Syria is becoming an Iraq, not a Bosnia


by Hajrudin Somun*

A member of the Free Syrian Army walks at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Aleppo on July 29.(PHOTO REUTERS)
Many people say that Syria’s regime is entering an “endgame” or “the finals,” and that the days of its head, Bashar al-Assad, are numbered.

Before the rebellion moved to Damascus and Aleppo and before the July 18 assassination of Assad’s top military and security commanders, I was saying his rule would end in years, not days, but these past few weeks I have come closer to the longtime Middle East reporter Robert Fisk’s concise assumption stating, “Going, but not yet gone.”

There is, however, something else I don’t agree with and that is that certain unusual and unprejudiced Middle East observers and some reporters and officials note that the Syrian events can be compared somewhat with those in Bosnia and the Balkans in the 1990s. Recalling the break-up of “secular” Yugoslavia, “whose sectarian divisions were then remarkably similar to Syria’s today,” Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent recently that “the appalling scenes from Syria do now begin to reflect the barbarism of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.” William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, speaking also on the situation in Syria in the middle of June, said: “But it is not so much like Libya last year, where of course we had a successful intervention to save lives. It is looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s, being on the edge of a sectarian conflict in which neighboring villages are attacking and killing each other, so I don’t think we can rule anything out.”

The aggressive policy of Slobodan Milosevic

There was barbarism in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, of course, but it was not caused by sectarian divisions, but the aggressive policy of Slobodan Milosevic, whose aim was to create a Greater Serbia by exercising violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing against the non-Serb population. Whoever mentions there was “sectarian conflict” in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I assume, means “civil war” and not the classic aggression that it was. In the Balkans there were wars for territories, and there is no need to repeat what is happening in Syria. Such reckless allusions countenance those Serb nationalists who consider that all sides were equal and responsible in the 1990s Balkan wars. In that regard, closer to reality are the comments from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu. While speaking to journalists in Washington last February ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said, “We hoped Assad could be a ‘Gorbachev’.” He began with the example of the Russian leader who introduced major democratic reforms in the former Soviet Union, and continued, “But instead he wanted to be Milosevic.”

I can accept comparing today’s Syria and the Yugoslavia of the past only if the observation is from the outside, focusing on the external actors and their struggle for regional influence; from the angle of indecisive drawing out of the UN Security Council resolutions, imposing ineffective sanctions and pro et contra arguments on foreign military intervention. In that sense, Assad might be compared with Milosevic, because he uses those foreign actors and even plays with them to get more time to subdue his people’s growing revolt and to remain in power. As was the case with Milosevic in the Balkans, for some regional and foreign powers, Assad’s regime is still promoting their strategic interests and, however absurd it might be, is a factor of stability in the eastern Mediterranean. The New York Times recently published an article under the title “Assad, the Butcher,” just as it had said of Milosevic in the 1990s when it called him the “Butcher from the Balkans.” Milosevic, however, survived the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, only to be handed over to The Hague’s war crimes tribunal by his own people.

Looking at the country from within, what has been happening in the recent past and what can happen in the near future, Syria might be likened in almost every sense to Iraq.

First, as had been the case in Iraq until 2003, Syria is still ruled by the monolithic and strong Baath Party, on the model of the national-socialist and fascist ideology in Germany and Italy between the two world wars. In relation to those two European powers that ignited World War II, Baath can boast of its governance of Syria and Iraq having lasted twice as long. Launching the war against Iran and invading Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s legacy in Iraq has brought the whole region to the brink of conflict. Saddam’s counterpart in Syria, Hafez Al-Assad, was satisfied with the invasion of Lebanon, but his son Bashar threatened recently that he would use unconventional weapons in the case of any foreign intervention against his regime.

Secondly, in both Iraq and Syria a small minority has been ruling over a great majority that includes other minorities. With slight differences, sectarian and ethnic affiliations intermingled in both countries. In Iraq one Arab Sunni ruled over one Kurdish and two Shiite quarters of the population. The ruling Assad family belongs to the Alawite branch of Shiism that has only around 13 percent adherents among 23 million Syrians. Those figures confirm domination of an ideological over religious or ethnic membership in both countries. Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq was himself a Christian.

Third, the opposition to governments in Iraq and Syria has been emerging among the majority of the population. Inversely to the ruling Baath elite, in Iraq it was a Shiite and in Syria a Sunni opposition. And both were very religious — the Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Contrary to the US designs that their 2003 invasion of Iraq would bring pro-Western politicians to Baghdad, the head and majority of the ministers in the Iraqi government in recent years have been from the Islamic Dawa Party, and are — again contrary to the American regional strategy — more pro-Iranian than pro-Western. That is one of the reasons behind the American, Western, Arab and particularly Israeli concerns that a foreign intervention might bring to Damascus the people who are more pro-Iranian than Assad himself.

Fourth, all those countries from the Middle East’s northeast corner have their own Kurds making trouble for them. There is a much larger population in Iraq than in Syria, but no government in Damascus ever felt at ease with their relationship with the Kurds. Kurds are close in number to Alawites, and by their faith Sunnis, but not Arabs. The Syrian Kurds have often been neglected as an important actor in the country’s internal and regional policy. At the beginning of the insurrection against Assad’s rule, they were not particularly active. However, they demonstrated patriotic feelings last October in the predominately Kurdish town of Qamishli. During the funeral of Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo, who was murdered by the regime’s agents, security forces fired into a crowd of more than 50,000 mourners and killed five people. The mourning turned into a large-scale protest. The choice of a Kurdish secular intellectual, Abdulbaset Sieda, as the new head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) last June was a recognition of the Kurdish role in the present-day situation, but at the same time an attempt to unite different sects among the anti-regime forces, including the Kurds.

The future of Aleppo

The fifth element is the most accurate one. I don’t know what the coming days will bring, but if Aleppo falls into rebel hands, then the worst scenario can be imagined for Syria, again mostly following the pattern of Iraq. The battle for that most populous city, which holds traces of historical battles from the times of the Crusades and inter-Arab wars, will be hard and exhausting, because of its strategic value for both sides: for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to prove its ability to overrun other parts of the country, and for Assad’s army, to prove it has enough strength to prolong the Baathist regime.

If the Assad regime falls, in fact, two scenarios are possible, one worse than the other. In the case of the inability of rebel forces, united loosely under the SNC and the FSA, to bring about security and establish transitional institutions for the country, the real civil war will start and open the space for the radicalization of the liberation movement. There are already signs that extremist groups from the wider al-Qaeda spectrum have entered Syria from Iraq, where they created chaos and brutal sectarian conflict. A video of masked men calling themselves the “Free Syrian Army,” with two al-Qaeda flags behind them, was distributed abroad from Syria in recent days. A speaker in the video said, “We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of Allah.” Suicide bombings — perfected in Iraq, mostly by al-Qaeda — have already been introduced into Syria.

Another possible outcome from the current situation might emerge if the Baathist regime, remnants of its army, and even Assad himself, lose Damascus and withdraw to the Jebel Nusairiyeh slopes and the Mediterranean coast, inhabited mostly by Alawites, and create an Alawite enclave there. Speculations in that regard have appeared elsewhere, including in columns in Today’s Zaman. What I can add to the assumption of a coming Alawistan, Western Kurdistan, Druzistan, Sunni Ikhwanistan or whatever else might come in such a disintegrated Syria, is that Iraq has already been divided along similar sectarian and ethnic grounds. It still exists as a single country, but divided into the Kurdish north, Sunni center and Shiite southern regions that might turn into separate states. One may recall as well that similar regional division of pashaluks, sanjaks and vilayets existed in the present-day territories of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon during the Ottoman rule. I wouldn’t go this far, but such a development could destabilize the whole region, as occurred after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. I also won’t go into the involvement of external forces in the Syrian events because it is being widely reviewed by other observers. The US administration’s concerns in Syria are: the fate of the chemical weapons that could be used by Assad’s desperate army or stolen by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, the security of its major regional ally Israel and the behavior of its major adversary, Iran. Turkey’s many concerns — whether a new self-governing Kurdish region in Syria might emerge next to Iraqi Kurdistan and provide a new Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) base for infiltration into its territory, or for the influx of Syrian refugees who have already caused trouble along the country’s southern borders — are more easily understood because further such developments on its southern frontiers affect its very stability.

What I can’t understand is why Assad still resists the groups calling, and even begging, him to step down from power and enjoy the rest of his life in exile when he is well aware what destiny was meted out to Hussein, or, to return to the Balkans again, Milosevic. There is no need to mention other more accurate examples — Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. He is either struck by a kind of dictatorial insanity, or he knows things no one else except some people in Moscow or Tehran know.

*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Ankara.

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