By Barry Rubin
While President Barack Obama has been inaugurated for a second term and made his speech, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is still in power in Syria, making his own speeches saying he will not give in.
The Syrian civil war will go on until one side wins and the other loses. And a lot more people are going to die. The idea of some kind of compromise or diplomatic process has always been ridiculous. These two sides—the government and rebels—have nothing to talk about. On one hand, they thoroughly distrust each other with good reason. On the other hand, they both want power and that’s something which cannot be shared.
Incidentally, please forgive me when I point out that in 2010 I said that Egypt would be the big story of 2011, and that in 2011 I said that the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt would be the big story of 2012.
For those asking why I’m not saying Iran will be the main crisis, that’s possible, but 2013 is more likely to be a year of endless talk between the Washington and Tehran, punctuated mid-year by Iran’s election of its own new president. Iran will buy time, the election of a new president alone will be good for about three months or so since he’ll need to get into office, appoint his cabinet, and formulate his “new” policy. So 2014 is more likely to be the year of Iran.
Meanwhile, 2013 will be a year of continuous battle in Syria, at some point punctuated by either the government’s collapse or retreat. The rebels have been advancing, especially in the north and in Aleppo. But the regime still has a pretty strong hold on Damascus and in the Alawite stronghold in the northwest.
The idea that Syria will fragment into two or more countries is ridiculous. Nobody is declaring independence. Both sides maintain they are the legitimate rulers of Syria and that will continue to the end. Yet it is highly likely that there will be two zones of control for some time.
The following scenario seems realistic. And nothing said below should be interpreted as my personal preferences but merely an analysis of the reality on the ground.
In several months the rebels will be eating away at Damascus. If and when the day comes that most of Damascus is captured, the rebels will set up a government. That new regime will quickly be recognized by the UN, Europe, and the United States. Regional states will be more diverse in their response, with Islamist-ruled Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey along with pro-Islamist Qatar will be enthusiastic; Saudi Arabia and other anti-Islamist Arabs reluctant; the pro-Assad, Islamist-dominated Lebanese government and Iran rejecting this option.
Of course, a critical question will be: Who will lead on the rebel side? The negotiations will be very complex and quarrelsome but, with American help, the Muslim Brotherhood will probably emerge with a disproportionately strong showing.
Here is a good point to ridicule the idea that the United States has little influence. Of course, America isn’t going to decide everything or control events. But for the Brotherhood and other Islamists, having U.S. backing will make them a lot stronger than if they faced U.S. opposition. And remember the context will be shaped by all those arms and money the United States (through Qatar, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) gave the Islamist side. The moderates certainly view the United States as pro-Islamist and while they themselves have a lot of weaknesses, being demoralized by this fact adds another one to the fatal mix.
Sometime in 2013 there will be big choices for each side. For the current regime, will it retreat when necessary to a redoubt in the predominantly Alawite sector of the northeast? How quickly will the rebels assault that center as compared to consolidating their control over the rest of the country?
And finally, how many ethnic massacres will there be, of Christians and Alawites in rebel-held territory and of Sunni Muslims in regime-held territory? There is no doubt that such murders will take place by the Salafis even if the better-disciplined Muslim Brotherhood refrains from revenge killings. But will they reach the level that will shake up Western thinking and perhaps force a reluctant Obama Administration to do something serious about it.
Why will the Obama Administration be reluctant to act and the Western media at least a little slow to recognize what’s happening? Because both are wedded to the rebels and the proposition that Islamists are ready to moderate. The way out is to blame the killings on the Salafis—probably true—and on al-Qaida, the all-purpose scapegoat for everything bad that Islamists say and do. Remember the notion of “responsibility to protect?”
But once the rebels start consolidating rule, as happened in Egypt, there will be increasing examples to be ignored of radical Islamist control, repression, the defeat of the moderates, the persecution of Christians, and the reduction of women’s status.
It is a waste of time to discuss which side is better or who one wants to win. The answer is simple: the best thing would be for moderates on the rebel side to win and create some semblance of democracy and human rights. That possibility is still open but things are looking grim. And here is where Western responsibility comes in. Helping the Islamists, and the Brotherhood in particular, makes Western governments complicit in their future crimes, not only against real regime supporters but also on communities identified with the regime (Alawites and Christians), against moderates on the rebel side, and perhaps one day in attempts to crush the emerging Kurdish autonomy in the northeast.
So Assad won’t give in. The war will go on. And just as Egypt was the big continuing story of 2011-2012, the agony of Syria is likely to be the big story of 2013.
Bear with me while I quote the introduction of my book, The Truth about Syria, written six years ago:
“Syria…provides the best case study of what has happened in the Arab world, and thus in the Middle East, during the last half-century. When it gained independence, Syria was a democratic country with a seemingly bright future. Blessed with fertile land and ample resources, Syria boasted good relations with the West as well as an energetic, entrepreneurial middle class. Yet a combination of radical intellectuals, militant ideologies, and ambitiously politicized military officers pushed Syria down a different path which has led to turmoil and disaster….
“A professed republic, it has been long ruled by one family, passed down like a hereditary sinecure. A self-described progressive state, it is largely controlled by a small group that enriches itself at the expense of the great majority of its people. A supposed secular regime, it avidly courts radical Islamists abroad and has become increasingly Islamized at home.
“No other country in the Middle East is as much of a cauldron of religious and ethnic groups—Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Christians, and Kurds—which compete for power. No place in the region has seen such a collision of contending ideologies—Arab nationalism, Syrian nationalism, Islamism, Communism, reformist liberalism, and more—which have battled it out for decades….
“Once the archetypal leftist, Arab nationalist regime, Syria is now the test case for the battle—whose outcome has the most serious implications for America–between Arab nationalist dictators, radical Islamist revolutionaries, and liberal reformers over the fate of the Arab and Muslim worlds. In our era, this contest is the most important struggle determining the direction of the entire world.”
The Obama Administration, especially now with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and CIA director John Brennan will maintain a consistent policy of helping to create an Islamist-dominated regime in Syria, believing that this is a great idea since the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate and will restrain the “real” extremists. To paraphrase what a former U.S. intelligence official said: So, they tell us they’re going to take over; they tell us exactly how they’re going to do it; then they do it. Now we watch the results playing out in front of our eyes and there’s still some question out there that this threat even exists!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.