Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 11 – 18 April 2014

Conflicts Forum

It is a “melancholy perspective indeed”, writes Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “But the time when Assad might have been defeated by a truly inept opposition leadership and fragmented rebel movement has passed”.   Sayigh’s is a reflective piece, and though his partiality to the opposition narrative is clear from his fall into melancholia, Sayigh is one of the most conscientious and strategic analysts on Syria. He stands at the vanguard of mainstream western thinking about Syria. Yet more striking for someone in this position is his stark, uncompromising pronouncement that “in reality the Geneva framework is dead”.

In fact, Sayigh’s iconoclasm goes further: he demolishes the mainstream mantra that without Geneva, Syria stands condemned to be the inevitable “hostage to an enduring military stalemate”. “But as the conflict grinds on into its fourth year, the stalemate is anything but static”, he says – refuting the ‘stalemate’ shibboleth.  He notes that evidently the US is not going to substantively increase its military opposition, and that Saudi Arabia similarly is constrained both by Jordanian unwillingness to facilitate military escalation across its territory and from American insistence on limitation of weapons’ supply. “Nearly three years since Syria’s army was called in to quell the country’s popular uprising”, he writes in a companion article, “the [Syrian Army’s] superior training, organization, and firepower are starting to translate into a decisive advantage. The regime has shored up its positions in the north, and is in a good position to fend off rebels advancing from the south”.

Sayigh continues: “as John Brennan, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said in a public talk in March 2014, “Syria has a real army” that is “a large conventional military force with tremendous firepower.” It benefits significantly from Iranian and Russian advice and new training in urban warfare as well as from the infusion of non-Syrian combat manpower, principally from the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard or other volunteers. But it is more than holding its own”.  And “if present trends continue — and there really is little to suggest they will not — then the regime will be in a dominant position and in effective control of a critical mass of the country by the end of 2015, if not sooner”.

Brennan’s formulation, not surprisingly, is somewhat dry and technical:  but in essence, both Sayigh and Brennan are telling us that Syria is the crucible in which a trial of strength between two irreconcilable visions of the future – of not just Syria, but of the Middle East – is being slugged out.  One is that of the narrow, dogmatic, intolerant world of the jihadists and their patrons, and the other is that of a pluralist, broader, non-sectarian, more tolerant vision of the Middle East.  What Sayigh and Brennan, in their own ways, are signaling, is that in this trial of strength, the latter is prevailing.  This is hugely significant for the region as a whole, but until the outcome of this test of strength does finally crystalise, then – and only then – can politics ensue.


Sayigh’s bottom line is that – whilst the so-called “Friends of Syria” for the moment continue to plug for an international solution – western officials too, can see “the writing on the wall” for the Geneva framework. President Assad will remain in office to lead any transition, and the melancholy fact is that it may be years before any genuine new opposition may emerge. Sayigh concludes that a new opposition might not “materialize until the existing political opposition and armed rebellionhave lost the battle” (CF’s added emphasis). However, his expectation that an empty political ‘space’ simply will occur in Syria as the inevitable result of the failure of the Geneva framework is perhaps too ‘polarized’ a perspective. The very crystallization of this epic trial of strength will engender a new politics – and indeed has already begun so to do, as we describe below.

Sayigh’s is one ‘reality’, but it is, to an extent, a view from the outside – from the exile diaspora & most think-tank experts – which can be summed up as: ‘no Geneva, no prime role for the exile opposition, equals no solution’. But there is another ‘reality’ (to which Sayigh does not refer, beyond lending it the demeaning tag of “coercive pacification”). It is another story; it is an internal Syrian story, and one which is not at all tinged with melancholia. It is a reconciliation dynamic which is creating wide interest within Syria – including amongst certain armed elements. Most Syrians (including those who do not adhere to the external opposition, as well as many who do) stopped believing in the Geneva framework after listening to the speeches at Geneva II.  Not a few Syrians concluded from the proceedings that the West was not interested in a political solution for the country, but simply was fixed on nothing beyond insisting that Assad must ‘go’, and that all executive powers be handed over to the exiled SNC opposition, groomed in the West, who have little if any support inside Syria from any quarters.

This other reality is an aspect that receives little attention in the western media and particularly from Western think-tanks, precisely because it by-passes both the Geneva structure and the Syria National Coalition. It is absolutely contrary to the West’s established consensus of an internationally-orchestrated easing of the conflict. But if Sayigh is right – that some western diplomats can already see the ‘writing on the wall’ for the Geneva framework – then they must begin too to see that militarily, politically and socially, Syria is moving incrementally towards a new dispensation — an internal dynamic that perhaps is set to be taken more seriously in the future.

The reconciliation process did not launch as a policy; it happened spontaneously, and was essentially a bottom-up process that emerged from ordinary Syrians discovering afresh ‘human agency’ – essentially in a local context.  In short, it came about as people experienced a change of consciousness: they began to see themselves differently, and as they began to view themselves in another way, they began to act on their own behalf. In some regard, the reconciliation committees that now exist in increasing numbers of towns and villages resemble the popular committees that sprang up during the Palestinian intifadas (and which were later repressed by the Palestinian political movements).

One component – perhaps the most evident – has been the military aspect of this reconciliation process: ceasefires have been directly negotiated by armed opposition groups with the Syrian Army, or simply, the local populace turned on the insurgents and expelled them from their towns and villages, or again, people simply formed militias to defend their villages – and requested that the government supply them with weapons.

The Syrian government has responded to these initiatives by allowing former insurgents to keep their (light) weapons – and their self-esteem and status as fighters. The former dissidents in effect have been re-absorbed into the local polity, helping to defend it, and to participate in local decision-making.  This has not occurred without sharp controversy.  Many people who have suffered or who have had relatives killed are often resentful, insisting that ‘criminals’ be prosecuted, rather than be rehabilitated. The government’s position, however, is that reconciliation must be pursued – in spite of the pain many might feel.

But the other aspect to this current precisely is the re-discovery of human agency. And it is this aspect that does hold huge political potential. In towns and villages, popular committees have been formed. The Ministry of Reconciliation underpins these local committees with a budget, but they are also drawing in volunteers and private donors.

Although held under the auspices of the Ministry of Reconciliation, these committees, which include local officials, educational professionals, the security forces, trade unionists, womens’ activists and volunteers, make their own decisions.  They try to find volunteer teachers to fill gaps at the schools, to set up community forces to help renovate damaged houses, organise accommodation for homeless families, provide support to women who have been raped or abused, and gather local businessmen into joint efforts to re-start small factories in different areas. As one commentator put it, people no longer wait on Damascus for decisions, they do things themselves.  And this is the point: ordinary Syrians are re-discovering human agency, but in a way very different to – and opposed to – that of the radical armed groups.

What is happening here? In one sense this shift is a little elusive; it is hard to define empirically, precisely because it is local; it is conditioned by local situations, and it is atomistic. But it is often the case that societies that have experienced conflict and crisis (South Africa is one example) emerge from the process psychologically changed. The experience of existential trauma – individual or collective – can lead either to the breaking down of the psyche, or alternatively, to a strengthening, even a hardening, and an energizing of the psyche. In the case of Syria, visitors to Damascus can sense that despite the continuing war of attrition by the insurgents, with mortars lobbed aimlessly into the city’s suburbs daily, the more determined, resolute and self-sufficient the mood of its people.

How will this manifest itself politically at the national level? It is too early to say definitively, but here perhaps the experience of Iran in the wake of 2009 shows that in exiting from a national crisis, it is possible nationally to come together in pursuit of a new political direction (e.g. last year’s Presidential elections in Iran, which clearly mandated change, but a change that was to be accommodated within the system).

Why might it happen this way? Syrians say that what has sparked this changed consciousness was the sudden clarity of vision that occurred as people (collectively) understood that what was happening in Syria had nothing to do with reform, democracy or popular participation in governance, but was all to do with overturning existing Syrian society and imposing something alien to their way of life, and their social, political and cultural history.

For the moment, the focus is not on political detail (such as amending Article 8 of the Constitution) — all that is in abeyance. People feel that they are engaged in an existential conflict – a war.  And in war, all energies are focused on surviving, on living and on winning the battle. The politics is for afterwards.

The sense of existential struggle has recently been reinforced by many things: by the language and actions emanating from Gulf states, by the language used at Geneva II, by what is befalling the Palestinians, and most certainly by the recent events in Ukraine. One senior Syrian commentator told us that for two weeks all discussion about their own conflict ceased in Syria: Ukraine was the only topic on peoples’ lips.  Plainly, Syria and Iran (both at the popular level – as well as in government) have understood the strategic import of the events unfolding in Ukraine. Ordinary Syrians could only too easily identify their plight with that of Ukraine, and “admire Putin for standing up to the western machinations unfolding there”, as one well-placed Syrian wryly noted.

For now, all politics in Syria is condensed into one single demand: a return to human security, and the normalization of life again. It is for this reason that we may see – as in Iran – a coalescence around the existing system, whilst at the same time, articulation of the wish for a new politics. The leadership seem to understand this well, which is why so much effort is being expended in the processes of national dialogue and reconciliation.


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