As the onslaught on Aleppo continues to spiral out of control, the future of Syria looks increasingly uncertain. Clashes between Assad’s forces, including tanks and helicopter gunships, and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels have led to an exodus of 200,000 people from their homes. Former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who recently defected to Jordan, has declared that the Assad regime is collapsing “morally, financially, and militarily,” and now controls only 30 percent of Syrian territory.
What began on March 15th, 2011 as an outbreak of peaceful public demonstrations has now become an armed insurgency complete with suicide bombings. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that over 19,000 have been killed so far, while between 1 and 1.5 million people have been internally displaced.
But what has been largely been reported as a civil war is, in fact, no such thing. In reality, Syria is a geopolitical battleground for rival foreign powers – with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Gulf regimes, and Israel on one side and Russia, China, and Iran on the other.
The brutality of Assad’s regime cannot be underestimated. The Syrian Army has not only routinely fired into crowds of peaceful protestors. It has followed up with heavy artillery bombardments of civilian districts – including the use of fighter jets. Thousands of Syrians have been detained or arrested by Syrian authorities, many held incommunicado at unknown locations where torture and other forms of ill treatment are rife. Amnesty International has accused the regime’s forces of committing war crimes and of conducting a “scorched-earth policy” to root out rebellion by “deliberately ravaging some areas, killing or torturing civilians, shooting livestock and burning crops and homes.”
Such crimes follow from Assad’s institutionalized sectarianism, which has systematically favored Assad’s small Alawi sect – many members of which are relatives and tribal allies – over the larger Sunni population. Since 2001 in particular, Syrian politics has remained authoritarian even by regional standards, while Assad’s focus on IMF-backed market reform has accompanied an increase in unemployment and inequality. His “liberalization” program has worked to undermine the rural Sunni poor while expanding the regime-linked private sector through a sprawling web of corrupt, government-backed joint ventures that empower the Alawite military elite and a parasitic business aristocracy.
One of the most appalling episodes of Assad’s violence was the Houla massacre of May 25th, when at least 108 people were killed in the village of Taldo – including 49 children and 34 women. Initial reports on the massacre were contradictory, with some reports blaming Assad’s shabiha paramilitary forces and others blaming the rebels.
A report in the German daily Frankfurter Zeitung Allgemaine (FAZ), for example, cited anonymous opposition members who had visited the area and canvassed eyewitnesses. FAZ’s correspondent in Damascus, Rainer Hermann, concluded that the massacre had been committed by FSA rebels against “families of the Alawite and Shia minorities of Houla, the population of which is made up of 90 percent Sunnis.”
Other reports in the German national press offered similar accounts. But these were refuted by the UN Human Rights Council’s latest report on the massacre, which concluded based on interviews with about 700 Syrians that the perpetrators were government forces and shabiha fighters. Although the UN investigators had been denied access to Syria, an investigation by Der Spiegel had earlier corroborated the UN’s findings, citing on-the-ground interviews with named local eyewitnesses who confirmed unequivocally that the massacre was committed by Assad’s paramilitary forces. One Syrian Army defector, Col. Tayyib Baqur, said he was asked by Syrian intelligence to pay poor people from Houla to circulate the regime’s version of the massacre in Damascus.
Far from vindicating the Syrian regime, the very existence of these contrarian reports about Houla only underscores the insidious nature of Assad’s war against his own people—and the heinous lengths to which the dictator has gone to blame the victims.
Although these crimes underscore the moral right of the Syrian people to rise up in the face of such brutality, FSA rebels have been implicated in similar atrocities, including sectarian violence. Worryingly, Assad is not the only one resorting to shameless propaganda to conceal war crimes.
Jon Williams, BBC World News editor, cautioned that “tragic death toll aside, the facts are few. … Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as ‘brilliant.’ But he also likened it to so-called ‘psy-ops,’ brainwashing techniques used by the United States and other militaries to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true.”
Thus, the UN’s latest report points out that “war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, were perpetrated by anti-Government armed groups,” though not of the same gravity, frequency, and scale as those perpetrated by Assad’s forces.
Sources from the Jacob Monastery, for instance, told Dutch journalist Martin Jannsen that armed rebels had previously murdered “entire Alawi families” in the Houla region. In early April, Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the Monastery recorded in an open letter that rebel atrocities were being wrongfully repackaged in media accounts as regime atrocities. Rebels had, for instance, gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya, Homs, which was blown up with dynamite and blamed on Assad’s troops. “Even though this act has been attributed to regular army forces,” she wrote, “the evidence and testimony are irrefutable: It was an operation undertaken by armed groups affiliated with the opposition.”
Some have questioned the nun’s credibility, describing her as merely “another Assad propagandist,” though as John Rosenthal points out, there is little evidence for this. After all, Rosenthal wonders, “Why in the world would Catholic priests and nuns want or need to serve as ‘Assad propagandists’? Is not the more simple and obvious explanation for their reports that religious minorities are in fact being threatened and persecuted in rebel-controlled territories?”
Indeed, 90 percent of Christians in Homs — over 50,000 people — have fled since “their homes have been attacked and seized by ‘fanatics’ with links to al-Qaida,” according to the Catholic News Agency.
Alfred Hackensberger in Berliner Morgenpost recounts similar disturbing eyewitness reports from his travels in Homs. According to a Christian resident of Qusayr, all Christians had been expelled from the city, while Muslims refusing to enlist their children in the FSA were shot. Another Sunni resident of Homs witnessed the targeting of Alawites when rebels apprehended a bus full of civilians: “The passengers were divided into two groups: on the one side, Sunnis; on the other, Alawis.” The nine Alawi passengers were decapitated.
Such accounts of rebel sectarian violence have been confirmed by the BBC, which reported on the stream of Iraqi refugees returning to Baghdad from their former homes in Sayyida Zainab, the Shia district of Damascus. “The Free Syrian Army ruined our lives,” said one Iraqi man arriving with his Syrian wife and daughter. “They evicted us,” said his wife. “They are not an army, they’re just gangs. … [W]e fear for our children. They’re playing the sectarian card, especially in Sayyida Zainab.” One refugee said he had seen leaflets in Sayyida Zainab warning Iraqis there to leave within three days, while others reported FSA rebels shooting Shiites, including whole families, to death.
At least 12,680 Shiite Iraqis have so far fled a “rash of attacks against their community, apparently by Syrian rebel gunmen,” reports the Associated Press, noting accounts of beheadings in the streets and families being gunned down in their apartments. “The gangs of the Free Syrian Army started to spread in the area, killing women and some children as well as men,” reported one eyewitness, Hadi, who had lived with his family in Sayyida Zainab. “The bodies were left on the street for two days because no one could evacuate the casualties. My children were hysterical. They are spreading sectarian violence in Syria.”
To be sure, accounts of rebel violence hardly absolve Assad, whose consistent resort to tactics of collective punishment — exemplified in the recent bombing of an FSA stronghold at a schoolhouse in Aleppo — signify a regime increasingly desperate to hold onto power at any cost. This particular attack failed to takeout the rebel leadership, but instead killed nine members of a family living nearby.
But while Assad’s ruthless air campaign has terrorized Aleppo’s residents, rebel atrocities — though on a far smaller scale — are also alienating Syrian civilians. “The rebel unit’s bid to win the hearts and minds of nearby residents has not gone well,” reports the Guardian. “Guerillas there claimed to have captured three locals – thought to be the only residents to have remained there – whom they accuse of spying for the regime. … Screams from some captives, particularly those thought to have been members of the loyalist Shabiha militia, have echoed throughout the night in recent days.”
The rebel strategy is apparently to arouse antipathy to the regime by provoking acts of violence. One rebel told The Los Angeles Times that when he heard that two government rockets had hit his neighborhood in northeast Aleppo, his first reaction was “Thank God.” According to the Times, he “believes that only by witnessing wanton destruction by forces loyal to Assad in their own backyard — rather than just watching propaganda on state television — will Aleppo’s residents fully support the rebels.” But many Aleppo residents, including prominent opposition activists, blame the rebels for bringing violence to the city. “What the rebels did was wrong, coming in and forcing all these civilians to flee. … You came to protect civilians, but now you’re hurting them?” remarked one.
The persistence and prevalence of these accounts suggest that those committing crimes amongst the rebels are not a small or isolated contingent. Despite this, the West has decided to ally with them. It recently came to light that the White House had crafted a presidential “finding” for President Obama, a highly classified secret directive authorizing greater covert assistance for the rebels. Although it was not clear whether Obama had signed the directive, it is clear that the United States has chosen to support the rebels indirectly by mobilizing its regional client regimes – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, and even Libya. “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States,” reported the Washington Post, which also noted that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was playing a major role in financing arms supplies.
“We are in the early stages of contemplating an Assad aftermath,” one senior Obama administration official told CNN. The New York Times reports that the United States is “increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.” U.S. officials, it adds, “have been in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel over how to manage a Syrian government collapse” – including “regular talks with the Israelis about how Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities.” U.S. diplomats are also meeting with “various Syrian opposition groups outside the country to help map out a possible post-Assad government.”
In fact, U.S. covert intervention began much earlier. A confidential email obtained by Wikileaks, authored by Statfor analyst Reva Bhalla, refers to a December 2011 Pentagon meeting attended by the U.S. Air Force Strategic Studies Group and four military officers. “After a couple hours of talking,” writes Bhalla, “they said without saying that SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams (presumably from US, UK, France, Jordan, Turkey) are already on the ground focused on [reconnaissance] missions and training opposition forces.” The mission of these forces is to “commit guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns, try to break the back of [Assad’s] Alawite forces, elicit collapse from within.” Covert action was seen as preferable to air strikes, as “Syrian air defenses are a lot more robust and are much denser” than Libya’s – although those air defenses and potential targets had been mapped out extensively in preparation for a potential intervention.
The seeds of this clandestine alliance go back more than five years, when Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker that the Bush administration had “cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations” intended to weaken the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria,” wrote Hersch, “a byproduct of which is “the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups” hostile to the United States and “sympathetic to al-Qaeda.” He also noted that “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria,” with a view to pressure him to be “more conciliatory and open to negotiations” with Israel. One faction receiving covert U.S. “political and financial support” through the Saudis was the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Such intrigue continued post-Bush. According to Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 officer and Middle East advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the Saudis have eagerly played the role of proxy partner in a bid to mobilize Islamist extremists in the service of regional U.S. interests: “US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor [from Iran to Syria], but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted.” This region-wide strategy involves the sponsorship of extremist Salafis in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq “to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism.”
No wonder that John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, remarked early last year that “Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, knew Osama bin Laden well – indeed, the late arch-terrorist thanked Bandar personally for the Prince’s “efforts to bring the Americans… to help us against… the communists” during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. The same logic still applies. Mobilizing extremist Sunnis “across the region” under “Saudi resources and prestige” can “reinforce US policy and interests,” rejoiced Hannah. They can “weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi’s departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen.”
The strategy is strengthening Islamist terrorists – perhaps deliberately. The wave of suicide bombings in Syria underscores the infiltration of al-Qaeda jihadist ideology into Syria, including an influx of fighters from neighboring Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. “To them,” reports The Globe and Mail, “the real target is Shi’ism, and Iran, and the crescent of Shia forces from Tehran to Beirut.” One former U.S. Army intelligence officer noted the “rapidly evolving prowess” of the FSA, particularly in the “manufacture and use of bombs,” which comes in part from Syrian insurgents “who learned bomb-making while fighting US troops in eastern Iraq.”
According to Israeli intelligence officials, the presence of al-Qaeda fighters in the conflict is not a mere unfortunate accident. NATO and Turkish military authorities have discussed “a campaign to enlist thousands of Muslim volunteers in Middle East countries and the Muslim world to fight alongside the Syrian rebels. The Turkish army would house these volunteers, train them and secure their passage into Syria.”
In northern Syria, the concrete impact of this ill-conceived strategy is becoming tangible. In and around the village of Qurqanya, for instance, a rebel-run “shadow state” has emerged. A rebel-appointed council of judges hears cases brought by the people, but applies strict Islamic law – in one case, a man was sentenced to 100 lashes for sex out of wedlock.
It is therefore far from clear that the FSA represents the sentiments of Syrian civil society. Even its civilian benefactor, the Syrian National Council (SNC) – an umbrella body for Syrian opposition groups formally recognized by the West as “a legitimate representative of all Syrians” – is merely a “liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood,” according to Kamal Labwani, who resigned from his SNC post earlier this year. Labwani slammed the Council’s drift away from “democracy and modernity…towards a renewed form of [religious] despotism,” a complaint corroborated by activists on the ground, including the Council’s own Local Coordination Committees. “One day we will wake up to find an armed militia… controlling the country through their weapons,” warned Labwani.
Another SNC member, Randa Kassis, warned of “insurmountable differences” between “Islamist jihadi fighters and the majority of the population.” The Islamist groups, he said, “which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves.” He warns of the danger that the Islamists will “replace the corrupt terrorism of the Assad regime with a religious tyranny.” Although the puritanism of the Islamists “makes a rapid end to the war unlikely,” unfortunately “the Americans have put their money on the Muslim Brotherhood.”
In fact, the Syrian opposition is deeply divided, with one meeting in Cairo in July breaking out into “scuffles and fistfights,” according to Reuters. One observer, an Arab League official, said of the opposition: “They are so different, chaotic and hate each other.” The continued militarization of the conflict only exacerbates internal friction, with opposition groups fundamentally disagreeing on foreign intervention, dialogue with Assad, and relations with the FSA. Andrew Spath of the Foreign Policy Research Institute warns that “A turn to violent opposition of any kind plays directly into the hands of government as it attempts to divide, and thereby weaken, the opposition.”
Many in the opposition know this. Representatives of a dozen Syrian opposition groups, for instance, convened in Rome earlier this month calling for a ceasefire and an internationally mediated national dialogue to craft a viable political solution, firmly rejecting violence. One delegate, Abdul Aziz Alkhayer of the National Coordination Body – who had been imprisoned by Assad for 14 years – said, “weapons just kill people, destroy things. They cannot build anything.” But continued disagreement has weakened the wider opposition movement dramatically.
How liberal democracy will emerge from this process is difficult to imagine. The Syrian people – the driving force of the peaceful protests against Assad’s regime – are faced with a “choice” between Assad’s brutal dictatorship and U.S.-sponsored Islamist rebels allied with an exiled Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition. They have become unwitting pawns on a geopolitical chessboard in which the principal players are fighting a proxy war for strategic influence.
While the West steps up its covert support for the rebels, a fleet of Russian warships is now on the Syrian coast, amassing a contingent of marines in the event that Western or Israeli forces launch a direct assault on Assad’s regime. One of Russia’s growing concerns is Assad’s potential deployment of his chemical and biological weapons arsenal. Israel, Turkey, and Jordan would be first on his hit list, which could precipitate a regional war.
For the United States and United Kingdom, the three main goals are complementary and interlocking: first, to shore up the autocratic regional petroleum order in the Gulf against expanding Iranian power, and to defuse the impact of popular uprisings in the wider region; second, to counter the growing reach of traditional rivals Russia and China into the Middle East and Mediterranean; and third, to protect Israel against Iranian influence in the Levant through Syria.
But just as the West’s Islamist gambit during the Cold War (and after) paved the way for the global acceleration of al-Qaeda’s operations, the implications of this ill-conceived strategy could well be even more devastating. According to Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, the current U.S. strategy is likely to lead to “the slaughter of some portion of Syria’s Alawite and Shia communities”; “the triumph of Islamist forces, although they may deign to temporarily disguise themselves in more innocent garb”; “the release of thousands of veteran and hardened Sunni Islamist insurgents”; and “the looting of the Syrian military’s fully stocked arsenals of conventional arms and chemical weapons.”
Equally, it is clear that Assad – like his contemporaries Mubarak and Gaddafi – is utterly bankrupt, his regime devoid of legitimacy. Unfortunately, foreign powers across the world are exploiting the crisis for their own short-term geopolitical gains. While publicly touting Kofi Annan’s peace plan, they have quietly undermined it by sponsoring violence. In the meantime, the specter of further militarization promises to escalate the bloodshed, empower the most criminal elements of both sides, and alienate the opposition movement’s support base.
So while the road ahead seems unclear, the options are few: While the Syrian opposition needs to overcome its internal differences to develop a more unified national platform, it also needs to exert far more oversight on the FSA to ensure that criminal and sectarian violence by rebels is not tolerated, but firmly prosecuted, so as to uphold the core non-violent character of the revolution that ultimately underpins its popular legitimacy.
The West should also be deeply wary of escalating military support for the rebels, since such intervention will provoke escalating military support to Assad’s regime from Russia, China, and Iran. This “arms race” dynamic suggests that there can be no military solution to the crisis. The Security Council powers should therefore consider coordinating maximum pressure on both sides to cease the use of force and come to the negotiating table through cessation of military and financial assistance, including sanctions on Assad’s regime. But sanctions will lack teeth if they do not also have buy-in from the other members of the Security Council. This is only conceivable if the great powers pull back and recognize that further militarization will thwart their respective geostrategic ambitions by intensifying sectarian conflict, accelerating anti-Western terrorist operations, and potentially destabilizing the whole Levant in a way that could trigger a regional war.