Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
If you’ve been listening to the frenzied Syria debate happening in Washington these past few weeks, you’ve likely heard a great many references to the factions involved on the ground in Syria’s civil war, the United States’ plans to strike in response to the use of chemical weapons, and the players potentially presenting a diplomatic solution to get us out of this mess.
Sound confusing? Well, that’s because it is.
Lawmakers have been trying to simplify the situation by telling citizens what part of the Syria equation they should focus on — but few agree as to what exactly that is.
President Barack Obama told the nation Tuesday night to focus on the horrific images of children being gassed to death on the streets of Damascus suburbs, in an apparent overnight chemical weapons attack.
Sen. Harry Reid, meanwhile, said on the anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks Wednesday morning that “the debate in Syria is all about terrorism.”
Sen. Dean Heller was clear in an interview with the Sun on Tuesday that the debate in Syria is about war fatigue and a lack of guarantees that any international response wouldn’t be considered “an act of war” that would drag the U.S. in for a long, intensive engagement.
Until the debate is resolved, we can’t begin to tell you who is right. But we can give you a little context that we hope helps as discussions enter the next phase — because it’s a safe bet Syria won’t be completely off the national agenda for some time to come.
Syria is both very old and relatively new. Those who know their Bible references know that Syria, and Damascus especially, played a prominent role in the ancient kingdoms — and before the country was engulfed in civil war, it wasn’t too hard to feel 2,000 years of history surround you while walking through certain sections of Damascus or Aleppo.
Modern-day Syria traces its roots back to World War I. Established as a French protectorate in the aftermath, Syria wouldn’t gain its independence until 1946. The next 20 or so years saw a lot of fluctuation in leadership as Syria experienced a series of coups, briefly interrupted by a period of co-nationhood with Egypt in the late 1950s, and punctuated by a loss of the Golan Heights to Israel during the 1967 war. During that time, Syria would also sign a pact with the Soviet Union (shortly after the Suez Crisis) and the Ba’ath party would come to power and split between rival factions controlling Syria and Iraq.
A series of fast-paced developments in the region between the 1967 war and 1970’s “Black September” would inspire the political development that led to Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, coming into power through a bloodless coup in November 1970. The Assads have been in charge of Syria ever since.
Despite their relatively bloodless beginnings, the Assad family would quickly earn a reputation for being brutal, ruthless dictators. This impression was cemented globally in 1982, when patriarch Hafez Assad quelled an uprising in Hama by carpet-bombing the city, killing up to 30,000 people.
Hafez Assad was supposed to pass control of the country to his eldest son, Basel Assad. But Basel died in a fiery car accident en route to the Damascus airport in 1991, and so the mantle switched to second-oldest Bashar Assad, who took over when his father died in 2000.
Bashar Assad, who was training to be an ophthalmologist in England, initially was seen as a potential reformer — but since the mid-2000s, the West has approached him as a dictator as much a tyrant as his father. In March 2011, protesters calling for Assad’s ouster touched off a revolution that has, for the past 2 1/2 years, looked more like a civil war — and in some regions, a proxy fight between other states and non-state actors from the Middle East (more on this later). U.S. intelligence indicates the Aug. 21 attack on 1,426 civilians is his most brutal act.
Bashar Assad has said he considers himself the protector of a united, secular Syria, and especially its minorities. The Assads do not have a natural religious constituency in Syria, which is about three-quarters Sunni Muslim, with a significant minority of Shia Muslims and smaller minorities of Druze, Christians and other religions. The Assads are Alawites — a mystical sect of Shia Islam whose adherents are geographically based in the northwestern, Mediterranean coastal region of the country, around Latakia. However, they draw tremendous support from the Christian population (more on this later).
The Syria rebellion began in the southern city of Deraa, when the Assad regime came down hard on a bunch of kids who spray-painted anti-government messages on a school wall. The city erupted in protests after their arrests. Soon after, however, the center of the rebellion would move north to the area around Aleppo, north of Damascus and much closer to supply lines coming from Turkey, which supports the uprising.
The main rebel group that the West refers to is the Free Syrian Army, founded by a bunch of defected military officials from the Syrian state forces, plus scores of civilians who picked up arms against Assad to fight for their country.
The FSA, which proclaims itself secular, is the rebel group that supporters of intervention are usually referring to when they talk about “arming the rebels.” But the FSA isn’t the only game in Syria — and according to many estimates, it isn’t even the strongest rebel outfit.
There are several Islamic rebel groups aligning themselves with varying degrees of religious extremism, including many that affiliate with al-Qaida and other jihadi groups. Kurdish fighters — who hope in a post-Assad Syria to lay claim to areas of ancestral land that span Syria, Iraq and Turkey — are also in the mix.
But the names to know right now are Jabhat Nusra and the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. The two groups have common roots in the terrorist groups that found a footing in Iraq toward the end of the war there. Their numbers are fewer than the FSA, but their warriors are fiercer — and because of that, they have gained a foothold and started to command some defections from the FSA. Nusra aims to found an Islamic state in Syria when or if Assad goes.
You can make an argument that “terrorism” exists on all sides of the Syrian conflict. Those lawmakers, like Reid, who accuse Assad of being a terrorist against his own people, can easily point to scenes of horrific acts, such as videos of gasping children slowly being asphyxiated by toxic gas.
The fact that Assad has recently received a helping hand from Hezbollah fighters, whom the United States considers terrorists, doesn’t make the Syrian dictator look any better to the West. (Hezbollah is also the de facto governmental force in Lebanon, but more on that later.)
But the terrorists can actually get a lot scarier on the rebels’ side.
The incursion of al-Qaida affiliates, the Nusra front, and other jihadi groups espousing similar ideologies and plans for a post-war Islamic state, have put those in the United States calling for Assad’s ouster in the awkward position of rooting for rebels whose co-fighters were responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.
Assad has capitalized on this potential irony, charging that the rebels are not in fact freedom fighters, but terrorists who must be routed for the sake of global security. (Remember that Assad considers himself the protector of a united, secular Syria.) He repeated this charge Monday during an interview with Charlie Rose.
U.S. officials estimate the permeation of terrorists and jihadis in the rebel groups’ ranks is only about 20 percent. But it’s still apparently enough to have given the U.S. government pause: According to recent reports, the U.S. has delivered neither the money nor the guns it promised it would supply to the Free Syrian Army rebels because the U.S. has not been able to determine with satisfaction that what it sends would actually end up in the right hands.
The Allies, Part 1: The Assads
Most power-players in the global community have, in the past 18 months, lined up on one side or the other of this conflict. Almost none of them have done so for completely altruistic purposes.
Syria’s main supporters are Iran and Russia. For Iran, an Assad-controlled Syria is a reliable pipeline to transfer arms and cash back and forth with their longtime ally, Hezbollah. (Hezbollah, incidentally, was formed and funded by Iranian clerics to keep Israel out of Arab lands; they both ascribe to the Shia sect of Islam.)
For Russia, a relationship with Syria is more financial and representational. Russia has military contracts and port rights in Syria that are important to their force projection. Russia also has a difficult, acrimonious relationship with its homegrown Muslim population, and a problem with the potential for holy war in places like Chechnya, about 750 miles away. Finally, Russia has always taken a firm stand against international intervention that might threaten a leader’s power — because Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t on the firmest ground himself.
The Allies, Part 2: The Rebels
The rebels, meanwhile, have found their most ardent and deep-pocketed supporters in the West, the Gulf and Turkey.
Turkey provided safe harbor for the Free Syrian Army in its earliest stages of formation, and continues to call for Assad’s ouster. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been putting their vast oil wealth behind their call for regime change, supplying the rebels with arms (including heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles the United States worried could fall into al-Qaida-affiliated hands and even paying salaries to members of the rebel militias.
For Turkey, the fight is partially about regional influence: Iran is Turkey’s main rival to regional influence in the Levant, and a rebel victory in Syria would seriously weaken Iran’s influence across the Middle East. Syria’s ally Iran (majority Shia) and the Gulf States (majority Sunni) have also been bitter rivals for a long time — giving the emirs and princes of the Gulf ample reasons to seek a sympathetic power in Syria. And it doesn’t hurt that a more sympathetic government in Syria might be more inclined to respect their energy interests. Syria and its ally Lebanon have the longest collective coastline abutting a recently discovered Mediterranean natural gas bed that could someday rival the supremacy of Gulf Oil exports.
The rebels have also gained many sympathetic allies in the West on moral grounds. Syria’s revolution started during the Arab Spring, at a time when it seemed civil revolutions might establish a spectrum of democratic governments in place of long-tenured dictators. In Syria, however, rebels have never been able to close in on that goal.
Though President Barack Obama was emphatic in his speech to the nation Tuesday night that he has no plans to pursue regime change in Syria, the Obama administration has also been adamantly against the Assad regime. But that’s really nothing new — the United States and Syria have never been allies, and the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syria for the better part of a decade.
The International Community
The United States was pulled back from the brink of military action this week when Russia announced it had struck a deal with the Syrians to transfer guardianship of its chemical weapons over to the international community. Now it’s up to the international community — in the form of the perpetually hamstrung United Nations Security Council — to ink the deal.
For the time being, they’re still ironing out the details. Coming to an agreement in the 15-member UNSC, where five members — the U.S., France, U.K., Russia and China — have veto power is never easy. The saving grace of this deal may be that Russia, usually the most liberal about exercising that veto power, came up with the idea for the Syrian deal and got the unofficial go-ahead from Obama during the G-20 conference in Moscow this month.
But France, along with the U.K. and the U.S., is the one formally presenting the drafted plan — and nations are stuck on whether the Western nations should back off their military threats as a precursor to the deal or not. American and Russian secretaries of state John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov are meeting today and potentially beyond to work out their differences. Nonetheless, finalizing a deal could take a while — as Obama indicated Tuesday night, the powers want to wait until the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors’ final report is finished before finally agreeing to any deal.
If the international community is able to achieve a workable, trustworthy diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, it could be an opening chapter for an entirely new era of international cooperation. The United Nations, established in 1945, has for its entire existence been dogged by the competitive divide between the first and second world powers, which descended into an out-and-out stagnant standoff during the Cold War. If Russia and the U.S. successfully cooperate on this deal, it could be the reset button on bilateral relations that Obama tried to press with Putin so long ago.