October 1, 2012 | Quote
Syria Between Hama 1982 and Lebanon
Recent talks between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels appear to have hit a hard spot. The Egyptian peace initiative is on the rocks after the failure of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to show up; various other efforts continue but the Emir of Qatar conveyed his pessimism poignantly on Tuesday by calling for an Arab military intervention in the country at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.
Though it is also remotely possible that this is the proverbial darkest moment before dawn breaks – the latest developments can also be interpreted as tough bargaining – what is happening on the ground is far from encouraging.
Amid a major terror campaign in the capital, Damascus, and some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict so far, the chaos in the country is growing by the day. Different militias and warlords are mushrooming, indicating that a failure to stop the violence now would result in a protracted conflict that will end only when all the different sides are completely exhausted from the bloodshed.
Parallels to the Lebanese civil war – which the Emir of Qatar invoked in his speech – are becoming ever more pronounced, as are similarities with the violence that culminated in the massacre in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982. A recently declassified document produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in May 1982 comes across as eerily up-to-date and demonstrates the long historic roots of certain patterns that we see on the ground.
International media often underestimate the duration of the conflict in Syria in the early 1980s, focusing most of their attention only on the uprising in the city of Hama in 1982; the report demonstrates clearly how the violence evolved over several years.
Still, it is important to note, the Syrian conflict back then did not quite develop the characteristics of an entrenched civil war that were clearly visible in Lebanon roughly at the same time. The current episode ranks perhaps somewhere in-between these two paradigms.
A key point in the DIA report is that “Political popularity in Syria, however, has never been a prerequisite for retaining political power. The ability to control the military and security apparatus and the willingness to use them when required have been far more important.”
Highlights include the powerful though inaccurate propaganda campaign in favor of the opposition in the international media as well as the growing isolation of the regime, both inside and outside the country.
“The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was fully aware that they had the Assad regime in a 'no win' situation over Hama,” the reports states. “If Assad had not acted forcefully against Hama, the rebellion might have spread to other cities which in turn might have led to a full-scale rebellion. Assad's liberal use of artillery in breaking the resistance in Hama served notice to other cities that he has both the will and the means to retain power. By the same token, however, the Government's actions have appalled and sickened a wide spectrum of Syrian society.”
Another key insight is the importance of Alawite unity or signs of a lack thereof: the Assad family belongs to the Alawite religious minority, but so did also the man whom Assad senior overthrew and imprisoned, Salah Jadid (later, Assad's own brother was exiled following a failed coup attempt). Jadid's supporters played an important role in 1982, while the full backing of the Alawite segment of the population is considered a key indicator for the survivability of Assad Junior now.
Recently, the American-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor reported that efforts were being made to engineer an Alawite coup against the Syrian president. It noted that these efforts had so far been unsuccessful, but assessed that “The Alawites do not necessarily oppose a negotiated removal of the al-Assad clan from power, but they do oppose any deal that would lead to a weakening of their sect's hold on power.”
A Reuters report, furthermore, documented the extortion of “protection” money from wealthy Alawites by pro-government militias – incidentally, a common modus operandi of warlords who have proliferated at a mind-numbing rate throughout the country – and hinted at the unease this is producing among many Alawites.
That this kind of discontent will translate into political dissent, however, is far from certain. In fact, a powerful trend leading in the opposite direction is unfolding on the ground, a systematic policy of molding Syria into more or less homogenous enclaves by methods that amount to ethnic cleansing. The goal is to create clearly defined and more easily defensible bases of support for the different sectarian militias, as well as to make it easier for certain minority communities – especially the Alawites and the Kurds – to secede in the future under certain conditions.
This process mirrors what happened in parts of Lebanon and in other long-lasting civil wars, and also usually leads to the suppression of dissident views inside the different communities. It is very difficult to reverse and means that a conflict is becoming entrenched.
Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid notes in his impressions from a recent trip that while pro-regime forces initiated this process, the opposition has started to repay in kind. He writes,
Ethnic cleansing of Sahel Al-Ghab area in Hama province and certain parts of rural Homs is for now a done deal and will not be easily reversible, if ever. Only loyalist strongholds remain in the area. The exceptions are few, and are under constant attack from the air. …
In fact, as we write this report, a battle is raging in the northernmost parts of Al-Haffeh region, centered on the village of Burj Kassab and its surroundings, where rebels are trying to gain access to the sea and counteract ethnic cleansing by pro-Assad militias. The move, however, has forced residents in nearby Alawite villages to leave their homes, as their villages came under pounding for the first time since the beginning of the revolution. So, sooner rather than later, and barring full-scale international intervention, Sunni Arabs, driven by a desire for vengeance, will take the fight to the Alawites, and what has been seeded in Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Hama and Deir Ezzor will be harvested in Lattakia, Jableh and Tartous.
Tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the Kurdish areas have also started to heat up. Aral Kakal's account of his recent journey there suggests that while currently the situation there is not as bad as elsewhere in the country, it can get much worse in the future. He writes,
Jaoush [a local guide] told us that the heads of the Arabized villages had come to the Kurds in the village of Datba, where he's from, two days ago and asked to stay in the area. The Arabs said that if they were able to stay they would even return the property that had been confiscated from the Kurds by the al-Assad government.
“The comrades of Datba decided to allow them to stay,” Jaoush explains. “Because if we expelled them now then, given the current situation in the rest of Syria, they'd probably be killed.”
An urgent intervention of some sort – either diplomatic, in the form of a ceasefire and reconciliation talks, or military – can perhaps yet arrest this development. Besides the Qatari initiative, which reportedly gained Tunisian and other Arab support, there are increasing indications that secret talks are being conducted in Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria.
Last month, for example, a scandal between the Israeli embassy in Bulgaria and an Israeli government minister, which was blown up in the Israeli press, revealed that Bulgaria has a greater involvement with the Syrian opposition than its government cared to admit.  More recently, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevenliev accused Israel of making political claims that Iran and Hezbollah the terror attack in Burgas airport in July.
Given the general interest of the Bulgarian authorities to deflect attention from the lax security at the airport which contributed to the incident, a Bulgarian analyst told the Asia Times Online, this behavior is most likely an indication that Bulgaria is aiming at something higher – perhaps at being a mediator between the two main warring camps in the Middle East. Syria is high up on its agenda, but whether it – or any of the heavier-weight players involved – can contribute much to halting the spiraling violence there is doubtful.
Some forms of intervention, such as peacekeeping missions, could combine well with track-two diplomacy. Such a scenario may, unfortunately, be a bit of a tall order; the alternative of protracted chaos and bloodshed is already unfolding.