic for governments to strive to keep pace with the changes with genuine reforms and an honest and effective fight against corruption.

Dr. Hamad Al-Majid is a journalist and former member of the official Saudi National Organization for Human Rights. Al-Majid is a graduate of Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh and holds an M.A. from California and a Doctorate from the University of Hull in the United Kingdom.

Post-revolt Arab Transitions: Driven by Distrust and Inexperience

Post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African countries are struggling to manage the transition from autocratic to more transparent, accountable societies. Increasingly prejudice, distrust and inexperience are proving to be greater obstacles, argues James M. Dorsey.

Post-revolt Arab nations are experiencing tumultuous times. The assassination of a prominent Tunisian opposition leader has sparked mass protests against Islamists held responsible for his death. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has called for the replacement of the Islamist-dominated Cabinet by a government of technocrats that would lead the country to elections, to the chagrin of his Ennahada party that fears loss of power.

Egypt has been wracked by violent street protests that have left more than 60 people dead in three Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, forcing President Mohamed Morsi to declare emergency rule and bring the military back into the streets and soccer stadiums to maintain law and order.

Underlying Fault Lines

Underlying the volatility in Egypt and Tunisia as well as difficult transitions in Libya and Yemen is the increasing lack of confidence between Islamists and non-Islamist forces. That fault line is fuelled by an ever deeper secularist suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who by and large have emerged from the revolts as the largest, most organised political force, are bent on creating Islamist states and enforcing Islamic law. This mistrust drives the weakening of the civilian and armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad in the continuing civil war in Syria.

For their part, Islamists, including moderates, are not certain where the allegiances of non-Islamists lie and whether significant segments of the secularists would opt for a less free society in cooperation with institutions like the judiciary, the police and security forces in a bid to halt what they see as an Islamist power grab.

To be sure, the militancy and violence of more radical Islamists in Tunisia in recent months as well as Morsi’s imperious style of government, his failed attempt to acquire absolute power, his unilaterally pushing through of a controversial constitution, his failed attempt to fire a state prosecutor and increased reliance on the despised police and security forces, have done little to assuage anti-Islamist fears.

Similarly, Syrian opposition forces with Islamists in the lead have failed to convince the country’s key minorities who could have made a difference in reducing the regime’s power base, that there would be a place for them and that their rights would be secured in a post-Assad Syria.

Yet, lost in the mixture of misperception and prejudice is the recognition that Islamists came to power virtually unprepared for government, having a history of a pressured existence either underground, a legal nether land or exile. The Muslim Brotherhood, two years after the overthrow of Mubarak and seven months after Morsi’s election as president, remains nominally an illegal organisation in Egypt. As a result, this reinforces a sense that he and the Brotherhood fail to truly understand the concept of democracy and are more focused on fending off threats and settling old scores.

A Mental Transition

Morsi, like his counterparts in other post-revolt Arab nations, (apart from Libya that suffers the consequences of Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to build institutions), have inherited states dominated by police and security forces and populated by institutions moulded by the former autocratic regimes with their own vested interests. It takes a degree of political savvy, mastering of electoral politics, backroom horse trading, give-and-take and an ability to manage public expectations rather than the bunker mentality in which Islamist leaders operated in the past. With few exceptions, they have yet to demonstrate that they can make that mental transition.

In retrospect, Morsi’s deft alliance late last year with the second echelon of Egypt’s military command that allowed him to sideline long-serving commanders who unsuccessfully sought to grab power in the period between his election and his assumption of office, seems more an exception than an indication of his ability to manoeuvre the minefield that constitutes Egyptian transition politics.

Jebali’s call for an interim technocratic government in a bid to avert a second popular revolt in Tunisia comes closest to Morsi’s rare display of political deftness in his handling of the military. It contrasts starkly with Morsi’s surprising reluctance to tackle reform of the police and security forces who for many years targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, his seeming willingness to maintain Mubarak-era structures and his increased reliance on them despite the existence of reformists within all of those institutions.

Relative calm has returned to the streets of Egyptian cities, giving Morsi at best a month to build bridges in advance of the country’s next flashpoint when a court in Cairo pronounces verdict in the case of the remaining 52 defendants accused of responsibility for the deaths of 74 soccer fans a year ago in a politically-loaded brawl in Port Said.

Flashpoint Offers Leverage

To do so, Morsi would have to convincingly reach out to his detractors in a bid to convince them that he has put the bunker mentality behind him, wants his government to be inclusive rather than exclusive and that he is serious about reform of key state institutions and is focusing on a turnaround of the country’s economy.

As much as the Port Said case constitutes a flash point – the court’s sentencing last month of the first batch of 21 defendants to death sparked the most violent protests – it also gives Morsi leverage. In the absence of a justification of the court’s ruling, a leaked summary of the prosecution’s case put the blame for the brawl as much on the police as it did on spectators in the stadium.

The prosecutor’s case, coupled with human rights reports that document that the police and security forces are a law unto themselves, provide Morsi with the ammunition to start the difficult process of reforming law enforcement. It is a move that would prove immensely popular and would help restore political calm needed to embark on a road of economic recovery.

A convincing move to amend the constitution in ways that removes fears of an Islamist takeover would further serve to bridge the widening gap in Egyptian politics. It is too early to write Morsi off as a failed leader. The ball is in his court, though time is running out.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

A Peace Package for the Middle East

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA, notes Patrick Seale.

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA. America’s vital interests in the Middle East, its political reputation, its ability to project power and influence are intimately tied up with the way it deals — or fails to deal — with these problems. So what advice might one be bold enough to give to President Obama and his team?

Each of these three problems is profoundly destabilising for the region as a whole and risks triggering a war of unpredictable consequences. Taken separately, each of them has so far defied resolution. One suggestion is that tackling them as a package might prove more effective.

Consider, for a moment, how closely inter-connected they are. No one is more concerned than Israel about Iran’s nuclear programme, which it sees as a threat to its military supremacy and ultimately to its security. It fears that a nuclear capable Iran would restrict the freedom — which Israel has enjoyed for decades — to strike its neighbours at will, when they seem threatening.

Iran, however, does not stand alone. Its fate is closely linked to that of Syria, its principal regional ally. Syria has also been the most ardent champion of Palestinian rights and of Lebanon’s freedom from Israeli control. Indeed, the so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hizballah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the Levant.

Needless to say, Syria’s calamitous civil war has gravely weakened the resistance axis. Israel’s dearest hope is to destroy what remains of it by urging the United States and its allies to bring down the Tehran and the Damascus regimes, thus freeing Israel from any constraint from these powers in its relentless drive for a ‘Greater Israel’.

It can thus be seen that Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria’s existential crisis and Israel’s land hunger are inextricably linked. Attempts to deal with these problems separately have so far failed. The obvious conclusion is that they may be better dealt with as a package. These are not marginal problems which can be left to fester. If the United States wishes to protect itself, its interests and its allies in a highly turbulent environment it must make a supreme effort to resolve them.

Moreover, this is a unique moment: President Obama has been re-elected for a second term. His political authority has been enhanced. The world is looking to him for leadership. Although many other foreign policy problems clamour for his attention — the rising colossus of China first among them — he knows that the Middle East, for all its maddening complexity, latent violence, and the current resurgence of Al-Qaeda, not least in Syria, cannot be ignored.

He should consider the possibility of a trade-off between Iran’s nuclear programme and a Palestinian state. The proposal is simple enough: If Iran were to agree — under strict international supervision — to give up, once and for all, its ambition to become a nuclear-capable state, Israel would, in exchange, agree to the establishment of an independent Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. The exact terms of the trade-off would evidently need negotiation and refinement, but the main lines and necessary mutual concessions of an Israeli-Palestinian deal have been extensively debated and are widely known.

Such a bargain between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is not as far-fetched or as fictional as it may sound. Iran has boxed itself into a corner. It knows that the United States will not allow it to become a nuclear power. It wants a dignified exit from its present predicament and an end to crippling sanctions. Israel, in turn, faces international isolation — not to speak of the permanent threat of terrorism — if it insists on stealing what remains of the West Bank. It, too, needs a dignified exit from the insanity of its fanatical settlers and religious nationalists who, if unchecked, would condemn Israel to pariah status and permanent war. A trade-off would resolve two of the region’s most intractable problems to the great benefit of everyone concerned. Peace and normal relations with the entire Muslim world would be Israel’s very substantial reward.

What about Syria? It lies at the very heart of the regional power system. Its on-going civil war is threatening to destabilise its neighbours — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Israel itself will not be immune. Islamist fighters, some linked to Al-Qaeda, are flowing into Syria, while refugees are fleeing out to neighbouring states in very large numbers. The toll of dead and wounded is heavy, material destruction great and human misery incalculable.

It is by now abundantly clear that there is no military solution to the conflict: Neither the regime nor its opponents can hope to win an outright victory. No outside power wants to intervene militarily. Yet the regime and its enemies are incapable of negotiating an end to the conflict without outside help.

What should the international community do? First, the United States and Russia (with active support from other powers) should join together in imposing a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. This could involve deploying an international force around Syria’s borders to prevent the inflow of fighters, weapons, and other military equipment to both government and rebels.

Secondly, major external powers — Arab, Western, Chinese, Russian and others — should solemnly pledge to contribute to a Syria Reconstruction Fund of some $10bn-$15bn. The money would be entrusted to the World Bank and disbursed only when a permanent ceasefire is in place and when some clear progress is made towards a negotiated settlement. The existence of the Fund will provide a real incentive.

Thirdly, the United Nations Secretary General, with unanimous backing from the Security Council, should summon a conference of national reconciliation in Damascus attended by regime representatives as well as by all Syrian factions, groups, parties and prominent individuals prepared to renounce war.

The task will not be easy. The wounds of the conflict are very deep. But for the sake of Syria and its neighbours — for the sake of peace in the region — a supreme effort must be made to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state and its possible fragmentation. The difficult task will be to reshape Syria’s political system on democratic lines. Political freedoms will have to be guaranteed, individual rights respected, police brutality ended, the rule of law observed, government services restored and minorities protected. An essential goal must be the preservation of the Syrian Arab army as the indispensable institution of the state. In Iraq, it was the disbanding of the army which led to the collapse of the state, triggering the catastrophic civil war from which the country has yet to recover.

If Barack Obama were to adopt the programme outlined above and throw his full weight behind it, his place in history as a great peacemaker would be assured.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

Radical elements are true winners in Syria’s stalemate

  Jan 21, 2013

In an interview with Syrian state television on Saturday, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem, said most Syrians have come to understand that what they are facing are not revolutionaries challenging the Assad regime, but foreign-backed jihadists who are targeting the country’s national unity. He is only partly wrong.

This threat of radicalism is slightly exaggerated by western countries, but at the same time largely underestimated by the Syrian opposition, giving way to misunderstanding of an issue that is complicating the process of finding a way out of this crisis. I have discussed this issue with several officials from western and regional countries involved in the Syrian crisis, as the situation developed in the country over the past 22 months.

Syrians need to understand that western and some regional governments are genuinely concerned about the rise of jihadi activities in the country. These concerns are not a mere pretext to justify inaction, as the opposition tends to claim. Therefore, a common understanding is necessary to address the issue.

Jihadis represent a fraction of the anti-regime fighters. Yet since the US designated Jabhat Al Nusra, a Salafi jihadist group believed to have links to Al Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist group, the narrative has shifted, with almost every report from inside Syria focusing on this group’s ideology or operations. Western governments must understand that as the situation drags on, jihadists and Islamists in general become more powerful – a fact that an overwhelming number of experts have consistently and clearly reiterated since the beginning of the conflict.

Jihadists with extreme Islamist agendas – including fighters said to hail from as many as 29 countries – are steadily building inroads in Syrian society by providing desperately needed services to local communities and demonstrating discipline that is lacking within the Free Syrian Army ranks. Radical Islamists are also efficiently organising and forming alliances to shape the future of the country. On Saturday, for example, the Syrian Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist groups, released its vision for an Islamic state in the future.

This vision may be at odds with the future most Syrians desire, but jihadists are nonetheless given a pass because they are the most effective type of foreign intervention force operating. Many of the rebels in the Free Syrian Army have lately taken a back seat in the fight against the regime; jihadists, on the other hand, remain on the front lines.

Meanwhile, major supporters of the Syrian opposition appear to obsess about how to preserve the regime’s structure and have thus been detached from the realities on the ground. It is important to recognise that the current state of the regime – and how it is projected to be as long as the situation persists – will not be more helpful in combating radicalism than if the regime collapses and the rebels win. On the contrary, the country is a dangerous incubator for radicals, not only among the rebels but also among pro-Assad fighters.

The opposition does not intend to radically change the regime’s structure. It is important to distinguish between the state’s institutions and the regime’s tools of repression. Earlier this month, the opposition’s National Coalition released a plan for a transitional period that includes ensuring governmental institutions continue functioning, and a weapons collection programme.

Indeed, the army and the feared mukhabarat security services do not need to be dismantled because Alawites who control these forces represent a minority; concerns about the structure of the regime can be addressed with a careful change in the army’s command and the reversal of the mukhabarat apparatus’s dominance over state institutions.

But the Syrian opposition’s promises about “ensuring the collection of weapons” or the “function of the state’s institutions” are far from enough. The opposition must understand that the type of jihadists who have entered Syria are arguably the worst type because they have a sectarian agenda, committed to sectarian cleansing and indiscriminate violence.

These “sectarian jihadists” are particularly worrying because of the sectarian diversity of Syrian society. Yet, this sectarianism has not been duly addressed by religious and political leaders. According to a Syrian researcher who has recently met with numerous religious leaders, these leaders shy away from speaking out against sectarianism to avoid criticism from the public. There is an increasing tendency among opposition figures and activists to say what is popular rather than what is right.

The role of moderate religious leaders is essential to counter this trend. These religious leaders, however, find it difficult to criticise popular forces. Supporters of the Syrian uprising need to show that there can be an alternative. Instead of reminiscing over the demise of dictatorial, pseudo-secular rulers, it is imperative to face this threat head on and look for a solution through democratic means, awareness and public appeal. After all, Islamists are part of the new political reality across the Middle East.

Once the regime falls, many will find little reason to fight, while moderate religious and local leaders will have to join hands to speak out or act against extremism. But as long as Mr Al Assad remains in power, these moderate voices will remain outliers.

The bottom line is this: the longer this crisis goes on, the more time radical forces from all sides will have to dig in.
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