The Syrian Crisis and the Unraveling of the Arab Levant
By: Amer Mohsen
Published Friday, December 28, 2012
When you find yourself in the same trench as al-Qaeda, it’s time for a reconsideration. In one day, both the leadership of Syria’s political and armed opposition declared their solidarity with the Nusra Front after Washington added the group to its list of terrorist organizations.
“No armed group operating inside Syria has carried out any violations of human rights or crimes against humanity,” asserted Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the newly formed opposition National Coalition (NC).
“And there is no indication that any of these armed groups operating on Syrian territory have special agendas that go beyond liberating the oppressed Syrian people,” he added.
President of the Syrian National Council (SNC) George Sabra confirmed that the Nusra Front is “part of the revolution in Syria,” while commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Riad al-Asaad maintained that it is one of the “most capable and courageous of the armed factions.”
The Afghan Precedent
Similar praise was issued for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s mujahideen group in Afghanistan in the early 1980s when an armed insurgency was spreading against the Soviet Union and the local communist regime.
The media then portrayed Hekmatyar’s jihadi movement as disciplined, effective, and ferocious in battle despite its extreme religious views. Washington gave him more than $600 million during the Afghan war, not to mention the even larger amounts the Gulf Arabs contributed.
This is despite the fact that “Hekmatyar's party had the dubious distinction of never winning a significant battle during the war, training a variety of militant Islamists from around the world [and] killing significant numbers of mujahideen from other parties,” according to British-American journalist Peter Bergen.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the main backers of the Afghan mujahideen (US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia) decided to exclusively arm and finance seven armed groups, most of which were Salafi and Wahhabi oriented.
This decision had a profound impact on many parts of the Afghan countryside, whose diverse religious practices became increasingly monolithic and extremely conservative. Over the course of the war, whole swaths of the country were converted to a brand of Wahhabi Salafism.
Today, as Washington is preparing to pull out of Afghanistan, the Saudis are returning with plans to build a $100 million mosque and Islamic center in Kabul.
After the experiences of Afghanistan and, more recently, Iraq, there should not be much debate about the grave danger al-Qaeda poses. We are talking about an organization that is openly sectarian and calls for the extermination of those who practice different versions of Islam. We are talking about an organization which forced the people of Anbar in Iraq to seek the protection of the American invaders and the “Sahwa movement” for fear of al-Qaeda’s brutal methods.
The organization has an undisputed historical record – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria, and Yemen – that clearly shows that wherever it has taken up arms, it has ignited a civil war. It seems to be inherently incapable of offering anything other than death and destruction.
The only success it can claim in building something akin to a national project was with the Taliban, which came at the cost of dividing the country between the Pashtun majority and the other ethnic and religious groups.
Civil War in Syria
The war in Syria will determine the identity of a whole generation – it will likely completely transform the Arab East as we know it. After a crisis of nearly two years, it is clear that no Arab country can fully insulate itself from what is happening elsewhere in the region. The fate of the Arabs is intertwined.
In principle, at the first sign of civil war and sectarian strife (which has been underway in Syria for months now), it is our duty as Arabs not to cheer on any Syrian who is killing his fellow citizens.
This is precisely what the “Friends of Syria” gang in Lebanon have failed to do, instead becoming giddy with excitement each time the bloodletting intensifies, hailing it as a turning point that will usher in the final victory that will solve all their problems.
The same goes for the Gulf Arabs who have not only sat by and watched the Arab East being devastated by wars and occupations, but have further worked to fuel the fratricide with their money and media as if they were watching a football match.
Far from the propaganda we hear from both sides of the conflict, the idea of a decisive military victory – outside of some sort of foreign intervention – is next to impossible in Syria. Like most civil wars, the regime cannot control pro-opposition territory, nor can the opposition breach those areas where the population is loyal to the regime.
Stuck in the middle are the majority of Syrians who must bear the brunt of the war as both sides routinely commit transgressions against the civilian population in an effort to gain the upper hand.
The civil war in Syria has passed a critical point, beyond which the country becomes little more than a theater of war, where neither side is thinking about re-establishing order and a return to some semblance of normalcy. Their main concerns are how to destroy the enemy, where the contending forces and their backers view the geography of the country in pure military terms.
It is for this reason that we can say that the war in Syria is no longer over the nature of the regime, nor will it end with the departure of Bashar al-Assad, just as the Lebanese civil war did not end with the death of Bashir Gemayel or the departure of Yassir Arafat.
What complicates the conflict even more is the two sides’ complete reliance on their external allies. If the regime loses the protection of Russia and China, for example, the West will unleash a whole series of measures, starting with an economic blockade, that will eventually topple it.
As for the opposition, Turkey need only close its border with Syria to prevent the influx of fighters and weapons. Never mind the talk of them arming and financing themselves through individuals, the scale of the war the opposition is waging across the country requires the support of nations.
It is for this reason that some have come to the conclusion that a solution is no longer possible, and have placed all their hopes in a possible “Russian-American understanding,” which may very well be the worst of all possible solutions, taking Syria down the same interminable and conflict-ridden road that Lebanon took to emerge out of its civil war.
A Leap Forward
An Iraqi researcher told me that what’s happening in Syria is a natural extension of the disaster his country experienced over the past decade. We in the Arab East are paying the price for not having paid enough attention to what Iraq went through.
We thought wrongly that if we simply ignored the sectarian massacres and bloodshed there, it would not find its way to Damascus, Beirut, or Aleppo. To this day, there are regular bombings in many parts of Iraq, killing dozens on a weekly basis, with little or no response from the rest of the Arab world.
These events did not prompt any real discussion among Arab thinkers and writers outside of pre-packaged denunciations of sectarianism.
Very little, for example, was made of al-Qaeda’s open calls for sectarian killing and the Gulf Salafis’ adoption of their cause wholesale. It is worth noting here that the Syrian regime was an accomplice in the bloodletting by opening the way for jihadi fighters to enter Iraq through its territory.
The Arab East is beginning to unravel and the only way to face such a challenge is by taking a fresh look at the situation and propose a courageous solution that will neither preserve the status quo, nor take us back back to some golden past. I propose that a merger between Iraq and Syria is the only way for the two countries to overcome their deep crises.
For the first time in over 30 years, Iraq is catching its breath and taking a bit of a reprieve from the endless warfare that nearly devastated the country. Despite continued insecurity, it is relatively stable and safe as rising income from oil exports has contributed to an improved economic environment.
Iraq’s problem is not financial – oil production is predicted to reach six to eight million barrels a day by 2020. Its main challenges are political and developmental, which unity with Syria could help to address. In the near absence of a productive sector, Iraq’s economy involves little more than converting oil income to consumption through public sector employment and government-financed construction projects.
Baghdad’s annual budget today has reached $80 billion, two-thirds of which goes to public sector wages. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is repeating the mistakes of Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran, who thought that rising oil sales could solve all their problems, avoiding the hard decisions necessary to build a balanced and diverse national economy.
Syria can complement Iraq in this respect with its substantial productive sector, human resources, and rich experience. With a combined population of approximately 50 million, you have a real country with a large internal market and great economic potential, given that the income from oil is spent wisely.
A union would also help address the growing sectarian divide in both countries by redressing that balance in such a way that there is neither an overwhelming majority, nor a frightened minority. Such a country would also have the potential to be truly sovereign, perhaps becoming a regional power that could stand up to the likes of Turkey and Iran.
Some may say that such an idea is pure fantasy, but in this historical moment, when Iraq is beginning to rebuild and Syria is devastated, it is an opportune time for such a union.
There are many obstacles that stand in the way of this union. It is enough to consider its effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict alone to know that the US and its allies will do all they can to make sure it doesn’t see the light of day.
This is the precisely the moment when we can appreciate the centrality of self-determination and national will, and the importance of making your own decision even if half the world stands in your way. We should not wait for the Western powers to give their permission, or for Russia and the US to agree, to decide on our future.
The Arab East is unraveling and those who will remain standing are those who assert themselves, can distinguish between friend and foe, and believe in their ability to make their own history.
Amer Mohsen is a doctoral candidate in Political Science, University of California - Berkeley.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.