Ghouta: The tragic price of indecision

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa

With Ghouta hemmed in by air strikes, a brutal ground offensive, and obstinacy from rebel groups desperate to protect what is perhaps one of their final strongholds, the death toll continues to mount. Heart-wrenching videos of children desperately crying for an end to the horrors of the incessant attacks have dominated the international headlines. Yet, for all the international condemnation, it appears no one is any the wiser as to what can viably be done to end the tragedy in Ghouta.

It is this indecision that has been a constant theme throughout the Syria conflict. The international community has been unable to answer a fundamental question: What does it want in Syria?

Does it wish for order and stability? Or regime change? Or an anti-Russia/Iran state? Or a democratic state? Or a division of Syria into multiple states based on sectarian and ethnic identities?

To back order and stability implies support for Assad. To back regime change suggests backing the rebels. To back an anti-Russia/Iran state suggests backing all the rebels including the extreme elements. To back a democratic state suggests backing some of the rebels but not all. Backing a divided Syria suggests backing the Kurds.

While Iran and Russia rallied wholeheartedly behind Assad, the US and Europe could not decide to what extent they had faith in the mass movement against Assad, and what to make of the deep divisions and loose structure of the movement that allowed for extreme elements to take centre stage.

Haunted by Libya, Obama was reluctant to intervene directly. Wary of Islamism, Europe were keen to see the composition of the Syrian Opposition Council before committing any resources. Saudi Arabia and Qatar then engaged in an almighty feud over the Muslim Brotherhood that spilled over into the conflict while Erdogan wrangled over the breakdown of peace talks with the Kurds brought about by the renewed vigour of the PKK and YPG in establishing a state brought about by the chaos in Syria.

Ghouta is but a symptom of a much deeper and complex disease that has plagued the Syria conflict from the outset.

 

How the rebels became their own enemy

However, Syria is not a case of good versus evil and whilst Assad supporters are lulled into the delusion of anti-imperialist grandeur and Che-Guevara-esque rebellion against the global order, anti-Assad supporters are guilty of turning a blind eye to critical truths.

The main reasons behind the tragedy of Ghouta are not primarily to do with Iran, Russia or Assad, but first and foremost with the make-up of the rebel forces and their backers.

The Syrian Opposition has been mired in political wrangling as a result of the Qatar-Saudi feud over the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar, keen to realise its soft power project in backing the Brotherhood in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, sought to establish the Syrian Brotherhood as the out-and-out alternative. Saudi Arabia’s long-enmity with the Brotherhood dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, as well as rumblings of a domestic Arab Spring caused panic and paranoia as it moved to limit the influence of the Brotherhood and scatter threatening opposition groups.

Practically, this meant that Saudi sought to empower multiple groups lacking in popular support in order to limit the voice of the Brotherhood, resulting in delays in the appointment of representatives as well as an inability to come up with an agenda behind which all groups could rally around. This made the opposition look weak and disorganised at a time when the international community were looking for a credible and viable alternative to Assad.

However, to limit the paralysis of the Opposition Council to Qatar-Saudi differences is naïve.

 

The curse of Jabhat Al-Nusra

On the ground in Syria, the decisive impact of Al-Nusra and ISIS on the moral legitimacy of the Syrian revolution cannot be understated. The FSA were summarily defeated in Qusayr by Hezbollah in 2013 and could not recover to re-assert itself as the main fighting force of the Syrian revolution. Al-Nusra, which rose to prominence as the main fighting force in FSA’s wake, made arguably the most extraordinary blunder of this dark chapter by pre-emptively announcing its allegiance to Al-Qaeda, putting its key backer Erdogan in a most awkward position in front of his NATO allies, and giving Assad and Russia the perfect PR material to transform the civil war into a battle against global terrorism; a narrative that Europe and the US had to accept had some truth to it.

This only fuelled Obama’s indecisiveness over Syria following the failure of NATO intervention in Libya which subsequently saw the establishment of two governments, a state of lawlessness, and the rise of ISIS in North Africa. Haunted by Libya, Obama was loathe to provide support for the revolution if it meant supporting Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra. He turned to trying to train moderate rebels in Jordan, and strengthening Kurdish positions. The former proved impossible. The latter antagonised Turkey which hosts the Incirlik base, a vital position from which the US were conducting military operations in the region.

Supporters of the revolution were caught in an awkward position. They condemned Al-Nusra, but criticised the focus of the international community on the group, declaring it as a mere excuse to justify abandoning the Syrian people.

 

Saudi marred by succession struggle and false intentions

Saudi Arabia’s issues with Syria were twofold, with both issues having a resounding impact on the conduct of the war. The first was that the Syria crisis emerged in the last days of King Abdullah and when the succession struggle was at its most fierce. Princes jostling for power used the Syria issue as a poison chalice to ruin one another’s chances at a shot at the throne. In real terms, this meant that Saudi provided unlimited backing one day, and then withdrew most backing the next as each competing prince who had been handed authority over the Syria ‘file’ sought to avoid burning their domestic political credit. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan went into self-imposed exile after complaints over his policy of arming anyone willing to fight Assad which allegedly led to weapons finding their way into the hands of more extreme elements. When Prince Mitab Bin Abdullah sought to bring this fate upon his rival Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef by tasking him with handling Syria, Bin Nayef simply withdrew all support so as not to be burnt in the same manner as his predecessor, causing a seismic shift in the dynamics in Syria. This problem was only resolved when King Salman put an end to the struggle upon assuming power.

The second issue, and one that continues to plague the Syrian cause, is that Saudi Arabia’s primary aim is not, and never was, Assad. Saudi Arabia’s fundamental aim is to cut Iran’s access to Hezbollah and stem its growing influence that has come to encompass Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. To make this clearer, if Assad were tomorrow to state that he has abandoned Iran and returned to the ‘Arab’ fold, it is more likely than not that Saudi Arabia would accept a settlement.

For Assad, the problem is that the Saudis cannot be trusted after ‘abandoning’ Saddam, a former fellow Ba’ath, to the US. The Iranians are simply far better ‘friends’ and their commitment to his protection is testament to the sound logic of this approach.

Saudi’s skewed aims have meant that it has never been able to maintain a coherent and solid alliance of anti-Assad nations. On one day it would welcome Erdogan in Riyadh, and then ignore Ankara in search of warmer ties with Russia, before returning to Ankara after Putin’s cold shoulder. This flip-flapping of foreign policy irked even their allies in the Syrian opposition leading to a scathing attack by Mishail Kilou, a man considered to have been forced on the Opposition Council by Saudi Arabia itself.

But Saudi Arabian foreign policy is only one part of a long list of factors.

 

The ‘Sultan’ fallicy

Erdogan has been accused of ‘crocodile’ tears and pandering to the ‘Muslim’ world with quotes from the Qur’anic verses as well as adopting an anti-Assad stance early on. However such recent criticism has often stemmed from emotional furore as opposed to anything rooted in the realities on the ground,

Part of former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s great foreign policy in light of rejection from the EU, and indifference from the Arab world, was to find friendship with Syria and Iran, thereby securing the borders and also facilitating a smooth management of the restive Kurdish areas. This friendship proved fruitful as the countries became key trading partners and Turkey was left to embark on an economic revolution under the AKP.

It is harsh to criticise Erdogan for not jumping on the revolution bandwagon in Syria. He had established years of warm ties and according to sources approached by the International Interest, Turkey’s initial move was to send a delegation to Assad advising him to make concessions in light of the growing protests. Assad’s flagrant disregard of such advice and swift developments on the ground forced Turkey into a re-alignment whereby it had to choose a new ‘camp’. With historical ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, it made sense to adopt Qatar’s approach and back the revolution. Such a move should not be seen as political expedience. Turkey has/had much to gain from a Brotherhood-led Arab world.

However differences over Sisi in Egypt prevented a healthy working relationship with Saudi which inevitably hindered communication of intelligence on the ground, logistics and military tactics against the Assad regime.

It was only when, for a brief period, Saudi Arabia decided to throw all its cards in behind the rebels alongside Qatar and Turkey, did the rebel movement gather momentum. Such was the momentum that talk began to spread of Damascus being with rebel sights. This sudden surge in rebel momentum suddenly caught Putin off-guard who, fearing a US-leaning regime and more establishing of military bases as had become habit in Europe, threw his full weight behind the Assad regime militarily and diplomatically.

To have expected Turkey to take on Russia and Iran militarily is fanciful at best. But supposing Turkey had drawn up plans for military action, US backing of the Kurds and YPG movements in Syria which had encouraged the PKK to stall on domestic peace talks rattled Erdogan.

Here it is fair to blame the US. Had they given Erdogan a guarantee of a no-fly zone corridor that would have limited Kurdish movement, Erdogan may then have had the peace of mind to be more pro-active on Syria. However, the US were unwilling to become embroiled with Assad as a no-fly zone required destroying the Syrian regime defences. Furthermore, the US were already backing the Kurdish forces as an example of ‘moderate’ rebels while Turkey became accused of backing ISIS as ‘terrorist’ organisations began to appear at the forefront of the rebel movement.  Only a shrewd manoeuvre from the Turks to invite Barzani and the Peshmerga to a golden PR opportunity to save Kobane from ISIS salvaged Erdogan’s reputation and put off the media witch-hunt for his head.

At this point, it is most likely that Obama had been advised that Syria was headed for a split and that the safest gamble was on the Kurds who remain the most organised fighting group, though not necessarily against Assad. Had it been otherwise, the US would have been more responsive of Erdogan’s requests, and more vocal in its condemnation of the attempted July 15 coup in Turkey, a stance which forced Erdogan to seek a truce with Moscow. Having one superpower keen to oust you is one thing. Having two is a desperate situation.

In other words, Erdogan has found himself having to navigate the pitfalls of Syria and it is telling that the sudden support for the Kurds from Russia, reflecting in air strikes on rebel positions which would then be occupied by the YPG or SDF, resulted in Erdogan visiting Moscow himself.

Supposing Erdogan is now sitting contemplating a military operation. The harsh reality is that he would be alone. Saudi Arabia would not commit and is still courting Moscow. Qatar lacks the military capabilities and does not have a viable ‘proxy’. The US cannot be relied upon to commit to protecting Turkey diplomatically in the event Russia lobbies for international sanctions/condemnation on Ankara. Domestically, the PKK would likely use the conflict to create turmoil domestically, creating a war of attrition and gambling on the Turkish people tiring of conflict. Whichever way you look at it, a Turkish military campaign is simply not viable.

 

Unity always beats disunity

Ultimately, the tragedy of Ghouta has brought to the fore one startling fact; that Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are all united between one objective; protect the regime. The rebels however, are divided with Turkey targeting the Kurds, Saudi Arabia targeting Iran, Qatar seeking to salvage its failed Muslim Brotherhood proxy project, Al-Nusra seeking more extreme aims, secular opposition seeking moderate fighting forces, and the US gradually accepting that Assad may well be the best of a bunch of bad solutions.

As tragic as Ghouta is, it is a chapter in a wider more tragic reality; that what began as a desire for change and an uprising against a brutal dictator, has now become an arena for global political intrigue and a tug of war shaping the new regional and global order. No longer is Saudi Arabia the clear power in the Middle East. Iran has demonstrated it is capable of becoming the new power. No longer is the US the global superpower. Russia has demonstrated that it can be an alternative and equally formidable ally.

The people caught in between are but a passing statistic. Forgotten today, forgotten tomorrow, betrayed by poor political acumen, visionless foreign policy, and ambition rooted in greed, corruption and arrogance.

 

identicon

Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…