In the March of 2011, the turbulence of the Arab Spring reached Syria. What began as agitated demonstrations quickly escalated into a civil war that has now claimed some 340,000 lives, displaced over seven and a half million people, and involves nearly a dozen countries. After almost five years of fighting, the situation still appears bleak and has become even more complex. Yet could this conflict have been resolved earlier before the various factions had become set in their demands? This is a dangerous yet tantalising counterfactual: if the Western powers had not been so insistent upon using the revolution to remove Bashar al-Assad from power, would Syria have turned into such a quagmire?
When the Arab Spring hit Syria, many wondered at what would replace the Ba’athist tyranny. Quick on the revolutionary bandwagon, Western leaders salivated at the chance of finally removing a pro-Russian government from power. The fall of Saddam Hussein had inadvertently promoted Iran up the ranks of regional powerdom and with Iraq still tottering on the brink of viability, the opportunity for a friendly if not necessarily pro-Western government in Syria was welcome. It is in the pursuit of this goal that the United States and its European allies constructed a narrative of bringing democracy to Syria. Assad must go for any peace to come to Syria, they argued, because it was the democratic will of the people. Years of bitter fighting has now changed this rosy view.
Had it merely been press statements and patronising editorials, Western policy could have been dismissed as the usual blend of naïveté and realpolitik. Unfortunately for the Syrian people, it has come at a far greater cost. What has been almost forgotten in recent commentaries on Syria is that Russia had approached the West with a peace deal in February 2012, when casualties stood around 7,500. According to Former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, had approached him with a three-point plan. The Russian plan was simple and what the United States and Europe have come around to accepting only a couple of months ago as the best alternative. As Ahtisaari recalls, Churkin said, “Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do. One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.” Ahtisaari took this message to the American, British, and French delegations at the UN but they ignored the proposal, convinced that Assad was going to be booted out in a matter of weeks.
To be clear, Assad is no boy scout. He is a typical Arab authoritarian leader like Saddam Hussein was and the House of Saud is. Despite the trouble brewing in his neighbourhood all through 2010, he refused, just weeks before the unrest started, to relax his hold on the government. There would be no political pluralism, diversity of ideas, or greater tolerance on expression. During the civil war, Assad has been indiscriminate in his use of force in population centres, used heavy weapons such as cluster bombs, barrel bombs, thermobaric weapons, chemical weapons, and even Scud missiles against the rebels. Such behaviour has encouraged recruits into the ranks of ISIS, analysts point out. On a purely humanitarian basis, it is not difficult to see why anyone would wish Assad away.
However, it remains unclear as to what other options exist that are in any way better than Assad. Defeating ISIS, it is said in Western capitals, can only happen in conjunction with the removal of Assad from power. Yet the Syrian opposition gives little reason for confidence. Most of them are almost as conservative as Da’esh, albeit more restrained in their implementation of Islamic law. The West has always harped on moderate elements among the Syrian opposition but what that means in the Syrian context may not be entirely savoury. There is also this to be considered: can the moderate factions bring stability to Syria after Assad is gone and ISIS has been eliminated? Or will we see a bloodier version of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, with sectarian strife ripping the country apart?
Other than Assad’s forces and ISIS, one of the strongest orgainsations in Syria is the Jabhat al-Nusra. The group is essentially the al-Qa’ida front in Syria with the explicit near-term aim of overthrowing the Assad government and bringing Syria under Islamic law. However, the Nusra Front has pursued a smart long-term strategy focused on embedding itself into Syrian society. They have shown restraint in their application of the harsher tenets of sharia and have portrayed themselves more as nationalists than as Islamists to garner support of the Syrian people. For example, the Nusra Front is immediately more concerned with the ouster of Assad than global jihad. As a result, the group has become popular despite having an ideology almost as vicious as that of ISIS. The Nusra Front is also loyal to its parent organisation; over the years, Turkey and Qatar have repeatedly tried to bring the group out of the al-Qa’ida fold to make them more acceptable to the West as potential successors to the Assad regime but to no avail.
Another powerful group in the anti-Assad coalition is the Ahrar al-Sham, arguably the strongest faction in Syria both politically and militarily. The secret of its success lies in sustained backing from Turkey and Qatar, with even Saudi Arabia showing some interest of late. Again, the group is avowedly Islamist with loose ties to al-Qa’ida in the past but it is, like the Nusra Front, committed to ejecting Assad from power. Ahrar al-Sham also benefits from excellent organisation, which, according to Charles Lister, a senior consultant to the Shaikh Group and involved in Syria Track II dialogues, has allowed it to survive major losses such as the gutting of its leadership in September 2014. This administrative acumen indicates an able pool of people to run a post-Assad Syria but their ideology is just as unpalatable as the Nusra Front and the US Central Intelligence Agency has declined providing the Ahra al-Sham with training and weapons.
A third group worth mentioning as contending for a role in a new Syria is the Jaish al-Islam. The result of a merger of fifty or so smaller Damascene groups in September 2013, the Jaish al-Islam is a powerful militia in the conservative Islamist fold that is backed by Saudi Arabia. There have been consistent rumours that Riyadh has not only extended financial assistance to the group but also recruited instructors from Pakistan to provide them training, primarily because the Saudis were afraid that the Nusra Front had become too dominant a force in Syrian politics. Curiously, however, the ideology of the Jaish al-Islam is also Islamist in the al-Qa’ida mould, with the group’s leader, Zahran Alloush, calling Nusra Front fighters as his brothers and addressing Osama bin Laden with honorifics such as rahimahu Allah. However, the Jaish al-Islam is as devotedly anti-ISIS as it is anti-Assad and has released several videos that show the mass execution of captured ISIS fighters. Its battle strategy is as gruesome as that of ISIS, oftentimes using civilians as human shields to evade Allied air strikes. While their ideologies do not align perfectly, Jaish al-Islam has in fact cooperated with the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham on the battlefield in the past.
Groups like the Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham hold a reluctant interest for the West because they have been extremely effective against ISIS, more so than the more publicised Kurdish peshmerga. Furthermore, despite their unequivocally anti-ISIS and anti-Islamist stance, the Kurdish factions pose a problem in the long run because their Arab neighbours are wary that the price of Kurdish assistance against ISIS would be independence or at least autonomy. Interestingly, the one thing that unites everyone in Syria, from Assad to the Syria-focused Islamists, is the unity of the country. At a recent seminar in London organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Lister stated that in his two and half years of close talks with the Syrian opposition, the overwhelming consensus – 90 to 95 per cent – was that Syria must stay as a single and unified state. Unfortunately for the West, the only groups who seem to be capable of holding a post-Assad Syria together are staunchly Islamist.
These prominent Islamist factions pose a more immediate problem too: they are Sunni extremists and as such, virulently against Syria’s several minority groups such as the Shia, Alawi, Druze, and Christians. Any anti-Assad coalition that includes groups like the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaish al-Islam will never gain the acceptance of minorities that have steadfastly remained loyal to Assad. In their opinion, a secular dictator is supremely preferable to a religious tyrant; they see little difference between the massacre of Yazidis around Sinjar by ISIS in August 2014 and the massacre of minorities in Adra by the Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, in December 2013. Any suggestion of incorporating Islamist groups into a Syrian political settlement is a non-starter while keeping the Islamists out would mean a long, bloody and protracted civil war.
There are, to be sure, scores of moderate, nationalist factions in the Syrian civil war too. Judging from the assessment made by the British Joint Intelligence Committee, this segment numbers about 75,000 fighters divided between 105 to 100 groups. The largest two, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army and the Northern Free Syrian Army, comprise 58 factions fielding 25,000 fighters and 14 factions fielding 20,000 fighters respectively. Both these groups have been amenable to a political settlement to the civil war but again, to the West’s misfortune, these groups have proven ineffective against Assad’s forces. In September 2015, the secretive US Military Operations Command in Amman withdrew support to the Southern Front after a string of battlefield failures against the Syrian Army. This has led to signs of splintering in the group, with some elements allegedly reaching out to more successful yet Islamist groups such as the Ahrar al-Sham.
With a lack of feasible anti-Assad options on the field of battle, there is also this to be considered: are Syrians capable of democracy, that too one with multicultural hues? Such questions are usually summarily dismissed as racist but it is worth bearing in mind that a democratic system is the embodiment of values already present in the people. Thus can be explained, for example, the institutional failure and weak democracy of India. The successful implantation of a democratic framework in West Germany and Japan after World War II can easily be countered by the failed democracies of over a dozen postcolonial African states, Pakistan, and Iraq. Hussein and Assad, little Stalins that they have been, may not nourish the lofty ideals of free expression and political freedom but at least they saved their countries from descending into sectarian bloodbaths. The hypocrisy of the West in demanding a perfect solution to the Syrian question can be seen among its regional allies in Saudi Arabia, a state that many have compared to ISIS unfavourably. The Western pursuit of democracy, or realpolitik, in the Middle East has unlocked an enormous wave of human tragedy.
Had the proposal that came to Ahtisaari in February 2012 been pursued, the Syrian tragedy might have been averted. Assad’s own infractions may have been responded to, at least partially, via sanctions and diplomatic pressure. Given that the country is surrounded by US allies, this would not have been too difficult. However, some diplomats from the P3 (Britain, France, United States) have alleged that no such proposal existed, or if it did, it was not serious. If this is true, it would still have been worth considering a future of Syria in which Assad had a role, at least temporarily. After all, a nationalist dictator might make for an uneasy region but a global jihadist ideology is inherently expansionist and an international ulcer. This latter event has been the cost of the Western pursuit of “democracy” in Syria.
This article first appeared in the December 2015 print edition of Swarajya.