Syria: The Year of Living Dangerously

It is said that Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president after independence, borrowed the expression ‘vivere pericoloso’ from Italian, to which he added ‘Tahun’, or ‘year’, making it ‘Tahun vivere pericoloso’, or ‘The Year of Living Dangerously.’  He used it as a title for his independence day speech in 1964, a year before a coup attempt against him by various groups – the army, the communist party, and the Islamists - weakened him to the point of making him relinquish power, ending in house arrest.  ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ is also the title of both a novel and a movie about the coup, a fiction built around three central characters, a local activist opposed to Sukarno, an Australian journalist, and a female British embassy officer who provides him privileged information.

To draw an analogy between Syria and Indonesia at the time and between Assad and Sukarno is revealing: Syria is still very much in a post colonial era and Assad has been, since March 2011, the target of a concerted and open effort from various forces aimed at ending his rule.  But in his third year into the crisis, Assad is going nowhere and does not appear to be weakened by the crisis.  If anything, Assad’s leadership is now uncontested, as no credible leader has emerged from the various groups working to remove him from power.  Also, the fictional account of the coup against Sukarno touches directly on the way the Syrian crisis has been portrayed in the West.  In the movie, the trio formed by the local activist, the British diplomat and the journalist produces a view of events marked by their own relationships, hopes, and fantasies.  This provides a measure of how fraught with manipulation, and marked with a western-centric perspective, is the information that western journalists, as foreign correspondents, weave their stories around.  In Syria’s case, this paradigm has had its limits tested by the duration of the crisis as the manipulated information has led to unreal expectations about seeing Assad gone, now severely challenged by realities wilfully ignored for most of the first two years of the crisis.  Chief among them are the heavy presence of Islamist extremists in the heart of the Syrian ‘revolution’, the dynamic of the Resistance axis, and Syria allies’ – Iran and Russia - formidable diplomacy.

Enter Al-Qaida and other related groups

We were told that the uprising against Bashar el-Assad became violent as protesters retaliated against the initial violence of the regime.  But there are many indicators that the violence of the uprising was not a spontaneous outpouring of grief and anger, but an organized one, and that Islamist extremists affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaida, already operating in Syria in 2011, were responsible for this violence.  Most of the violence in 2011 and 2012 happened in towns  bordering Lebanon and Iraq where al-Qaida, and/or al-Qaida inspired groups, have been particularly active since 2007-2008.  There is not one fighting video provided by the Syrian opposition in which there are no enthusiastic shouts of ‘AllahuAkbar’, indicating, at least, that secularism is not the hallmark of armed groups fighting the Syrian state, contrary to what we were repeatedly told by the mainstream media.  Add to this the attacks against religious minorities and the vociferations of extremist scholars, or the thinking masters of jihadists against Bashar el-Assad and his ‘sect’, and we end up with an uprising carrying an Islamist militant agenda from the beginning.

Less than three months into the crisis in Syria,  in  June 2011, armed groups attacked government checkpoints and buildings at Jisr el-shugur, took the town, and killed 120 army and security personnel.  There are differing accounts of what happened in Jisr el-Shugur, but the main fact is still that this was the first act of organized violence against the army and the police aimed not at retaliation but at terrorizing and infusing fear among army and police personnel and the population at large, with bodies of the police and the army mutilated and thrown into the river.  During the same period, parts of the city of Homs were overtaken by armed groups who, to this day, still control a small area amidst continuing and uninterrupted fighting with the Syrian army since May 2011.  The next territory infiltrated by armed groups would be on the Syrian-Turkish border, culminating in the fall of parts of Aleppo - the city who did not want the revolution - to armed groups in the summer of 2012.  With the ‘revolution’ in Aleppo and Kurdish areas along the Turkish border inflamed, Turkey opened its border to jihadists and weapons destined to Syria after having tried, and failed, to promote ‘humanitarian’ corridors to open the way for a NATO bombing campaign on Syria. 

Looking at the maps of rebel-controlled areas - as al-Qaida terrorists came to be called, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey appear to have been the main providers of both al-Qaida and al-Qaida inspired militants operating on a regional level (French expert Fabrice Balanche calls the latter non-internationalists Islamists).  This new al-Qaida field operation in Syria, after Iraq, was facilitated by many factors.  Among them are Lebanon’s weak institutions and sectarian worries, Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, and the larger political context set up by the Bush administration, with complicity from Israel and Saudi Arabia, to weaken the Resistance axis of Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, as Seymour Hersh uncovered in ‘The Redirection’.  

To explain the organized violence against the Syrian state and its institutions, we were told that defected soldiers did most of the fighting.  Some estimates point to 100000 defected soldiers, an unverified number, with al-Jazeera only recently publishing an interactive tool tracking Syria defections, pointing to merely 82 senior army and security personnel who defected, and no tracking of soldiers’ defections. The myth of the FSA, the ‘empty logo’ for a non existent secular uprising against Assad, was born, and it stood firm in the media narrative until only recently, when it appeared that the FSA leadership, following in the footsteps of the Syrian opposition, imploded, with one notable leader defecting to a foreign country seeking a decent living away from the uncertainties of the ‘revolution’.

It is very troubling to watch the schizophrenia of mainstream journalists who portray the Syrian crisis as a civil and sectarian war led by mainly ‘secularists’ fighters from FSA, without seeing any contradiction in their statements.

Talk about al-Qaida in Syria in the mainstream media started openly, albeit timidly, only after the US labelled the main Islamist group fighting there, Jabhat el-Nusra, as a terrorist organization in December 2012, probably prompted by the assassination of its ambassador and three others in the US embassy compound in Benghazi by armed Islamists, on September 11th, 2012.  Barely one month later, jihadists were threatening both Algeria and Mali.  The new opportunities have emboldened al-Qaida and the groups it inspires.  By early 2013, those who were hoping that the unleashing of jihadists and their sectarian violence would result in the ‘controlled’ collapse of the Syrian state realized that they were losing control over the process to jihadists.  Serious people noticed, but not the mainstream media, who are still keeping the lid on horrible stories of abduction and detention of their own people at the hands of al-Qaida groups in Syria, with some coming back to tell the dark side of the ‘revolution’, still unheard by their colleagues.

Enter Hezbollah

We don’t know when Hezbollah did enter the fray in Syria, but it must have been a gradual process.  The Syrian opposition accused Hezbollah from day one of helping Assad, despite the party’s apparent neutrality, going as far as to offer mediation between the parties in 2011. Hezbollah always maintained that it took the decision to enter Syria when it felt that it was being targeted by the armed groups fighting against Assad.  Indeed, at the time, not only was the Lebanese border porous with fighters crossing in both directions, but friction points appeared quickly in the Lebanese territory, notably in Tripoli and Palestinian refugee camps in Saida.  With Syrian refugees pouring into Lebanon, the Lebanese state’s authority challenged in ‘Arsal, a Lebanese town staunchly against Assad, and the instability in Lebanon’s two Sunni cities, Tripoli and Saida, the stage was set for a serious challenge to the territorial integrity of both countries, a delicate question when it comes to relations between Syria and Lebanon. Losing territorial integrity  was going to be a slippery slope for the Syrian government,  starting the irreversible process of losing control over the whole country.  As Assad spelled out in one his speeches, what is important, he said, is not winning here and there: what is important is territorial integrity.  Hence, the battle for Qusayr, in which Hezbollah openly joined Syrian government troops, was a battle for territorial integrity for both Syria and Lebanon.

From the party’s leader declarations during the speeches he made in 2013, it appears that Hezbollah first provided strategic and logistical help to approximately 30000 Lebanese Shia living in Syrian border towns who were subjected to the violence of armed groups battling Assad.  Secondly, Hezbollah sent fighters to protect the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab, near Damascus,  when it was surrounded by rebels.  Then Hezbollah openly admitted its role in the battle to retake Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, in June 2013.  After Qusayr, there was question as to whether Hezbollah would retreat or continue the fight in other parts of Syria. Even though the party’s leader said, in defiance of its critics, that Hezbollah reserves the right to intervene anytime and anywhere in Syria, the lines of the battle for Hezbollah are still mainly oriented, to this day, at preventing Syria’s armed groups from entering or leaving Lebanon, and preserving the territorial integrity of the country.

Hezbollah’s role meant that the Syrian government could count on Hezbollah’s fighters to secure its borders with Lebanon.  The Syrian government proceeded similarly on the Turkish frontier where it allowed Kurdish fighters, who are neither his nor the armed groups’ allies, to operate freely to protect their areas. 

The Syrian army has been fighting for more than two years to repel armed groups from Damascus, the capital, and to maintainthe country’s territorial integrity.  Are we in a state of stalemate, as some mainstream media suggest?  Not if we consider that no army can easily get rid of an insurgency aided by exterior actors, and not if we consider that, at no point in time, the armed groups were able to exert total control over towns and frontiers.  Until now, the Syrian army has succeeded in preventing the armed groups from putting into question the territorial integrity of the Syrian state, and this, in itself, is a victory.  Not to mention the unique experience acquired by the Syrian army in fighting these groups in rural and urban settings.

Diplomacy, not chemical weapons, as a game changer in the ME: the case of Russia and Iran

A reality often overlooked by the mainstream media is the help provided by Iran and Russia to Syria.  Just as one cannot count how many editorials were written about the danger facing Hezbollah in Lebanon because of his role in Syria, one cannot count how many times a shift in Russia’s and Iran’s stances toward Syria was actually postulated, and announced, based purely on wishful thinking.  In fact, contrary to Hezbollah’s stance toward the Syrian regime, Iran’s and Russia’s stances are based neither on territorial integrity thinking nor ideology, at least not for the new rulers of Iran.   Their stances are based on the simple fact that there is no point in leaving a strong ally – as Assad has proved to be – to the unknown, even though Russia’s diplomatic moves included intensive diplomacy directed at the Syrian opposition.  Although Iran apparently refused to discuss Syria as part of the negotiations with the US on its nuclear program, it has always advocated a diplomatic solution to the crisis and has openly criticized, without naming them, the countries who send extremists to fight in Syria.   Additionally, Syria and Hezbollah, Iran’s allies, welcomed the US-Iran deal and understood its potential to bring about a relative peace in the region.  Many, myself included, see the Iran-US rapprochement as potentially capable of changing Iran’s support for the Resistance in the near and long term.  However, the strong anti-Iran sentiment among many in the American political class, and among America’s close allies in the ME, will delay this kind of rapprochement, even if a permanent deal is struck on the nuclear file.  Moreover, Iran’s new regional role, eclipsing and replacing Saudi Arabia, has benefited greatly from its support to the Resistance.  It is unlikely, then, that Iran will abandon Hezbollah and Syria, at least not in the short and middle term.  It will maybe abandon its active support of Palestinian groups, but not of its allies in Syria and Lebanon who have never betrayed their alliance with Iran. 

Iran’s new leadership diplomacy seems to have started unofficially well before Obama and Rouhani’s historic phone call in September 2013, leading to a temporary deal on Iran’s nuclear capacity just a month ago, in November 2013.

One has to view the shift in Obama’s stance on Syria and on its red line warning, against the backdrop of the potential US-Iran deal on the nuclear file.  It is true that Obama offered shaky evidence of the chemical weapons’ attacks that happened in Ghouta, Syria,  on August 21st.  It is also true that Obama seemed determined to go to war on Syria, based on this shaky evidence, as Seymour Hersh recently demonstrated.  But when Obama promptly accepted  Russia’s offer to mediate the Syrian regime’s compliance with the chemical weapons convention in exchange for the US backtracking on its threats to attack Syria, many saw a radical shift in Obama’s stance.  It was a radical shift from the outside, but if Obama had proceeded with his attack on Syria plan, he would have lost the Iranian deal.  What would have Iran made of a nuclear deal while the region would have been ablaze with bombs again?  In his first interview with Press TV, and before going to the UNGA in September 2013, Iran’s FM outlined his new motto: diplomacy, not threats, is how countries deal with each other.  ‘Not all options are on the table’ said Zarif, echoing in negation a famous US motto used when dealing with other countries.

Russia and Iran’s diplomacies worked in tandem to avert another devastating war in the region.  Obama didn’t mind bombing Syria, just as he didn’t mind bombing Libya, even if the evidence pointing to the regime’s responsibility is shaky and even if solid evidence rather pointed to al-Qaida possessing chemical weapons in Syria.  Obama’s red line wasn’t meant to ‘punish’ or ‘stop’ atrocities.  It was meant as a provision to offer a justification to intervene in Syria when it was going to be the time to intervene.  A possible scenario was that, in case the controlled collapse of the Syrian state by al-Qaida wasn’t going to work, the US would step in to weaken these groups, as Seymour Hersh uncovered in a recent investigation.  But Obama was eager to strike a deal with Iran and he wasn’t going to get it if he had attacked Syria.

Bush famously said that he looked Putin in the eyes and saw his soul, but Putin didn’t have to look Obama in the eyes to read his mind.

2013: The Year Assad lived dangerously and won

One can understand the disappointment that pervaded Syrian opposition circles in the aftermath of the deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, as they have played all their cards and lost.  The ‘peaceful revolution’ did not work, the controlled collapse of the Syrian state did not work, and even the game-changing chemical weapons attacks did not work.
But the perception of the Syrian ‘revolution’ being offered to us in the mainstream media endures, even when the expectations that were built on this perception have been repeatedly collapsing.   In Indonesia, after  a ‘Year of Living Dangerously’, Sukarno, a communist dictator, was replaced by a western-friendly dictator.  This scheme will not work in Syria because the western-friendly dictators-to-be have just lost.

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Since March 29th 2006