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Syria talks: mission impossible?

What’s new in the Syrian war in the run-up for negotiations in Geneva

27. December 2013
by Wilhelm Langthaler

1. Chemical arms deal reinstating Assad as an interlocutor of the west acknowledging that he will not be toppled any soon by military means. 2. US-Iran rapprochement. 3. Military advances by the Assad side. 4. Weakening of the popular support base of the insurgency as it falls under Jihadi control. 5. Marginalisation of pro-western military forces. 6. Radical opposition of Saudis to a settlement with Iran expressed in continued support for Jihadism. 7. Assad’s reinforced refusal of any democratic reform or any power sharing compromise with Russian backing.


Syria definitely is the focus of conflictivity within the world system. International, regional, political and social fault lines are crossing there producing a tremendous eruption which turned a democratic popular revolt into a sectarian civil war with massive foreign involvement. And the stakes are indeed high, very high. Though the origin and base of the events have been the democratic and social rights of the popular masses, it became also about the redesign of the regional and global order.

Let us try to discern the recent tendencies emerging in this conflict against the background of the preparations for the Geneva talks scheduled for January 2014.

1. Why talks – military solution not sustainable for Washington

The most obvious fact is that the main global power, the US, is investigating and testing the ground for a political settlement of the armed conflict. The political costs and risks of an endless continuation of the war seem to become too high to them. They start to search for a settlement – but not at any cost. That also implies that the sides still are not exhausted and are well able to carry on if no compromise can be brokered.

We are faced with a significant change of US policy which became manifest with the chemical arms deal in late summer of 2013. Actually the agreement was a spectacular turn after a zigzagging eventually resulting in a stage win for Assad.

Prior to the agreement US policy used to be contradictory as well. On one hand there has been the strong and outspoken reluctance to a direct military intervention of the Libyan type. The Obama regime wants to avoid to be drawn into huge wars it cannot win. They follow the lessons of the semi-defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand it did help to build and support local proxy forces though they always remained weak. More importantly Washington left a free hand to its local allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to lend massive military support, thus also to politically shape the popular rebellion and to turn it into an armed insurgency. The US and its allies hoped that in this way they would topple Assad – a hope which at least after two years definitely was frustrated.

Then, all of a sudden, Washington came up with a bewildering military power projection which they had excluded up to this point. The move did not fit into the strategy followed so far. It seemed as if they wanted to enforce self-construed “red lines” not matching their overall political approach on Syria. Obama thus must have been relieved to withdraw the military threat by ways of an agreement for chemical disarmament (which is more of a symbolic than of military value.) That meant de facto to accept Assad as an interlocutor and – from then on – to abstain from direct military action. A huge success for Assad, whose regime only a few days before was at its lowest point due to the menace emanating from an imminent US aggression which it hardly could have sustained for more than some weeks. [fn]See analysis right after the chemical arms deal was cut: [/fn]

This step was further adding to the US predicament. Washington not only lost a bargaining chip of last resort (the use of their superior military machine) but also was disavowing its allied Syrian forces whose main tool and hope remained the US military intervention. Following the militarist logic of the insurgency the agreement was received as a betrayal massively driving the shift towards Jihadism. Washington’s continued support to its Syrian military allies (FSA) became futile while their regional allies began to redirect their support and set all on the card of Jihadism which eventually took over on the ground militarily.

But Jihadism is not only an unreliable partner for the US but from a certain point of magnitude a hazard to them matching and even overtaking Assad. All in all the US displays its weakness leaving them few other options than a political settlement in form of a compromise. That does not mean, however, that the US will accept a full-blown defeat, nor is Assad strong enough to impose that.

2. Iranian détente

The rapprochement with Iran is a core piece of foreign policy of the Obama regime. It is a consequence flowing from the acknowledgement of the semi-defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. A military attack on Iran in order to achieve regime change was discarded together with the dreams of an American Empire. The US goes for indirect rule over the world which might also include to a certain extent steps towards multi-polarism. On the other hand this Obama-type order possibly will be more sustainable given the inability of any other force to challenge US superiority let alone to unify against the centre.

Syria is a particular within the western relation with Iran, though an important one. We should not forget that Iran was the head of the axis of rogue states and the main state challenge to the US world order. The beginning rapprochement with Tehran is a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for a settlement over Syria.

On the other hand one cannot neglect the massive hawkish opposition within the US elites as well as its global allies first of all Israel but also Saudi Arabia which want to carry on with the aggressive line against Iran employed the past two decades. [fn]See analysis of the US-Iran pre-agreement:[/fn]

3. Assad’s recent military successes

The government boosts a series of won battles which nobody can deny. We see following reasons:

a) The tactical choice not to engage in defence of non-strategic territory and to leave it to the enemy who is unable to defend, use and administer it properly was intelligent. Thus they avoided overstretch of their strained forces and could concentrate on holding strategic assets.

b) Massive support by foreign troops mainly from combat-proven Hezbollah, Iranians and less effective Iraqi Shia militiamen.

c) Sectarian reorganisation of the troops mainly regularising the Shabiha militias into the National Defence Forces (NDF) mirroring Sunni sectarianism. This proved to be a huge success as these people defend “their territory”. Not only Allawi constituencies participate but also Christian and Druze. But when it will come to re-conquer lost territory with hostile population these troops will probably not be effective. We should take as a lesson the Kurdish PYD and its militias. Different to Christian and Druze militias they are not under the command of Assad forces but de facto maintain a non aggression pact facing the attacks of the Jihadis. Assad for them is the lesser evil as he refrains from attacking them. But they will not help Assad to gain territory or to survive. They simply care for their own survival.

The main reason for the regime’s advances is, however, political:

4. Jihadism hijacking and strangling the popular revolt

Jihadism and its most extreme forms, Takfirism,[fn] Takrir means to declare other Muslims to be infidels. Politically this justifies waging war even on very similar rival groups.[/fn] is a minority programme. Although important parts of the lower classes have been following for a certain period of time the militarist logic of military radicalisation against a regime which is responding to popular demands only by massacre and repression not ceding any democratic rights, many are eventually turning away again as they experience the rule of Jihadis or even Takfiris. An additional important factor of both military strength and political weakness of Jihadism is the massive presence of foreign fighters. The example of Raqqa, a provincial capital under control of ISIS, teaches emblematic lessons. The reports coming out from there indicate an extremist Islamic regime not only terrorising the confessional minorities, but also alienating the majority and suppressing even other Jihadi forces by armed means. In case of a counter-attack by Assad forces it is to be expected that a good proportion of the remaining people will regard their old enemy as the lesser evil to get rid of the Takfiris.

Although it would be misleading to regard the insurgency as imposed from outside as the regime’s narratives goes, there is indeed a tendency of political and military expropriation of what originally used to be democratic popular revolt. First of all militarization was a response to the military crack-down by the regime. It was both home-grown and helped from outside. All political brakes were destroyed both by the Assad side as well as the foreign backers of the rebellion. Within the Islamic spectrum there was nobody neither willing nor able to stop this dialectics, not even in the secular and leftist forces allied with the west. The anti-western democratic and leftist forces had been marginalised and expelled already before.

By now Jihadism has taken over and attempts to silence the democratic popular revolt. Which in the first instances seemed to provide military strength approaching equilibrium of forces with the regime, now is turning into a disadvantage. Following their militarist logic the Jihadis wanted to overcome the asymmetric character transforming the conflict into a symmetric conventional war neglecting the popular support base. But this popular base and the asymmetric character of the conflict was the main virtue of the insurgency against an enemy superior at least in military terms. Thus they have been destroying their main asset. This is the deeper reason why they are about to suffers a series of defeats.

4. Vanishing of the FSA

The taking over of an FSA warehouse by Jihadi forces at the strategic border crossing at Bab el Hawa in the beginning of December 2013 is of emblematic importance. Facing the ISIS threat the FSA regards the anti-ISIS Jihadi coalition (Islamic Front) as the lesser evil and only rescue. Against growing Takfirism they ally with and cede to Jihadism. This comes close to a full-blown dissolution of the pro-western military forces. The internal competition runs now mainly between Jihadism and Takfirism though they try to avoid a full-fledged armed confrontation. The reasons for the collapse of the more moderate western-linked forces have already been touched before:

a) Withdrawal of the US military threat which was one of the main tools in the hands of the FSA thus received as a betrayal.

b) Militarist logic tending towards the militarily more effective Jihadis and Takfiris against a totally intransigent regime unwilling for a compromise.

c) A negotiated solution has been regarded also by the pro-western FSA forces and their political representatives as a form of capitulation – helped by the fact that there are no signs of readiness for a compromise by the regime side. This is linked to a miscalculation of the relationship of forces connected to not grasping the divisive power of sectarianism.

d) When the US changed its line on Iran and envisaged Geneva the Saudis and their Gulf allies redirected their support towards the Jihadi front opposing any compromise with Iran and Assad.

Certainly there is also a more general problem in the culture of political Islam and their allies not only in the political leadership but also top-down within their constituencies. They believe that by virtue of Islam they are representing the people and there is no need to politically gain the masses or to establish consensus. They grasp the Assad regime only in moral/criminal or military terms and do not have a political understanding of the continued support it enjoys among certain sections of the people and not only across the confessional minorities. This mindset can read negotiations only under the form of different shades of capitulation and not a political means to convince a majority (as many leftist guerrilla movements attempted to do). They are unable to acknowledge a military stalemate which can only be overcome politically taking into consideration also a step back in military terms.

6. Saudi systematic obstruction of a settlement

The Saudis continue to oppose any settlement with Iran and thus also with the Assad regime. For this reason they have voiced strong disagreement with the US line embarked on after the chemical weapons deal.

They have stepped up their campaign against the Geneva negotiations and lend massive support to the Jihadis while the flows to the FSA-labelled forces dried up eventually prompting their collapse.

They also want to weaken all forces connected to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) which provides the core of the political representation of the opposition in form of the National Council and in a wider sense also the National Coalition. The latter has been found on its turn with US engineering to diminish the MB’s influence and make them accept negotiations at least in principle. The Brotherhood with its powerful mass following across the Arab and Islamic world is a danger to the Saudi monarchy. Therefore the Saudis also supported the Egyptian coup against them.

The US will have troubles to neglect the pressure exerted by Riyadh. Already by now there is a certain wavering regarding the détente with Iran which however brings the Geneva attempts again into jeopardy.

For the time being no settlement, no compromise, no equilibrium between Tehran and Riyadh seems possible. It is one of the main foreign propellant momentums of the Syrian war. Also the US does not have any remedy in hand even if they wished to.

7. Turkey in turmoil over Syria

Turkey is the prime foreign player in the Syrian arena. It is much more important than Saudi Arabia let alone Qatar. Its drive does not come from anti-Iranian zeal as it is the case with Riyadh. Turkey under the AKP wanted to become the role model and leader for the entire region (dubbed neo-Ottomanism) combining Islam, democracy, capitalism and “zero problems” with the most diverse neighbours. Erdogan even had been the architect of friendly relations with Assad thus squeezing its most dangerous internal enemy, the Kurdish PKK.

Erdogan’s precipitated choice to topple Assad at any cost was product of a grandiose overestimation of his clout and the power of political Islam of the AKP and Brotherhood brand. His Syrian miscalculation is about to backfire and trigger on its turn the collapse of his very model:

The AKP did succeed also because Erdogan undertook a general democratisation while not touching the cultural autonomy of the Kemalist secularist milieu. Thus he secured the support of important sections of the urban liberal secular middle classes isolating militarist Kemalism and its old elites. Only when pushed by the general clash between political Islam and secularism in Egypt and Syria he severed this winning coalition at home. The outcome is the conflict with the Gezi park movement [fn] see “Gezi park: between democracy and Kemalism”:[/fn] and his turn towards cultural struggle of Egyptian MB style. He provoked also the rise of Alevi communalism in Turkey which sides with Assad.[fn] See “Revolutionaries and Alevis”[/fn]

Erdogan’s Syrian stance also led to the deterioration of the relationship with all neighbours first of all Iran but also Russia, Saudi Arabia and eventually Egypt.

Finally the Syrian branch of the PKK gained unprecedented influence and power boosting also their levers within Turkey. Erdogan’s attempt to solve the Kurdish question by bypassing and marginalising the PKK seems in tethers as well.

The result is the resurrection of Kemalism by means of the Syrian agenda which used to be moribund before.

Eventually Erdogan tries to cautiously backtrack with Iran via Baghdad and also with Russia. He certainly will avoid going berserk like the Saudis but his margin of movement is limited for he is trapped in a quandary. On one side he is under pressure of this own Islamist constituencies to whom he had promised victory in Syria on which he is unable to deliver (and who read this promise also as a call to cultural struggle – therefore the inner-Turkish radicalisation). On the other hand there is the powerful Gülen movement which does neither support his Syrian agenda nor his enforced cultural struggle. So the split runs right through his own house.

Last but not least Erdogan’s ascent has been based on Turkey’s capitalist miracle. But especially after the financial crisis of 2007/08 it was based on one of the largest current account deficits of all “emerging markets” creating a massive dependence on the notorious hot money and the US Fed’s quantitative easing programme providing it. As soon as tapering will set in Turkey will run dry on capital. An economic collapse will be difficult to avoid and outshine the one of 2001 which triggered the demise of the old elites eventually bringing Erdogan to power.

So in a medium term range it cannot be excluded that the AKP regime will fall provoked by the Syrian file. Erdogan wanted to make Syria the capstone of his edifice. Now it might become his gravestone.

For the time being Turkey continues to support the insurgency including its Jihadi wing and is reluctant towards the Geneva project heading towards a compromise. But it can no more attack it head-on and tacitly might join in to the US efforts. This is another indicator of the altered relationship of forces.

8. Regime’s and Russian miscalculation

The Assad group as well as Russia feel the changing tide and see themselves on the winning end. The “security solution”, the hard line of cracking down on the popular democratic movement and inflating Islamic fundamentalism, seems to prove right. Some have appropriately called the ruling clique in French “jusquauboutiste” meaning going-to-the-end-ist.

Actually today there are favourable factors for them to survive: the weak US line, the lost military momentum of the insurgency and the actual appearance of the Jihadi monster they tried to paint and inflate from the very beginning to avoid the decomposition of their constituencies under the appeal of the democratic and social demands of the lower classes.

If they today would stop asking for capitulation but would stretch out a hand to the leftist democratic forces and moderate Islamic milieus and also affiliated combatants engineering power sharing they might secure their survival – not as an quasi absolutist monarchy but as one sectarian representation enhanced by a certain type of authoritarian secularism among others. If they understood the political possibility to split Islamism by partially ceding to the original democratic demands and integrating the Muslim Brotherhood or surrogates into the system they could eventually isolate and defeat Jihadism with even tacit support of the US. This is a variant of Geneva.

It might mean a kind of semi-partition on the basis of the current territorial control also reflecting already accomplished sectarian cleansing. But formally Syria would be kept together also as an expression of compromise.

There are, however, no signs that the Assad group would contemplate to embark on such a rescue mission. Nor is there any such line of tradition in their history. Most probably they will continue to set all on the military card and total victory – which they will never accomplish. Their political, social and confessional block is definitely too small for it if they do not undertake efforts to politically win large lower and middle strata originally on the side of the rebellion but repelled by the radicalisation of Islamism. (Such a move necessarily includes accepting Sunni political Islam as an interlocutor which the Baath so far totally refused.) Russia on its turn seems to do nothing to make them awake from their hubris.

The Assad group is still in the driver seat of the conflict and it is first of all their responsibility to take the first step towards a political negotiated settlement. Contrary to their narrative of foreign intervention it is still them to hold the political keys in hands to end or to continue the civil war wrecking havoc to Syrian society. In a worst case scenario the war might carry on for years as the sides are far from exhaustion.

9. Hope – or: what about the revolutionary democrats?

We should not forget that the current apocalypse started out as a genuine popular movement for democratic and social rights analogous to what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. So why the revolutionary democratic where sidelined? Did they commit grave errors like in Egypt? Or is there still a role to play for them? And in which way anti-imperialist solidarity for the rights of the lower classes can be exerted abroad? [fn] International Initiative for a Political Solution in Syria[/fn]

We believe that between Scylla and Charybdis not much space was left. Essentially there were two choices each without much perspective:

a) The line of Hayat al Tansiq (National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change, NCB), which is the main expression of the historic left, based on pacifism and the three no’s: no to foreign intervention, no to sectarianism, no to civil war. Given the extremely repressive reaction by the regime the reciprocation by Islamism produced a spiral of militarization against which there were no means available. It was impossible to argue against armed self-defence and furthermore it was very difficult to draw a clear line to military action unnecessarily driving militarization.

b) Others joined or supported the armed struggle. It has been nearly impossible to separate this from playing with US power projection to topple Assad as it would run against the military logic. Also they could only acquire a marginal role. The material and political dependence on the west and the regional powers armed struggle evokes is too big.

While not unthinkable, a line in between would be a multi-front struggle impossible to win.

Given these adverse conditions between an extremely oppressive and sectarian capitalist regime against the popular masses supported by Russia and Iran on one side and an even more sectarian Islamist insurgency supported by the most reactionary regional powers backed by the US on the other side a negotiated settlement is clearly the lest evil. It must be clear that it will not mean a victory for the popular revolt but a compromise between the sharks and wolves, the culprits of the bloodshed, the global and regional powers.

It will also mean a de facto partition along sectarian lines not very far away from what French colonialism once conceived. But this is still better than the continuation of this civil war which will further deepen the sectarian rift and cannot be won by either side. Only a ceasefire, a military de-escalation will lend air to breath to the revolutionary democratic forces. The aim is to press for this negotiated settlement and to see as much of the original democratic and social demands realised as possible. Although the popular democratic forces have been largely silenced, deprived of any expression, their milieu is still there. Many brave activists carry on making the impossible possible. If conditions change their might come out again rebuilding political articulation of an entire sector of society.

10. Geneva?

It is difficult and secondary to predict whether negotiations will take place as scheduled or any time soon. What is decisive is that a power sharing agreement is chalked out in form of a transitional government where the regime partially cedes power to become one player among others. For the time being there is no such sign from the governmental or Russian side.

It is at the same time true that from the opposition’s side there has been reluctance to offer such a compromise as well. But it was the very US after the chemical arms deal to force them onto the negotiation table and thus to guarantee their readiness for a settlement. They will need to accept it as they are the weaker side. Certainly strong opposition from the Jihadis as well as the Saudi block is to be expected. But if Assad’s concessions are significant enough Jihadism will not be able to spoil an agreement as it will receive solid support within society.

It is obvious that in the last instance everything condenses and culminates in the symbolism of Assad as a person. As long as he clings to absolute power and does not signal readiness to withdraw (however partially it might be conceived), a settlement will be impossible and the war will grind on. So taken into consideration the current conditions and circumstances it is improbable that serious negotiations will take place let alone yield results in form of a power sharing compromise in the near future.