I've felt that the diaries on Syria over the last few days have been more about the US than Syria and that there's been a gap in analysis. Meteor Blades encouraged me to write a diary on the Syrian conflict, so here goes… The Obama Administration finds itself confronted by a problem in Syria that is virtually unsolvable, but inaction or the wrong action carries with it genuine risks that extend far beyond Syria. This diary attempts to describe some of the reasons why this is rapidly becoming a regional ethnosectarian conflict, and why this matters with respect to stability in Iraq and Lebanon. I hope it is the first in a series – this diary will focus on the war in eastern Syria and how it affects Iraq. I won’t be arguing for or against airstrikes. Stop reading if you want a rant about bombing as a failure of imagination, or one that made me laugh, depicting us as a nation of "fat Spartans". (I might have to borrow “fat Spartans”- that was a pretty good rant.) Don't get me wrong - rants have their place, but they are usually about America. if you want to read a diary about Syria rather than America through a Syria lens, follow me over the Orange Itzl.
But before we get to the grim stuff, how about some humor? This is a letter published in the UK by a wag calling himself al-Sabah and impersonating one of the Kuwaiti Royals:
It conveys something of the confusion about who is backing whom, but it brings up three important points. First, everyone has a stake in Syria - this is rapidly becoming a regional conflict. Second, states in the region respond to the Syrian conflict consistent with the degree to which they fear or favor Iran, which is usually related to their own sectarian (Sunni/Shia’) affiliation. Third, it shows that states in the region favor stability, even at the cost of basic civil and human rights but only if whoever is in charge falls on the right side of this ethnosectarian divide. This is why so many states back the Egyptian authoritarian Gen. Sisi against Islamists in Egypt, while backing Sunni Islamists in Syria against an authoritarian Shia’ affiliated regime.
Meanwhile, the United States has erred on the side of supporting majority rule in each country, engaged in (wishful?) thinking that the middle class urban educated populations upon whom the economies depend will eventually moderate the revolutions that they started, but often lost control over. While supporting majority rule (in US terminology "majority rule" = “democracy”), the US has been begging and pleading for majorities not to commit atrocities against minorities (i.e. against the Sunni population in Iraq, Copts in Egypt, and trying in vain to keep rebel forces from slaughtering Shia’/Alawi in Syria).
But here’s the real danger: The Syrian conflict is turning into an openly sectarian conflict, exacerbating tensions between Shia’ and Sunni communities throughout the wider Middle East. It threatens to reignite sectarian conflict in Iraq (Sunnis against Shia’ majority government) and Lebanon (Hizbullah against almost everyone else). The US is desperate for this not to happen.
Here are the actors in Syria and the state of the war:
As you can see in the BBC map above, the Assad regime draws most (but not all) of its strength from the Alawite community, concentrated in red along the Mediterranean coast in NW Syria, along with its continuing military control over Damascus and some other urban areas. The Alawites are a heterodox version of twelver Shi’ism – it’s too complicated to go into now how they vary slightly from Shia’ Islam in Iran. For now, it’s enough to know that the regime has close ties with Iran and also with Hizbullah in Lebanon, both of whom are deeply rooted in Shia’ religious identity. As is always the case, this characterization of the Syrian regime as “Shia’” is an oversimplification. The Alawites are a small minority, less than 20% of Syria, and there are plenty of Sunnis and others who have supported them for economic and political reasons over the decades. Still, from the perspective of outside governments and many Syrians, the conflict is becoming essentially sectarian in nature.
The rebels have their greatest strength in areas which are dominated by the Sunni majority, but the nature of the conflict differs slightly across the country. In western and northern Syria, the rebels are a mixture of local groups, Syrian army deserters, and Islamist rebels. The US has been hoping that the army deserters and less extreme factions will gain strength, but that’s not happening according to plan. Hizbullah in Lebanon openly joined the fight on the side of Syrian regime, and helped the government defeat rebels around Qusayr and even in Damascus (bright red blob just east of Lebanon on this map)
Things get worse to the east. From ar-Raqqah to the Iraqi border, the rebels consist almost entirely of Islamic fundamentalists of Jabhat an-Nusra and various groups calling themselves “al-Qaeda of Syria and Iraq”. These eastern groups are closely allied with Sunni insurgents in Iraq. They are fighting an entirely sectarian campaign and are slaughtering civilians who do not share their sectarian identity. This eastern war in Syria is different in some ways from the war in the center and west. It’s closely related to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. You will notice the yellow areas in the northeast - the Kurds. Syria’s Kurds have always been against Assad, who denied them citizenship, but they are also against Jabhat an-Nusra. They are increasingly allied with the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Iraq. The Iraqi Kurdistan Minister of Defense, Hussein Sinjari, grew up on the Syrian border and spent much of his life in Syria. He is supporting Syria’s Kurds, who are now fighting Jabhat an-Nusra. So in far eastern Syria, you have the Assad regime almost finished, but the Kurds are arming and mobilizing and going after the hardcore Salafist “al-Qaeda” types. The fighting has forced 40,000 people over the border into Iraq in the last three weeks. The war in the east is turning into a hybrid conflict that is neither entirely Syrian nor Iraqi, but that involves both countries.
So, what does this all mean? I have limited time today, and this diary is too long, so I will restrict my comments to Syria and Iraq. Perhaps if there’s interest I’ll write more about Lebanon and Iran. US policy regarding Iraq and Syria right now probably goes something like this:
(1) The US needs for the Shia’ majority government of Nouri al-Maliki to stop beating up on Sunni Iraqis and engage them in the political process, because Iraq will never be stable otherwise. This is the central diplomatic effort of the Obama Administration in Iraq right now. People will object … but the truth is, Iraq has been gradually stabilizing and the conflict in Syria threatens this.
(2) It’s hard to get Maliki to tone it down when armed Sunni Islamist groups on both sides of the border present a threat to the Iraqi government. Sunni Islamist groups killed 60 people in Baghdad bombings over the last couple days. The bombings are increasing because of spill-over from Syria. Maliki (and many Iraqis) seem unable to distinguish between these nuts and the Sunni community at large. It will obviously be a disaster if Iraq descends back into open ethnosectarian conflict, because at this point, there's very little leverage to stop it if it gets out of control.
(3) The hardline Sunni Islamist groups in western Iraq/eastern Syria are truly crazy and dangerous. Don’t believe me? Watch this:
That was Abu Hafs al-Khatib from Jabhat an-Nusra, a loser who likes to pretend he is one of the original Ansar accompanying the Prophet. A related group, “al-Qaeda of Syria and Iraq” pulls over drivers on the main road from Syria to Iraq, questions them about doctrine, and shoots anyone dead who is not sufficiently in line with their religious beliefs. The road is virtually closed.
(4) The US (and even Turkey) are OK with the Kurds attacking the hardline Sunni fundamentalist militias in NE Syria. But the US and especially Turkey are worried that the longer this goes on, the more autonomy and power the Kurds get. Also in this complicated conflict, the Kurds are not exactly allies of the Iraqi government. They are fighting for themselves.
I don’t think anyone can dispute that hardcore “al-Qaeda” type militias in eastern Syria are an impediment to peace in Iraq and exactly the sorts of people we don’t want to empower.
So, given that, why on earth would the Obama Administration ever contemplate airstrikes against Assad? Why wouldn’t we be supporting Assad, the way the Russians are? After all, Assad opposes these fundamentalist nutcases.
Good question, and I hate to leave it hanging… but this diary is already far too long. I suspect that the US (correctly IMO) has determined that Assad will never be able to reassert control and can never completely win this civil war. It’s already gone too far for that. US analysts probably believe that groups like Jabhat an-Nusra will only grow more powerful and merge with Sunni insurgents in Iraq if this war burns on with neither a clear victory nor a negotiated settlement. More to the point, the US does not want to see the crazier rebels in the east actually win this war – the rebels in the west of the country, some of whom are army deserters, are fighting for communities that are not necessarily fundamentalist by nature. Here’s a video of what Jabhat an-Nusra does to the Free Syrian Army – the main Syrian opposition group. So you have Islamist nuts attacking their own secular anti-Assad allies within Syria in a struggle for power. (Trigger warning):
Killing FSA soldier
The US does not want these guys to win. The longer the war drags on, the more likely they will. US policy seems based mostly on hope: between hoping to avoid involvement, and hoping that additional pressure on Assad can bring the war to a close soon. Neither seems likely at this point. I’ll leave off for now. If there is interest, I will try to write more – we’re not likely to start bombing for a few days and now might be a good time to educate ourselves more on Syria.