We Break It, You Own It: Putin’s Syria Strategy

putinSharp analysis from Thomas Pierret, published first at the Global Observatory.

Some Western observers of Russia’s recent intervention in Syria are convinced President Vladimir Putin is making a mistake—and, following wisdom often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, one should never interrupt an enemy while they are making a mistake. By committing its own forces to the defense of beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad, some believe that Moscow is about to bog itself down in Syria the same way Washington got stuck in Iraq. However, proponents of this view should be wary the joke might well be on them.

First, although difficult times certainly lie ahead for Russia in Syria, Putin’s intervention will make the conflict more destructive, destabilizing, and intractable, hence more detrimental to all parties. Second, the way Moscow defines success in Syria is hardly comparable to the stabilization-oriented approach adopted by the United States-led coalition in Iraq. Instead, by trying to destroy mainstream insurgents, Putin aims to reshape the Syrian war in a way that would leave Western countries with no other option than to supplement Russia as the protector of Assad.

Russian intervention in Syria will make the war deadlier and heighten the refugee crisis spreading across the region into Europe and beyond. Although they have carried out some precision airstrikes against rebel headquarters, Russian forces have made a greater use of unguided ammunitions, including cluster bombs designed to wreak havoc over vast swaths of territory. As scores of these fail to explode, they will continue to kill civilians who will accidentally set them off years after the end of Russian operations. Russian attacks are not more discriminate than Assad’s, but they are far more powerful. Consequently, they have provoked new displacements of populations in regions whose inhabitants were already used to intensive shelling and bombing, such as the northern countryside of Hama province.

Continue reading “We Break It, You Own It: Putin’s Syria Strategy”

On Nir Rosen’s Definitions of ‘Sectarian’ and ‘Secular’

by Thomas Pierret

AFP photo. burying victims of the Houla massacre
AFP photo. burying victims of the Houla massacre

Foreign Policy just published an article by David Kenner about a report on the Syrian conflict written for the US government by Nir Rosen, an ex-journalist currently working as a special adviser for conflict-resolution NGO Humanitarian Dialogue.

For several months, Rosen has been promoting an approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict that shifts away from political transition in favour of local truces, a stance that is not dissimilar to UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s suggestion to “freeze” the conflict.

For many reasons, I do not think that this approach is in any way promising, but my concern here is different: it is rather the distinctly pro-Asad flavour of Rosen’s assessment of the conflict, which makes his piece look like an attempt at whitewashing the regime’s crimes, or to put it like Kenneth Roth from Human Rights Watch did it on Twitter, at sugarcoating deliberate mass-murder.

Rosen likes to remind his interlocutors that he has spent most of the last three years in Syria, speaking to people from all sides. This might be part of the problem: he seems to have spent so much time with regime officials that he is now speaking exactly like them.

Rosen’s report includes an old Stalinist trope about the Asads’ achievements in terms of health, education and infrastructure, an argument even the most obtuse defenders of the regime have started handling with care after the regime started to deliberately destroy much of its own infrastructures to make life impossible in rebel-held areas. In the same vein, Rosen claims that the Syrian regime was not the worst in the region before 2011. This is seriously debatable: by 2010, an aggregate index combining state repression and human development would certainly have placed Syria at the bottom of the regional ranking.

Then comes the breaking news: the Syrian regime is not sectarian, it is even staunchly secular! According to Rosen, the regime’s brutality towards the Sunni opposition “was done more out of a fear of Sunni sectarianism than as a result of the regime’s own sectarianism (sic)”. If Rosen is trying to tell us that the ruling clique in Damascus is not composed of sectarian ideologues, thanks, we knew that: Mafiosi are interested in power and money, not ideology. But that does not mean that their strategy cannot be deeply sectarian at the same time. The Syrian regime manipulated sectarian divides from day one. Does Rosen remember the first days of April 2011, when the Minister of Interior was branding the peaceful sit-in in Homs as a “Salafi Emirate”? Wasn’t that a not-so-subtle way to raise sectarian fears among minorities? Or was the Minister speaking so “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Does Rosen remember that a couple of days later, Alawite auxiliaries were sent to kill protesters on Homs’ Clock Square? Did that also happen “out of fear of Sunni sectarianism”? Later that month, other Alawite militiamen were sent into the coastal village of al-Bayda, and filmed themselves tramping over the bodies of Sunni prisoners. An admirably non-sectarian move, once again! I had thought that faced with the same situation, a genuinely secular government would have sent uniformed security forces from other provinces rather than civilian auxiliaries from the rival local sect, but thanks to his three-year fieldwork expertise, Rosen redefined the whole concept of non-sectarianism: it means acting in a deeply sectarian manner while remaining staunchly secular in one’s heart.

Continue reading “On Nir Rosen’s Definitions of ‘Sectarian’ and ‘Secular’”

Thomas Pierret on the Syrian Revolution

a scene from the sectarian massacre in al-Bayda, May 2013
a scene from the sectarian massacre in al-Bayda, May 2013

I hate to link to the Angry Arab for various reasons. This is the man who, on the one hand, was only able to mention Juliano Mer Khamis, the martyred Palestinian founder of Balata refugee camp’s Freedom Theatre, in the context of slandering his mother’s ethnicity (yes, she was an Israeli Jew, but one who chose to marry a Palestinian – and Juliano was a man who could have used his mother’s identity to live between the bars and beaches of Tel Aviv, but chose to live and work in occupied Nablus instead). On the other hand he slanders serious scholars like Mearsheimer and Walt, men who have done such important work on exposing the machinations of the Israel Lobby in the US, by accusing them of anti-semitism. (I wonder why he, an American-based academic, has had so much less trouble with people like Campus Watch than real intellectuals like Edward Said and Norman Finkelstein, who made much less dramatic anti-Israel statements). His coverage of the Syrian Revolution has been appalling. He has relied on informants such as ‘an American friend’ to inform his readership that the revolutionary suburbs of Damascus are ‘like Kandahar’ (usually he is overquick to accuse Western commentators of Islamophobia). He has consistently exaggerated the barbarism and sectarianism of elements of the Syrian resistance while consistently underestimating or ignoring the sectarianism and barbarism of the Syrian regime. The questions he poses in this interview with Syria expert Thomas Pierret expose his sectarian bias, but Pierret’s responses are so clear and well-informed that the post deserves reposting here.

“1) You and I have disagreed on Syria, do you think that Syria experts have been wrong in the last years especially with the regular and constant predictions of the imminent fall of the regime?

The generalisation is problematic. Such predictions were rather made by journalists, who have the good excuse of not being Syria experts, and Western officials, who often did so for a bad reason, i.e. in order to justify their inaction: if Asad is about to fall, then there is no need to do anything to stop him.
 
“Experts” did not collectively agree upon the imminent fall of the regime. In early April 2011, I published an op-ed in the French newspaper Le Monde. The last sentence said this: “Nothing guarantees the success of the Syrian revolution, and if it happens at all, it will certainly be long, and painful” . I was not the only one to think that way. I clearly remember a conversation I had at the same time with Steven Heydemann, who was even more pessimistic than I was: he predicted that the regime would use its full military might against the opposition, and that none would act to stop it.
 
I must admit that later developments made me over-optimistic at times, but overall, I do not think I have seriously under-estimated the solidity of the regime.