One of the most frustrating aspects of the media coverage of the current civil disturbances in Syria is that there is a dearth of ‘joined-up’ thinking behind most of the analyses. There is a lot of eye-witness reporting of events in the country as well as a litany of political opportunism by politicians pressing their own self-serving analyses of the Syrian events. The most important problem is that each aspect of the evaluation of the impact of the Syrian crisis is treated as a discreet problem and unrelated in any meaningful sense with the ‘bigger picture’.
Governments are not able or willing to deal with one problem at a time. They are caught up in a whirlpool of demands and pressures from a wide variety of challenges, domestic and international, which require action or intervention or even neglect. More importantly these challenges are almost always inter-related. For example, it is impossible for the West to have a position on Syria which does not take into account the difficulties with Russia and China in the Security Council and with the Russian military presence in Syria. While it is possible to speak of a uniform Western response to the killings and destruction in Syria it is not possible to then deduce from that a uniform Western response to Russia, Iran, Hizbollah and the Sunni-Shia split which this Syrian conflict encompasses.
Viewing the day to day news clips about Russian helicopters, artillery bombardments of Syrian cities and explosions in the capital, Damascus, makes it possible to cast a moral vote against these atrocities. However, moral votes have never been a good guide for policy. There are usually good, rational (even if ‘immoral’) reasons why events happen. Unless the reasons why such ‘evil’ policies are pursued are understood then no response can be effective or appropriate.
Assessing the motives on the Syrian side is, perhaps, the easiest. The Assad clique which runs Syria is Alawi; a minority group within the Syrian state. They are followers of an Ismaili belief system that incorporates aspects of both Shi'a and Sunni Islam and some Christian beliefs; Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany. In fact the Turkish Alevi (a Turkish variant) maintain that they are not Muslims as all. The majority Sunni communities agree and view the Alawi as largely a cultural group rather than a heterodox Muslim sect. The Sunni ordered them to build mosques, but no one worshipped there so they were abandoned. Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy process of initiation; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Their prayer book, the source of religious instruction, is the Kitab al Majmu, believed to be derived from Ismaili writings. The Alawis, of whom there are about 1,350,000 in Syria and Lebanon, constitute Syria's largest religious minority. They are often called by other names as well - they have been called Nusayris, Nusairis, Namiriya or Ansariyya. They live chiefly along the coast in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, where they form over 60 present of the rural population.
For several centuries, the Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation on them. During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was re-imposed in 1936. For centuries, the Alawis constituted Syria's most repressed and exploited minority. Most were indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers working for Sunni landowners. Because of their outcast status, many government jobs were off-limits to them and they never prospered in business. They were able to mobilise themselves out of their rural setting by joining the Army. They rose in the ranks and were the key elements in the Syrian Baath Party.
The other Baath Party was in Iraq and the two main branches of the Baath Party controlled both Iraq and Syria for nearly forty years. The Arabic word baath means "resurrection" or "renaissance." The party had its origins in the desire of Syrian secular Arab nationalists to break with their feudal past and to create a new form of government for Arab countries. The Baath Party was officially founded in 1947 and sought to create a secular and socialist culture in Arab countries. The Baath Party was able to establish itself in Syria in 1954. The Baath Party established itself in Iraq in 1963. In Syria, Hafez Assad originally led the party which was dominated by the Alawi (about 12% of the Syrian nation) and supported by the network of Alawi in the army and the national intelligence establishment. In Iraq, Baath had trouble holding on to power; but by the late 1960s, the Baath was in full control, and Saddam Hussein was running the party. That created a problem, however, as both Assad and Hussein insisted that their branch of the party was running the international Baath movement. The two men could not agree on who was in charge, and became bitter enemies. The Iraqi Baathists were almost exclusively Sunni while Syrian Baathists were primarily Alawi.
When Saddam was deposed in 2003, many senior Iraqi Baath Party members fled to Syria, and made peace with the Syrian branch of the party but remained politically isolated. Bashar Assad had taken over in Syria when his father died in 2000. Bashar had not been groomed to run the country, but instead trained as an eye doctor. However, his older brother, the heir apparent, died in an accident, and it was up to Bashar to keep things together and to resist the dynastic ambitions of his uncle, Rifaat, who would have preferred to be Hafez’s successor. Rifaat was capable of amazing deeds of violence. On 27 June 1980, a day after a failed attempt to assassinate his brother, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, military units under the command of Rifaat al-Assad, the president’s brother, entered into Palmyra prison and killed thousands of inmates. During the Syrian occupation of Lebanon Rifaat was the kingpin in the illicit trade in narcotics. He was, and remains, a serious aspirant for Bashar’s job and a man whom many fear.
The Syrian Alawi Baathists, after their takeover of the Syrian state, soon gave up any notion of Arab socialism and became a corrupt police state. In 1982 Hafez Assad banned all other political parties except the Baath. He had them ruthlessly dissolved; their leaders killed or subject to involuntary exile. The free press of Syria was outlawed. The only newspapers that were allowed into circulation were official Baath papers.
The majority Sunni people of Syria (including the large Druze and Kurdish communities) grew unhappy with these turns of events. A new political party was formed; the Muslim Brotherhood. This Muslim Brotherhood attracted a lot of support from unhappy Syrians, most Sunni (and with some support from Egypt). The Muslim Brotherhood embarked upon a program to overthrow Assad. They made their presence known with demonstrations and protest marches and soon gathered a lot of support. In response, Hafez Assad deployed his army to make such an example of the Muslim Brotherhood that no man would ever dare challenge his rule again. One centre of opposition was the city of Hama. Hafez Assad decided that Hama would be the staging point of the example he was to make to the Syrian people. In the twilight hours of February the 2nd, 1982, the city of Hama was awakened by loud explosions. The Syrian air force began to drop their bombs on the city. The initial bombing run cost the city only a few casualties. Its main purpose had been to disable the roads so that no-one could escape. Earlier in the night, Syrian tanks and artillery systems had surrounded Hama. With the conclusion of the air bombing run, the tanks and artillery began their relentless shelling of the town. Thousands died. As homes crumbled upon their living occupants and the smell of charred skin filled the streets, a few residents managed to escape the shelling and started to flee. They were met by the Syrian army under Rifaat Assad which had surrounded the city; they were all shot dead. The artillery barrage was followed by waves of Syrian soldiers. They quickly converged onto the town killing anything that moved.
Groups of soldiers rounded up men, women, and children only to shoot them in the back of the head. After the majority of the people in Hama were dead, the soldiers began looting. They took all that they could from the now empty homes. Some were seen picking through the dead civilians looking for money, watches, and rings. Finally the soldiers withdrew. The final horror was yet to come. To make sure that no person was left alive in the rubble and buildings, the Syrian army brought in poison gas generators. Cyanide gas filled the air of Hama. Bulldozers were later used to turn the city into a giant flat area. The lessons of the Hama Massacre were not lost on the Syrian population and an already deep dissatisfaction with the Alawi grew deeper.
These are exactly the same tactics being used in the destruction of ‘rebel’ Syrian towns today. The methods are the same; the aims are the same; and the denials are identical. Hafez Assad wrote the playbook and his sons and nephews are following his example.
It was this same group of unrestrained and vicious military leaders who marched into Lebanon with the Syrian Army and occupied the Lebanon as a protectorate in 1976. Assad wanted to prevent Lebanese sectarian warfare from spilling over into Syria and had to be certain that Lebanon maintained a unified front with Syria in any negotiations with Israel, especially after 1979. As Syria has very little resources, Lebanon provided a free trade zone and a place to extort money and sell drugs. They did not want to leave the Lebanon. This is why no one had any doubts that it was the Syrians who assassinated Raafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime Minister, or blew up several journalists.
The Syrians were forced to leave the Lebanon by the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2 September 2004. They left behind a well-organised Lebanese militia force operating in Lebanon in defiance of Resolution 1559 — the Hezbollah (God's Party). The Hezbollah were funded, guided and supplied from Iran through the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) with the direct help of the Syrians.
Iran created the Hizbollah after Israeli troops stormed into Beirut in 1982. Initially trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the group continues to receive extensive funding and weapons from Tehran, including the arsenal of more than 13,000 short- and medium-range rockets and missiles which are frequently used to attack Israel. The Hezbollah are essentially Shia, living in the southern suburbs of Beirut and as militia soldiers in South Lebanon from which the Israelis withdrew after an 18 year occupation.
There are less than 60% of the Lebanese who are Muslims of any kind (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Isma'ili, Alawi or Nusayri), and almost 40% Christian (Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Copt, or Protestants). The Shia are less than 20% of the population.
Israel is not the only enemy of Syria. The overwhelmingly Sunni Al Qaida organisations see the Alawi as Muslim heretics, socialists and worthy of death, particularly as Syria has been an ally of Shia Iran. Now the Sunni leaders (mainly Wahhabi Muslims) of Qatar and Saudi Arabia have pressed forward to offer the Syrian ‘rebels’ arms, cash and support. These are delivered primarily through Turkey which has a long border with Syria. Turkey, too, is a Muslim country, now under the religious-based AKP party. Turks are also Sunnis but follow the Hanafi school of Islamic law. The Sunni Kurds follow the Shafii school. The Druze, like the Alawi, have a very secretive religious organisation, deriving primarily from the Ismaili wing of Islam. They are also considered a cult but have usually been closer to the Sunni while maintaining their identity.
It is clear that the majority Sunni states have decided to openly support the Sunni groups in Syria; those who have borne the brunt of the killings and destruction The rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have received multiple shipments of arms including Kalashnikov assault rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weaponry
which were transported into Syria via Turkey. The Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MİT – the Turkish national intelligence organisation)) is in charge of this distribution as well as in the erection maintenance and control of refugee camps along the Syrian border.
On the other hand there is a very large Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus; established under a 1971 agreement with Syria, which is still staffed by Russian naval personnel. The base supports the Russian Navy's fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. During the 1970s, similar support points were located in Alexandria and Mersa Matruh, Egypt and Latakia, Syria. In 1977 the Egyptian bases were closed and the vessels moved to Tartus. The Russian Navy designates the base at Tartus the 720th Logistics Support Point.
In 1991, the Russians pulled back most of their foreign bases and wiped out their 5th Mediterranean Squadron. The remaining base at Tartus was made part of the Black Sea Fleet (in the Crimea). It is not really a base for fighting naval battles’ it has three floating docks of which one is operational, a floating workshop, storage facilities, barracks and other facilities. Recently there have been visits to Tartus of a number of Russian vessels, including the Russian navy's aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and several submarines. Observers have stated that the helicopters which have been flying in Syria were based at Tartus. Several observers noted that at least one of the helicopters was the new Mi-25 helicopter gunship, not the Mi-17 helicopters sold earlier to Syria. There is some speculation as to who is flying these as there seems to have been no Syrian pilots rated on the Mi-25s.
In 2009 President Assad agreed to the port’s conversion into a permanent Middle East base for Russia’s nuclear-armed warships. Since 2009, Russia has been renovating the Tartus naval base and dredging the port to allow access for its larger naval vessels. It is clear that the Russians see this base in the Mediterranean as a response to the Western efforts to site missile bases near to the Russian border and see the Tartus base as an important bargaining chip in negotiations with NATO. To achieve the security of tenure for the Tartus base it is vitally important for the Russians to keep Bashar Assad in power as any successor would likely order the closing of the base or seek to extract a higher price for its continuation.
The motives on the Saudi and Qatari side are also relatively easy to comprehend. It is their co-religionists who are suffering and this causes problems at home, especially for the Saudis who are ‘keepers of the Holy Cities’. More importantly the Saudis, Qatari and many of the nations of the Gulf are in a continuous battle with the Iranian Shia under its fundamentalist leaders and the Pasdaran militants. The current strife in Bahrain, where a powerful Sunni leadership has been attacked by a majority Shia citizenry led to the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain to protect the Sunni leadership. This struggle is far from over and the Western reaction toward the repression of the Shia ‘rebels’ has not been entirely in favour of the Sunnis. The West’s backing for a Shia-led Iraqi Government which supplanted the Sunni leadership by force has posed serious questions to the states of the Gulf who have been asked by the U.S. for their support in the fight against ‘The War on Terror’; especially that against Al Qaida.
The West is reliant on these states for the stationing of its UAVs in the area of the Gulf and the Horn of Africa. They are based at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem Air Base and Al Jaber Air Base, as well as Seeb Air Base in Oman. There is a major air control operation at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and a new CIA base in Northern Saudi Arabia. These are crucial for the forward positioning of drones in the area.
Also the U.S. finds itself increasingly dependent on air bases like Incirlik Air Base in Turkey where 5,000 U.S. airmen are stationed proving a force near to the Lebanon and Syria as well as a main supply base for the war in Afghanistan. There is another large base at Izmir. The 41-year-old American-Turkish Pirinclik Force Base near Diyarbakır, known as NATO's frontier post for monitoring the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, closed on 30 September 1997. However, with the closure of the Pakistani road routes into Afghanistan there have been some important fuel shipments to Bagram from Diyarbakir. The U.S. has many important reasons for staying in a broad alliance with the Sunni nations of the Gulf and with Turkey which far outweigh any short-term adventures in Syria.
There are other reasons as well which shape U.S. strategy and political thinking. The key point which worries planners is that no one knows who will replace Assad and the Alawi if the regime is toppled. The failures of the successor regimes in Libya and the current struggle between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of Mubarak (not to mention the disappointment in Tunisia) gives no one any confidence that the replacement for Assad would be in the U.S’s short-term or long-term interest.
Robert Satloff summarised the various scenarios in Syria succinctly[i] “They include:
- Syrian army units responsible for the control of the regime's substantial chemical and biological weapons stocks leave their posts, either through defection, mutiny, attack from insurgents or orders from superiors to fight elsewhere, and these weapons of mass destruction go rogue.
- Syria lashes out at Turkey's hosting of anti-Assad rebels by offering aid and comfort to a rejuvenated PKK insurgency against Ankara, reigniting a hellish Kurdish terrorist campaign that has claimed more than 30,000 Turkish lives over the past 30 years.
- Syria pushes hundreds of thousands of hapless Palestinians still living in government-controlled refugee camps over the Jordanian, Lebanese and even Israeli borders as a way to regionalize the conflict and undermine the stability of neighbouring states.
- Syrian soldiers, Alawi thugs and their Hizbollah allies take their anti-Sunni crusade to the Sunnis of Lebanon, reigniting a fifteen-year conflict that sucked regional proxies—and U.S. marines—into its vortex.
- Thousands of jihadists descend on Syria to fight the apostate Alawite regime, transforming this large Eastern Mediterranean country into the global nexus of violent Islamist terrorists.
This is not to forget the interests of Israel and the contested Golan Heights dispute. This is certainly an issue which no major player wants to start again. Still less does the West wish to engage in confrontation with the Russians, especially as long as the fuel routes into Afghanistan through Pakistan are not freely open to traffic. Without them the over flight of Russia for supply shipments to Afghanistan and the unencumbered use of the U.S. base at Manas in Kyrgystan for the same purpose might be impaired. There seems nothing positive to be gained by the U.S., engaging in military intervention in Syria. There are only disadvantages. While it is a pity to see so many suffering people, relieving their suffering by military intervention will not guarantee (as in Libya) the end of their suffering and, at the same time, might impact negatively on U.S. security objectives.
This doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done. The Saudis and the Arab OPEC states have already begun their retaliation against Russia. This morning the OPEC nations announced that they were not reducing their output to accommodate the dramatic drop in demand for oil as a result of the Euro crisis and the slowing down of the economies. Russia requires a price of crude oil of about US$115 per barrel to make its budget break even. If the price is below $115 Russia loses money on every barrel. Prices can remain high if supply is curtailed but the major Arab OPEC states have refused to curtail output which has put the Russians in a bind. Russia is already worried about its potential loss of market share in the natural gas business with the rise of North American shale gas and the expansion of the Qatari gas dome. The Russians are finding themselves under growing financial pressure. No one knows if this will shift their political posture towards Syria but it will certainly have an effect on its cash flows.
So, when evaluating the role of the U.S. on the Syrian issue it seems as though doing nothing is probably the best policy. There is no need to stop promoting human rights but there is also no reason to engage in anything more severe than that. Unfortunately the U.S. lives in a complicated and interrelated world. The astigmatic utterances of men like John McCain illustrate just how lucky the American people were to have avoided his presidency.
[i] Robert Satloff, ‘Why A Syrian Civil War Would Be A Disaster for U.S. National Security’, New Republic 7/6/12