Published: 11 February, 2013
Khalil was only seventeen when he decided to take up arms. After attending anti-government demonstrations in his home city of Latakia, he fled to the nearby Turkmen Mountains, where he joined a rebel outfit called the Emigration to God Battalion. Slightly built with thick, shoulder-length hair and an attractive, slightly effeminate face, he wouldn’t strike you as a typical rebel fighter. For an entire year, he put up with poor rations, low ammunition, sleeping rough, being sniped at, and worst of all: shortages of cigarettes.
All this was a price he was willing to pay until the day he was instructed by his commander to occupy the Christian village of Burj Al-Kasab. The residents, who were mostly elderly and unarmed, were given safe passage to Latakia, after which their homes were thoroughly looted—everything was taken, from foodstuffs to doors and window frames. Khalil decided this was not what he had signed up for and fled once again, this time to Antakya, just across the border in Turkey, where he shacked up with friends in a damp basement flat.
Three years ago Khalil dreamed of freedom; now he dreams of Sweden. Escaping the Syrian conflict and all its miseries to the imagined Nirvana that is the streets of Stockholm has become something of an obsession for the teenager. He says he wants to get a proper education and a decent job, and ultimately, to achieve what he and millions like him demonstrated for: dignity. Even if he was to end up working in McDonald’s, it would still be preferable to remaining in Turkey, jobless and without prospects. “At least after a few years in Sweden you’ll get a passport,” he says.
A similar tale is told by Hamdan, a thirty-three-year-old ex-sergeant in the Syrian army turned taxi driver in Antakya. Outraged at the abuses he witnessed in the coastal village of Al-Bayda, he deserted and ended up in a camp designated for army defectors in southern Turkey. Now, you’re more likely to see him behind the wheel of a Kia Rio ferrying passengers to and from Hatay Airport. His aim: to save up enough money to buy passage to Sweden through a network of professional smugglers who will supply him with counterfeit documents allowing him to enter the EU. It will cost him around 8,000 US dollars, a price worth paying, it seems, for the chance to start afresh. “Even if I don’t benefit,” he says, “my children will.”
For Syria’s displaced, the Scandinavian nation has become a depository for their hopes and ambitions, the route of least resistance in their journey to a better existence. It is not difficult to see why. In September 2013, the Swedish immigration agency ruled that all Syrian asylum seekers will be granted indefinite residency because it judged the poor security situation in Syria to be permanent. The asylum seekers will also have the right to bring their families to Sweden, and the right to apply for social housing and access the country’s generous welfare system. Since that decision was taken, the roughly 8,000 Syrians already living in Sweden have had their temporary residence made permanent while many thousands more have made their way there. With dedicated Facebook pages instructing refugees on how best to get to Sweden, the numbers are only likely to rise.
But it is not just the near destitute who are making the trek north. Take Khalid Kamal, a brave young cleric who leddemonstrations in the Sheikh Daher district of Latakia, screaming, “We Want Freedom!” Khalid later went to join the Syrian National Council and even became a rebel leader at one point, using his family’s wealth to fund an armed brigade. But even he has ended up in Sweden. Like Khalil, he has grown disillusioned with the way the revolution has panned out and fears that he may miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new life in Europe. Take also Maj. Gen. Mustafa Al-Sheikh, at one point Hamdan’s commanding officer in the defectors’ camp and a senior Free Syrian Army figure in his own right. He and his family were granted asylum in Sweden late last year after falling foul of the increasingly dominant Islamist factions. There are thousands of such cases: urbane, middle-class, well-educated Syrians finding no place in an environment where wits and moral scruples can be tested to breaking point.
But escape is not without its costs. In October last year, the Sicilian town of San Leone held a ceremony to honor hundreds of refugees who died in two shipwrecks near their coast earlier that month. Many of the dead were Syrians. Of the bodies that were washed up on shore, only five were recognized. The rest were buried by the Italian authorities in anonymous graves. Had they survived the crossing, they would have had to endure many more weeks of hardship, sleeping in woods and traveling at night, begging along the way while avoiding local police. The frozen forests of Bulgaria have already claimed a few.
Louay, though, is lucky. He managed to get resettled in Sweden after convincing embassy staff in Ankara that he was worthy of a place in their society. He is a defected Syrian Air Force pilot who hails from a mixed Ismaili–Christian family, both distinct advantages in the asylum game. He now whiles away the time in the cafés and bars of Antakya as he waits for his papers to arrive before he can board a flight to Stockholm for a new life—one he hopes will afford him the opportunity to continue doing what he enjoys most: flying planes. For the vast majority of Syrians, however, their Swedish dream is likely to remain just that.
For Syria’s armed opposition, business has become the key to survival. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean fighting Assad.
BY MALIK AL-ABDEH | NOVEMBER 21, 2013
The rebels in Syria have put in considerable effort to toppling President Bashar al-Assad, capturing several northern towns and cities and laying claim to some of the richest provinces in the country. Now they’re in trouble. When President Obama decided to relieve Assad of his chemical weapons rather than topple him, it confirmed to the anti-government fighters what they had always suspected: that the corrupt and ineffective Syrian opposition-in-exile has failed to lobby for military intervention; that the West favors a weakened, “secular” Alawite regime over a radical Sunni one; and that the rebels have become cannon fodder in a regional power struggle over which they have little control.
To overcome their declining fortunes, the rebels have re-tooled their strategy. Their solution has been to place a priority on consolidating the territory they hold and establishing financing networks that will reduce their reliance on fickle overseas backers. The consequence of this strategic shift is what some Syria-watchers have called a “Darwinian shake-down”: small groups have coalesced around larger ones to create “families” of brigades, each with their own identity, organizational hierarchy, and sources of funding. There are now five principal rebel families: theIslamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and what remains of the Free Syrian Army. Each of these “families” is competing with the others for oil, wheat, and cross-border trade — assets that are now viewed as the key to long-term survival.
The fate of the Farouk Brigades offers a case study of the forces at work. Once a much-vauntedgroup that received generous arms deliveries from Turkey, the Farouk Brigades was, at one point, the lynchpin of the West’s effort to build a “moderate” opposition. Instead of making the necessary alliances needed to carve out their own fiefdom in resource-rich areas, Farouk’s forces embarked on a disastrous war with two powerful families: Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The war ended with Farouk’s expulsion from oil- and grain-rich Raqqa province; it also lost control over the vital border crossing at Tal Abyad that its fighters had liberated in September 2012. Confined to resource-poor and heavily contested Homs province, it failed to draw smaller groups into its orbit and grew progressively weaker, eventually splintering into bickering factions of a few hundred fighters each. The rebels call this process of decline tarahul, or “limpness,” and it often remains imperceptible to those looking in from the outside.
Two a half years into the revolt, opposition-held Syria is Mad Max meets The Sopranos. Groups of brigades now fight the regime one day, fight each other over resources the next, settle differences the day after that, and then return to fighting the regime once more, ad infinitum. In theory, the Sunni rebels who dominate the opposition want democracy and/or Islam. In practice, they are unreconstructed small capitalists who are ripping apart the old state-run economy and creating in its stead a patchwork of fiefdoms where rackets and other profitable enterprises are pursued away from the dead hand of Baathist government — or, for that matter, of any government. This doesn’t bode well for the fortunes of the armed rebellion, which is in desperate need of centralized planning and leadership.
Had American sports ever taken off in Syria, the “Euphrates Knights” would have been a pretty great name for a popular football team. In reality, it’s one of two dozen rebel outfits that operate out of Manbij, a city of 200,000 inhabitants 50 miles east of Aleppo. Shabby and polluted, the city is, like many of its type in the developing world, an experiment in modernity gone bad. But it’s as good a place as any to observe the dynamics now driving armed opposition factions as they desperately avoidtarahul and its deadly consequences.
Liberation came to Manbij in July 2012 at the hands of revolutionaries like Abu Suleiman, a welder and part-time truck driver. His rough-and-ready leadership qualities were rewarded with command of one of the Euphrates Knights’ five battalions. He should be a happy man, but he isn’t. “When we first raised arms, we had only five Kalashnikovs between us and we got around on motorbikes, but at least the people had respect for us,” he says. “Now, 70 percent of those who say they are in the Free Syrian Army haven’t even been to the front line.”
But those would-be rebels have been busy nonetheless. They may not have been fighting, but they’ve been hard at work on what Marxists might be tempted to call a “social revolution.” The rebel fighters — poor Sunnis drawn mostly from rural backgrounds — have long begrudged what they see as a systematic policy of discrimination in education and public sector jobs. They say that the ruling Alawites give preference to their own or other minorities, that the security forces were disproportionately repressive against Sunnis, and that they feel wronged by a system that denied them their fair share of the national wealth. It was this combination of factors, they say, that drove a third of all men in Manbij to search for work in places like Lebanon, usually ending up as low-paid day laborers or farm hands. But now that these same men have kicked the government out, the implications have been somewhat surprising.
About five miles east of Manbij is an oil market. In an open expanse of land, sellers from Hassake and Deir az-Zour meet buyers from Aleppo and Idlib, ascertain the quality of the crude oil, agree on a price, and exchange bills. This market didn’t exist when the regime was around, since the state-owned oil company enjoyed a monopoly over Syria’s hydrocarbons. Now the oil wells scattered across Syria’s east and northeast are the property of whoever lays claim to them — and Syria’s five rebel families have been quick to act. The Aleppo-based Tawhid Brigade, for example, holds the al-Jabbul field east of Safira. The FSA-aligned warlord Saddam al-Nu’aimi controls the wells in Bukamal near the Iraqi border. And the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra controls the giant Shadadi field in Hassake (albeit with ISIS now breathing down its neck).
The small, low-tech refiners in the rebel-controlled areas face a daunting task as they try to turncrude into gasoline and other oil products using the most primitive (and dangerous) of means (as seen in the photo above). But if they survive the process unscathed, they can at least look forward to a decent profit. With the rebels selling a barrel of oil for anything up to $ 22, refiners can make a profit of 30 cents on every liter of gasoline sold to the public. Those who make their living from road haulage and associated trades have seen their business boom; body shops, for instance, can’t keep up with the demand from truckers who need giant tanks fitted to the backs of their vehicles. Unemployed young men can now make a living selling fuel from roadside kiosks, and mechanics have plenty to do in repairing engines damaged by the low-quality fuel. The free market that the rebels have unconsciously fostered is a win-win for suppliers (the rebels themselves) and consumers (everyone else). Too bad about the environment, of course — but that seems to be the last thing on Syrians’ minds these days.
Hasan al-Ali, the Euphrates Knights’ founder and political leader, belongs to the social class that historian Hanna Batatu calls the “lesser rural notables.” A pharmacist by profession and the son of a clan elder of the Umayrat tribe, Ali was keen to cash in on the oil grab. He negotiated an alliance with Ahmad Issa al-Sheikh, the leader of powerful Idlib-based Islamist group Suqur al-Sham, who is linked to the Jaysh al-Islam “family.” Ali was partially hoping this new alliance could protect the Knights from al Qaeda. But the real motive for the move was all about business.
Supplied with heavy weaponry by Al-Sheikh, the Knights entered into a joint venture with three other rebel outfits in August to seize the al-Shaer oil field in Hama province. That they had to offer the Mawali tribe a stake in the enterprise in return for granting oil tankers safe passage through their territory was a small price to pay for “maintaining the reputation of the firm,” as Ali puts it. The field’s production capacity of at least 2,000 barrels per day (and the T-55 tank parked outside the Euphrates Knights’ headquarters) suggests that there was more than enough oil to go around. “I thank God everyday for Bashar al-Assad,” Ali proclaims triumphantly. “His stupidity has made us aware of what we are capable of. Before we were lazy, but now look at us.”
Oil is not the only way that rebels can make money. Another outfit from Manbij, the Jund al-Haramein brigade, has gone in for the grain racket. In exchange for “protection” from other groups trying to force their flour upon customers, bakeries in the city are obliged to purchase flour sourced exclusively from mills controlled by the al-Harameins. And in case ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra ever becomes unhappy about this arrangement, the al-Harameins can simply opt for protection of their own — by joining the Ahrar al-Sham family. In September, indeed, Jund al-Haramein announced that it was already affiliating itself with the larger group, a move that should suffice to deter any hostile action.
How are the rebels spending their new-found wealth? Just take a look at the burgeoning car trade. In the bad old days, the government imposed duties as high as 300 percent on imported vehicles, so only a wealthy few could afford to own cars. When the rebels who now control the Turkish border scrapped the charge, Syria’s northern provinces became awash with second-hand cars imported from Eastern Europe, which retail for as little as $4,000 (for a cheap Korean model) to $8,000 (for a proper German mid-size). “Our money is being turned into steel,” complains Ali, who insists that proceeds from his oil venture have been going exclusively to supporting the war effort. But not all of his comrades are as scrupulous. Where they had previously struggled to afford motorbikes, rebel fighters are now seen driving BMW X5s.
The downside to this explosion of entrepreneurial energy is that it comes at the price of actually defeating Assad. The Knights have had to withdraw their forces from the siege of a regime air base atKuwairis, east of Aleppo, to reinforce an attack on a troublesome army positioned in al-Shaer that was taking potshots at their oil tankers. Far more dangerous for the rebel cause as a whole is the steady erosion of morale and fighting spirit that occurs as brigades, having liberated their areas from the regime, find themselves using their military might to protect their economic assets as opposed to carrying on the fight elsewhere.
The implications of this can be seen in today’s battlefield. The regime has begun a determined pushthrough the soft underbelly of the opposition-held north, capturing Safira and threatening to cut off Aleppo from the eastern half of the country. This will prove to be a rude wake-up call to the rebel groups in the area that had grown soft on the spoils of 12 months of liberation. Only planning at the very highest levels of rebel leadership can hope to save the day, but while meetings do sometimes take place between the heads of the main families, often under pressure from regional patrons, these are as much about PR as they are about actually taking action in any concerted or strategic manner. “None of the groups think that they’re going to be part of something,” says one rebel insider. “They all think they are going to be that thing.” It will be seen whether these leaders will ever regulate their rivalry by creating a body like the notorious Commission, the ruling body of the American Mafia. As things stand now, that would be the logical next step in the evolution of the armed opposition.
Under a starry night in Manbij, the omens were not good. Abu Muslim, a battalion commander with Ahrar al-Sham, sat sipping midnight tea with counterparts from the Euphrates Knights at one of their checkpoints at the western approaches to the city, trading information about who had stolen what and who was feuding with whom. During the conversation he made his share of grand claims. His group, he said, had become completely self-sufficient, controlling hundreds of factories in Aleppo and many dozens of oil wells in the East. He boasted that it could field 40,000 fighting men, and that it had 17 tanks in the Aleppo area alone. This sort of exaggeration for the sake of good appearances is routine among Syria’s rebels. But when asked what the future holds for the rebel groups, his response was shot through with grim realism: “We’re going to enter a bloody phase, more bloodier than the present one,” he predicted. “And we’re going to wipe each other out.”
Published: June 11, 2013
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is a peculiar creature. It can be classed neither as a revolutionary organization—it is no Palestine Liberation Organization or African National Congress—nor as a true opposition umbrella group, like the Alliance for Change that toppled Milošević. Its purpose is similarly perplexing. It claims to represent the aims and aspirations of the Syrian people, yet it has no presence on the ground and little say over what people do there. It promises international intervention—or at the very least the arming of the Free Syrian Army—yet NATO has explicitly ruled out becoming involved. And while the SNC makes a big fuss about its humanitarian work, what little money that reaches the deserving is often marked by corruption. If the SNC is not an effective leadership body, a relief organization, or a particularly good lobby group, what exactly is it?
This question did not seem to have perturbed the minds of the hundred or so oppositionists who gathered in Istanbul last month to debate widening the group’s membership. At the end of nine tortuous days of horse-trading punctuated by haranguing from foreign ambassadors, they eventually settled on a list of 114 members, up from a mere sixty. There are now more liberals, FSA officers and representatives of local councils in the internationally recognized and supported body. “The coalition has succeeded in undergoing the expansion,” declared acting president George Sabra. He is right. The coalition did succeed in Istanbul, but only in the same way as Hezbollah triumphed in Qusayr: at great cost.
But unlike Hezbollah, Syria’s oppositionists are not new to loss of prestige. They have been the butt of newsroom jokes for years, well before the popular uprising exposed their incompetence to all and sundry. The problem is that this time, their squabbling risks disturbing that last fig leaf of credibility: that they, despite their obvious faults, represent an alternative vision of politics to that of the Assad regime.
That claim is becoming increasingly harder to sustain. Take, for instance, the way that SNC members are chosen. Elections are out; in are the much-favored muhasasa (share-allocation) and tawafuk (consensus) methods, in which seats are dispensed by a committee of apparatchiks in a manner that aims to keep rival factions of (mostly exiled) oppositionists happy. When faced with criticisms over the ineffectiveness of the body, the usual answer is to expand membership to co-opt those complaining from the sidelines. The exact criteria for membership is kept conveniently elastic; that is how Ghassan Hitto, an unknown businessman who was an expatriate in Texas for thirty years and who has no experience of opposition politics, can end up as interim prime minister. Indeed, that is how Sabra himself—having failed to win a minimum number of votes in the Syrian National Council election last November—was handpicked by a shadowy inner circle to become first the head of the council (the largest bloc within the coalition), and then the coalition’s acting president.
Take also the delicate matter of “foreign interference.” Days into the Istanbul meeting, SNC figures began talking of “external pressures” being applied to accept resolutions that have been cooked up by Russia and the West. “A strong media campaign is underway against the SNC because it refused to submit to pressures,” tweeted Abdulkarim Bakkar, an SNC member. “The coalition fought for independent national decision-making and got most of what it wanted,” he added.
While all this sounds terribly heroic, the reality is that the SNC is heavily mortgaged to the Qatar–Turkey axis and is as much “independent” of the two as Assad is of the Iranians. Now, internal disputes within the SNC have to be settled by the group’s regional backers and the resolution of the conflict rests in the hands of US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The fact is that the SNC owes its legitimacy not to the backing of ordinary Syrians, but to the willingness of the West and Arab states to do business with it. This is precisely the sort of legitimacy that Assad enjoyed before the uprising, and which the SNC oppositionists hope will propel them to power.
The SNC also suffers from a lack of achievement, a corporatist mindset, disdain for the ordinary man, aversion to institutional transparency and accountability, and a disinclination to anything resembling intellectual honesty. What is the SNC? Well, it is a collection of self-interested individuals who see themselves as intermediaries between foreign powers and local communities in a strategically important part of the Middle East. They are essentially glorified middlemen who, quite naturally, spend most of their time in luxury hotels conceiving plots, striking deals, arranging payments, and every so often appearing on TV to condemn whatever crime Assad is committing.
This “go-betweener” role, which involves a great deal of clientelism and conspiracy, has been a constant function of the Syrian political elite. In the 1950s, it was split along pro-Hashemite and pro-Saudi/Egyptian lines until Hafez Al-Assad eliminated elite infighting by imposing himself as supreme middleman. What has changed is that now there are two political elites in conflict, and the difference between them is subtler than they can comfortably admit.
The SNC cannot shape its own destiny: it is the vehicle by which others shape theirs. So is the Assad regime. It is with this growing realization on the part of ordinary Syrians that both parties now weigh the costs and benefits of negotiating in Geneva.
Syria, Two Years On
How the Syrian revolution turned my world upside down
Published: 18 Mach 2013.
In the pre-Arab Spring era, the conventional wisdom was that an uprising in Syria was far fetched. Articles written by learned experts proclaimed Assad’s immunity to the tide of protest sweeping through Arab republics, confidently asserting that Syria was a “sturdy house,” an exception to the rule. This was the time when the cause of regime change in Syria was deeply unfashionable.
Friday, March 18, 2011 changed all that. As I returned to my office on that day after performing prayers at a community center in south London, I caught a glimpse of the first grainy images on YouTube of a mass demonstration in Dera’a, a city in the southern Hawran region of Syria. A crowd had congregated outside the historic Omari Mosque and was chanting, “Syria’s protector [Assad] is its thief!” An hour later, more images were uploaded, this time showing riot police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Then there was shooting. One video showed several police officers dragging away the limp corpse of a young man.
My office was abuzz with these first images of revolt. At the time, I was running Barada TV, the first independent Syrian news and current affairs television channel. It was based at modest offices in London’s Vauxhall. My job was to use the channel to raise awareness of human rights issues, to empower civil society and to educate Syrian audiences on the virtues of freedom and democracy.
Being a second-generation émigré whose father had suffered at the hands of the Syrian government, I believed I had a historic duty to deliver my people from dictatorship to liberty, the sort that I had known and loved in Britain.
That was one way of looking at it. Another was that I was little more than a propagandist for the Syrian opposition, paid to make seditious broadcasts, incite rebellion and invite foreign interference.
On that Friday afternoon, it seemed that my prayers had finally been answered. Until that point, as much as I had desired regime change, I did not quite believe it would ever happen. This view was widely shared by the opposition, whose fortunes were at a low ebb after Assad survived US-imposed isolation following the Hariri assassination in 2005, and his subsequent rehabilitation at the hands of Sarkozy, Erdoğan and Qatari Prince Hamad.
Having judged which way the wind was blowing, the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest of the opposition groups—decided in 2009 to throw in the towel and suspend all anti-regime activities in the hope of negotiating its way back into Syria. By 2010, the opposition harbored no illusions about the desperate state it was in; short of direct foreign intervention (a highly unlikely prospect at the time) it had next to no chance of toppling Assad by popular revolt. When that revolt did come, I found myself a member of an opposition movement long reconciled with its political impotence.
Perhaps, then, it was a lack of confidence that made me, a normally perceptive reader of political developments, fail to see the coming tsunami in Syria. The signs were there for all to see: the mobile phone boycott of February 9, organized on Facebook to protest high charges and poor service; the spontaneous protest in Damascus’s Harika business district on February 17, after a case of police brutality; or the candlelight vigils organized by civil activists outside the Egyptian and Libyan embassies in Damascus on January 30 and February 22 respectively. These were the early tremors that pointed to a coming great eruption.
Barada TV covered all these events, perhaps the only media outlet to have done so, but my thinking at the time was clouded by calculations of a self-serving nature: since the opposition needed time to organize itself before it could hope to lead a popular revolt, the revolution must still be years away.
The Abazeid clan of Dera’a cared little for the interests of the opposition in exile. It was aggrieved at the arrest of some of its teenagers who, inspired by satellite television images of Tunisia and Egypt, scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school. Repeated attempts to negotiate their release through the intercession of local notables were rudely rebuffed by the governor and the local security chief.
My undercover reporter in Dera’a kept me fully informed of such developments. On March 9, 2011 he managed to interview a leading activist from the city, who confidently proclaimed that the revolution “had already begun.” Information came in from several villages in the southern province suggesting that isolated police stations were being vacated in expectation of looming trouble. The mood in the southern province grew darker as angry young men talked of revolt.
Despite this compelling intelligence, I was still reluctant to believe that Syrians would rise up. Sitting three thousand miles away on the banks of the Thames, it appeared overly ambitious—a near impossibility, in fact—given all that I knew and had experienced of the passivity of Syrian society, the fear it had for the mukhabarat (the military intelligence service), and the effects of brainwashing propaganda and social conditioning that discouraged collective action and promoted apathy. Besides, there were no reliable statistics on viewing figures, which meant that I was not quite sure whether my satellite broadcasts were even being watched or not. Like a ham radio operator trying to make contact with intelligent life in outer space, it sometimes felt like a hopeless task.
This was not helped by the general attitude of the expatriate Syrian community towards people like myself, which oscillated between open hostility when they did not know me and pity when they did. To be in the opposition was to be a member of a weird and dangerous émigré sub-culture that entertained outlandish notions of regime change. The thought was enough to induce sniggers of derision in so-called respectable circles.
Intellectually, I knew that Syria was ripe for revolution. My country was no different to Tunisia or Egypt; the same corruption, poverty and authoritarianism existed in Syria. And Syrians, I thought, could not be any less courageous than Libyans, nor could Assad’s henchmen be any more brutal than Gaddafi’s. Seen this way, revolution was a logical inevitability. But I still could not quite convince myself.
The reason for my lingering doubts was not really a rational and convincing counter-argument, but a series of emotionally induced responses born out of the experience of being a member of the Syrian opposition. To be a conscientious Syrian oppositionist before 2011 was to be relegated to the margins of the political mainstream, at the time still defined by the discourse of the so-called resistance axis: the alliance formed between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Working to bring down one of its key pillars resulted in a head-on collision with a powerful set of interests, not least the pro-Iranian and pro-Hamas lobbies that were well represented in important media outlets and in key political and religious organizations.
International patronage, which could have evened the odds, was hard to come by. Although sympathetic, the moderate Arab camp was loath to make any direct challenge to Assad, while the West’s obsession with regional stability meant that the opposition were politely listened to but duly ignored. No matter what persuasive arguments the opposition mustered, it was almost always trumped by the massive gap in power between the exiled handful of expats and the Ba’athist government. Social and political isolation ensued not only in Syria, but in the wider Arab mainstream too.
With no one to come to their rescue, the opposition endured years of what could be classed as emotional abuse at the hands of demagogic bullies of the resistance axis. The Syrian opposition became the perennial joke of newsrooms; they were the embarrassment of the Islamists or weak and resentful “intellectuals” whose patriotism was questioned, and whose commitment to the all-important cause of Palestine always in doubt.
The result was a list of symptoms that victims of childhood trauma would instantly recognize: low self-esteem, insecurity, lack of confidence, social isolation, destructive behavior and an inability to form partnerships. Having been vilified and mocked by one and all, the oppositionists’ frame of mind turned into an essentially defeatist one. Little wonder, then, that on the eve of revolution the last thing the opposition expected was events that would lead to a swift and spectacular turnaround in its fortunes.
The outbreak of protest was exactly that. But moments of triumph bring with them their own set of challenges. Like a rags-to-riches lottery winner, the Syrian opposition struggled in the months that followed to adjust to its newfound cause célèbrestatus. In many ways, it still has not. The opposition’s political strategy does not appear to be based on any discernible, grown-up set of rational principles, but on an overpowering emotional urge to court cheap popularity and solicit short-term funding, which has become the hallmark of the dozens of leadership bodies set up by the opposition.
The damage that this has had on the wider cause of regime change is all too obvious. But as to the question of why, from my vantage point and experience I can say this: that in letting its heart rule over its head, the opposition sought to recapture something of a stolen adolescence, a way of making up for years of carefree politicking denied to it by both circumstance and its enemies. At the historic moment of triumph, the Syrian opposition suffered a mid-life crisis.
That Friday afternoon in 2011, as I hunched over a computer screen in stunned silence watching replays of riot police, clad in all-black body armor like medieval men-at-arms, charging up the hill and into the city’s old quarter, my initial feelings of denial and disbelief made way for excitement and euphoria. Only days later did a sober realization set in: that my life would change forever.
Everything that I had worked for as a member of the opposition, from 2005 until that day, would become redundant. All the lobbying, the conferences, the demonstrations, the television appearances and hours and hours of political meetings—which were a triumph solely on the basis that they took place—would become irrelevant, nothing more than memories of note only to myself. A new era beckoned, with new rules, new battles and new enemies, but not all will find their place in it. Mahmud Qateesh Al-Jawabra of Dera’a, the first martyr of the Syrian revolution, turned my world upside down.
At long last, a policy on Syria that makes sense. This week, prime minister David Cameron indicated that Britain was ready to bypass an EU arms embargo and deliver arms to Syria’s opposition fighters – much to the horror, I expect, of Bashar Assad.
Syria is in the throes of civil war, and thanks largely to continuing Russian supplies of ammunition and vital spare parts, Assad’s forces have so far enjoyed superiority in the air and on the ground. Only the indefatigable spirit of the country’s citizen militia – known popularly as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – has denied Assad the victory that he believes lies only round the corner.
The FSA’s resilience has been tested and found not wanting, but it cannot be expected to hold its own for much longer without external assistance. Its lack of air cover and effective means to tackle armour has limited its capacity to end the war quickly by dealing Assad’s war machine a knockout blow. No one in Syria is calling for Nato intervention anymore; after two years of heroics all that they want is to be given the chance to finish off their dictator themselves.
Recent fighting in Raqqa, Homs and Deraa has shown that loyalist soldiers, most of whom are brainwashed conscripts, are losing their stomach for the fight. When attacked, they are choosing to surrender than risk dying for a sinister tyrant who has pitted them against their fellow countrymen. That is why the Prime Minister’s decision to push through with plans to deliver battle-winning weapons to the FSA could not have come at a better time.
Yes, there will be that will argue that pouring more arms into the conflict will only exacerbate the situation, and that only a diplomatic solution will do. They may be right on the latter point, but in order to achieve that elusive diplomatic breakthrough, there must first be a shift in the military balance of power on the ground.
It might be worth recalling that only when the US unilaterally lifted its arms embargo on Bosnia in November 1994, which was followed by a successful push by Muslim and Croatian forces the following year, did the Serbs finally agree to sit around the negotiating table.
The problem in Syria is that Assad still believes he can win. He has the support of the Alawite community (10% of population) which has foolishly tied its fate to his, and has the active support of Russia and Iran. In theory, the West supports the opposition, but in effect any support the opposition has received has been strictly of the non-lethal kind, meaning it has had little or no effect on the battlefield. This policy has only emboldened two camps: extremist elements within the opposition who say that the West is perfidious and unreliable, and Assad, who has banked on the West dawdling from day one.
The Syrian opposition has expressed its willingness to negotiate with Assad. He doesn’t appear to be interested while his bombers are still able to reduce cities to rubble. It’s time for the MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems).
Mr. Öcalan’s Philosophy
Syria’s Kurds learn lessons from the architect of Kurdish self-determination
8th January 2013
Across a narrow belt of land along Syria’s northern border, Kurds are staking a claim to self-determination. Where the overstretched Syrian army withdrew voluntarily in July last year, People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters have moved in, setting up checkpoints and raising the yellow, red, and green flag of Western Kurdistan.
In towns such as Kobai, Amuda, Efrin, Al-Malikiyah, Ra’s Al-’Ayn, Al-Darbasiyah, and Al-Ma’bada, it is the Kurdish Supreme Committee that provides local government. The body was formed in July 2012 when the two main Kurdish factions in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), agreed to run Syrian Kurdistan together. Today, popular committees are effectively responsible for providing everything from security to meeting residents’ food and energy needs. Local elections have been held, Kurdish language schools have opened, and loud political rallies have passed off without incident where once they would have ended in almost-certain arrest.
Qamishli and Hasake remain the only cities in the Kurdish-majority area where regime security forces maintain a presence—but even in those, alongside pictures and statues of the Assads that remain intact, Kurds now enjoy levels of political and cultural freedoms unparalleled by those they had during fifty years of Ba’ath Party rule. Uniquely for Kurdish peoples in the region, these freedoms have been won at relatively little cost to Kurdish life and property. It is a remarkable turnaround for a people whose own rebellion in March 2004 was brutally suppressed, and many of whose members were denied Syrian citizenship as recently as last year.
The decision to reverse the findings of the 1962 census and offer nationality rights to an estimated three hundred thousand Kurds, made by Bashar Al-Assad soon after the outbreak of the uprising, was dismissed by the Arab opposition as a bribe. It may well have been. Syria’s Kurds do not endorse Assad’s brutal crackdown, but neither have they offered wholehearted support to the Arab opposition. Instead, they appear to have steered a cautious middle course, guided by Kurdish national interests.
How those interests are defined is the primary concern of the Syrian franchise of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), the separatist militant organization that has waged war against Turkey’s military since 1978. It has set up the PYD in Syria, and this affiliate is at the center of the Kurdish quest to capitalize on the growing weakness of central government control, more than any other party. Its strategy is informed by the PKK’s experiences in Turkey, where concessions have been won through a combination of military pressure and—more importantly—political organization.
The PYD aims not to establish its own nation-state (a near impossibility in the circumstances) but to implement a form of Kurdish autonomy that can co-exist with whomever happens to rule from Damascus. It is a new path towards Kurdish autonomy—quite possibly independence in all but name—and it may just work in a fractured and war-torn Syria just as it has done in Iraq.
“In fifty years, the Kurdish parties could not offer anything to Kurdish politics or to the Kurdish people of Western Kurdistan,” said PYD leader Salih Muslim. “We established the PYD, which is different from the classical parties in Syria. We have the philosophy of [PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan, and his ideas are adapted to the conditions and situation of Western Kurdistan.”
Öcalan’s philosophy has undergone notable changes since his capture by Turkish agents in 1999. Most notably, he has disavowed the demand for independent Kurdish statehood, and instead calls for the adoption of a “non-state social paradigm.” In an eponymous pamphlet, loosely inspired by the European Charter of Local Self-Government, he calls his big idea democratic confederalism. “Democratic confederalism in Kurdistan aims at realizing the self-defense of the peoples by the advancement of democracy in all parts of Kurdistan without questioning the existing political borders,” he wrote from his prison cell. “The movement intends to establish federal structures in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq that are open for all Kurds and at the same time form an umbrella confederation for all four parts of Kurdistan.”
Democratic confederalism may well be Kurdish independence through the back door. Replacing the problematic aim of cessation with a less threatening and more long-term stratagem based on demanding local political and cultural rights makes sense, but in effect it entails stripping powers away from central government and handing them over to local bodies on the periphery, run by organizations that have little or no loyalty to the nation-state. This could prove problematic for a country like Turkey.
Unperturbed, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to capitalize on what it saw as increasing pragmatism on the part of the Kurds. The rise of organizations such as the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), both of which take their cue from guiding principles of Abdullah Öcalan, have given the Kurdish struggle a more political and civic flavor.
In a sign of this changing position on Kurdish issues, prayers in Kurdish were allowed to be held for the first time in Turkey’s mosques, names of cities were changed from Turkish to their original in Kurdish and language classes were taught in schools. The JDP government even set up a state-run Kurdish language TV channel, TRT 6, and launched an initiative, the GAP Action Plan, to channel assistance and investment to the economically deprived southeast. The aim, at least as far as can be ascertained, was to build confidence in order to pave the way for a negotiated settlement with the PKK.
Seasoned observers agree that the so-called Kurdish opening, launched early in 2009, has now floundered. Despite Erdoğan’s bribes, the PKK remains active; despite peace overtures, Turkish soldiers in the southeast of the country continue to die.
If Erdoğan did not reap much reward for his efforts, the same cannot be said of the Kurds. They have come away with a renewed sense of purpose, and are now more self-assertive than ever, having expanded their nonviolent activities and built up their political capacity alongside their military one. In the June 2011 general election, the BDP increased its seats in the Turkish Parliament from 16 to 36, ensuring that the calls for autonomy are heard loud and clear in Ankara.
Young Kurds are now encouraged to work within civil society groups and umbrella organizations that dominate the Kurdish political scene, rather than just join the PKK in the mountains. By offering Kurds a route to get involved without having to risk their lives in armed struggle, the PKK has gained new adherents and respect. “The PKK has become part of the people. You can’t separate them anymore, which means if you want to solve this problem, you need to take the PKK into account,” said Zübeyde Zümrüt, co-chair of the BDP in Diyarbakir province.
New prospects in Syria
As news reports this week indicate, the Turkish government still believes in negotiating with the PKK. That, however, may well be more to do with tempering the growing power of the PKK’s sister organization in Syria, the PYD, than in any genuine desire to offer tangible concessions. Öcalan’s philosophy may still prove to be effective in wearing down the Turkish state in the long run, especially if the JDP proceeds with attempts to transform Turkey into a multi-ethnic state. In the short to medium term, however, Turkey remains too strong and too centralized to buckle under the pressure of Kurdish agitation.
Syria offers a more realistic prospect for the implementation of democratic confederalism. For a start, it is much weaker than Turkey, and contains a Kurdish minority large enough to sustain calls for autonomy. Then there is the geopolitics: as Assad gets progressively weaker, powers as divergent as Iran and the US will be courting the Kurds as a counterweight to the Sunni Islamists. Its neighbors in Iraqi Kurdistan provide a working model to emulate because the Iraqi region runs its own affairs independently of Baghdad rather well, having avoided the sectarian bloodletting that engulfed the rest of the country. There is also an energy interest, with the YPG already providing security for the smooth running of oil installations in Al-Hasakah Governorate. The fact that Syria is an artificial state whose borders were drawn by Britain and France with little attention paid to ethnic and tribal continuity is a further, historical, reason why democratic confederalism may succeed there but fail in Turkey.
But there is a simpler, more practical logic to Öcalan’s philosophy. Put simply, his adherents have delivered modestly in Turkey and spectacularly in Syria. Their organization and political acumen has enabled them to trade armed opposition for de facto autonomy, in the process sparing Kurdish towns and populations the fate of cities like of Homs and Aleppo. They have also rightly identified that to apply pressure on Ankara, a solid foothold in Syria was essential. Regardless of the outcome of the revolution, it will be unlikely that Western Kurdistan will lose self-administration rights anytime soon.
In contrast, the Arab opposition has brought death and destruction upon its towns and populations, with no guarantee of a favorable outcome or of having the necessary capacity to administer areas under its control effectively. Once the regime in Damascus collapses, it is doubtful whether the sacrifices of (predominantly) Sunni Arabs will compare favorably with the rewards that they will reap. The Kurds of Syria have taken the cash in hand and waived the rest.
Published: 15th November
Last week, the leaders of the fractured Syrian opposition movement met in the Qatari capital, vowing to put aside petty squabbling and create a more inclusive body that would better represent the country’s democratic aspirations. The new organization, the brainchild of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and liberal opposition politician Riad Seif, was rather awkwardly dubbed “the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” — or “National Coalition” (NC) for short. Its purpose is to attract the sort of international recognition and support that has eluded the now discredited Syrian National Council (SNC) — and thus to boost the opposition’s chances of ousting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
On the surface, there are grounds for optimism. In stark contrast to the SNC, which was dominated by exile politicians, the new group has reserved a majority of seats for Syrians closely linked with the rebel movement — including delegates from the revolutionary councils formed in liberated parts of the country. This week President François Hollande of France held an impromptu press conference to announce his country’s recognition of the NC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This followed a collective decision taken by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sheikhdoms to extend a similar level of recognition, coupled with promises of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the opposition.
The NC’s leadership too appears to be a step away from the old politics, with moderate Muslim cleric Muaz Al-Kahattib as president along with Riad Seif and female activist Suheir Al-Attasi as his deputies. All three of them left Syria recently and are largely untainted by the infighting that appears to have sunk the SNC, or any overt association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) that will alarm Washington. “The ball now is in the international community’s court,” Attasi said in Doha. “There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test.”
So it must have been a terrible disappointment when U.S. President Barack Obama declined to oblige. “We are not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile, but we do think that it is a broad-based representative group,” he said of the new coalition soon after his reelection last week. “One of the questions that we are going to continue to press is making sure that that opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria.” In other words, the NC has yet to prove itself before seeing any tangible rewards.
Obama was not alone in his cautiousness. Arab League ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday urged regional and international organizations to recognize the new body as “a legitimate representative for the aspirations of the Syrian people” but stopped well short of a full recognition. This may in part be due to Saudi reservations about the NC, which it views with suspicion given the prominent role played by Qatar and Turkey in its creation, and what it perceives to be the exclusion of pro-Saudi opposition figures from the unity talks. While Al-Jazeera provided wall-to-wall coverage of proceedings in Doha, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya looked distinctly uninterested. The Russians too are not happy; not only were their Syrian opposition friends in the National Coordination Body (NCB) not invited to Doha, but the NC’s blank refusal to negotiate with Assad cuts against the grain of Russian thinking on how to resolve the conflict. The picture is a mixed one at best.
But there’s another problem that’s been largely overlooked in the news reports, and it’s one that could threaten to hobble the opposition movement in the critical months ahead. The much-criticized SNC has been sidelined by the establishment of the National Coalition — but it continues to exist. Just two days prior to the start of the unity talks between the SNC and other opposition representatives that effectively created the National Coalition, the SNC held a low-key “restructuring” conference, also in the Qatari capital, under the watchful guise of the country’s foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani. The purported aim was to elect a new leadership. Why the SNC, widely believed to be defunct, should bother with holding an election when a new opposition coalition was due to be created just days later, is no mystery. The reason has a great deal to do with the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The SNC leadership election resulted in defeat for the leading figures of the group’s liberal wing — people like Washington-based politician Radwan Ziadeh. Ex-SNC President Burhan Ghalioun did not bother to contest the election, while another liberal figurehead, Basma Kodmani, resigned from the SNC in August. Needless to say, no woman and no Alawite made it to the general secretariat. The Muslim Brotherhood marshaled their votes and did what their opponents expected least: it booted them out of the SNC by democratic means.
In the end, the Brotherhood was left controlling some 75 percent of the members of the general secretariat. The picture is even more stark in the Executive Committee, the highest body in the organization: seven out of eleven members elected are either Brotherhood members or affiliates. Having failed to win a seat in the general secretariat, the leftist Christian, George Sabra, was chosen by the Brotherhood to head the SNC as a figurehead, but only after he accepted MB hardliner Faruk Tayfur as his deputy.
But why go to all the trouble when the same effort could have been focused on building up the NC, the supposedly new-and-improved formula for opposition unity? “The NC was the idea of Riad Seif and Ambassador Robert Ford,” says long-time SNC member Abdulrahman Al-Haj. “The SNC came under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to accept their plan, but we could not simply abandon the SNC without knowing that the NC is going to work.” That the SNC, refurbished under Muslim Brotherhood guidance, should still be regarded as a useful contingency by a significant swath of Syria’s opposition suggests that they lack commitment to making the NC work.
As a result, there are now two opposition coalitions, the NC and the SNC, that are meant to do the same job. In theory, members of the SNC have been given 40 percent of the seats in the new organization, but the group is allowed to maintain its independent structure and policy-making. What’s more, the SNC is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemns the NC plan as a U.S.-inspired plot to force the opposition to the negotiating table. And yet, the MB’s top brass sit at the head of the table in the NC. This was not the result that Ambassador Ford was hoping for, and may well explain why President Obama appeared so far unconvinced by the new body.
Meanwhile, the SNC is still alive and kicking, and thanks to its recent re-structuring, it has swelled its ranks so that even those wishing to by-pass it will struggle to find the manpower to create a credible alternative. With the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm and Qatar continuing to bankroll its operations, it will survive where many “credible alternatives” will fall at the wayside. Whether any of this helps the Syrian revolution defeat Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely.
None of this is what the NC leaders were hoping for almost a week after they had signed the draft agreement on Saturday to great fanfare. A tone of desperation was clearly discernible in a statement issued by the new NC president Muaz Al-Khattib earlier this week, when he urged Syrians inside the country to hold up placards reassuring the U.S. president of their support for the new group. Khattib’s move may have been naïve, but it shows that he understands one thing quite well: If the NC does not pick up momentum early on, including that vital recognition from the U.S., it may go the way of the SNC. Or worse.