By George Friedman
The focus of this week was Syria. Diplomats of global powers, including the United States and Russia, sought to craft a ceasefire. Today, 97 armed groups who are part of the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime agreed to a two-week truce beginning at midnight. Each side warned the other that they would respect the ceasefire so long as the other side did.
We should pause for a moment to consider the fact that there are more than 97 distinct groups waging a civil war against a still united regime. There had been a general expectation that in due course the Assad regime would collapse in the face of this highly factionalized opposition. The fact that there are 97 opposition groups agreeing to the ceasefire is the reason Assad hasn’t fallen. An opposition divided into 97 distinct groups is not going to overthrow anyone. Certainly, there are larger and smaller groups, and more and less important groups. But each group exists because it represents some interest distinct from others, if only the personal ambitions of the leaders. Each military operation requiring cooperation – and any operation must have cooperation to be effective – must be negotiated.
Assad’s opponents are as concerned about their position within the broader opposition as they are in overthrowing Assad. The goal could not have been simply to overthrow the regime. It had to take into account each group’s power within the opposition, as that would determine their roles in a government. In Venezuela, the opposition attempted to overthrow President Hugo Chávez over a decade ago. The people staging the coup sent Chávez to an island offshore. They fell to arguing with each other over who would hold which post in the new government. They forget about Chávez, who got on a plane and returned to Caracas. The coup failed.
I have long thought that, in the history of attempted coups, the one that tried to overthrow Chávez was the wackiest. I am now convinced that the Syrian opposition would be the funniest, except that it has helped create a human catastrophe of monumental proportions – a catastrophe that is far from over. War requires both a unified command and the ability to make decisions quickly, sometimes within minutes. If that is not possible, the best the opposition group can hope for is not to be destroyed. In a certain sense, this is worse than a defeat because it prolongs the war without any hope of success. True, it prevents Assad from taking his inevitable vengeance on his enemies, and that is important. But the casualties of the war itself, even without defeat, are horrific.
From a moral point of view, I would argue that starting a war that you have no chance of winning is deeply questionable. The opposition should have recognized that, while every faction hated Assad, they were profoundly divided in every other sense. They needed to unite. But it is very easy for an outsider to demand unity since, not being a native, he has no grasp of the history, the hatred and the rage between the groups. We always understand the things we hate, yet we are always amazed at how foolish the hatred of others is. These opposition groups are divided by religious, ethnic and clan distinctions. They hate and fear Assad, but they also have decades or centuries of malice saved up for each other.
This was why Assad could rule as he did. He had a faction dominated by the Alawites, large enough, disciplined enough and committed enough to suppress the fragments that made up the rest of Syria. His father Hafez al-Assad, who imposed the current regime in 1970, is the moral brother of Saddam Hussein. Leaders of the rival wings of the pan-Arab Baath Party, both lived in nations invented from the fantasies of the Europeans, without common bonds or moral commitment. Hussein was able to rule because he used the unity of his clan, a faction in the city of Tikrit, to hammer his way to the top of a ruthless single-party dictatorship. When the Americans destroyed Hussein, some expected a cohesive alternative to Hussein to emerge. What actually emerged was a civil war among the various factions in Iraq, with the United States thinking it was suppressing the civil war, when it had actually simply become another faction in it. Like the others, it was strong enough to survive and too weak to win.
The rebels did not destroy the Syrian government. It was never destroyed. However, the Arab Spring, which should be seen as the forerunner of chaos and not democracy, generated a rising against the Assad regime. The West interpreted this as the latest phase of the French Revolution, a liberal democratic child of the Enlightenment. But it was really an opening for those who had lost to Assad’s tyranny and now sought the opportunity to impose their will on the Alawites and all the other factions. How the Arab Spring became identified with liberal democracy is a study in the pathology of Western blindness. It is the belief that those who oppose tyrants support Western liberal democracy. Usually, they only favor their own tyranny or independence for their factions.
The same thing happened in Syria and Iraq: civil wars of all against all. And the U.S. leadership thought, in both places, that the fall of a dictator would mean the beginning of national unity and liberal democracy. This flawed evaluation was compounded by the inability to understand that the Syrian opposition would begin their chaotic competition before Assad ever fell, and then that the Assad regime would not fall.
The Hussein regime fell because the United States militarily destroyed it. The Assad regime did not fall because no outside power had a strong enough interest in destroying it. But many were interested enough to arm and encourage opposition groups. In the end, we wound up with a weakened Assad, an opposition that couldn’t win and extraordinary suffering. Iraq was a case where a foreign power cared. Syria was a case where no one cared enough.
Now various powers are using the civil war to reposition their strategic postures. The Americans are practicing a more distant balance of power strategy, providing limited support for some while fretting over the Islamic State. Having opposed Assad, they now do not want him to fall, out of fear that IS might take Damascus. The Russians, wanting leverage against the Americans, have intervened to save Assad. The U.S. officially condemns Russia’s actions but is privately relieved that Russia could do what it could not. The Turks want Assad gone, but not enough to risk the rise of a Kurdish state. The Israelis watch and wait, trying to be in a position to take advantage of any outcome, while the Iranians ponder how irrelevant they have become.
There are four paths in these invented regimes: tyranny (the imposition of a terrible peace by one faction); a struggle among factions; a foreign power destroying the tyranny and trying to impose order; and, finally, the path where foreign powers use these states as vehicles for their own struggles against other great powers. All four paths lead to the same place, misery. It is an interesting discussion as to whether a brutal tyranny or a vicious civil war is preferable. But it is an academic discussion.
This ceasefire will not hold, and it isn’t expected to hold. The American diplomats are carefully referring to it as a “cessation of hostilities,” which by definition is temporary. A ceasefire that involves 97 opposition groups, the Assad regime, the Russians, Americans, Turks, Saudis, Qataris, French, Germans and God knows who else is not going to hold. But it will give different parties the ability to blame others for violating the ceasefire. For most involved, even for the Syrians, Syria is a means to other ends.
In all of this, we must remember that the ceasefire does not include IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. IS is the real trans-clan group in the region. It represents the beliefs of the poor faithful – a crude belief in Islam and a sense that they are participating in its resurrection. IS has an army that does not ask other powers for permission to act and has won victories. It is said that IS is now on the defensive. All armies are on the defensive at some point. The issue is how they respond. Some collapse. Some become stronger from defeat. Having watched IS over the last year and listened to pronouncements of its near collapse just before every new offensive, I am unsure about its future. But for the moment it exists, and for the moment the ceasefire will not result in an offensive against it.
So the week’s biggest news actually is nothing more than a capitulation to the Syrian tragedy. It drives home that Assad will not fall, that 97 signatories to a ceasefire hate each other as much as they hate Assad and that the ceasefire avoids confronting IS. Its capital may fall, but its army is what truly matters. So, skeptical as the world is, it labored and produced nothing – a ceasefire that both misses the point and won’t work.