Syria – victim of foreign machinations

By Munzer Hindawi

The killing and destruction that is taking place in Syria is exceeding the worst scenarios envisaged at the start of the revolution.

The revolution started peacefully. The atrocities committed by the Syrian regime led to the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which consists mainly of soldiers who had defected from the Syrian army and refused to obey orders to kill their own people. The first declared task of the FSA was to protect the peaceful demonstrations. The hope was that the FSA would grow as more soldiers defect and become the revolution’s main military force and, eventually, the national army of the newly liberated Syria.

Now, two years after the start of the revolution, the situation in Syria is very grim. The peaceful demonstrations have been replaced by guerrilla warfare. The FSA has become anything but an army with a structure and a hierarchical command that plans for battles, controls the movement of its forces and the supplies of weapon to those forces, and runs the newly liberated areas temporarily under military rules.

Fragmented armed opposition

Instead of having one, coherent liberation army, there are now hundreds of armed groups with loose or no link to the FSA. With little knowledge of the law, these groups take matters into their hands. With little understanding of the fundamental message of Islam, which is peace, most of these groups hoist the banner of Islam and jihad but bring fear, not peace, to the liberated areas.

Many of the leaders of these groups are poorly educated: before taking up arms, some were simple workers, farmers, shopkeepers or students. With such backgrounds, it is no wonder that they lack military skills and discipline. Consequently, they might fight a guerrilla war and win a battle here and there, but their ability to win the war and rebuild the state is doubtful. That is clear from the way they run the areas they won from the government. News from many of these areas indicate that the leaders of these armed groups have become more like warlords, motivated more by the desire to make personal gains or take revenge than build a new state.

Islamist fighters carry their flag during the funeral of their fellow fighter Tareq Naser, who died during clashes on Sunday, near the village of Fafeen in Aleppo's countryside

Syria is blighted by hundreds of militias with loose or no link to the Free Syrian Army

The current scene in, and outlook for, Syria looks very grim. But how did we come to this? What are the reasons behind the endless killing and destruction?

Of course, the political system in Syria is mainly to blame for what is happening, but we cannot always put all the blame on the evil nature of Bashar Assad or his regime.

Some of the blame can be laid at the door of the opposition, which is very fragmented and unable to construct a coherent strategy to fight and replace Assad. However, this fragmentation should not be attributed to the Syrian character – it is often unfairly said that every Syrian wants to be a leader.

Although the general atmosphere in Syria has become more conducive to Islamist jihad, this cannot explain the sharp rise of Al-Qaeda-type groups and other extremist organizations in the country. Syrian society, and the kind of Islam practised in Syria, have traditionally been moderate.

To a certain extent, one can point the finger of blame at some regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, who subsidize armed groups in Syria. However, as far as Syria is concerned these countries do not act independently of the United States. From the start of the conflict most of the foreign support was given selectively to groups with Islamic banners and little to the moderate groups. It was even reported that many of the newly established militias were asked by the sponsors to give their groups Islamic names as a condition for receiving aid.

War by proxy

Even so, to understand the whole picture one must look at the interests of the big players in the West in prolonging this crisis, which is becoming an open sectarian war.

Thus, what can be better for the West and Israel than the fighting now taking place on Syrian soil between Al-Qaeda and its sister organizations on the one hand and Hezbollah and its Iranian backers on the other? The Syrian conflict is becoming a war of attrition for both sides and is depleting their weapons and weakening their economic resources.

Saudi King Abdallah shaking hands with Iranian President Ahmadinejad

Foreign rivalries are changing the character of the Syrian revolution

Furthermore, the conflict in Syria is providing the West and regional countries with an added bonus, allowing them to get rid of their jihadists by facilitating their passage to Syria to fight their “holy war” there. Hundreds or maybe even thousands of jihadists have left Britain, France, Russia, the United States and other countries to fight in Syria.

But while these countries may feel more secure without the jihadists, Syria is paying the price in the form of a change in the nature of its popular revolution, death and destruction. In a way, the fighting in Syria has become like the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which Henry Kissinger once wished would never end. It is no exaggeration to say that many in the West and Israel are now wishing the same for Syria.

A kind of stalemate has now developed between the main opponents in Syria. Consequently, foreign support has become critical to tipping the balance of power in favour of one side or the other.

Iran and Russia are doing what they can to support Assad, but the stalemate remains. This means that only the West, in particular the United States, can change the balance of power in Syria. However, it seems that the US will move seriously only if the fighting starts to spread out of control to other countries in the region, including Israel. Only then are we likely to see more systematic support given to the opposition and its armed wing, the FSA. Only then are we likely to see a better structured political opposition that truly leads revolutionary forces on the ground in Syria. Only then will the number of armed groups in Syria begin to shrink and the FSA reshapes itself into a real army with real authority in the liberated areas, instead of the numerous armed groups.

Hope amid despair

There is still hope for a better outcome of the Syrian revolution, provided the US changes its narrow approach to the crisis. Syria is an important country for the stability of the Middle East and even for world peace. It is in no one’s interest for Syria to become a failed state. It is contrary to human nature and the West’s proclaimed principles to punish a whole society in such a deadly way for the sake of accomplishing ulterior motives.

Long winding road in Syria against the background of a setting Sun

There is still hope for Syria but the chances are dwindling

Syrian society is naturally moderate. Al-Qaeda is not a Syrian product. It is a product of other societies, backed and strengthened by big powers. Al-Qaeda has also been supported by the Syrian regime. Not so long ago the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, appealed to the United Nations to stop the Assad regime from sponsoring and sending Al-Qaeda fighters into Iraq. Iran, the main ally of Syria, is still host to many Al-Qaeda leaders and their families.

The recent pledge of loyalty to Al-Qaeda and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, by the Syrian Islamist group Jabhat Al-Nusra is nothing but a gift to Assad. In fact, it is fair to say that Al-Qaede is being exported to Syria rather than grown in the womb of Syrian society. It is and will remain alien to Syrians.

Where is Syria heading? The answer to this question lies in the US. One can only hope that the Geneva II talks can bring about new changes to Washington’s policy, but this seems unlikely. What is more likely is that the civil war will continue, and the Syrian people will have to pay a much higher price than what they have already paid.

One can only hope that it is a price that will not be paid in vain but will yield something of value: freedom, democracy and a civil state.

*Dr Munzer Hindawi is a Syrian political scientist and freelance researcher.

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