1. The crisis in Syria is a civil war with sectarian differences the central problem?
The uprising in Syria took place in the context of the Arab spring, which resulted in the overthrow of a number of rulers in the region. With the region in turmoil it was just a matter of when the Arab spring would reach Syria. In March 2011 a number of young students wrote ‘Syria needs a change of system,’ in the form of graffiti in Dera’a, in the South of the country. The government, nervous as leaders were being toppled around the Arab world, reacted furiously to the sight, arresting the teenagers and more than a dozen other boys and then torturing them for weeks. This led to many people carrying out individual acts of dissent, which then galvanised nationwide protests. The regimes response was typically brutal, security forces quickly responded to mass protests that were spreading fast, firing live ammunition at crowds and attacking the focal points of the demonstrations. Before March 2011 came to an end the Ummah of Syria made their position clear to the regime – no longer were they prepared to live under oppression. Across the country the people of Syria took up arms and the regime continued to indiscriminately slaughter protesters. Sensing he would be joining Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad ordered the launch of major military operations to suppress the resistance.
The idea that there is a sectarian war in Syria is a false one. From its start the Syrian uprising was against the oppressive security state of the secular, Arab nationalist Ba’athist regime. It happens that the regime is led and dominated by members of the Alawi community. Trying to paint the Syrian uprising as a sectarian struggle rather than one against an oppressive secular dictatorship plays into the hands of the Assad regime, which was the first to state that the rebellion was of a sectarian nature. The claim was originally part of the regime’s attempt to re-frame the revolution as a civil war being fought along sectarian lines, rather than it facing a nascent popular uprising.
With so much instability in the country some have engaged in individual acts of sectarianism, some of it is an inevitable reaction in light of the overt sectarianism introduced by the regime into the struggle with its opponents, which has been reinforced by anti-Shia rhetoric largely emanating from Saudi Arabia. However, it ought to be clear that the uprising was not in origin due to the Alawi or Shia nature of the regime but as a result of anger and discontent with the secular dictatorship people in Syria have suffered under for decades.
2. The West supports the people of Syria in its struggle against Bashar al-Assad?
Whether it is the US, France or Britain their support for the people of Syria has not gone beyond mere rhetoric. What the west says and what it has actually been doing are very different. Britain and the US made their positions clear when the uprising started, when both William Hague of Britain and Hilary Clinton of the US described al-Assad as a reformer who should be given time.
As the uprising spread and took on a violent turn the US began talking with certain opposition groups and dissidents, who eventually formed the Syria National Council. In a short time these global trotting dissidents became the official opposition, despite having no presence in Syria. The West has only supported this faction as they do not want the Islamic minded elements of the Syrian population to have any influence in the country. The New York Times highlighted this: “American officials have been increasingly worried that extremist members of the resistance against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, notably the Al Nusra Front, will take control of portions of Syria and cement its authority by providing public services, much as Hezbollah has done in Lebanon.”
Jeffrey White, former Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer and specialist on the Syrian military said: “The [US] administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground. They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.” The New York Times further confirmed: “The weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.”
All of this clearly shows that the US and the West prefer a very specific outcome in Syria and that is for a faction in Syria to emerge victorious over other factions.
3. The people of Syria want to transition to Western democracy, however radical Islamists have hijacked the uprising?
The evidence available is contrary to this. The groups and factions the West have been speaking with have spread such views, but from those fighting on the ground and those indigenous to the country they have been clear of their demand for Islamic rule. A recent study by IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, concluded the Islamic elements number around 100,000 fighters, organized into around 1000 brigades. Their conclusion was only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.
In June 2013, Al-Jazeera aired a series of interviews (in Arabic) with leaders of the main armed groups fighting against the Al-Assad regime in Syria. Six interviews in total were conducted by Al-Jazeera. The importance of these interviews is in the fact that the world hadn’t heard much of the views of field commanders or actual fighters on the ground. The Syrian revolution has thus far been represented by political figures from the Syrian National Coalition. The interviews revealed common ground between the rebel commanders which included:
- the Syrian revolution started after the regime’s clamp down on the peaceful demonstrations,
- there can be no negotiations with the regime or any remnants of it,
- the future system in Syria must be dominated by the Muslim Sunnis since they represent the majority of the Syrian people,
- the future regime will not be friendly with countries or entities that supported Assad and his regime, such as Iran and Hizbollah.
The argument which is largely promoted in Western capitals that foreign fighters are infiltrating the opposition is to malign the Islamic call from the masses. Even the much maligned Jabut al-Nusra are composed mainly of individuals who fought US forces in Iraq who have now returned to Syria to topple the regime – which is the aim of the masses. The borders designed by both Britain and France in the Sykes-Picot agreement are not recognised by the people in the region, therefore accusing Syria of having foreign fighters is something alien to the Ummah in the region.
4. The Geneva talks are an attempt to bring the conflict to an end
The Geneva talks have been organised by the West for the Syrian National Coalition to negotiate with the al-Assad regime and agree a compromise at the expense of the demands of the people. These talks represent the Western position of maintaining the regime at all costs and having the rebel groups compromise their position on the regimes removal. Leon Panetta, in an interview with the CNN in July 2012, said: ”I think it’s important when Assad leaves – and he will leave – to try to preserve stability in that country. And the best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military, the police, as you can, along with the security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government. That’s a key.” US secretary of state made it clear after al-Assad used chemical weapons in East Damascus that any intervention is not about regime change, the Wall street Journal confirmed on September 2nd that “The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls.”
As the rebel groups stand-off against the regime in Damascus and as the Ba’athist regime struggles to hold onto territory, the underlying trajectory is how long the regime will last? In this context the West is pushing negotiations with the regime!
5. The rebels cannot defeat the al-Assad regime and should just negotiate with the reghime?
Wherever al-Assad’s regime has fought its strategy has been to crush the opposition by using overwhelming force, besieging towns and indiscriminately firing to root out the insurgency. Even though al-Assad’s regime has more weapons, it has failed to stem the rebel march to Damascus. The uprising very quickly turned into an insurgency, the indiscriminate onslaught by the regime forced the Ummah to organise into rebel groups and take on the regime. The rebels faced-off against the regime by utilising guerrilla tactics, targeting and cutting regime supply lines around the country. By targeting the regime across the length and breadth of the country they were able to conduct surgical strikes against military air bases, allowing them to replenish their weapons stock and acquire more advanced weaponry.
The regime has lost almost all of the north of the country, the countryside as some southern areas. It recently won back Homs from the rebels with the help of Iran and Hizbullah, but is now struggling to hold this. Today the strategic balance is shifting in the battle between the regime and the rebel groups and it is in this context the US is speaking of military intervention.
The announcement of a new coalition based on Islam which included the 11 largest groups in Syria shows the rebels are pooling their resources together and consolidating their positions as they home in on Damascus. The reality is it is the al-Assad regime that is seeing its grip disappear and who should negotiate an exit from the rebels. Otherwise al-Assad may soon face his time of reckoning just as his colleague Muhammer Gaddafi did when he was captured hiding in a sewage pipe in his home town.