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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The state of Syria

Free Syrian Army soldiers sit on a sidewalk at the northern town of Sarmada, in Idlib province, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. Photo: AP Photo

The civil war in Syria grows more violent by the day, and stories from Syria grow more disjointed. Is there a way to make sense of what’s happening?

In many ways, the war in Syria resembles the ten-year war the Afghans fought against the Soviets from 1979 through 1989. There is one big, heavily-armed, easily-identifiable side: the regime. Then there is the opposition to that regime. The Syrian opposition, however, is disjointed and fractured: there are democrats, liberals, Islamists, terrorists, and mass murderers all fighting for the same cause of destroying who they see as a tyrannical force brutalizing their communities.

So who makes up the resistance in Syria? That isn’t an easy question to answer.

And opinion in the West has faltered about what to do. Calls for direct intervention – for the provision of troops – come less and less often, though there remains support for some sort of No Fly Zone somewhere inside Syria (how this will affect an army that mostly uses tanks, artillery, and small arms remains to be seen). Influential thinkers are now also calling for arming the Syrian opposition, in the belief that doing so won’t repeat America’s experience of arming the Afghan opposition in the 1980s.

America, however, is not very good at choosing its allies in faraway countries with cultures and languages few understand domestically. Unfortunately for the U.S., that understanding is important to gauging which groups to support and which to ignore or marginalize in Syria. The reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad interviewed fighters there who claimed to join al Qaeda (Obama advisor Bruce Riedel has argued the same thing). He wrote in the Guardian that, “a number of jihadi organisations [are] establishing a foothold in the east of the country.” At the same time, Luke Harding also wrote in the Guardian that the rebel groups he embedded with reject al Qaeda (though they embrace al Qaeda’s insurgency tactics).

It’s difficult to say for certain what the Syrian rebels stand for. While they all fight against what they believe to be an oppressive, murderous regime in Damascus, they seem also to be democrats, Islamists, jihadists, opportunists, and sometimes even combinations of all four. Such diversity of opinion appears to divest organization around a coherent political message. Rebels cannot even agree on the basics of what they stand for. This confusion about the rebel’s position has even prompted U.S. intelligence officials to reveal that they too really don’t know what is going on inside Syria – a rare admission from a group who normally portrays itself as almost omniscient.

The rebels certainly aren’t waiting. Recent reports say the rebels control swaths of the Syrian countryside, while Assad’s forces have the hold on the cities. As control shifts, the specter of reprisal killings grows more and more ominous. Sunni Muslims are facing summary execution from angry Druze and Christian Syrians from pro-regime areas, and Shias are facing a similar fate from angry Sunnis in anti-regime areas. These kinds of reprisals mean there is a chance of a civil war becoming a sectarian one – similar to Iraq in 2005.

But the war in Syria is not just some vessel for sectarian conflicts to play out. “The political game is almost always about triangulation,” writes Emile Hokayem, “with an assortment of other sects and ethnic groups, as well as secular forces, engaged in complex deal making and competition.” Sectarianism is just one way Syrians are separating into sides and choosing identities – a common trait of civil wars.

Where the confusion over Syria’s various rebel groups, the identities under which everyone is fighting, and the fate of the country come together is in what happens after Assad is gone. His days do seem numbered. But what comes after his regime falls? The political confusion of the rebels does not bode well for Syria’s future. Tony Karon raises the prospect of a military junta “along the lines of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — a body that would keep intact the armed forces and avoid a bloody Balkan-style breakup of the Syrian state, while overseeing a political transition to a more inclusive government.”

Sadly, revolutions like this are rarely easy to predict, and often the rebels – and the regime – find ways of surprising observers (like how some openly compare themselves to the Russian revolutionaries of 1917). An Egypt-style military regime might be the most likely outcome for a post-Assad Syria, but it would hardly be the peaceful, democratic government so many boosters of the rebellion believe is on the horizon.