As Syria Teeters, So Do Decades-Old Assumptions About the Middle East

The conflict is testing the brittle bonds of a national identity in states carved out of old Ottoman provinces at the end of World War I

  • Share
  • Read Later

Syrian Free Army reorganizes with Liwa al-Islam and Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, Syria, on July 20, 2012

The Italian leftist Antonio Gramsci may have been writing from inside Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, but he could have been describing today’s Syria when he noted that revolutionary crises are moments in which “the old is dying, and the new cannot be born” and are characterized by a “great variety of morbid symptoms.” Among Syria’s morbid symptoms, on Sunday, an eighth consecutive day of open warfare on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. With border crossings into neighboring Turkey and Iraq frequently changing hands between rebel and loyalist forces, Syria’s very functioning as a nation-state has begun to unravel — and with it, potentially, the brittle bonds of a national identity of comparatively recent vintage.

The “old” that is dying in Syria may be more than just the 32-year-old authoritarian regime of the Assad family. Western failure to win Russian and Chinese support for a managed regime change in Syria has also laid to rest the post–Cold War geopolitical assumption that Russia and China would ultimately accede, albeit grumpily, to Western interventions in unruly hot spots. And the conflict’s sectarian breakdown has served up an uncomfortable reminder of the growing frailty of the system of nation-states — Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel — gerrymandered out of old Ottoman provinces by the victorious French and British at the end of World War I. Far from some textbook topple-the-despot-and-bring-in-the-consultants scenario, all of the Middle East’s stakeholders seem to be aware that the collapse of Syria’s regime will plunge them into uncharted, and dangerous, territory.

Despite a fever of speculation that last week’s unprecedented gains by rebel fighters had prompted Assad to flee for the coastal heartland of his Alawite sect, a more sobering picture emerged on Sunday. “The military is still loyal to Assad, despite a very big wave of defections, and he and his family are still in Damascus,” a spokesman for the Israeli military said on Sunday. Unspoken, perhaps, is a sense of relief on Israel’s part that its tenacious but predictable foe to the north hadn’t suddenly capitulated, given Israel’s fears of just who might move into the vacuum left by a precipitous departure — and more importantly, what such a scenario would mean for the fate of the Syrian regime’s extensive stockpiles of chemical weapons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. TV interviewers on Sunday that Israel would consider a direct intervention to prevent those weapons falling into the hands of its enemies, but that’s hardly a preferred option for either Israel or the U.S. Israeli forces would have taken note too of rebel claims on Sunday of having captured the town of Rwehina on the Golan Heights, just 1,400 m away from Israeli positions. A Sunni-led insurgency of increasingly Islamist hue might prove even more insistent than Assad had been on reclaiming the Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)

The speculative conventional wisdom among opposition activists and diplomats has been that rather than abdicate and flee, Assad would withdraw to the Alawite heartland and carve out a substantial defensible territorial redoubt from which to fight on, producing some form of Yugoslavia-type territorial breakup. An Alawite ministate may not be viable, of course, but the collapse of the Syrian state could also mimic Lebanon’s 16-year civil war where a notional state continued to exist, but national territory — even in the capital itself — was parceled out among rival armed formations. Such a scenario may already be taking shape in Syria, with reports of violent “cleansing” campaigns by proregime militia to clear areas of Sunni residents. That too may not be sustainable in the long run — one reason for the comparative stability achieved in Lebanon even during the civil war was Syria’s heavy policing role. But it may nonetheless be a phase through which the Syrian conflict passes, with few observers expecting an end to communal bloodletting, even if Assad retreats or flees.

For now, however, Assad’s focus appears to be less on a retreat to the Alawite heartland than on a ferocious counterattack to restore maximum control in the capital, bringing to bear the regime’s overwhelming advantages in heavy weaponry to force rebel fighters to abandon their positions, even at the expense of ceding peripheral territories, particularly along the borders, to rebel control. By Sunday night, the counterattack led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher, had reportedly driven rebels from the neighborhoods seized late last week. The rebels, still heavily outgunned, had earlier warned that they would be forced to retreat; this was not a final assault on the citadel. Still, last week’s heavy fighting in the capital has clearly taken Syria’s civil war into a new phase in which the regime’s ability to control all of the country may now be broken beyond repair.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

Israel isn’t the only neighbor becoming increasingly alarmed: Jordan’s politically weak pro-Western monarchy fears destabilization by a Sunni insurgent triumph in Syria, as will Iraq’s Shi‘ite-dominated, Iran-aligned al-Maliki government. The Sunni tribes along the border region traverse the Syria-Iraq boundary and have long assisted one another’s insurgencies. A revolutionary victory in Syria would certainly embolden those same Iraqi insurgents who lost Iraq’s civil war, but have never reconciled themselves with Shi‘ite power in Baghdad. There are growing signs of the Syrian conflict spilling also into Lebanon, whose own sectarian fault lines are intimately connected with those across the border. And even Turkey, which is openly backing the armed rebellion, will be alarmed at reports that hundreds of Syrian Kurdish fighters trained by their kin in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish zone have moved back into Syria and begun supplanting regime authority in predominantly Kurdish towns with a view of establishing an autonomous entity similar to the one in Iraq.

Having failed to secure U.N. Security Council backing to force Assad to comply with a peace plan that would likely result in a soft-landing ouster for his regime, the Obama Administration has by all accounts given up, for now, on a diplomatic solution and is instead reportedly focused on helping topple Assad. The resistance of Russia and China to any international moves to oust Assad have rendered the diplomatic option moot. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. or other Western powers are about to intervene militarily in Syria, or even to openly arm a rebellion whose makeup and intentions remain opaque, and which is answerable to no single coherent political leadership despite the best efforts over more than a year by Western and Arab powers to conjure one into being.

(MORE: Can the U.S. and Russia Agree on How to End Syria’s War?)

The ability of the U.S. or any other outside power to manage the outcome of an increasingly messy war is necessarily limited. And statements like the one by an unnamed U.S. official who told the New York Times that “we need to make sure that what comes next has Alawite representation” underscore the political difficulty. Alawite “representation” might not mean much: Assad’s regime had plenty of Sunni representation without convincing the majority of Sunnis of its legitimacy. The political forces with whom Western and Arab leaders have been working — the Syrian National Council — appear to be riddled with international divisions that render it dysfunctional and remains of limited authority among those actually waging the fight. On the ground, unfortunately, many or most Syrians of all confessional identities are viewing the unfolding civil war through a sectarian lens.

Last week’s U.N. Security Council debacle over sanctions against Assad signaled a shift with ramifications far beyond Syria. Western diplomats lambasted Moscow’s and Beijing’s veto as “inexcusable and indefensible,” but there’s no consensus among world powers in which such adjectives can be anchored: as far as Russia and China are concerned, they’re simply stopping another Western attempt at regime change. Far from being the first U.N.-authorized humanitarian intervention, last year’s NATO operation in Libya — enabled by Moscow and Beijing withholding their vetoes — may well be the last for some time to come. And the combination of geopolitical rivalry, regionwide sectarian tensions and the potential for a sustained bloodbath in a Syrian civil war being waged increasingly on religious-communal lines suggests that no decisive intervention is imminent. Syria’s morbid interlude may, in fact, prove to be a protracted one.

MORE: Is Syria Facing a Yugoslavia-Style Breakup?