Syria: At War With Itself


A year ago, mass demonstrations had spread throughout Syria, but the situation had not yet degenerated into the widespread violence we see today. At the time, pundits and analysts were predicting President Bashar Assad’s imminent fall—just as they are doing today.


However, despite all the events that have taken place the past year, including the fact that more than a hundred people are now being killed every day, and tens of thousands have fled and become refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, Assad’s political and military base has remained largely intact.


To understand why that has been so, we have to go way back to the time when Syria, as a modern state, was founded following the implementation of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1924.


Until World War I, what we today call “Syria,” had been a four hundred year old governate of the Ottoman Empire that had included what today are the nation-states of Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.


Ottoman rule had been extraordinarily successful because it was largely based on the premise that all the tribes and religious groupings in the empire could enjoy extensive local autonomy so long as they did not rebel against the central authority and paid their taxes and bribes fully and on time.


And here comes the crucial point. In order to prevent the development of opposition alliances, governance was strictly vertical. In other words, the head of each tribe or religious or ethnic community was held responsible for the behaviour of everyone in his group and reported directly to the governor or one of his appointees. In return, these heads were given all sorts of perks and were allowed to charge fees for services to members of the group such as facilitating appeals to the central administration. In other words, the policy was one of divide and rule by separating the groups, then balancing the interests of each minority group…and finally by preventing them from forming alliances.


Following Turkey’s defeat in World War I, Britain and France divided up the Levant between them, in accordance with their geopolitical interests. And, in doing so, they made the same mistakes they had made in colonial Africa. Frontiers were drawn on maps with largely straight lines and without usually taking into account demographics or traditional tribal boundaries. The one major exception was the creation of Lebanon by the French so that the Christians would have a mini-state in which they were at least a plurality.


Another interesting exception was Israel’s northern border, which neither follows a river-bed nor is delineated by a straight line. That is because Britain insisted that the boundary line there follow the Biblical account that the kingdom of Solomon stretched from “Dan to Beersheba.” That is why Metullah today is in Israel and not in Lebanon.


One very important aspect of colonial rule was that, as in Africa, the colonial overlords, unlike the Ottomans chose a different form of divide and rule, and favoured one or more of the minorities within their jurisdiction in the belief that these minorities would be more dependent on the rulers and thus more loyal. Unlike the Ottomans, the European imperialists preferred that the various tribes and denominations actively compete with each other so that they would not form coalitions that might threaten colonial rule.


The opposition groups that did form were thus anti-tribal, favouring pan-Arabism (as in the case of Baathism in Syria and Iraq) or pan-Islamism (in the form of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt) as an alternate way of fighting colonial rule.


Once they gained independence, however, most of these countries were inherently unstable because of the residual resentment towards what had been the privileged minorities. In a search for stability, most of these countries were ultimately taken over by ruthless military cliques and their cronies. And since the colonialists had favoured minority groups when it came to allocating positions in the civil service or the military prior to independence, after independence, several of these minorities were in a position to eventually be able to seize the reins of government.


What we are seeing today, though, is the final collapse of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and all its attendant colonialist trappings. As I will show in a moment, the official boundaries of Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria have remained intact in form, but they have all but disappeared in practice.


On the surface, the situation appears to be chaotic. Western journalists and Western diplomats have decided who are the bad guys in all of this, but they have yet to figure out who are the good guys…and even whether there is a good guy. In Syria, there are currently about 100 different armed groups to choose from.


I would like to argue, though, that the situation is far less chaotic than it appears to be…and that the warring factions are all acting according to a very similar and clear rationale.


Without even knowing who he was, they are attempting to prove that the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was right. Hobbes, writing in the wake of the bloody English civil war, famously declared that “the life of a man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” And we live in a world in which it is everyone against everyone else. Certainly if you live in Homs or Der’aa these days, that is only too true.


Therefore, according to Hobbes, the only way to control the worst excesses of man’s selfishness is by investing the sovereign with absolute power.


The thing is that, in Syria, each of the opposition groups believes that it is the one that should have that power.


Washington diplomats and Western journalists have portrayed the so-called “Arab Spring” as a struggle for democracy. The fact is, though, that it really makes little difference whether the main opposition forces in the Middle East today are religiously or tribally-based, they are not out to introduce democracy as Westerners understand the term, but to seize absolute power—or at least to prevent some other group from seizing absolute power.


Therefore, the rest of my remrks will be devoted to trying to explain what the Hobbesian approach to politics means from the perspective of those taking part in the civil war in Syria, and how it influences their behaviour. In essence, my remarks will constitute an introduction to the updated version of what we have long called “Byzantine politics.”




As I keep arguing, major events, such as those we have been witnessing for more than a year and a half in the Arab world do not just happen by themselves, but are invariably the product of processes that have been underway for a long time.


For the sake of simplicity, I am going to date the beginning of the current process to the Six-Day War.


So, let me begin by first introducing the main actors in this drama. And I’ll start with those who are furthest away from the actual fighting.


Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War came as a shock to the entire Arab world and threatened to undermine all the governments that had been party to that defeat. The resulting internal instability eventually enabled Hafez el Assad to seize power in Syria, Saddam Hussein to take over the rule in Iraq, and the Egyptian military to consolidate its hold over Egypt after the peace agreement with Israel.


But an even more important outcome of the Six Day War was that the Israeli-Arab conflict became a centerpiece of the ongoing American-Soviet conflict for world influence. Up until that war, Israel had not even been a back-burner issue for the US State Department…more like a back of the closet issue. However, after De Gaulle changed French policy and chose to side more with the Arabs, the US chose to step into the resulting vacuum, and use its influence with Jerusalem to try to lever the Soviets out of Egypt.


The expulsion of the Soviets from Egypt, and especially the two oil shocks that followed the Yom Kippur war ensured that events in the Middle East would continue to keep the Middle East issue at the forefront of American concerns for the decades to come.


The breakup of the Soviet Union further reduced the Russian’s ability to influence events in the region. However, Vladimir Putin has since tried to increase Russia’s involvement in what Russia still considers to be its vulnerable strategic back door. The main venue for this renewed contest with the United States has been the UN Security Council.


Slightly closer to the region itself, and especially in the wake of the American fiasco in Iraq, two non-Arab Moslem countries, Turkey and Iran, in a battle for regional hegemony, chose to take sides…with Shiite Iran supporting the Alawites and Shiite Hizbollah, and Turkey supporting the Sunni Moslems.


With the weakening of Egypt as the leading political force in the Arab world, the primary challenger to these attempts by non-Arabs at hegemony has become Saudi Arabia, and most recently Qatar.


It’s important to note that with the notable exception of Iran, none of these countries has sent its own troops to fight in Syria.  In other words, the Syrian civil war has now also become an international proxy war.


Iraq has been playing a very peculiar, but understandable role in all of this…out of the spotlight. I’ll be talking about the Iraqis too in a few moments…And I won’t forget about Hizbollah either.


Within Syria, during the past year, little has actually changed…at least not when it comes to organized support for and against the regime. The country remains riven by religious, ethnic and class clefts. There are even two rebel councils—one based in Turkey and the other in Egypt.


Because of the opposition’s inability to unite, the civil war has retained all the trappings of Hobbesian-style tribal warfare. In Syria, tribal warfare has meant that all the sides have been going for total victory; and this has made attempts at compromise and diplomacy totally fruitless.


This has also meant that violence has been privatized, with almost every group in the country, including the government itself, forming its own militia—either for self-defence or for attack. The government, for example, has made extensive use of what are called “the Shabiha,” a group of mercenary guerilla fighters whose job is to do battle with all the other militias at the same time.


A further complication has been the arrival of jihadists from outside the region who have no domestic loyalties and are out to try to impose Moslem extremism as a way of life for everybody.


The regime’s basic support system, the army, has, though, remained largely intact…despite some well-publicized desertions, mainly by Sunnis, to the opposition. It is important to recognize that most of the soldiers who have switched sides did not actually take part in trying to put down the revolt. Almost from the outset, they had been confined to barracks because their loyalty to the regime was in doubt.


What has changed though is that precisely because only regime loyalists have been assigned to putting own the revolt, even though the conscript army is made up of soldiers from all swaths of the population, it has lost its popular legitimacy and credibility. That means that if and when the regime falls, there will be no central body capable of asserting control.


Politically, there have been also some defections by what had previously been non-military Sunni supporters of the regime, but the impact of their desertion has been insignificant.


Far more importantly, there are no signs yet of major defections by the Christians and the wealthy Sunni merchant class, without whom the regime could not survive.


But that is not the only reason that the regime has been able to hang on.


And now we come to the crunch. The Druze, the Kurds, and the Bedouin tribes have been staying largely on the sidelines, and this has had a profound effect on the war to date.


The most immediate and most visible impact of their absence from the battlefield has been the current stalemate, with Assad enjoying a great advantage in weaponry, skilled manpower, communications, command and control systems and maybe even in motivation because the Alawite soldiers seem to be convinced that if they lose, the rebels will try to wreak terrible vengeance.


As a result, if we assume that the external factors remain as they are…in other words that Russia and China maintain their diplomatic support for the Assad regime, and that the US and Europe do not intervene directly in the fighting as they did in Libya…it would appear that the only way that the stalemate can be broken is if those parties that are sitting on the fence or those non-Alawites who still support the regime join the rebellion as well.


At this moment, it appears unlikely that they will do so—at least not until it becomes clear which side is winning so that they can pick up a share of the spoils.


So, in order to understand what is really going on, it is important to first look at the motivations and actions of those who are not fighting.


It is very important to remember that the fighting opposition of Sunni Moslems remains deeply divided, with each group fearing that the other is about to make a power grab; and that all the parties fear the Moslem Brotherhood and its affiliates. Even el Qaeda is divided into separate militias. The appearance on the battlefield of an additional, well-disciplined group of fighters such as the Kurds, the Bedouin or the Druze could thus turn the tide of battle to one side or another.


By the way, I hope I haven’t implied that these three parties haven’t been doing anything. It’s just that you have to know where to look and what to look for to understand what is happening—and why the three haven’t joined the fighting in any meaningful way..


But, in order to do that, I first have to give you a bit of background. The media have focused primarily on the fighting going on in the major urban centres. But, over the past year, one of the most significant changes in the nature of the fighting has been the intensification of the warfare taking place in the areas along Syria’s western, northern and eastern borders.


There are many reasons why the fighting has now become intense in these areas. The opposition wants to set up autonomous zones within Syria where it can have the freedom of action to plan assaults and be assured of resupply of arms and equipment. The current fighting in Aleppo has as its major tactical goal, an attempt by the rebels to create an autonomous zone in the north with a supply corridor from Aleppo to the Turkish border.


But no less importantly, the regime’s support from the Sunni merchant class in Aleppo has been dependent on the government’s capacity to hand out exclusive import permits. If the border crossings fall to the opposition, civilian imports by these Sunni merchants may be restricted…or worst of all from the government’s point of view, taxed by the opposition.


But now we come back to the issue of the non-combatants. The Kurds, the Bedouin and the Druze all of live near or in border areas. Ironically, precisely because they are in the most strategically-crucial area of the conflict, the non-combatants have been awarded a degree of immunity from the war raging around them. Each of the warring sides wants the non-combatants as an ally, but just as importantly, each wants to avoid doing anything that may make the fence-sitters join the other side.


And so we come to one of the most important political changes that has taken place in Syria in the past year. And that is the reversion by all the major local actors in the region to a neo-Byzantine system of politics.


All the powers and the proxies in the conflict have been trying to get each of these three big groups to join its camp, or, as a second-best, to prevent these three groups from joining the conflict on the other side. And they are doing so, by trying to play on the conflicting interests of the non-participants.


It all sounds very theoretical. But it is hardly that.


To begin with, you have to take into account the fact that one of the most important demographic changes that took place as a result of the creation of nation states in the region was that people moved out of their traditional tribal areas and redoubts to other parts of the country in the search for jobs. However, first in Lebanon, as a result of the civil war there, and later in Iraq, when that country became engulfed by Sunni-Shiite fighting, ethnic cleansing was carried out on a large scale.


As a result, largely-homogeneous ethnic and religious enclaves, such as those that existed under the Ottomans, were reestablished. This same process is now also underway in Syria. Those within the enclaves view their positions as a place where a “last stand” is taking place, and therefore their primary interest is to first ensure that the enclave is strengthened as much as possible.


This process of re-Ottomanization is particularly noticeable in Syria’s border areas, which the non-combatants are treating as redoubts. The non-combatants have been aided by another feature of Ottoman rule—the fact that there were no formal borders separating members of the same tribe.


The frontiers of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq were always porous and easily breeched by smugglers and by families and tribes that had been formally separated by the colonial frontiers.


But today, as each of the ethnic and religious groups seeks allies in the face of instability, these formal, colonialist boundaries are being largely ignored by one and all. As a result, the Kurds move freely between Syria and Iraq, while the Bedouin have been making increased contact with their kinsmen in Iraq and even as far away as Saudi Arabia.


Jordan, by the way, has so far suffered the most, from the Arab spring and the growth in the violence in Syria, Iraq and the Sinai. Its economy has taken a big hit because the pipeline bringing gas from Egypt to Jordan keeps getting blown up by Salafists and the Bedouin in the Sinai, and this has raised energy costs. And because of all the family ties I have been talking about, Jordan has become a nation of refugees—Palestinian, Iraqi and now Syrian—who do not work, but who do require welfare assistance.


There is also one fillip to this process of creating open borders that shouldn’t be ignored.


The porousness of the borders has also enabled al Qaeda to move its foreign fighters back and forth between Iraq and Syria with ease.


Al Qaeda’s warriors, most of whom do not come from Fertile Crescent countries, had originally arrived on the scene in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq. Assad allowed them to land in Syria and make their way to Iraq as a way of punishing the Americans there because of the sanctions Washington had previously imposed on Syria.


Now, these same fighters from all over the Moslem world are making their way back to Syria to challenge the Assad regime—and are using Iraq as a refuge and a place for resupply and R&R in time of need.


Al Qaeda’s and the other Salafist groups’ influence on events in Syria has so far been relatively limited, and has been restricted to a few well-publicized but strategically insignificant suicide bomber attacks. But they could become big time spoilers if and when Assad departs the scene and a negotiated settlement between the various confessional groups is attempted.


In other words, this disregard for formal boundaries by all the parties has meant that the greater part of what was once called “the fertile crescent” has now become a single battleground—but one without a single or even a pair of dueling potential sovereigns.


As a result, because no single body has yet to establish hegemony, each of the tribes and ethnic groups has been reorganizing to protect its own interests and to take advantage of any opportunities that arise…in an almost perfect model of Hobbes’s conception of man’s true nature.


For example, the Bedouin everywhere in the Middle East have always resisted attempts at control by central governments. Central governments try to keep the peace by paying off the sheikhs. As a result, in Syria, the Bedouin sheikhs continue to get their traditional pay-offs and perks and so still pay obeisance to the regime.  In return for the payoffs, they have kept their men largely out of the fighting unless there is a provocation by government troops.


But the younger Bedouin have long chafed at the fact that the central government had always ignored their interests while pumping oil out of a region that is largely populated by Bedouin. As a result, with the sheikhs’ apparently silent blessing, some of the youngsters have been turning more and more to their Saudi and Iraqi kinsmen, and thus also to the anti-Assad Saudi government for economic support…which includes payment for smuggling arms to the Saudi-supported Sunni Syrian rebels.


Talk about playing both sides against the middle.


The elders milk the central Syrian government for what they can get and the youngsters play up to the wealthy Saudis and Qataris who are trying to weaken Assad. It’s win-win for both the elders and the youngsters.


But that’s not all. Some of the Bedouin tribes with relatives in Iraq play a different game. They have been helping guide convoys bringing Iranian arms through Iraq to the Syrian government forces, while also extracting protection money from government-supported convoys taking Syrian agricultural and other exports to Iraq.


But if you think that that is a complicated political situation, the politicking undertaken by the Kurds is absolutely mind-boggling.


It’s hard to know even where to start with this one.


Under the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Kurdish heartland was divided up between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.


For years, Kurdish rebels, belonging to the Iraqi-based, Kurdish independence party, the PKK, have been carrying out a terrorist war against Turkey for years.


There are also offshoots of the PKK in Syria as well.


None of the nation-states like the Kurds within their borders, and wish that they would simply disappear. The Kurds return the enmity. For example, neither Turkey nor Syria ever extended full civil rights to their Kurdish populations, and most recently, talks between Kurdish leaders and Syrian opposition figures held in Cairo broke down when the Kurds demanded that Syria no longer refer to itself as an “Arab state,” and accept the Kurds as a distinct people.


As a result, most of the Kurds’ efforts in recent years have been directed at achieving greater autonomy in their respective countries—and expanding the areas under their control.


But now things get really complicated. Turkey, in its attempt to achieve regional hegemony, has thrown all its weight behind the Sunni rebels in Syria and the Sunnis in Iraq, and has used every opportunity to undermine the Iranian-supported Assad regime and the Iranian-supported Shiite government in Iraq.


But Ankara is also terrified that if the instability continues, the Kurds in all four countries will unite and demand independence.


Worse still, in Syria, the job of consolidating the political and military autonomy of Syrian Kurdistan has been undertaken largely by the PYD, the main Syrian affiliate of the PKK.


As a result, recently, with his usual bombast, Turkish President Erdogan, even went so far as to begin saber-rattling along the Syrian-Turkish boundary. In addition to providing logistical support to the Syrian rebels, he has noisily moved Turkish troops up to the border with Syria opposite the three main Kurdish enclaves there. He has even threatened to invade those enclaves if terror attacks against Turkey are launched from this area. That has made for great drama and satisfies some of Erdogan’s domestic political needs. But, to be honest, in the end, the move has been virtually meaningless.


That is because the Kurdish elders in Syria have no interest in getting involved, at least for moment, in the Syria civil war or in invading Turkey. Like the Bedouin and the Druze, they are most interested in strengthening their enclaves by using the time available and any money forwarded by the central government.


In Iraq, the Kurdish leadership has been just as active, or even more so, creating what is in effect an autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country.


But, as you may have gathered over the years, nothing in the Middle East is simple.


The economy of the Iraqi Kurdish region has been bustling. But that economic growth is largely the product of the huge growth in trade between Turkey and Iraq. Virtually all the trade between the two countries passes through the Kurdish areas. In other words, the Kurdish areas have become dependent on pro-Syrian rebel Sunni Turkey for its economic growth.


But that’s not all. The pro-Iranian, pro-Alawite, Shiite-led Iraqi central government covers about 95 percent of the Kurdish area’s budget—a good reason for the Iraqi Kurds not to rebel or encourage others to rebel.


Thus, out of pure self-interest, the Iraqi Kurds cannot afford to alienate either the Sunni Turks or the Shiite Iranians, and so have also counseled the Syrian Kurds not to choose sides either.


And now we come to Hizbollah.


For the past decade, Hizbollah has been putting most of it efforts into trying to take at least de facto control over the Lebanese government. However, the rebellion by the Sunnis in Syria has also energized the Lebanese Sunnis who have been chafing at Hizbollah’s actions, particularly their suspected involvement in the murder of Lebanese Sunni leader Rafiq el Haririariri..


Not only that, over 30,000 refugees have flooded into Lebanon, bringing with them gruesome tales of Alawite atrocities.  And several border towns in Lebanon have been virtually taken over by the rebels—which, in turn, has led to firing and even raids into Lebanon by Syrian military forces.


The increasing tension between Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis has now also led to regular firefights between the two groups in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli.


Hizbollah, and the Shiites, are now at least a plurality, if not a majority in Lebanon. In the past few years, they did manage to overcome historic Sunni prejudices against them by presenting themselves as the only true “resistance” against Israel. But Hizbollah has never been a totally independent entity. It has always been dependent on Syria and Iran for money, logistics and arms supplies. It has thus not only sided with the Assad government, there is some evidence that it has even sent some its warriors to Syria to fight on Assad’s behalf.


The reaction in the rest of the Arab world to Hizbollah’s support of the Assad regime has been swift. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Center, in recent months, support for Hizbollah in Egypt has fallen by 36 percentage points, and by 25 percentage points in Jordan.


Domestically, Hizbollah’s behaviour has further sharpened ethnic and religious divisions in Lebanon. According to the Pew Poll, while 94 percent of Lebanese Shiites support Hizbollah, 94 percent of Lebanese Sunnis are now opposed to it. In other words, the longer the slaughter in Syria continues and the more intense the sectarian divisions in Lebanon become, the greater is the chance of renewed civil war in Lebanon. In order to divert attention from these domestic problems, Hizbollah could then choose to once again heat up the border with Israel.




To conclude, we also have to look at what is going on in Syria from a macro, and not just a localized point of view.


The Assad government has been weakened, but it is not yet on the point of collapse. The Syrian army has been engaged in a scorched earth policy and will likely continue to do so. This has led to an increasing number of Sunnis becoming refugees. If and when they try to return, they may find it difficult or even impossible to return to their homes because other groups that have remained and are interested in reestablishing sectarian enclaves may have become squatters.


No less importantly, because of the scorched earth policy, the Syrian army is losing its legitimacy. Therefore, should the Assad regime finally collapse, there may be no vehicle available to impose order on the country. Among other things, as in the Sinai, extremist jihadists may then attempt to create even greater instability.


It is not unimaginable that an alliance between jihadists in Syria and the Sinai could then lead to a series of hit and run raids on Israel, and a war of attrition such as we have not experienced since the 1970s.


Fear that the jihadists may take control of even part of Syria’s huge stock of chemical weapons could also encourage Israel or the NATO countries to launch a preemptive assault on those chemical weapons stores.


Should Israel feel impelled to intervene in Syria, the political and military situation throughout the Middle East could then become infinitely more complicated.


Not only that, the Israeli economy is already under strain because of the economic slowdown in the rest of the world. Nonetheless, circumstances have forced it to spend huge sums building a fence along the Egyptian border and strengthening its military presence there.


Should the Bedouins shift their smuggling efforts from the Sinai to the Jordanian border, Israel may be forced to spend even more money to build a fence along the Arava.


The border region with Hizbollah remains tense, and Israel is therefore also spending huge amounts on anti-missile and anti-rocket defences to counter Hizbollah’s stockpiling of rockets.


And, if you haven’t forgotten, Israel is still contemplating a massive military assault on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.


In other words, Israel could be facing a multi-front war in the near future.


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