Tag Archives: Syria

Western Policy towards Syria: Ten Recommendations

Chatham House Programme Paper
By Claire Spencer, Christopher Phillips and Jane Kinninmont, December 2013

See paper here

In the face of the mounting crisis in Syria over the past two and a half years, Western governments (primarily those of the United States, United Kingdom and France) have oscillated between explicit demands for President Bashar al-Assad to leave and implicit acceptance of him as a viable partner in UN-brokered peace negotiations. During this time, they have moved from considering military intervention to including al-Assad in the Geneva II meeting, tentatively scheduled for January 2014, following his agreement to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons in September.

Western positions have thus not been as consistent as those expounded by the main supporters of the Syrian government (primarily Russia and Iran). In parallel, but not directly linked to negotiations, Western governments have taken the lead in coordinating humanitarian efforts for up to half of the Syrian population, which is now in urgent need of assistance.

This paper seeks to inform a more strategic approach to the overall Western response to the crisis in Syria and its immediate neighbourhood. It argues that a more effective Western strategy must be based on moving away from the simplified popular depiction of the conflict as primarily sectarian and religiously based. Such a strategy needs to involve clearer objectives, including ending violence, minimizing killing, and preventing state collapse. It also needs to be targeted at the areas where the West has leverage, and move beyond the focus on uniting the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition, to engage with a broader swathe of Syrian opinion.

This paper makes the following ten recommendations for Western governments:

1. Identify clearer objectives and prioritize what matters most in Syria.

2. Safeguard the integrity of the state and what remains of civil society.

3. Focus on areas where there is leverage.

4. Engage with a wider set of Syrian actors.

5. Engage more broadly with civil society.

6. Identify areas for common ground between key players.

7. Plan for reforming post-conflict security institutions.

8. Think about how to guarantee post-conflict security.

9. See the UN as more than a humanitarian and coordinating agency.

10. Avoid seeing the crisis primarily through a sectarian lens.

Thanks for tear-gassing me, Tayyip (Notes from Turkey: Istanbul, Antakya and Ankara)

Caught in a protest

I am in Turkey at an interesting time. Last year I spent the summer here examining the government’s response to the Syria crisis, noting in a report that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is widely unpopular and could prompt serious opposition. While this summer’s anti-Erdogan demonstrations centred on Istanbul’s Taksim Square (and the brutality of the government’s crackdown) certainly surprised me, in essence they were rooted in the same tensions I had noted. The demonstrators’ central complaint was Erdogan’s arrogance as a leader, and his willingness to openly defy public opinion. This ranges from unpopular foreign policy, as in Syria, to sensitive domestic issues like recently imposed strict alcohol laws or the proposed demolition of Gezi Park in Taksim that prompted the unrest. Visiting Istanbul last month, it was clear from the activists and intellectuals I spoke to that protests were on hold rather than over. As it happens, they re-erupted two blocks from where I was staying in Antakya last week.

'Tayyip's Army' (Photo from the Guardian - http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

‘Tayyip’s Army’ (Photo from the Guardian – http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

Earlier in the summer, almost every city saw widespread and prolonged solidarity protests with Gezi Park. All but four of Turkey’s 81 provinces reportedly saw unrest, and most were met with a similar police response.  It has left its mark on the growing street-level opposition movement and one spark seems able to set off another round of nation-wide protest. That was provided on Monday night, when a 22-year-old, Ahmet Ataka, was killed by police in Antakya, himself protesting in solidarity with activists at MET University in Ankara. The cause of his death was a matter of debate: activists said he was hit by a tear-gas canister, while the police released videos showing a body falling from a high building, claiming he fell. Unaware of what had happened, I myself passed his improvised shrine on Tuesday morning and the angry crowd that had already gathered.

By the early evening, on my way back home, the police were blocking my path. Local youth had created improvised barricades, set fires on the road and a vast police presence had moved in to cordon off the area. Unlike most Antakyans, none of the police spoke Arabic: they were outsiders specifically brought in for this task. The officer gestured to me to turn back, suggesting that the rioters were shooting. However, all I heard were the repeated thuds of tear gas canisters being let off. Not knowing the city well and with my only route home blocked, I weaved my way through the side streets trying to get round the cordon. At points the air was thick with teargas, dense despite being quite far from the demonstrators. Police had gas masks to protect themselves but I had to wade through, spluttering and wincing. It wasn’t pleasant. Friends later told me that this has become common for most urban Turks this summer. The police’s tactic seems to be to fire vast quantities at protestors, irrespective of its disbursement. Later that same night an international under 21s football match between Turkey and Sweden had to be halted because tear gas had spread from nearby protests in Istiqlal Cadessi (off Taksim) and was incapacitating the players. Erdogan’s Police force, it seems, is as unconcerned by the general public as their Prime Minister.

Tayyip’s Army

Protestors have labeled the police ‘Tayyip’s Army’, militarized and well equipped with armoured cars, riot gear and a seemingly never-ending supply of teargas. But the label comes as much from the police’s perceived ideology, as it does from their appearance. Opponents claim that the majority of the police belongs to the Islamist Gulen movement, from which Erdogan’s AK Party draws much of its support. One activist claimed that at least 70% of policemen were Gulenists, and all the commanders. A commentator I spoke to argued these links were the product of a long-term trend begun in the 1980s when the socially conservative Motherland Party (many of whose members eventually joined the AKP) controlled the Ministry of Interior. At this time affiliation to Gulenism within the police was permitted and even encouraged. As such, today the police is dominated by those ideologically supportive of Erdogan’s Islamist policies that most demonstrators are protesting against. To the secularist opponent of Erdogan, the police are the Prime Minister’s foot soldiers to quash any dissent to his Islamic and conservative agenda.

Istanbul's Gezi Park - where it all started...

Istanbul’s Gezi Park – where it all started…

Ahmed Ataka was the sixth protestor to be killed by the police since the Gezi Park demonstrations began in June. Deaths are sadly not surprising given the uncompromising police approach. Erdogan insisted he would not back down or offer any compromise, calling the protestors ‘çapulcu’ or ‘bums’. (The opposition embraced this label and all over Istanbul I saw T-Shirts on sale stating ‘Everyday I’m çapulling’.) Whilst I was shocked by the level of police violence I saw in Hatay – with television showing some vomiting from too much teargas inhalation – an Ankara academic noted that this was fairly standard by Turkish standards over the last 15 or so years. What was different, he stated, was the nature of protestors. Turkish Kurds, for example, have long experienced this level of police brutality, without the same national or international outrage. What makes these protestors different, the academic stated, is their demography: middle class educated secular Turks.

The (slight) ethnic dimension

In Hatay there is a further ethnic dimension to the protests. The unrest was centred on areas dominated by Hatay’s Alawite community (known here as Nusayris, an ancient offshoot of Shia Islam). As a community the Nusayris are largely secular, and natural opponents to Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, but their opposition is deeper than that. They are not happy with the government’s policy towards neighbouring Syria. They sympathize with Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Alawi, to the point that some protestors were filmed chanting the pro-Assad slogan: ‘Syria, Allah, Bashar wa bas!’ (Syria, God, Bashar and nothing else!)[1]. Yet aside from any ethnic solidarity, they share the fears of many of Turkey’s secularists that Bashar’s fall will mean a victory for Sunni Islamists, possibly leading to increased Islamism in Turkey. Many Nusayris complain that Erdogan is exacerbating sectarianism in Turkey. They accuse him of echoing the Gulf’s anti-Shiism regarding the Syria conflict – as one commentator put it, “he is cynically pressing on all our faultlines.” Similarly, they oppose recent AKP plans to divide Hatay into two political provinces, one for Sunnis and one for Nusayris. Antakya has a history of tolerance, with Sunnis, Nusayris and Christians living side by side, and most residents oppose any divisions. Some of the more religious Sunnis in Hatay’s villages are reportedly more sympathetic to the AKP’s policies but the Antakyans I spoke to insist that in the city there is no appetite for sectarian divisions.

The view from Antakya - Syria just around the corner (on the left)

The view from Antakya – Syria just around the corner (on the left)

However, it would be wrong to characterize the protests as purely sectarian. The Nusayri may be at the vanguard of the anti-Erdogan movement in Hatay, but nationwide they are a diverse bunch. Throughout the day numerous Turkish cities saw anti-AKP demonstrations in solidarity with Ahmet Ataka, and the evening saw protests in Izmir and Istanbul, with the Police, inevitably, moving in hard. While Turkey’s non-Sunni minorities, particularly the Nusayris and Alevis (a similar Turkish-speaking Shia offshoot), may be more proportionally represented as they are most threatened by the Erdogan’s sectarianism, the majority are Sunnis, whether secularists or just democrats. Indeed, one person I spoke to who had been in Taksim in June expressed her pleasant surprise that veiled women stood alongside them, demanding an end to Erdogan’s autocratic practices.

Trouble ahead

It was clear from my trip that this movement is not going away, and Erdogan’s heavy-handed approach has only boosted its numbers. As seen by the Ahmet Ataka demonstrations I was caught up in, the anti-Erdogan movement is coordinated across multiple cities, meaning a single incident can spread like wildfire within hours. In 2011, as the Arab Spring began, Erdogan was hailed in both the West and the Middle East as a model for the newly democratizing Arab world to emulate. He was an Islamist committed to pluralism and democracy. His harsh crackdown on dissent in 2013 has exposed this lie. In reality, Erdogan had been edging away from democratic practices for several years. Though he successfully neutered the military, which interfered in Turkish politics for decades, he hasn’t accepted alternative forms of public scrutiny, arresting journalists at a dramatic rate. Indeed most of the Turkish press refused to report the Taksim protests. As one journalists said to me, “there was pressure from the editors and the pro-AKP owners to stay quiet. Noone wanted to lose their job.” Erdogan may compete in fair elections, but he seems to believe that electoral victories give him a mandate to do as he wishes until the next election, regardless of public opinion. Indeed, this is a major structural weakness of Turkey’s political system, which has an appointed president and no second chamber to scrutinize the premier.

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

However, though Erdogan’s reformist image at home and abroad may be shattered, he is far from finished. While the middle class secularists may be getting organized on the streets, the political opposition, the CHP, is still weak. Some are hoping that municipal elections in March will give Erdogan a bloody nose, focusing on an unlikely defeat for the AKP in the Istanbul mayoral elections. However, with Erdogan boasting a huge majority in parliament, supported by Turkey’s conservative religious hinterland, it is unlikely it will lose power any time soon. The Taksim demonstrations may derail Erdogan’s plans to ‘do a Putin’ by changing Turkey’s constitution to make himself a more powerful president, but if that happens, most expect him to remain as prime minster by altering his own party’s constitution which currently forbids this.

Yet Erdogan cannot rest on his laurels. The protests have rattled Turkey, and some wonder if the most likely challenge might come from within the AKP itself. Alongside Erdogan’s conservative base, the support of Turkey’s business community has been key to his success. Many are concerned by the damage to Turkey’s image that the constant cycle of protest and repression brings. Already it has damaged the tourism industry (occupancy rates in Istanbul hotels were very low this summer) and, more importantly, seems to have played a role in Istanbul losing its bid to host the 2020 Olympic games. If protests weaken the economy, key business leaders may begin to view the arrogant premier as more of a liability than an asset and urge the AKP to ditch their captain, with current President Abdullah Gul best positioned to swoop in. The role of the powerful Gulenist movement would also be key were any such internal coup to take place. In the long term these protests may serve as Turkey’s 1968, from which eventually civil society activists and a new generation of pluralist politicians emerges. In the short term, however, Turkey can expect the battle between the street protestors and their steadfast prime minister to continue.


[1] Ulusal TV broadcast, 2115-20, 10/9/13

Notes from Lebanon: Beirut (Part 2) and Tyre

Syrian Spillover

The flow of refugees has inevitably raised fears that Lebanon will be sucked into Syria’s civil war. Yet while resentments against the refugees may increase in the future – as they did against the Palestinians – for now, aside from a few snooty looks towards beggars and worries at the increasing crime rate, Lebanon’s latest migrants are not actively creating tensions. That cannot be said of Lebanon’s own domestic actors, however.

Since 2005 Lebanon’s politicians have been divided according to their views towards Syria. Those that successfully pushed for an end to Syria’s post civil war military presence are known as ‘March 14’. They are led by the parties representing Sunni Muslims in Lebanon’s complex sectarian political system, and have substantial support from half of the parties representing the Christians. The other half of the Christian parties back the pro-Syria grouping, ‘March 8’, which is led by the groups representing Lebanon’s Shia: Amal and, the dominant partner, Hezbollah. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has regularly switched sides, seeking to stay on the winning side.

Beirut's Martyr's Square - All together now?

Beirut’s Martyr’s Square – All together now?

The uprising against Assad has intensified some of these divisions. Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition movement has most sympathy from Lebanon’s Sunnis (estimated at 27% of the population). The Sunni leaders voice their opposition to Assad but, as the Syria conflict has become increasingly sectarian, they face pressure from their base to do more. As in Syria, frustrations at the traditional leadership have pushed some Sunnis in a more radical direction, and militant Salafism is rising. On the other side, Hezbollah sees the Syria crisis as an existential conflict. If Assad falls, Hezbollah’s supply line from its patron Iran would disappear, making its position hard to sustain. Consequently, as has been widely publicized, Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to help Assad, playing a decisive role in the regime’s recent recapture of the rebel town of Qusayr.

Lebanon’s Sunnis have been outraged by this. Its has shattered Hezbollah’s general popularity among the Lebanese, won by pushing Israel to end its 18-year occupation of the south in 2000 and then fighting it to a stalemate in 2006. Moreover, it has raised sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon to a new level. In June a radical Sunni preacher, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, and his supporters clashed with the Lebanese army, who were supported (some say encouraged) by Hezbollah in the Sunni coastal city of Sidon. In July a car bomb wounded 53 in Hezbollah’s Shia Beirut stronghold of Dahia, and a second bomb in August killed 20. Groups linked to Lebanese and Syrian Sunni radicals were blamed. A retaliatory car bomb the following week in the Sunni city of Tripoli killed at least 42 was similarly blamed on militant Shia groups, though Hezbollah denied any involvement. Indeed, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has urged Lebanon’s different sectarian groups to keep their fight outside of Lebanon, insisting that Sunni Takfiris (radicals) are doing the bidding of the US and Israel by creating divisions between Muslims.

Another civil war?

However, while tit-for-tat sectarian bombings may well increase as the violence in Syria worsens, the return to civil war that many Lebanese fear seems unlikely. Firstly, at a military level, the forces are hugely imbalanced. Hezbollah is a professional military, structured, battle-hardened, well-armed and disciplined. In contrast, Sunni forces are disorganized and poorly armed. In 2008 when the Sunni Future Movement fought Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut, they were comprehensively defeated within hours. Even with Hezbollah’s forces stretched by deployment in Syria, it would require a major overhaul of Sunni militant forces and a massive injection of arms from abroad for them to reach a point where they could sustain a prolonged challenge.

Beirut's Place de l'Etoile - Quiet, for now.

Beirut’s Place de l’Etoile – Quiet, for now.

Secondly, the army, Lebanon’s only other professional well-armed group, is effectively on Hezbollah’s side, despite claims to be neutral. The Shia, being Lebanon’s largest and poorest sectarian group (roughly 41% of the population), make up the majority of the army’s soldiers. As such the army is unlikely to be deployed against Hezbollah for fear its soldiers wouldn’t fire on their co-religionists. Lebanon’s Christians  (roughly 27% of the population) are fervent supporters of the army and many of its commanders and, indeed the President and commander and chief, Michel Suleiman, are Christian. Despite being split politically between March 8 and March 14, no Christian wants to see the victory of Sunni radicals in either Syria or Lebanon. While they may not like Hezbollah, the Shia militia has effectively left their way of life alone, unlike the Sunni radicals that have persecuted Christians in Iraq, Egypt and now Syria. As seen with the clash in Sidon when the army worked alongside Hezbollah, the institution is now a defender of the status quo: and that includes Hezbollah’s position as the only powerful non-state militia. Some Christians may not admit it but, as the region again descends into instability, this actually suits them better than the alternative.

Sunni radicalism against Shias in general and Hezbollah in particular is therefore likely to increase but in the form of sporadic violence and terror attacks rather than a genuine military challenge. The real danger will come if Assad actually falls from power in Damascus as Hezbollah might feel its position threatened in Lebanon. In such circumstances it might seek to extend its power over the whole state rather than just to dominate it – something that the Christians and the army would be unlikely to accept.

The South remembers

A trip to the southern city of Tyre serves as a useful explanation for the general support that Assad and Hezbollah retain among Lebanon’s Shia. The press sometimes crudely characterizes the Syrian civil war as part of a regional Sunni-Shia conflict, part of a wider confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this narrative Lebanese Shia back Assad for primordial reasons: because he is an Alawite, itself an offshoot of Shia Islam, and because his principle ally is Shia Iran. Yet the reality is more complex.

Tyre - Seaside life, a short missile strike from Israel

Tyre – Seaside life, a short missile strike from Israel

This is my first trip to the south since before the 2006 war with Israel. My first experience of Lebanon was teaching at a summer school in the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Bass in Tyre in 2003, with the British charity Unipal. Some things have stayed the same: Hezbollah and Amal posters and banners are still hung all over the town. The blank faces of their ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting Israel still stare back hauntingly while smiling children play non-plussed underneath. Other things have changed. For one thing, Tyre feels wealthier. Impressive new structures have been built, including a new highway from Sidon, and there are a lot more visitors from Beirut – both Lebanese and western NGO workers – stretched out on the beach in bikinis in what remains a conservative town. The sun is shining and locals and visitors are enjoying the beach, the seafood, Nargilah and Arak.

People I speak to are strong supporters of Assad. Although they are Shia, sectarianism isn’t mentioned once. Instead one word comes up repeatedly: Israel. For the residents of South Lebanon the modern day Sparta south of the border is their real enemy. It is easy for outsiders to forget, but the 18-year occupation by the IDF, and the brief but brutal 2006 war are imprinted on the memory of the South Lebanese.  One Shia I speak to, a secularist with no love of Hezbollah, was among the estimated 15,000 men his age to spend several years in Israeli prisons in the 1980s and 90s. Though it was (deliberately) destroyed by the IDF in the 2006, Hezbollah used to have a ‘museum of occupation’ in Israel’s notorious Ansar detention facility near the border that catalogued the grim conditions Lebanese prisoners faced. Hezbollah, though founded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards during Lebanon’s civil war, earned its spurs fighting Israel and pushing them out of the country, something for which most southerners remain eternally grateful. Assad, as Hezbollah’s ally and fellow enemy of Israel, has a similar level of support. Indeed, some supporters of Assad I spoke to, both in Tyre and Beirut, simply didn’t believe that the Syrian regime had committed the atrocities it is accused of. The idea that Israel and the US are leading a global conspiracy against Syria, spreading lies and propaganda against Damascus is widely believed.

Incredulous though this blind support sounds, a visit to the south helps to partly explain it. The physical and psychological scars of the occupation and 2006 war are deep, and the hatred towards the enemy that committed it strong. The average southern Lebanese has not experienced Assad’s atrocities, not been subject to his torture machine. They have, however, been subject to Israel’s aggression, losing homes and family in the process, and they are grateful to Assad, Hezbollah and Iran for defending and protecting them. Moreover, after the destruction wrought in 2006, it was Iran, not the fractured government in Beirut, that paid for the rebuilding. The new highway south, for example, is covered in Iranian flags to emphasize its role in financing. The traditionally poor and Shia south has been neglected and discriminated against by Lebanon’s leaders, both Christian and Sunni, for generations. In a region where conspiracy theories flourish, perhaps it is understandable that many of the South Lebanese are now reluctant to believe what those same leaders (in the case of the Sunnis) are now saying about the only people they feel have protected and stood up for them. Of course, a counter argument would be that, in reality, these ‘patrons’ have been manipulative of the south’s suffering – indeed often exacerbating it – to command loyalty in just the kind of crisis they currently face.

Notes from Lebanon: Beirut (Part 1)

Old Beirut - the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Old Beirut – the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Land of the Free?

My latest research trip has brought me to Beirut, to which i have been a regular visitor for a decade now. The city has long marketed itself as a meeting point between East and West: the self-declared ‘Paris of the Middle East’, with a Mediterranean café culture and bar scene that contrasts sharply with the more conservative society found elsewhere in the region. Beirut is certainly the most open Arab city, having long enjoyed the kind of free press and free speech that (some) opposition activists in Syria and Cairo are today struggling to obtain. This freedom is, however, primarily the bi-product of decades of instability. A complex political system established by French imperialists, giving different religious sects each a slice of power, has produced a weak confessional state that has led to regular stalemates, armed stand offs, and two civil wars. Furthermore Lebanon’s location, caught between Syria and Israel, has seen it sucked into Israel’s various conflicts with the Arabs and, more recently, Iran. Since gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon has been attacked by Israel in 1948, 1978, 1982 (an occupation of the south that lasted until 2000), 1993, 1996 and 2006, seen civil wars in 1958 and 1975-90 and a sizeable Syrian military presence from 1976-2005. In short, this is a city and a country that has known almost as much conflict as peace. For all its ostensible openness, the scars, both physical and psychological, are never hard to find.

Today Lebanon faces yet another crisis, in the form of the Syrian civil war to the east, prompting fears of yet more political instability at home and a wave of 1.2 million refugees flooding over the border. However, for all those fears, to me central Beirut looks and feels more settled than at any time I have known. When I first visited in 2003, with the Iraq war increasing regional tensions, the Lebanese army was deployed to protect western businesses like McDonalds and Starbucks. On multiple visits in 2004-5 tensions were again high due to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive car bomb that ripped through buildings near Beirut’s corniche. The subsequent pro and anti-Syrian demonstrations that led to Syria’s military withdrawal in 2005 and the wave of assassinations of other political figures that followed was also unsettling. Then, during regular trips from Damascus in 2007-8, Hezbollah and its allies had closed the whole of Beirut’s downtown district down following a yearlong sit-in.

New Beirut - the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

New Beirut – the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

In contrast, today’s Beirut feels more comfortable with itself. The centre remains divided into three clear parts based on civil war demarcations – the Christian East, Muslim West, and the rebuilt, slightly vacuous ‘Downtown’ area between them. However, aside from the odd Christian taxi driver refusing to drive East to West, there appears more harmony between the three segments. They seem increasingly glued together by a thriving westernized young artsy class that open pop up galleries, host music gigs and launched creative shops all over Hamra, the hub of West Beirut, and the Eastern hotspots of Gemayzeh and Mar Mikhael. Indeed, these youth have given central Beirut a more western feel, helped by a noticeable increase in European and American commercial franchises, the second generation Lebanese returning from the US and Australia, the massive growth in western NGO workers and journalists dealing with the Syria crisis living in Lebanon, and the decline in Gulf tourists, deterred by the Syrian crisis from visiting. Indeed, the previously common sight of Gulf men cruising through Gemeyzeh in their Hummers whilst ogling Lebanese girls was a welcome rarity this summer.

Beirut’s latest migrants

For all its hedonism, however, Beirut has always had a darker side. The waves of Palestinian refugees from the 1940s, and internal migrants from the Shia south in the 1970s and 80s created a belt of poverty in the city’s southern suburbs, out of sight from the revelers in Hamra and Gemeyzeh. The weak and fractured state offers little safety net, with flashy reconstruction projects aimed at the elite and foreign tourists taking precedence over infrastructure, schools and hospitals. Indeed, despite boasting restaurants with reclining roofs, most of Beirut experiences blackouts for several hours each day. Yet today this poverty is visible even in wealthy areas, in the form of the vast numbers of Syrian refugees flooding over the border every day. 1.2 million Syrians are now estimated to live in Lebanon, a state with a population of only 4 million, and they are rapidly changing the face of Beirut. Almost every street in wealthy Hamra has multiple Syrian beggars, usually veiled mothers cradling hungry children. Similarly gangs of shoeshine boys chase every passerby in the hope of a thousand lire tip ($0.66). At night the hipsters in Mar Mikhael (Beirut’s Shoreditch) fend off beggar boys, sometimes aggressively.

Officially the Syrians are allowed to reside where they wish (or can afford to), as the government refuses to permit the kind of fixed refugee camps found in Jordan and Turkey. This is partly due to political divisions at the top but mostly from fears that permanent Syrian camps could become bases for destabilizing militants, as the Palestinian camps did in the past, contributing to Lebanon’s civil war. Instead, Syria’s poorest refugees face an acute housing shortage that local and international NGOs and UNHCR are struggling to deal with. With winter approaching, many Syrians lack adequate shelter, medicine, education and winter clothing, but funds are low and coordination is lacking. (If you want to donate, please do so here).

Cool Beirut - the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut's 'Shoreditch'

Cool Beirut – the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut’s ‘Shoreditch’

While the poorest refugees have flocked to the area David Hirst describes as the capital’s ‘misery belt’ (the Shia suburbs of Dahia and the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla) the middle classes have settled in Beirut’s centre. In some cases this is subtly challenging Beirut’s old sectarian appearance. Veiled women, a rarity in East Beirut since the civil war saw Muslims expelled, are now regularly seen in Christian neighbourhoods like Achrafiyeh and Bourj Hammoud. In other places the Syrians have more of a political presence.  Hamra particularly has become a hub for young educated Syrians, and certain cafes and bars overflow with Damascenes and Aleppans engaged in heated political debates over Arak and Nargilah (Shisha). Perhaps inevitably, given they are refugees, most oppose Assad and engage in a range of opposition activity: whether simple acts of defiance via Facebook or organizing small demonstrations in Beirut. Others are involved in humanitarian work for their poorer countrymen in Lebanon. Many travel back into Syria regularly to check on family members and return with the latest news. Not surprisingly, these cafes also attract a fair number of western journalists and NGO workers, all engaged in the ‘Syria industry’ that is, rather depressingly but necessarily, emerging in Lebanon.

One wonders what impact the departure of these educated youth will have on Syria in the future. Though most are outwardly passionately against Assad, many privately express a degree of cynicism and resignation at the situation, acknowledging the opposition’s many faults and the reality that Assad may not fall and some kind of negotiation might eventually be necessary. Moreover, most expect the war to last a long time and are making plans for their own future: either settling into careers in Lebanon or seeking emigration abroad. This is understandable given the miserable fate of their homeland. That said, whatever is left in Syria will be without these moderate and educated voices, possibly increasing the descent into radicalism on both sides. Having spent money educating them, the state’s remorseless violence has now pushed these youth into taking their skills and talents elsewhere. A depressing irony.

The Civil War in Syria: The Variety of Opposition to the Syrian Regime

An article I wrote (in April, so a tad out of date) for IE Med‘s new Yearbook, 2013:

The Ba’ath regime that has ruled Syria since 1963 and been dominated by Hafez (1970-2000) and Bashar al-Assad (2000-present) has tolerated little opposition. Militant opponents, such as Syria’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, were violently crushed and membership outlawed, while rival political parties were banned or co-opted by the regime. Civil society was extremely weak, with trade unions and many religious organisations hollowed out and packed with loyalists. Syrians have been actively depoliticised by government institutions for nearly fifty years, making the uprising against President Assad that broke out in March 2011 all the more unexpected. Yet the decades of repression have taken their toll and as the uprising has evolved into a civil war that now enters its third year, Syria’s opposition has failed to form a united and effective front against Assad. This article considers the state of Syria’s opposition after two years of conflict; both the political and the increasingly powerful armed elements. It examines the divisions between insiders and exiles, over the role of Islam, the use of violence and the various goals of different international backers. It will be shown that, while the Ba’ath regime has proven more resilient and ruthless than other recently toppled Arab dictatorships, the divisions of its opponents have certainly contributed to its survival until now.

For full article see here

Sectarianism in Syria

This is the transcript from a debate I recently took part in at Chatham House: ‘Syria: Fate of a nation’. The video can be found here.

Sectarianism is an aspect of the Syria conflict which unfortunately is being used to characterize the conflict overall. In a binary way, people are characterizing Syria now as simply a sectarian fight, part of a wider Sunni–Shia divide that we’re seeing across the Middle East. But this isn’t really a very accurate reflection of what’s going on and, I would argue, it is dangerous for policy-makers in particular to think through that mindset, as it will have a very negative impact on how this conflict goes forward.

A few policymakers I’ve spoken to are beginning to think that what you’ve got in Syria is at best a repetition of the Lebanese civil war, and therefore the only solution is a kind of confessionalization of Syria, whereby, as you saw in Lebanon, each of the different sects in Syria get different numbers of seats in government and parliament – or, a worst-case scenario, this is a second Balkans conflict and the only possible solution is to divide Syria up along ethnic and sectarian lines. For various reasons, this is not the best way to see Syria.

This conflict did not begin as a sectarian fight. It was primarily a political and an economic conflict. It was political – people who opposed the regime of Bashar Assad – and it was economic because the people who tended to oppose the regime tended to be those who had suffered most economically from his rule. Now, it became implicitly sectarian because it just so happened that the majority of those who had suffered economically from the situation in Syria were people from Sunni Muslim, or Sunni Arab Muslim, backgrounds. There were a few incidents of explicit sectarianism early on – we shouldn’t pretend there wasn’t – particularly, people making a chant that was heard repeatedly in areas of Homs: ‘We want a leader who fears God.’ That is a particularly anti-Alawite slogan, because the notion is that Alawites aren’t real Muslims and therefore they don’t fear God in the way the Sunnis do. However, other than a few incidents of that, in a few areas – particularly in Homs, where ethnic tension was high – the majority of the opposition tried very hard to be inclusive. A lot of slogans were ‘all the Syrians are one’. Indeed, they adopted deliberately national symbols. If you looked at the flag they adopted, it’s a national flag – it’s the flag from the pre-Ba’ath era. They formed groups like the Syrian National Council. It was all framed within the idea of Syria being an inclusive nation-state.

So it’s also important when we look at Syria to realize that Syria is not and has not been a sectarian state in the past. The comparisons with Iraq and Lebanon are quite crude. Lebanon was established as a confessional state, first by the French, and then it continued as a confessional state after independence. Iraq was not established as a confessional state but after the Gulf War in 1991 the state was hollowed out because of sanctions and because of Saddam Hussein’s policies, and as a consequence alternative identities, particularly those of sect, emerged and became stronger as a substitute for a state.

That has not occurred in Syria. Sectarian identity has existed but it’s been at a lower level. People are aware of what sect they are but they’re also very aware of their Syrian national identity. While there have been implicit signs of sectarianism – there is a perception, even though it’s not actually that accurate, that Alawites are a more privileged group, that Sunnis are underprivileged – It’s very much been under the surface and not a politicized identity. Therefore, it’s very worrying to start projecting from the outside the politicization of these identities that you find elsewhere.

The question then is then: why is it that people are talking about sectarianism? Why has sectarianism emerged as a problem in Syria now, if there wasn’t such a strong politicization of identity prior to the conflict? There are two main reasons for this.

The first one, and perhaps the most important one, is that the regime itself has deliberately played on sectarian fears. It’s done this in two ways. On the one hand, it has characterized the opposition as an Islamist Sunni movement. It has tried very hard to appeal to non-Sunnis – Alawites and Christians (Alawites make up about 12 per cent of the population, Christians about 8 per cent of the population) – and secular Sunnis, that if the opposition win, not only will they be Islamists and create a sharia-law-type state, but also they will not tolerate the minorities. By doing so, they have convinced a lot of people that they must stay with the regime or else face obliteration as a group.

The other thing they have done – highly cynically – was deliberately release in various amnesties early on radical Islamists who had been in their prisons. Effectively, they released them with the intention that they will go on to form radical groups. Surprise, surprise, a lot of these groups have been formed, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, who are radical jihadists, who seemed to confirm the fears of a lot of the minorities. Now the minorities that back the regime look at the opposition and see these active groups that are using violence and radical Islamism to oppose the regime, and they fear the alternative. They fear what will come next. So the regime has played a major part in sectarianizing this conflict.

The second group really responsible for sectarianizing the Syria conflict are external powers, in particular powers from the Gulf – notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Ever since the 2003 Iraq war, which empowered Iran and increased Iran’s position in the MENA region, Saudi Arabia and, latterly, Qatar have been worried. They have attempted to push a form of Sunni nationalism to oppose Iran. They have characterized Iran as a dangerous Shia external threat that the Sunnis must rally together to oppose. Now actually, for the majority of the 2000s, most people in the Sunni street across the Arab world did not buy that line. Remember when King Abdullah of Jordan talked about the Shia crescent emerging across Syria and Iraq and Iran – the average person in the street didn’t seem to respond to that.

The Syrian civil war has changed that, because it has been much easier for people to recognize, with Iran playing an active role in Syria, this actual Iranian threat to the Sunnis on the ground. I think that’s very important, that this external factor has served to radicalize some elements of the Syrian Sunni population . Not all of them, but important elements. But again, a lot of it has come from the outside. We have seen this also in terms of the groups that they’ve been backing. Saudi Arabia has been backing Salafist groups, and Qatar has allegedly been backing some jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, albeit through third parties and not directly.

So we’re in a situation where there is a lot of sectarianism emerging and it is spreading across the region as well. We’re seeing on Qatar’s Al Jazeera television network, one of the clerics, Qaradawi, recently declared a jihad on the Shia on behalf of the Sunnis. Similarly, I was shocked to discover that last week there was a poll on Al Jazeera and the question was: who is more to blame for the Syrian civil war, the Sunnis or the Shia? Not surprisingly, the people that voted, 95 per cent blamed the Shia. Sectarianism is being projected on Syria from the outside.

It’s important to note that in spite of all this, Syria is not yet at this point where its conflict has become explicitly sectarian. And thankfully, the majority of the population on both sides, I would argue, are actually resisting the sectarian language. There are non-Sunnis who are supporting the opposition and there’s a lot of Sunnis who are actually supporting the regime still, for various reasons. Also very importantly there haven’t been that many sectarian massacres, thankfully. This is not the Balkans. We have not yet seen whole villages wiped out because of their ethnic identity. People might characterize it as sectarian from the outside but it’s not necessarily seen like that at the moment.

The danger is, of course, that these identities that are being encouraged by the regime and from outside become solidified, and the longer the conflict goes on, the more people actually begin to ascribe and identify with those identities. We saw this certainly in Iraq. Once political identities become solidified, it’s hard to take them away. So the priority really, when looking at this conflict, is trying to find a situation whereby sectarianism will not become solidified so that you have to Balkanize and chop Syria up.

Why does it matter? Syria, I would argue, is too big to fail. A lot of the features you see in Syria are characterized in other parts of the region as well. We’ve already seen sectarianism boil over into Lebanon recently. We’ve seen a resurgence of sectarianism in Iraq as well. There’s the potential for sectarianism to take place in Turkey: 20-odd per cent of the Turkish population are Alevi, which is a relative of the Alawite sect. Prime Minister Erdoğan has actually, rather like Qatar and the Saudis, started using quite irresponsible language. When a bomb went off in the border town of Reyhanli recently, he started talking about how Sunni lives have been lost – not Turkish lives, Sunni lives. That really aggravated the non-Sunni community within Turkey. Thankfully, the majority of the Turkish public don’t seem to be biting to this bait, but the potential is there. Likewise, we’ve seen in Egypt recently there has been some fighting with the small number of Shias being targeted. And of course, if we start setting into motion the notion that ethnic identity and sectarian identity should form the basis of states in the Middle East, all the other multi-ethnic states could face collapse: Jordan, with its Christian community; Egypt, with its Christian community; The multinational communities of Lebanon and, of course, Syria.

So, to conclude, on the one hand, it’s important to understand the complexities of this conflict, but on the other hand, it’s important to realize that the sectarian threat is there – and as we speak, as this conflict goes on, sectarianization is happening. But rather than see it as an isolated problem, you’ve got to see this as a problem for the whole region. Rather than wading into a conflict on one side or the other because you want to topple a bad regime, you’ve got to look at the wider picture of how this is going to impact across the region as a whole.

In the short term, I would prescribe for Western diplomats to put pressure on their Gulf allies to de-escalate the sectarian language. In the long term, I think whenever we reach a point where hopefully we can come to a conclusion, some sort of a settlement in this conflict, policy-makers have got to steer away from any attempt to place the Balkans or the Taif accord from Lebanon onto Syria. This is not how Syrians see their political identity, and if you end up imposing it upon them, all you will do is entrench these identities for good. That could have a massive destabilizing effect, not just in Syria but across the whole region.

Flawed Logic in Decision to Lift Syria Arms Embargo

By Christopher Phillips (Written for Chatham House, 28th May 2013)

The British government’s stance that led to the end of the EU’s arms embargo on Syria is based on flawed logic and will likely exacerbate and prolong the civil war. In an acrimonious meeting of European ministers in Brussels on Monday, Britain, supported by France but opposed by all 25 other EU member states, vetoed a move to extend the embargo, paving the way to send arms to the ‘moderate’ elements of the opposition.

The British government’s position, championed by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, appears to be based on two calculations. Firstly, the reason given in public is to put pressure on President Assad to negotiate. Peace talks in Geneva between the regime and rebels are scheduled for next month and, while it is unclear if they will actually take place, Britain believes the stick of potentially arming the rebels could force Assad to compromise. Secondly, Britain is worried that the moderate rebels are rapidly losing ground to more radical and jihadist elements such as Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jubhat al-Nusra. If negotiations in Geneva get nowhere as many expect, beefing up the forces of Free Syria Army (FSA) commander Salam Idriss and others could tip the balance within the opposition against these radicals.

Yet both calculations are dubious. The threat of arming the rebels is unlikely to convince Assad to change his stance. Every time the rebels have made gains, the regime has been sent a vast supply of arms, financial support and even fighters from its key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Assad knows they will match or exceed any new weapons sent to the rebels. Unsurprisingly, within hours of the EU decision, Russia announced it would go ahead with deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria to deter foreign intervention.

Assad has proved unwilling to compromise throughout the conflict, despite having lost half of his country to the rebels. His inner circle has similarly shown itself to be steadfastly loyal and the once-vaunted prospect of an internal coup against him has receded. As long as the regime retains the support of these foreign backers, who have proven far more committed to Assad’s survival than western states are to his removal, it is unlikely that a limited number of western arms will force any compromise within the regime. Moreover, the embargo was lifted in the face of considerable EU opposition and division which hardly convinces Assad that he is facing a united and determined Western front.

Arming the rebels is unlikely to strengthen the so-called moderates either. Jihadists such as Jubhat al-Nusra have succeeded not just because they are better armed, but because they are better organized, committed and have won popular support through distributing aid and eschewing the corruption that plagues FSA-affiliated militia. The FSA, which is more a collection of localized militia than a single organized unit, may benefit from weapons temporarily but the ‘moderates’ problems are far deeper than simply a lack of arms.

Britain’s policy is fraught with further risks. Weapons could end up in the wrong hands. While Hague insists recipients will be carefully vetted to ensure they are ‘moderate’, there is no guarantee they will not radicalize in the future. Moreover, with reports of jihadists clashing with moderates over oil resources and elsewhere, can Hague also guarantee that jihadists won’t simply steal the weapons from Britain’s allies? As Syria becomes a failed state and destabilizes its neighbours, might British and French-supplied anti-aircraft weapons soon be downing western passenger airliners across the region?

A further risk is that, irrespective of the impact on the regime, this move deters the opposition itself from negotiating. Britain has promised not to deliver any weapons until August, after the Geneva conference is due to take place, but the rebels may prove sceptical of its value knowing they are to receive western arms anyway. They, like Assad, don’t really believe in a negotiated solution and may now attend the conference as the price for western weapons rather than going to reach a deal.

Hague’s move ultimately represents Britain’s frustration at its inability to find a workable solution to the Syria crisis. This is the latest in a long line of unsuccessful moves, including economic sanctions and diplomatic action to try to force Assad from power. Yet the reality is that, given their unwillingness to commit their own forces, Britain, France and the US have less influence over the Syria conflict than they would like. With Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia all committing far more resources, western states are currently bit-parts in a much larger regional proxy war. Threatening to send the rebels western weapons may drag them further into the conflict but it is unlikely to change its course in the way Hague hopes. If anything it will prolong and expand it by prompting reciprocal arming from Assad’s allies.

Britain and France might wish to consider how much real influence they have left in this part of the world. They might be better to focus on goals that are within their power, for example, mobilizing the international community to help Syria’s 1.5 million refugees and 4 million internally displaced. Pushing international donors to honour their commitments and helping Syria’s overwhelmed neighbours in Lebanon and Jordan might prove a more effective use of Mr Hague’s energy.

The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.

Europe Split on Arming Syria Rebels

Quick interview with Voice of America:

Twenty-seven European Union foreign ministers left a meeting in Brussels this  week bitterly divided on whether forces trying to topple the government of  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should receive outside military assistance.  VOA’s Susan Yackee spoke on the subject with Chatham House Syria expert Christopher  Phillips.

Susan Yackee: The European Union has come out split over  whether to arm the Syrian rebels. What was your reaction to this  announcement?

Christopher Phillips: It is not surprising; it reflects the  trends that the different European Union members have been advocating on Syria  for the last few months. There is a what you might call a ‘hawkish’ group led  particularly by Britain and France. They are advocating lifting the arms embargo  on Syria to ensure that rebels can be armed by European powers, whilst in the  more ‘dovish’ camp we have Germany that is leading the group against [the  lifting of] the arms embargo worried in particular that flooding Syria with  weapons on either side will lead to regional spill-over into other  countries.

Susan Yackee: I realize you are an analyst, and analysts  usually stay back, out of the fray, but let me ask your personal opinion. What  do you think should be done? Should they arm the rebels?

Christopher Phillips: I think that Germany has a very valid  point that sending weapons into this situation is not necessarily going to solve  it. There is a major problem of not only with the weapons possibly moving from  Syria to other regional conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, but also Jordan and Turkey.  The other question is – what do we actually mean by ‘arming Syrian rebels?’ Who  do we send these weapons to? It is all very well to say that we can initially  send them to moderate groups. But who is to say that they might not change their  politics once they have the weapons or, indeed, people with more radical  politics take them off them. So, I think it’s very difficult to say that ‘arming  the rebels’ is the solution to this crisis.

Susan Yackee: So you would agree with others that say that  this is a very unique situation; it is not like it was in, say, Libya?

Christopher Phillips: Bear in mind that the Libyan rebels  did not ‘win’ the civil war. They were greatly aided by air power from NATO;  that is not the situation with Syria. Just by sending arms, that will not  recreate the Libyan situation. If the West were willing to deploy the same  amount of air power, then perhaps sending arms would actually end the Syria  conflict more quickly but given that they are not willing to commit that kind of  fire power, it seems to me that by sending arms to rebels, all they are doing is  they are pouring fuel into the fire of the civil war rather than really  beginning to seek a solution to it.

Susan Yackee: What is the solution?

Christopher Phillips: It seems to me – and I would argue  that arming the rebels is part of this tactic – the talks behind closed doors,  with Russia in particular to get it to stop its support of Assad is absolutely  key. Now, sending weapons to the rebels might be interpreted not as a genuine  attempt by the international community to try to tip the balance but as a means  of trying to persuade Russia to shift its stance, saying: If you don’t come on  board to some kind of peace agreement which should see Assad leave Syria or step  down and a transition some into place, then we will make sure that the rebels  are armed and the civil war goes on.

Read more at Middle East Voices: http://middleeastvoices.voanews.com/2013/03/quicktake-europe-split-on-arming-syria-rebels-74291/#ixzz2NcEa6upz

What’s the Best-Case Scenario for Syria?

From Karen Leigh at Syria Deeply:

Question: What’s the best-case scenario for Syria?

Shadi Hamid, Director of Research, Brookings Doha Center: Obama Administration supports a military intervention in Syria.

The best-case scenario is pretty bad. I lost any optimism I once had, to the point where it’s difficult for me to think of an alternative scenario where U.S. policy could have been more detrimental to the cause of the Syrian uprising and Syrian stability.

Going out on a limb, the best-case scenario is that the Obama administration reverses its positions and supports a military intervention in Syria. It’s unlikely, but there’s a set of unlikely events that could trigger such a course. If Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people in a way that leads to thousands of casualties, if we see a significant increase in loss of life in a very short time — like if an entire town is wiped out in a matter of weeks — that could shift international opinion and convince people that military intervention is the only way.

It took years to reach peace in Kosovo and Bosnia, so maybe we’re just not there yet and the number of civilian casualties, which is currently at 70,000, has to be closer to 150,000 or 200,000. In the long run, it would be optimistic to say that Syria would go through a transition, but at what costs and how many people have to die? I see a bright future after years of bloodshed because ultimately the rebels are going to win, ultimately there will be some part of Syria considered liberated and that is governed by a particular entity.

I do think the rebels are going to gain the upper hand, but you’ll still have a guerilla insurrection and war-lordism. These are all things Syria will have to go through.

Chris Phillips, lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East, University of London: External powers broker a deal between the opposition and the regime.

The best-case scenario, the result that we want, is the fighting to stop and some kind of transition to take place. The best case I could see happening is what we’ve been hoping for long time, which is that a deal is made between external powers, particularly Russia and Iran (though the latter is unlikely).

They would be able to place pressure on parts of the Assad regime to accept a transition without Assad, to accept the kind of thing Moaz Khatib was talking about recently. That calls for moderation between moderate leaders of the opposition and the non-Assad members of the regime. Somehow enough of an agreement is reached whereby the fighting can stop, and the Syrian state is then able to be held together by a transitional government of sorts.

This would require a large international commitment and possibly United Nations  peace keepers. But if Russia and the United States come together, it would assume they’ve ended their logjam at UN and that the UN might be able to agree to provide blue helmets to oversee the transition and also to agree to provide financial support.

Now, the possibility of that actually happening is about 5 percent, so I’m not fantasizing that it will take place. Looking at the lay of the land, particularly the huge division within the opposition and the lack of division within the regime, there will most likely be some sort of civil war well into 2014.

David Butter, former MENA regional director, Economist Intelligence Unit and fellow at UK-based think tank Chatham House: Assad supporters stage a coup.

Looking at it involves wishful thinking. My best-case scenario would involve Assad, and the people around him in the police and intelligence services, being taken out of the way. So that would have to either happen as a result of some sort of bomb or attack by [opposition] Syrians, or an internal move from people on the inside who would recognize that with him and some of the better known chiefs out of the way, there would be a chance to have a negotiation with the national coalition and provide a way ahead.

At that point, you could bring in a lot of international players to concensus and help; there’d have to be an international conference on Syria and you’d have to have credible people from the regime come out of the woodwork. Then you’d get into the rather long and messy process of trying to put the place together again.

You’d probably see some massacres of Alawites, and you’d see clashes among many of the fighting groups, and you’d also have a really devastated economy which would need effective help from outside to start rebuilding. You’d also have UN peacekeeping forces of some sort deployed in the country during the post-war period.