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No Winners in Unhinged, Disintegrating Syria

It’s time to accept that the Syrian Arab Republic established in 1946 is no more. In its place totter small regions with constantly fluctuating communal and geographical boundaries. Within those temporary enclaves, some leaders attempt to maintain or expand influence by force and ideology; others try to do so by bringing safety, food, shelter, and fuel to people caught up in havoc. Rebels of disparate religious, political, and ethnic shades—some backed by Saudi and Gulf Arab money, others inspired by nationalistic ideologies—shuffle the conflagration and the persons caught up in it back and forth as they fight to the bitter end against the Syrian army and militias like Hezbollah, who are buttressed by Iranian and Russian resources. Yet all sides are losing, for stability is gone in Syria and from there instability is rippling outward.

Since the civil war began in March 2011, the Syrian population of 18 million has experienced 10 percent negative growth, at least 160,000 deaths according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (the United Nations stopped counting when the toll hit 100,000), approximately 6.5 million internal displacements, and 3 million refugees seeking safe haven in nearby countries. In an immediate sense, the Syrian people are the greatest losers. The tragedy that has dislocated or killed more than half of them is the strongest indicator of the nation having become permanently defunct, with neither democratic nor authoritarian forces rising to help.

President Bashar al-Assad now maintains sporadic control over only one-quarter of Syria’s original 71,000 square miles. Even his capital city, Damascus, lies in ruins, and the Alawite ethno-religious community to which he belongs, and which were once 13 percent of the population, is fighting for survival. By terrorizing combatants and non-combatants alike with chlorine gas and bombs made of shrapnel and sections of oil pipeline, Assad, who recently had himself reelected in a sham vote, has ensured that Sunnis, who account for 74 percent of Syrians, will not compromise with him or his Baath party. Assad’s increasing dependence on Shiite troops from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon’s Hezbollah is stripping him of the last semblance of independence while deepening the sectarian divide that abetted ripping Syria apart. Assad is already seeing his allies cutting off weapons supplies to his regime. He now must fear as well that foreign patrons may conclude his usefulness has been outlived, and move to find a replacement—just as Tehran did in Iraq when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki failed to hold that nation together politically, ethno-religiously, or militarily. With or without Assad, the Alawites are likely to find themselves with no place to go except the environs around the Mediterranean port cities of Tartus and Latakia, and there attempt to recreate the state they enjoyed briefly from 1920 to 1936 under the French Mandate for Syria. Yet even there they will find Sunni foes on three sides.

Kurds, who make up 10 percent of the population, are consolidating their hold over northeastern Syria. They stand alongside their kinsfolk in northern Iraq, who now control oil fields and infrastructure, and those in eastern Turkey, who seek independence from the government in Ankara. Indeed, national borders no longer divide Kurdish communities in Iraq and Syria; boundaries separating them from relatives within Turkey are beginning to dissolve too. Faced with attacks from other rebel groups like the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS), these Kurdish communities began consolidating a fighting force of men and women—to defeat not only the jihadists but to hold the Syrian and Iraqi armies at bay. Of all the groups involved in the struggle for Syrian territory, Kurds appear the most likely to carve out and maintain a viable nation in conjunction with territory already autonomous in Iraq. Yet Kurdish aspirations for independence face serious backlash not only from Turkey and Iran, which do not intend to have a new ethno-nationalist nation on their borders, but also from rivals within Syria and Iraq, especially jihadist groups. Indeed even as they make strides toward independence, Kurds are finding that Islamic State fighters are encroaching upon their southern flanks by targeting villages militarily and disenchanted youth ideologically. Despite their years of training, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting forces have modest resources, dated weaponry, and a tribal elite often out of touch with the rest of society. As a result, their fighters and civilian members have taken a pounding in both Syria and Iraq. An additional complication is that its coalition includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which was designated a terrorist organization in 2002.

The Free Syrian Army has never been more than a disorganized coalition of primarily secular battalions. Organized at district and village levels, and directed by ineffective provincial councils, most units are almost totally dependent upon aid from foreign benefactors to survive. Each battalion produces YouTube videos to demonstrate its achievements and worthiness for funding, yet distinguishing actual successes from mere public relations is difficult. Moreover, many battalions are little more than protection units for their villages. Those units form, merge, and dissolve within days and even ally with jihadist groups for attacks against regime targets. Advantages won on the battlefield are quickly lost through mismanagement of civil society, however. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army within Syria have a contentious relationship with dissidents outside the country as well. So, ultimately, they offer little hope of either overthrowing Assad, quashing indigenous Islamists, or driving out foreign jihadists, let alone serving as the provider of law and order for the whole of Syria or even the predominantly Sunni parts. Yes, the Free Syrian Army was at the vanguard of the civil war when Assad was the main target, but now it is fading into irrelevance.

 

While secular militias rarely reach beyond their local or provincial area, indigenous jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front fight throughout the country. Jabhat al-Nusra takes advantage of the administrative weakness of the Syrian Free Army by moving into villages and towns conquered by the secular militias and reestablishing civil society through schools, courts, and other public services. It is far from benign, however, executing opponents—not only from Assad loyalists but also from secular and other jihadist groups fighting the regime—to get its way. Working together, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front were able to seize cities like Raqqa from the Free Syrian Army in September 2013, take over that city’s branch of the Syrian Central Bank to augment funding, and attempt to impose an Islamic administration there. By January 2014, however, the Syrian jihadists lost control of strategically located urban areas to foreign fighters. The Islamic Front was forced back into central Syria, where it cooperates with the Free Syrian Army and other more local secular militias. Jabhat al-Nusra continues its tactic of entering areas in the wake of other Syrian jihadists and secularists, but is experiencing diminishing success in enforcing its vision of a religious society. Certainly none of the Syrian jihadist groups have been able to fight back effectively against the onslaught of foreign Islamists entering their land. Rather they are being overwhelmed not just militarily but also in terms of resources, organization, and ideology. Additionally, they are losing their initial appeal among the Sunnis by turning to extremist interpretations of Muslim customs.

The fanatical group of jihadists that began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, then renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, took advantage of weaknesses and conflicts among the indigenous Syrian rivals. It strategically moved into Syria and seized vital dams on the Euphrates River and key oil fields in the Deir ez-Zor district. Initially providing a relatively crime-free environment where food and fuel were available, those jihadists began charging customs duties and collecting taxes from pliant populaces. Savvy bargaining with village leaders permitted them to extend their influence. Augmented by foreign fighters, the group’s leadership was able to generate a force that took over the border between Syria and Iraq, and moved eastward to capture the Iraqi city of Mosul. Military equipment provided to the Iraqi Army by the US was seized, transported back into Syria, and used to take over additional oil fields from the Assad regime as well as to harry the Kurds. Eventually declaring a caliphate and redesignating itself the Islamic State, that group now militarily controls the eastern and central half of Syria. The Islamic State’s strength lies in its ability to control territory that crosses existing national borders—much like the Kurds do—and in so doing it draws internally upon resources from both Syria and Iraq. So the group has extended its operative and administrative reach, at least nominally, over approximately 100,000 square miles between Al-Ra’i, Salbah, and Al-Nabak in Syria and Mosul, Fallujah and Al-Rutbah in Iraq. This area once held 3.9 million urbanites—but the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars have left only 915,600 behind at the jihadists’ mercy.

Islamic State militants are increasingly intolerant toward Shiites, Christians, Jews, Druzes, and Yezidis falling in their dominion, regarding them all as infidels. Faced with a similar decimation of minorities in Iraq, the US government has finally taken limited action. Certainly, airstrikes against the Islamic State’s jihadists will make Americans and Europeans feel good. The US may project an image of protecting beleaguered Christians and other minorities while taking on a dangerous terrorist organization, but the reality is different. US bombing of Islamic State strongholds inside Iraq, even if extended into Syria, is unlikely to have lasting impact against that organization—just as years of drone strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere have failed to end those groups’ territorial control and ideological appeal. Indeed Islamic State spokesmen taunt the US for not engaging their jihadists in man-to-man combat and pray for their flag to fly over the White House. Yet while US aerial attacks may not kill off the Islamic State, those militants now face yet another powerful opponent to their continued expansion and will certainly find their resources degraded. Their ability to strike beyond the Middle East may decline, but nonetheless their role in the Syrian civil war will drag on and certainly bolster jihadists’ prominence in Iraq’s civil war too. Indeed, American action against the Islamic State in Iraq has heightened its appeal; militants from other Islamist organizations, including in the West, are now flocking to it via Syria. And, as witnessed elsewhere, groups like the Islamic State are able to ride out considerable military punishment from American and European forces and come back more virulent than ever.

However the Islamic State’s growing infamy within Syria owing to extreme brutality toward other Sunnis who choose not to follow extremist interpretations of orthopraxy will likely be its downfall. So in Syria, as in Iraq, the initial warm welcome by the Sunni masses toward Islamic State fighters as liberators from government tyranny is fading fast, and being replaced by resistance to their oppressive ways. Villagers and tribesfolk realize they are better off controlling the Euphrates River and oil fields rather than staying passive and permitting those resources to be exploited by foreign fighters. Armed revolts have broken out against the Islamic State’s caliphate in the economically strategic Deir ez-Zor area. Therefore it is quite possible that the caliphate will not be able to subjugate most Sunni Syrians or hold on to territory it has captured there. Unfortunately, the Sunni elites in cities, villages, and tribes show few signs of working together beyond their immediate environs and concerns toward long-term common goals. So even if they succeed in pushing both the Islamic State’s caliphate and Assad’s government aside, moderate Sunnis so far have failed to demonstrate they can rebuild a stable national society.

In the meantime, however, as Syria collapses as a nation, its border with Lebanon is coming undone too. As a result, Hezbollah and the Syrian army battle Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and secular rebels inside Lebanon, while Lebanese Sunni fighters join the anti-Assad struggle within Syria. Islamic State operatives intent on spreading their violence to the Lebanese in the name of establishing a regional caliphate are setting off car bombs in Beirut. The US now is rushing additional weaponry to the Lebanese army to fight back the Islamist threat from Syria. Islamic State fighters also are seeking to dissolve Syria’s southern border with Jordan, where 1.5 million refugees plus Palestinians disenchanted with the status quo could aid them in disrupting the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy. The Jordanian government will certainly fight back—with assistance from its Western allies and even Israel, none of whom can afford to have either another civil war, or worse still an Islamist regime in Amman.

Other interlocutors have not fared well either. Iran has lost the land route connecting its southwestern border to the Mediterranean Sea, which had been used to reinforce Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon and terrorism against Israel. Hezbollah itself is stretched so thin fighting in Syria that it has become vulnerable to both Sunni Lebanese challengers and the Israeli military. Iran and Russia find themselves having to support the Assad regime not just diplomatically but through fiscal and equipment flows that neither nation can afford, in addition to their military personnel being drawn ever more directly into the no-win conflict. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have been at the forefront of funding Sunni rebels inside Syria. But their monarchies are finding their Syrian allies unreliable and prone to switching sides—even aligning with the Islamic State when convenient. The Saudis are getting pulled deeper into the broadening conflict, now having to attempt restabilizing Lebanon at an initial cost of $1 billion. More dangerous for those rulers is the rising threat of fighters moving from Syrian battlefields to challenge the authority of their Arabian patrons. The Islamic State has supposedly even launched a Twitter campaign to identify Saudi intelligence and law enforcement officers as targets for assassination. Likewise, Turkey once eager to help the rebels by ignoring weapons and foreign fighters smuggled across its southeastern border now confronts not only Kurds but jihadists, such as the Islamic State, threatening its national sovereignty.

 

It is not merely other Arabs, Kurds, and Iranians who are joining Syrians in turning Syria’s fragmenting geography into ethnic and confessional quagmires. Young men and women who see violence as the appropriate response to their dissatisfactions are entering that combat arena unfettered—and even taking their children with them for radicalization—from countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Asia where Wahhabi ideology has taken root, and from North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Bluntly speaking, Syria—like Iraq—has become the surrogate battleground between adherents of Sunnism and Shiism in addition to serving as a launching pad—like Afghanistan and Pakistan—for radicalization of populations and attacks against other nations. Consequently even the United States and the European Union, who have largely stayed on the sidelines of Syria’s internal struggle, are finding their inaction to have been contrary to self-interest. They are witnessing their allies in the Middle East face the mounting twin dangers of terrorism and civil war spreading outward from Syria, and are wary of ripple effects at home as well, albeit of a much lower order. Inevitably, if local populations fail to oust the Islamic State from their lands, Americans and Europeans will face the hard choice of confronting that terrorist group directly with boots on the ground not just to save Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and Jordanians but to safeguard the US and EU.

Three years of war has eviscerated all aspects of the Syrian nation and society. Syria’s own secular and Islamist rebel groups have not demonstrated talent or capability for reestablishing civil society. The Islamic State has the desire to do so along fundamentalist mores, but has no organizational experience or skills other than violent ones. The Assad regime has the knowhow, though largely along totalitarian lines, but, like all other factions on the ground, lacks domestic and international legitimacy. In sum, whatever opportunities there may have been to sustain the Syrian Arab Republic’s integrity or to establish a new Syrian nation through regime change have long passed. Those citizens with administrative and organizational skills, many of whom participated peacefully when anti-Assad protests began in March 2011, have been decimated and scattered across Syria and its neighbors. Intolerance, sectarianism, brutality, ephemeral authority, and shifting boundaries have become the perceived solutions to all problems there. Not surprisingly, the factions that carved up Syria are coming up losers because all they have gained is destruction and their futures hold little in store other than more violence. Likewise those on the outside who fueled the factionalism within Syria face the specter of chaos spreading to them.

In essence there is no end in sight to the struggle and so it is unlikely that a government, let alone a viable society fully representative of Syria’s citizens, will emerge. The end result is likely to be a chronically unstable nation if Syria survives intact, or more likely a set of minor states along ethno-religious lines. Perhaps now diplomatically and militarily facilitating that inevitability, by expediently facilitating Assad’s departure and firmly confronting the Islamic State, respectively, and in so doing placing moderates rather than jihadists in charge of the Sunni region, may be the best possible outcome. The US and EU must train and assist those moderates in building a stable inclusive society, and they must do so much more actively than they did elsewhere in recent years, lest there be another turbulent breakdown of order, as has occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. A broader lesson can be drawn from Syria, as well, for both insiders and outsiders seeking gain through involvement in intra-national tensions: Abetting or ignoring societal conflict is detrimental to all involved; no one wins, everyone loses.

Carol E. B. Choksy is an adjunct lecturer of strategic intelligence in Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing, as well as the CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc. Jamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Central Eurasian, Islamic, and Middle Eastern studies in Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. He also is a member of the US National Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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