The Darkest Days
I’m very happy to be published at al-Araby al-Jadeed, or the New Arab, which has attracted some very on-point political and cultural voices, in both languages.
Syria is entering its darkest stage yet. Intense Russian bombardment and Iranian-backed militias have almost encircled rebel-held Aleppo. The city’s last hospital has been hit by a Russian airstrike. In the liberated south too – where provincial elections were recently held – the revolution is being driven back. Hundreds of thousands of new refugees are fleeing, seeking shelter in caves or under trees. Several refugee camps have also been bombed.
Russia is winning the country back for Assad, supposedly for the sake of stability. But the notion that the revolutionary areas of the Arab world can return to stability under the old security states is every bit as a-historically nostalgic and supernatural as the Islamist idea that the Muslims can return to peace and justice under a medieval caliphate.
The Arab revolutions erupted for a reason – because, over decades, the regimes had failed their people economically, politically, socially and culturally. The regimes collapsed inevitably – are still collapsing – under the the weight of this historical failure.
Faced with a democratic uprising and incapable of genuine reform, Syria’s Assad regime provoked a civil war. Five years later it has lost four-fifths of the country, a reality which massive imperialist intervention – the Iranian-organised trans-national Shia jihadists on the frontlines and the Russian bombers overhead – is only now changing.
Even within regime-held territory, the old ‘national’ regime has already fallen, replaced by a condominium of foreign states and local warlords. The army, bled by casualties, desertions and defections, is a shell of its former self.
None of these facts hinder President Putin, nor the increasingly vocal Western ‘realist’ argument that the regime, the ‘lesser evil’, must be collaborated with, even shored up, in order to contain jihadism.
In reality, Assad, who once warned of “tens of Afghanistans”, is the first cause of jihadism in Syria. While assassinating peaceful protest leaders in 2011, he released jihadists from jail. His regime perpetrated a series of sectarian massacres in 2012, deliberately provoking a backlash from the Sunni majority. Since then its scorched earth policy (in fulfillment of the slogan ‘Either Assad or We’ll Burn the Country’) has provided the chaos which jihadists exploit.
Assad’s Western appeasers (but not Putin, who understands) ignore another key fact – that very many Syrians, however much they may hate the ISIS police-state, will not prioritise an anti-ISIS struggle so long as Assad survives. This is because they see Assad as the greater, not the lesser evil. And their perception is logical. Assad and his supporters are responsible for by far the largest proportion of civilian casualties and displacements.
Nevertheless, the ‘realist’ (or, better put, ‘surrealist’) position prevails. Russia has the initiative; the Obama administration falls into line. Assad will be supported against ‘terrorism’; once terrorism is defeated, perhaps Assad will go.
The problem is, making the jihadists the reason for Assad’s survival gives Assad (and Putin) a good reason to keep them in business. That’s why Russia’s bombing patterns repeat those of the regime’s air force. Over 80% of Russian bombs have hit areas in opposition to both ISIS and Assad, communities which had in fact driven ISIS out. As well as killing hundreds of civilians – another quarter of a million have been displaced around Aleppo since the intervention, and 150,000 more in the south – Russia has struck aid convoys, schools and court houses. It has attacked a range of opposition militias, including Free Army groups tepidly and occasionally backed by the United Sates. North of Aleppo, Russia bombs the rebels even while they are battling ISIS. Sometimes, that is, Russia bombs on behalf of ISIS. And Russia is helping Assad eliminate the opposition leaders who will be essential to any political solution, such as Jaysh al-Islam’s Zahran Alloush.
From the Syrian ground, the West appears absolutely complicit. Current policies offer jihadists their ideal narrative opportunity. It sounds like this:
‘Everything and everybody in Syria is being bombed by everyone. The only things which aren’t being bombed are Assad’s loyal communities and the air bases he uses to kill you. Russia’s Orthodox Christians are bombing you alongside the Western Crusaders, and the Alawi regime is fighting you with the help of Iran’s Shia militias. Some years ago you were stupid enough to revolt for words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but now you see the truth. You were oppressed before because you were Sunni Muslims, and you are slaughtered today because you are Sunnis. Only the Sunni Caliphate will save you.’
While the realists are in denial, Putin knows his war will boost jihadists. And this because he isn’t aiming for a peace process but to destroy the opposition so entirely that only Assad and the jihadists are left standing. Then he assumes the world will have no choice but to back him in backing Assad. In this light, the Obama adminstration’s support for Putin’s Vienna (now Geneva) process looks more like appeasement than engagement.
The opposition negotiating team was badgered into attendance, hoping at least there might be some movement towards a prisoner release, a cessation of bombing, and a lifting of the starvation sieges. (They had hoped such basic measures, in line with UN resolutions, would be implemented before talks began – but they were wrong.) They were not so naive as to harbour any hopes for movement towards a settlement. Russia, after all, invited its own ‘opposition’ along too, and Iran insisted that discussion of its Shia foreign fighters was off the agenda. The US accepted these terms, and now talks of a ‘national government’ as an endgame, not a transition away from the dictatorship which has burnt the country. Unsurprisingly, the talks faltered as soon as they started. The real progress is on the battlefield, to the cost of the Syrian people.
The State Department recently listed ‘Bringing peace, security to Syria’ as one of 2015’s achievements. Given the size of Syria’s challenge, given the war’s continuing escalation and its increasingly visible ramifications on international security, such myopoeia is plainly disastrous.