This was published at Foreign Policy.
There are some, perhaps many, Syrians who detest their government and are entirely aware of its treasonous nature — yet wish for the demonstrations and the guerrilla actions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to stop and for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to regain control as soon as possible. They take this position out of a profound pessimism: They believe it is impossible to uproot the surveillance-and-torture state and its deep sectarian substructure, that more people will die the longer the unrest continues, that the economy will collapse further, and that nothing will alter the end — Assad’s inevitable victory. Some Syrians go so far as to say that the regime itself, or a branch of it, is surreptitiously encouraging demonstrations so as to have an “excuse” to teach the new generation an unforgettable lesson.
I can’t agree with this defeatist perspective on principle — the principle being my refusal to give in to despair, and my faith in the ability of human beings to change their circumstances. I understand it, however, and I understand that I might share it if I were living in the heart of the horror instead of in Scotland. But apart from principle, I think the assumption underlying the defeatist perspective is mistaken. Yes, the regime is still able to kill, and will continue or even intensify its killing. However, it has lost control of the country and won’t be able to reestablish it.
The much-maligned United Nations observers have confirmed what news reports had already suggested: Large areas of the Syrian countryside and provincial cities are either under FSA control or nobody’s. Regime forces are able to infiltrate and punish areas under the revolutionaries’ sway, but they dare not linger. Sometimes, they are not even able to move in. When the Assad regime recently attempted to retake the eastern city of Rastan, the FSA destroyed a number of armored vehicles and killed 23 soldiers, forcing the military to retreat.
This is not the 1980s, when Bashar’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, succeeded in crushing an Islamist-led rebellion. Back then, the regime succeeded in isolating its enemies in the city of Hama while the world’s eyes were focused on a raging civil war and regional struggle for influence in neighboring Lebanon. That was before YouTube and citizen journalism, and before a generation of guerrillas learned lessons in insurgency from south Lebanon and Iraq.
Today, regime forces face roadside bombs from the Jabal al-Zawiya countryside in the north to the Deir ez-Zor governorate in the east and Deraa in the south. According to the most optimistic reports, about a third of the army has defected – most men have gone home or fled abroad and are keeping their heads down, but many thousands have joined opposition militias. For the defectors, and for the civilian volunteers who fight for revenge or neighborhood defense, the regime’s re-establishment of control would mean certain death. These men have no option but to continue resisting.
A few weeks ago, the situation for the resistance militias was dire. They were hopelessly outgunned and had run out of ammunition. But there has been a glimmer of light more recently: News reports suggest that greater quantities of improved weaponry have begun reaching some of the revolutionary forces. One sign of this is the FSA’s increasing effectiveness at destroying regime tanks.
It’s too early to be certain, but it does seem that Qatari and Saudi promises to arm the opposition, or at least to fund arms purchases, are being fulfilled. The United States is reportedly helping to “coordinate” this process. After 15 months of slaughter and sectarianism, I find myself in the novel position of welcoming this vague intervention.
The dangers of foreign-funded civil war are many and obvious. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not democracies, and Saudi and Qatari “investors” will not willingly invest in democracy. Private Gulf and other Islamist investors are likely to channel money to groups that understand the conflict in nakedly sectarian terms. The United States, one would expect, will also be doing its best to cultivate clients friendly to American and Israeli interests in the region.
I doubt that any outside power will be able to impose its candidate at the end. The balance of power in the region is currently too contested to allow one side a conclusive victory. But it’s almost certain that the country’s future leaders will be not civilians but military heroes. That’s because it’s almost certain that the conflict will be settled not by talking, but by guns. To the victor goes the spoils.
The overbearing role of armed men has been one of Syria’s curses since the foundation of the postcolonial state. A greater, and related, curse has been sectarianism — a monster now well and truly out of the bag and prancing in all its naked ugliness. Just as the regime managed to project a veneer of intelligence before the uprising by deploying urbane spokespeople and co-opted “intellectuals,” so it was long able to pose as the secular defender of Syria’s delicate social balance. Beneath the surface lay the reality: Syria is just another Levantine postcolonial regime — every bit as much a product of Sykes-Picot as the Zionist power structure. As the French appointed Maronites to rule Lebanon, they created “an army of minorities” that would rule Syria. The system has not been secularist but sectarian-secularist: Alawis overwhelmingly staff the upper ranks of the security and intelligence services, the most powerful branches of state whose permission is required for everything, from renting a building to opening a street stall. Though unfavored Alawis remain poor and marginalized, those with family connections to the security services are favored for jobs and other opportunities. The brooding social tensions this caused were set aflame when the regime began arming Alawi thugs and sending them into Sunni cities to kill, rape, and humiliate. Eyewitnesses from the town of al-Houla report that the people who cut the throats of children during the massacre were uniformed Alawis from a neighboring village.
In this context, the popular chant of the revolution — “the Syrian people are one” — sounds to many like an empty slogan. The damage is already done. It’s already too late for a happy ending. The civil war is here, and the longer the stalemate lasts the deeper the trauma will be. This is why I support supplying weapons to the Free Syrian Army. Let’s get it over with as soon as possible.
The regime deploys tanks, missile batteries, and helicopter gunships, and is aided and resupplied by Iran and Russia. Syrians have the right to defend themselves, and the right to the means to defend themselves. Most of the country, especially the Sunni heartland, has been reduced to something worse than Gaza. Syrians are fighting anyway — not for ideology, but for survival. They won’t stop fighting. Eventually they will win, although the field of their victory will be the smoking ruin of a poor and bitterly divided country. At some point before that, key sections of the military and the Alawi community will realize they have no hope of victory, and will either flee or switch sides. I would prefer this moment to come in a year’s time or sooner, not in another decade. Arming Syria’s guerrillas is the only way to bring about that result.