Syria – It’s complicated

Some people I know are convinced that there is going to be a major conflagration soon. While I do not buy into the prediction that the start of World War III and the end of civilization as we know it are imminent, the world does seem and feel a lot more precarious than it has been for a while. In the context of this piece, I am referring to the recent incident in which the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet, but also to the increased terrorist activities by Islamic State (IS) and its adherents.

The kind of incident – a NATO member state shooting down a Russian warplane – became likely given the different priorities the many participants have but do not share in the conflicts in Syria. I am not an expert in the affairs of the Middle East, however the following is what I understand to be the case. Everyone is against IS, and IS does not care, indeed welcomes that situation: at the core of its narrative is what can only be termed as the apocalypse and the yearning for it. For the rest, the division is not so much on the need to destroy IS (on which there is a clear consensus), but what comes after it. France’s overriding priority in this moment after the terrorist attacks in Paris is to defeat IS, and it may not be too dogmatic about what happens afterwards. Russia aims to keep Bashar al-Assad (or another ruler who would be pro-Russia) as the Syrian leader after defeating IS. If Russia’s interests are couched in a very broad worldwide strategy and calculations of influence, Iran has strong regional geopolitical interests in maintaining Mr Assad in power, and it has been buttressing his regime by direct intervention as well as through Hezbollah. The US and the UK do not wish to keep Mr Assad in power after defeating IS. It would hardly play well to their domestic audiences, if the cost of defeating IS is maintaining Mr Assad in power. Also, Turkey does not want Mr Assad to remain in power. Countries with Sunni leaders and populations do not want Mr Assad to remain in power: if Sunni Muslims are disadvantaged or oppressed as the result of the defeat of IS, then the such leaders will have a lot of explaining to do.

If the interests of foreign powers are diverse, complex, and daunting, the dynamics in Syria and Iraq are even more complicated. There are various rebel groups of diverse religions, ethnicities, and political ideologies opposed to Mr Assad’s regime and IS, but also against each other. At the moment, there is no single identifiable government-in-waiting headed by a unifying figure, around whom all groups can coalesce: given the fundamental divergences, such development is highly unlikely. Mr Assad is trying to reassert his control over Syria against IS and all other groups of various ethnic and religious composition opposing him. Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq have complicated relationships with IS: some tribes have adhered themselves to IS, some are passively collaborating with or passively resisting IS, and some are actively resisting IS.

Fear engendered and fostered by actual and threats of violence and a system of patronage or clientele networks to distribute rewards are two things among many that enable a rule of a strongman. Whether Iraq or Libya, the strongman managed to keep the country under control through brutality. The outside world had to deal with one person, even if that person was vile and reprehensible, and not various factions within the country, which are baffling and mysterious – moreover too uninteresting – to outsiders. When a political culture is used to a system based on the rule of the strongman, and there are enough people who feel that they have to gain from that system if they come to power, or can only conceive politics in that framework, then the course of political discourse will be based on such a system. If the post-IS Syrian government were to resort to establish a system based on this political culture, then it would alienate substantial portions of the population leading to further instability and conflict. In such a scenario, whoever comes to power will wish to remain in power, as losing it means the loss of the apparatus of fear and patronage, and those who are excluded from power will be resentful and they may well consider such government illegitimate, but they will also be fearful that they may be repressed, persecuted, and permanently excluded from power.

Can the West (and Russia and Iran) create a political system that falls neither back into the rule of a strongman (Egypt) nor into messy anarchy (Libya)? I would be very surprised if the different parties can agree on a common future vision, and I would be astounded if it could be realized. The need to defeat IS as mentioned earlier is not in doubt, and a concerted effort must be made to that end. IS is no match against the motley coalition composed of NATO member states, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in military terms. However bringing durable peace and acceptable settlement to the parties involved, thus not allowing another IS-like organization to emerge in Syria, is a Herculean task and quite likely impossible.