By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Fronline.
Even as the Syrian Army beats back the rebels in key areas, the massive turnout in support of Assad in the presidential election drives home the point that Syrians are sick of the war that has destroyed their country.
NEAR the Syrian-Lebanese border linger a group of Syrian men. They are tired, living off the goodwill of people who are able to get them food and materials for shelter. Most of these men had been in the Syrian Armed Forces until 2012. They defected and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), formed in July 2011. A European diplomat in Beirut tells me that 65 per cent of the Syrian Armed Forces defected in the early years of the uprising in Syria. He heard this figure from an FSA colonel based in Turkey. This is a remarkably high figure, belied by reality. Before the uprising, the Syrian army numbered 325,000. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is sympathetic to the rebellion, suggested in 2012 that “tens of thousands” of soldiers had defected, although Aram Nerguizian of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies had said, “You don’t have the kind of scale of defections that would make an impact.”
The European diplomat’s illusions are precisely what continue to bedevil policy-making on Syria, with the West’s insistence that the armed option can eventually overwhelm the Damascus government. The soldiers on the border are part of those who had been in the FSA. They are no longer interested in war. One of them, Mustafa, tells me that he wants to go home, to Homs, a city that has been destroyed in this war without end.
On May 28, United States President Barack Obama gave an incoherent speech at West Point on foreign policy. He recognised the enfeeblement of U.S. authority on the world stage: “The landscape has changed.” The U.S. was forced to leave Iraq when the government there refused to give U.S. troops extra-territorial protection, and the U.S. is set to withdraw a considerable part of its army from Afghanistan. A pivot to the East, namely, towards China, is important, but it appears to be happening more in the way of rhetoric than reality. There are no major U.S. troop mobilisations to Taiwan or to Japan. Obama’s discussion about the dilemmas of “intervention” and “isolation” that peril U.S. foreign policy sounded like a university seminar. He weighed the options and found no easy solution, including for Syria.
The interventionists in Obama’s White House have been adamant that the U.S. needs to ramp up its military assistance to the Syrian rebels. National Security Adviser Susan Rice had been the main champion of an armed strike on Syria—an aerial assault of the NATO variety on Libya to degrade the Syrian Air Force and its armoured divisions. Obama’s administration has offered the fractured Syrian opposition “non-lethal” military support in dribs and drabs. In his speech at West Point, Obama promised to “ramp up support” to the part of the opposition that “offers the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator”. This has been the West’s formula for the past two years: to bolster sections of the opposition that are opposed to the extremists such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Ahrar ash-Sham. The problem is that it is these very extremist groups that have been the fiercest fighters on the ground, with the Free Syrian Army well known on the battlefield to withdraw early in a fight. Mustafa’s lack of determination is a signal that the FSA does not have the morale to continue this battle.
In February, the U.S. government and its allies helped create the Southern Front in northern Jordan with the aim to strike in Sweida, Quneitra and Daraa, the cradle of the revolution (mehd a-thawra). A military contractor tells me that the U.S. special forces have a base in eastern Jordan, in the inhospitable deserts that run from the capital Amman to the Iraqi border. This base, somewhere near the Shaheed Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Azraq and the new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp, is set up to train only Syrian fighters—no Jordanian and no Saudi jehadis are permitted since their governments fear a blowback. These new fighters are intended to bolster the Southern Front, which, its commanders say, is dead in the water. Abu Walid, a former Brigadier General in the Syrian Army, says that what gains come in the south are because of the prowess of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Al Qaeda wing in Syria. The Southern Front simply does not have the mettle or the material.
A Syrian military officer tells me that when the battle got going by late 2011, the Syrian troops simply did not have the wherewithal to fight in these conditions. They had been trained in Soviet battlefield theory—sit behind the lines, lob heavy artillery at the enemy’s positions, wait until there is no sound, send in a scout, and if there is no one left to challenge you, advance to the next line. Both the Syrian Army and the FSA suffered from an inability to pivot to street fighting, where the rates of injury and death are high.
It was the entry of the jehadis on the rebel side in late 2011 that brought the kind of guerilla warfare and car-and-suicide-bomb attacks necessary to pin down Syrian Army battalions. They came with the fierce determination of sectarian war and hatred for the Alawites (whom they derogate as Nusayris) in particular and for the Shia faith in general. Savage beheadings gave the Syrian army a flavour of their toxicity. Al-Nusra Front, likely with Qatari money, brought a new energy to the war. Mustafa tells me that this was the reason why part of his unit—the 11th Division in Raqqa—decided to switch its allegiance from the FSA to al-Nusra. This was the reason why he quit the FSA, and the battle.
As the extremists began to take control of the military dynamic from the rebel side, the Syrian government was helped by the intervention of Lebanese (mainly Hizbollah) and Iraqi fighters (under the command of clerical militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq). The Iraqis came to defend the shrine of Zaynab, the daughter of Imam Ali and his wife Fatimah. “O Zaynab, you will not be twice captive,” they chant. Many among Hizbollah’s rank and file say that while they are not pleased to join the battle in Syria, they feel obliged to do so for several reasons. Al-Nusra front leaders are on record saying that once they finish off the Assad regime, they will cross the border to wipe out Hizbollah. Al-Nusra’s antipathy is sectarian and geopolitical—it would mean a blow to the Shia militia and to Iran’s role in the region. It is said that Iran’s leading clerics asked Hizbollah and the Iraqi militias to help train and fight alongside the faltering Syrian Army.
The entry of Hizbollah, the Iraqi militias and Iranian trainers provided a boost to the Syrian army. It was this combination that cleared out the rebel strongholds north of Damascus to Aleppo. An al-Nusra fighter told al-Akhbar’s Radwan Mortada about the battle in Qalamoun: “Hizbollah fighters were facing us within our line of fire. We would shoot at them but they would not back down. We hit three of them but they continued to descend. Only a crazy person would do that. Their courage is not normal. I admit that.” Another fighter from Lebanon who fought in Syria told Mortada: “There are many differences between Hizbollah and Al Qaeda members. They [Hizbollah] are also more numerous and their weapons are more modern and more powerful. They have warplanes, tanks, Burkan rockets, and other types of rockets, which we know nothing about. They also have their uniforms and meals, which cost thousands of dollars. On the other hand, Al Qaeda fighters need to borrow money and pay for their weapons and ammunition from their own pockets.”
The Assad regime has reclaimed the populated parts of Syria, with a clear road link from Damascus to the coastal region of Latakia. The extremists retain the northern city of Raqqa and the spluttering oilfields of eastern Syria. Kurdish claims for autonomy in north-eastern Syria will go unchallenged by Damascus. In this context, the Syrian government decided to hold its presidential election, with Bashar al-Assad as the inevitable winner. Inevitable winners are the detritus of the Arab Spring—Egypt held its elections to proclaim Abdel Fatah El-Sisi as the new President; Libya’s parliament held a secret vote to install Ahmed Maiteeq (although in the gunfire, the previous Prime Minister Adbullah al-Thanai insists he holds the post). In Lebanon, the presidential election, also decided by consensus in back rooms, has been postponed. Assad’s election shares a great deal with these electoral processes.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees came to vote at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut, many holding pictures of Assad. They chanted: “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you Bashar.” The people I spoke with said that they were fed up with the war. They want to go home. Some said that they felt that they needed to vote to protect their Syrian papers. Three hundred thousand people voted in Beirut alone. This is not a sign that Syria is pro-Assad as much as that the Syrian people want their nightmare to end. It is what Assad had anticipated: that people would get so fed up with the war that they would come to his side.
In late May, two U.N. agencies and the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (Damascus) released a report with a pointed title, “Squandering Humanity”. By the end of 2013, the authors show, three out of every four Syrians lived in poverty with more than half the population living in extreme poverty. This is the destruction of a country. Abject poverty stalks 20 per cent of the population, which lives through foraging. The country’s social indicators slipped by about four decades in three years, a catastrophic decline. “The figures are staggering,” says Rabie Nasser of the Syrian Centre. It is no wonder that the Syrian people are fed up with this war: it is without end and it is without mercy. To the people who came to vote in Beirut, there seem to be only two sides to this war, for or against a ceasefire. They do not participate in the debate framed by antipathy or allegiance to Assad. That means little to them.
Trapped by its rhetoric, the U.S. government continues to pledge money for the “vetted elements” in the Syrian opposition. These are the men and women of the Syrian coalition who are cut off from the undercurrents of the war. It is a telling sign that in a recent interview, Susan Rice hardly talked about the Syrian conflict in terms of the need to overthrow Assad. She listed the various Al Qaeda affiliates from the Arabian peninsula to Boko Haram in Nigeria, and then to this list she added “what we see in Syria with the rise of extremist groups in the context of the Syrian civil war”. With Libya in the thick of a war (Operation Dignity) between General Khalifa Hifter and the extremist militias, Susan Rice’s millenarian liberalism has been dented. It must have chilled the Obama administration to learn that on May 25, a young American man, Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, known as al-Amriki, detonated a massive truck bomb in Idlib in north-western Syria.