"Two years on, Syria’s revolution remains trapped in geostrategic calculations and military balance of power”

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Demonstranten gegen Bashar al-Assad schwenken die Flagge der Opposition in Erbeen
 

Dr. Ziad Majed is a Lebanese professor for Middle East and International Relations at the University of Paris and political writer. The Syrian journalist Ahmad Silal talked with him about the international and Arab positions in relation to the Syrian revolution and the challenges that face it.

Ahmad Silal: Two years on, and despite rivers of blood, Syrians are yet to traverse the distance that lies between them and between the fall of the regime and freedom. To what do you attribute this?

Dr. Ziad Majed: There are a number of factors that have delayed the revolution’s ultimate victory.

The first of these is military-security: over the course of four decades the regime has managed to construct a vast, brutal and well-armed machine of repression, whose streamlined efficiency can be attributed to sectarian and tribal/dynastic allegiances.

It defends this regime with the utmost violence and callousness. There are also many who profit from their relationship with this machine and fear its fall, placing them in the position of an existential struggle with the revolution.

On the other side, the revolution itself has not yet reached a high level of military effectiveness, due to deficiencies in logistics and supply and a dearth of combat experience and coordination. Not that this should come as any surprise: the majority of fighters in the Free Army and various armed brigades are newcomers to combat operations and their legendary courage and unshakeable faith in the cause for which they fight are not in themselves enough to tip the balance in their favour, without access to the modern weaponry and ammunition that would guarantee them superior firepower during clashes, and without their efforts being better coordinated.

The second factor is linked to the first, in which regard it is decisive: Russian-Iranian support for the regime. Moscow provides political cover and dispatches thousands of tons of war material on a regular basis, as well as providing military advice. Tehran meanwhile offers material support (more than 11 billion dollars up to the end of last year according to figures from the UK), trains thousands of young men who form sectarian militias, sends experts in digital espionage and other highly trained cadres, while from July last year it has been ferrying over Shia fighters from Iraq and others from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to fight in key areas in and around Damascus as well as in the al-Qusayr-Homs region. The rising numbers of these foreign fighters are reflected in the increased number of public funerals of those killed among their ranks.

The third factor is social-sectarian in nature. The vertical divisions within Syrian society and the regime’s success in fomenting sectarian bigotry within the Alawite community - including those who do not directly benefit from the regime or its networks of corruption—have so far guaranteed it popular support, a source of manpower and a geographical base in which it can securely receive foreign aid.

The fourth factor is related to ongoing international hesitancy towards the situation in Syria and the failure of the United States so far to take a firm line against the regime by refusing to countenance its remaining in power in any form whatsoever, a position which could then be translated into diplomatic and legal measures (if not overtly military ones) such as rescinding Syria’s seat at the United Nations, studying ways to bring the regime’s crimes to the international courts or placing Bashar, plus all his family members and those complicit with him in the killing, onto the terrorism list. This hesitancy emboldens Russia and Iran to continue providing support to the regime and believing in the possibility of saving it.

Why are Moscow and Tehran so determined to support the regime?

Both Russia and Iran have their own calculus with regard to Syria.

For the Russians there are four principle considerations. The first is their seeing the Syria of today as a gateway through which they might return to the international stage as a power that cannot be circumvented or sidelined. Since the end of the Cold War they believe that Moscow has been repeatedly marginalized during times of conflict, some of which have involved its allies (e.g. Serbia), has seen wars started against its better interests (e.g. Iraq), or witnessed coups against friendly regimes (e.g. Libya).
Syria, in their eyes, can make up for these setbacks (the crown-jewel in its pushback against the “allies of the West” on its borders: politically in the case of Ukraine and militarily with Georgia). From here on Moscow wants to impose its presence as an active player in the balance of power, particularly in the Middle East.

The second consideration is strategic. The Al-Assad regime is Moscow’s ally in the Middle East. The only Russian military base in the entire Mediterranean region is located in Tartus.

The third point we might describe as “sectarian”, and is linked to the pro-Syrian regime stance of the Russian Orthodox Church (itself synonymous with that of the Kremlin), which regards Al-Assad’s government as “the protector of one of the largest Christian minorities in the East” as individuals close to the church have described it. These Russian Christians are prompted by their concern over a “Sunni resurgence” in the region, which could extend to certain central Asian states on the Russian borders as well as the Caucasus and Russian Federation member states with Muslim majorities, threatening Moscow’s monopoly of control and bilateral relations.

The fourth and final consideration is purely interest-based and is linked to the Russian economy and its arms companies, which in less than a decade have lost the Iraqi and Libyan markets and are currently seeing part of the Yemeni market slip from their grasp. Only Algeria and Syria are left and they are keen to hang on to them and expand their operations within them as far as possible.

Iran’s approach is very different. First of all there is the old alliance contracted between Tehran and Damascus in 1980. Tehran was looking for an Arab ally to prevent Saddam Hussein exploiting the Arab-Persian divide during his war with the Iranians, as well as a land bridge to export its revolution into Lebanese Shia circles. For his part, Hafez Al-Assad wanted to see his old foe Saddam Hussein sap his strength in a war against Iran while simultaneously raising his “price” for Western and Gulf powers (especially the Saudis), by showing that he could function as an intermediary with the Iranians in times of crisis, blackmailing them into cooperating with him if they did not want to see him side fully with Tehran.

Secondly, Iran’s role in the region has steadily expanded over the last ten years following the fall of the Taliban and Saddam. Iran has become a player in Afghanistan, one with whom the Americans are forced to parley and the most influential actor in Iraq. There is their strategic depth, which enables Iranians to reach the Mediterranean and which has turned Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (the last courtesy of Hizbollah) into a “crescent” that has the potential to become an economic, military and demographic power operating in Tehran’s interests, and places them directly on the Israelis’ doorstep, granting them a threat deterrent against Israel or the ability to scare them out of attacking its nuclear program. Furthermore, this “crescent” separates Turkey from the Arab Gulf nations, placing the latter under pressure and curbing Ankara’s ambitions for the region. For all these reasons, Iran’s defense of Assad’s regime is tantamount to a defense of its own control over Lebanon and Iraq and by extension, its continued ability to impose its influence.

Thirdly, there is the ideological-sectarian issue. The leadership in Tehran enjoys influence over the Shia (and Alawites) in the four above-mentioned countries and some of them are motivated to confront a long-feared Sunni assault on their “crescent”, backed by Ankara, Riyadh and Doha.

How do you explain the American hesitancy you mentioned before? Is there any difference between the US position and that of European nations?

The American position is also complex, shaped by a number of internal and external factors. I shall begin with the internal or domestic American, factor, which has been neglected by many commentators. The base that elected Obama is chiefly made up of Americans of colour (i.e. Latinos and Afro-American, who taken together constitute around 30 per cent of the current US population) and young Americans (urban students in particular, the majority of them white). He also received the majority of votes from women and citizens with a university education.

Since the Iraq War, the overwhelming majority of all these demographics has been opposed to American intervention outside its borders, military intervention in particular, regarding such actions as a huge waste of financial resources and human life, not to mention one of the causes of the dislike felt towards Washington around the globe. They demand that priority be given to economic and domestic social issues. Since 2008, Obama had promised to respect these wishes in his election campaigns - indeed, he has been calling for these very things himself - and up until 2010 successive financial and economic crises ensured he kept his word. In the last two years, because he decided to stand for a second term, he has been focused on issues that mobilize the American electorate.

Moving to factors concerned with the hesitancy of American foreign policy, it seems that previously, Washington did not place Syria at the top of its list of priorities. For some years, that “honour” has gone to the Iranian nuclear program, followed by the moribund Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. About a year ago, Egypt came to the fore, specifically mediating between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood in order to preserve the stability of an ally state (and the largest Arab “friendly” nation) and out of fear of a breakdown of a major state on the Israeli/Gaza borders and a potential end to the Camp David Agreement.

Then you have Israel’s interests. At the start of the Syrian revolution, Israel made no attempt to hide its preference for an intimidated and exhausted Al-Assad remaining in power, before the positions of some of its officials changed a few months ago into claims that they did not mind if Al-Assad stepped down so long his chemical and missile weapons systems were secured, along with the Golan border. Yet this change of tone has not yet produced any significant change in approaches to the Syrian situation.

One could say that as far as Washington is concerned, Syria has become a huge drain on Iran and thus there is no need to resolve things or push for any solutions so long as the conditions for any final decision on removing Al-Assad and the forms it might take remain subject to dispute and unclear.

If correct, these factors taken together explain America’s extreme tardiness in dealing with Syria.

Europe’s positions differ from America’s, but neither is theirs a united approach. France and Britain support arming the revolution in order to hasten the regime’s fall, even as others, such as Germany and Sweden, used to oppose this move (or at least question its consequences). The EU is trying to fashion a tricky consensus out of its members’ conflicting positions, thus paralyzing its diplomatic efforts and delaying any decisive executive action. Europe’s inability to reach agreement and become a force that might fill at least part of the vacuum created by America’s disengagement, further explains Washington’s sense that its temporary absence for reasons of internal politics will not ultimately affect it status as a world leader.

How can we interpret Arab and Turkish positions and the Lebanese stance in particular?

It is difficult to interpret the Turkish position without taking into account the absence of any consensus on Syria among Turkey’s political parties. The secular Kemalist parties, along with certain Leftist groupings, are in the main negatively disposed towards the Syrian revolution. They regard it as Islamic, and it is enough that Erdogan and his party support it for them to take the other side. The same applies to some in the military. It is impossible to totally discount sectarianism, since a large proportion of the secularist and Leftist support base comes from Alevi (Turkish Alawite) areas.

Similarly, a number of businessmen and investors who have done well from trade and tourism in recent years have been hurt by the revolution and have been unable to make up their losses by relocating (legally or illegally) their factories and warehouses from Northern Syria into Turkey. This internal split has left the Turkish government uncertain which way to turn, compounding its confusion as a NATO member whose hands are tied by NATO policies and further complicating its ongoing efforts to preserve economic and political ties with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran under what remains of the “Zero Problems” policy.

Of course, Ankara’s fundamental concern is with the Kurdish issue and its fear that escalating events in Syria could lead in effect to independence or large autonomy for Syrian Kurds, emboldening their Turkish cousins to mobilize, and certainly the Syrian regime has exploited its ties with the PKK for just this purpose. Turkey’s latest agreement with Öcalan may reduce tensions over the Kurdish issue, which in any case will never be resolved without Kurds being granted cultural, linguistic, political and social rights whether in Turkey, Syria or Iran (though considerable progress has been made in Iraq).

Despite this, it is impossible to overstate the amount of support Turkey has provided, and continues to provide, to the Syrian revolution. It welcomed the first army deserters, transformed Istanbul into a center for opposition figures and their organizations and provided military support and training to some revolutionary brigades. Naturally, none of this would have happened had Ankara not been looking to extend its influence.

Arab positions on Syria vary from country to country. Generally speaking, however, if we leave out Algeria and Iraq - two countries that support the regime (economically and with petroleum, and maybe more) - we find that the majority of the other nations either support the revolution or maintain an officially neutral stance.

The Gulf nations (Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular) are very clear about the need to bring down the regime and are the primary source of funding for the revolution’s armed wing and certain political bodies. This of course raises a problem, since neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia have any credibility as democracies, yet at the same time a revolution which is facing a brutal killing machine backed by a variety of foreign sources (most notably Russia and Iran) cannot afford to be choosy about the type of political regimes that support it (and which are located in non-hostile countries), particularly when support is so hard to come by. Its job is to utilize this support as part of its own national strategy, ensuring that it furthers its objectives first, and second, making sure it preserves its own ability to make independent decisions.

Then there are those Arab states where revolutions have swept away incumbent regimes, like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and to an extent, Yemen. These support the revolution, albeit half-heartedly (Egypt and Yemen) or confusedly (Tunisia). Libyan aid is particularly effective in the fields of arms supplies and logistics.

Next come the countries that are frankly terrified by the whole affair: Jordan, Morocco and Sudan. These states all have different set-ups and circumstances and their positions range from silence to neutrality - or in Jordan’s case, indirect support for the revolution under duress (Jordan has agreed to allow the passage of arms and communication equipment into Syria).

Finally there is Lebanon. It has perhaps the most ambiguous position on events in Syria. A small, neighboring state, it was under Syrian control for many years and is yet to recover from the crimes and atrocities that the regime committed there. Furthermore, given the fragility of Lebanon’s national consensus when faced by issues in its immediate neighborhood, which on the whole take the form of sectarian divisions followed by civil conflict (i.e. the response towards Nasiriyah and the Baghdad Pact in 1958, to the Palestinian issue in 1969 and, since 2004, towards ongoing friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia), there is currently huge tension between supporters of Al-Assad regime and pro-revolution elements, which in recent months has taken on worryingly sectarian dimensions, with Hizbollah openly taking part in the fighting on the side of the regime’s forces and holding funerals for its fighters killed in Syria. Engaging in combat in this way, in addition to being a crime against the Syrian people and damaging to relations between Syrians and Lebanese, has also stirred animosities within Lebanon, animosities that might find violent expression in the future if they are not checked and consideration given to their disastrous consequences.

All that remains is the matter of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, an issue set to escalate in the foreseeable future as events on the ground in Damascus develop. Lebanon has the closest borders to the Syrian capital and the potential for a large-scale exodus should be taken into account, an idea of how to deal with it should be drawn up with the international community and Arab League playing a part. After all, it is far from certain that Lebanon’s infrastructure, its electricity and its water supplies, are up to the challenge. It might cause the loathsome racism that already exists to rise. It might also promote a rise in pro-solidarity activism, but it would not be enough.

There are those who want to do away with the word ‘revolution’ to describe what is happening in Syria and replace it with ‘civil war’. What would the consequences be if this new terminology takes hold?

There are those who use the term ‘civil war’ without any sinister intent or desire to harm the revolution. They see Syrians fighting one another and view it as a civil conflict or war between revolutionary or rebel groups and the regime’s army, whose soldiers are also Syrians. But there are others who use the term maliciously, mostly in a way that is biased towards the regime or in outright support of it. They seek to deny the revolutionary nature of events, and introduce a false equivalence between both sides in the conflict.
 
Defending the term ‘revolution’ is vital for a number of reasons, not just because it is correct, accurate and moral, but also for its legal and political implications. The term ‘civil war’ means that the members and bodies of the international community must treat it as an armed conflict between two sides of comparable strength and capabilities both fighting for power, influence, territory, wealth or resources, and that mediation between them is the only way to end the conflict in a manner acceptable to all. In such circumstances the regime’s legitimacy and demands would be granted equal status to those of its opponents, as though it were not a forty-three year-old dictatorship which bears full responsibility for everything that is taking place, and as though the popular revolution, a movement for national liberation and the restoration of rights and human dignity, did not enjoy moral and legal supremacy.

The fact that what is happening in Syria is a revolution does not mean that there are no vertical divisions in Syrian society, nor that support for the revolution is not concentrated in areas with a specific demographic majority nor indeed does it mean that the maligned regime loyalists are not genuinely fighting in defense of that regime. It does not mean that crimes have not been committed by those on the side of the revolution, nor by those who take advantage of the circumstances that prevail as a consequence of this revolution.

The term ‘revolution’ must continue to be used. It is no exaggeration to state that Syria’s revolution is one of the most important revolutions of all, certainly the most hard-pressed, and is confronting one of the most unforgiving, brutal and violent regimes of modern times.

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Ahmad Silal is a Syrian freelance journalist and writer. His articles appear on different websites including al-jumhuriah (therepublicgs.net). He currently writes from Paris after leaving Syria where during the revolution he was arrested twice by the Syrian regime.

The interview was conducted by Ahmad Silal and first published on therepublicgs.net on 23 April 2013 under the title “Two years on: International and Arab positions on the revolution, the challenges that face it.”
Translated from Arabic by Robin Moger.

 

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