Syria: the method and the madness

NOW Lebanon

There is method to the madness that is currently unfolding in Syria. When you consider the patterns and timing of arms flows into the country, consider who the final recipients are, and consider when certain battles start and stop, when certain explosions or massacres happen, you can only come to this conclusion.

A plan is unfolding. Territories are being carved out, and boundaries are being “negotiated” through localized clashes. The regime, through its loyalist troops and militias, is playing its part. Rebel groups are playing theirs, and both sides are receiving logistical and material support, albeit not on the same scale, from external backers whose agendas seem to tango at this stage rather than clash.

Indeed, the not-so hidden hands of different regional and international actors are clearly steering events toward a certain end that seem to be mutually agreed, at least in terms of its broad outlines. The crisis is being managed, and while Assad and his backers seem intent on implementing a maximalist agenda, various developments, including the recent soft push by rebels into the Alawite heartland in the mountains of Latakia, indicate that they are being delicately checked. The rebels may not have wanted a soft push, but the type and amount of arms made available to them dictated the extent of their advance. That’s how they continue to be manipulated at this stage, from the more pragmatic factions to the extremists to those with known al-Qaeda connections. The idea, it seems, is to contain the Assad camp’s maximalist agenda without breaking the regime – who, just by existing it seems, continues to serve the interests of different regional and international parties, at least for now.

At the beginning of the Revolution in March of 2011, the opposition had a limited window of opportunity to project a viable alternative to the Assad regime, and hence to this unfolding scenario. Opposition groups needed to show that they have the necessary understanding and pragmatism to manage the complex interests of different parties, just as the Assad regime did, especially under the guidance of the late Hafiz al-Assad. But within months, it became clear that the opposition is simply not up to the task. With this realization, the responsibility for managing change in Syria was handed over, whole stock-and-barrel, to external parties who were naturally more committed to serving their perceived interests than those of the Syrian people.

At this stage, the fate of Syria as a whole has already been determined, and getting us from here to there is no longer a process that Syrian activists and opposition members can influence. We simply don’t have the right caliber leaders for that, and the situation on the ground is no longer conducive to pragmatic approaches – and will not be for a long while.

There is currently no point in lobbying the international community, except to get support for programs related to mitigating the impact of Syria’s breakup – noting that other countries might soon follow – either as part of the same unfolding scenario, or despite best efforts at containing the current conflict inside the borders of Syria. Facilitating the integration of refugees, improving their living conditions, creating job opportunities, and providing schools for the over one million refugee children are of paramount importance now, lest the camps and other Syrian communities become hubs for extremist ideologies and jihadist recruitment centers.

More hopeful elements in the activist community in and outside the country might also want to use this time to prepare themselves for a return to civil action at some point in the future, for the battle in this regard can never be given up. But continued ideological commitments on their part will hinder the process. It’s about time in our modern existence we adopted interest-based approaches to managing our problems rather than ideological ones. Hopefully, activists will be able to see that in time.

There is enough blame to go around for how we arrived to this point, and no end of conspiracy theories. Some might suggest that the analysis offered here is an example of one. Be that as it may, here we are. The recent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime seems to have come as a response to rebel advances in the Alawite heartland, another sign that Assad and his backers remain committed to their maximalist agenda. Whether this development will compel the Obama administration to act militarily in order to send a clear and adamant message is irrelevant to the larger challenge that lies ahead: managing the humanitarian crises associated with massive demographic dislocations that the region is, and will be, witnessing over the next few years.

As the region gets reshaped, we simply cannot ignore the humanitarian costs involved, nor can we the dangers for the region and the world associated with the inevitable rise of extremism on all sides.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian dissident and the president of the Tharwa Foundation. He currently divides his time between Washington, D.C. and Turkey, where he works with local Syrian activists on developing long-term peace-building and democracy-promotion programs.