Rumors and an announcement flew today about the Russians reaching a ceasefire with Syrian rebels. The problem is that it is unclear what it means. There are numerous rebel groups, or groups calling themselves rebels. Who is actually fighting anyone is somewhat less clear and that makes the Russian announcement hard to understand.
The major impact of the Arab Spring was not creating democratic governments but creating civil wars in Syria and Libya. As the events in Libya showed, the Arab Spring was not driven by constitutional democrats wanting to create a republic. There were some of those, as rare as Druids in China, but since most had ties to the West, and spoke English — and lived up to the narrative the Western press believed about the Arab Spring – they were the ones interviewed. And that allowed the West to get a sense of what was going on that was not fully correct, to say the least.
The opponents of Moammar Gadhafi were tribal and religious. Gadhafi ruled a country that was deeply divided by historical and religious differences. He managed to do that for over 40 years. Cloaking himself in the Pan-Arab secular socialism of Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, he imposed a tyranny on Libya, powered by factions and tribes he had made arrangements with that had little to do with Pan-Arabism and a great deal to do with the realities of Libya. The uprising against Gadhafi came from other tribes and by radical Islamists aligned, at least in principle, with al-Qaida and other groups.
The Western powers went to war against Gadhafi and intervened between multiple factions fighting a civil war, in which the opponents of Gadhafi were not significantly more attractive than he was. And in fact, as was shown at Benghazi and in many other ways, were far more hostile to the West than he was. Nevertheless, the perception was that Gadhafi was going to slaughter his enemies — a perception by no means in error — and the West, particularly France and the Untied States, began a bombing campaign as well as supplying weapons to the rebels fighting Gadhafi. In due course, the regime collapsed and Gadhafi’s body was dragged behind a car in celebration.
What was bequeathed to Libya was not a constitutional democracy, but an ongoing civil war between factions that Gadhafi had suppressed, with the added dimension that one of the more powerful beneficiaries of the bombing campaign and aid were the radical Islamists. It is an interesting question of whether tyranny is better or worse than an ongoing civil war. That is hard to answer. But what we know for certain is that what happened was not even close to what those who demanded Gadhafi’s ouster as a violator of human rights, actually got.
The second arena of the Arab Spring has many similarities to Libya. The Assad regime in Syria also took its bearings, on paper, from the Pan-Arab, secular socialist movement. It also faced a highly divided country, divided by religious and ethnic differences, and Assad also ruled by imposing a brutal regime. The Arab spring created an uprising that wanted to oust Assad, was cheered by many in the West, and as in Libya, was as divided within itself as it was against Assad. What ensued was the worst of both worlds. Assad was not overthrown but he lost control of much of the country. However, where he retained power, he ruled by utter brutality. Where he did not rule, he bombed. And where he did not rule, his opposition spent at least as much time fighting each other as they did fighting Assad.
The West did not bomb Assad’s regime out of existence, which given the lessons of Libya was sensible. It is hard to imagine what government would replace Assad. Instead, the United States armed those that it had determined, by some mysterious means, were moderates — whatever that meant. The United States admitted recently that its Syrian rebel training program failed, that there were only four trained fighters still in the program, and suspended the program. The weapons, including anti-tank weapons, went elsewhere. It is unclear where elsewhere is, but there are so many elsewheres, it hardly matters.
Gaddafi had no friends. Assad did, or more precisely people who did not want him to fall, or at least not fall to American armed fighters. One was Iran, who had allied with him in supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and saw him as their sole ally in a Sunni sea. But they were far away. His other ally was Russia but that relation was odd. Assad had first been brought to power as a Soviet ally. When the Soviet Union fell, the relationship should have atrophied and in a way it did. But many in the Soviet military and intelligence had developed strong relations within the Alawite community and continued to do business or make nostalgic trips. For the most part, the Russian government provided weapons to him and little else. After the Ukrainian affair, as relations with the United States deteriorated, the fact that the United States still wanted Assad to fall was motivation enough to intervene. It would show Russian power and it would upset the Americans. There seemed to be no downside.
But in all of this there was now a new player, Islamic State (IS). The group had organized some of the Islamists into a substantial movement and were a major fighting force. They opposed the old opposition and they opposed Assad. Their intention was to dominate Syria. Therefore, the American hostility against Assad had to be measured against American hostility toward IS. IS won out so the United States actually didn’t mind the Russian intervention, and hoped Assad was saved until IS miraculously disappeared, allowing Assad to be dispensed with later. The military situation is incoherent but not as incoherent as the politics driving the military situation. The situation in Libya was crystal clear compared to Syria. In a sense the situation reminds us of Iraq, with three players — Sunni-Shiite-U.S. – all fighting each other, and the Kurds drilling for oil. But again, that was clarity compared to this.
It is in this context that the Russian decision to forge a ceasefire with the opposition is particularly amazing, because the opposition is utterly divided, and whatever group they have made peace with is not at war with the Russians. By that we mean they do not want to be at war with Russia and more important perhaps, the Russians are not really waging war on anyone. They are conducting airstrikes, but those are, by themselves, really ineffective against a dispersed light infantry force, which is a polite way of referring to the Syrian opposition. They also do not have all that many aircraft in the area and are not flying all that many missions. As to ground forces, they have some, but not enough to make a difference. About the only one interested in this is Assad who must be wondering what the Russians are up to and whether he will live through it.
Nevertheless, the headlines around the world made it appear that something major had happened, which is what the Russians wanted. But then the same headlines declared the tyrant Gadhafi dead and TV recorded the dancing men in the square. The Western inability to grasp what they were doing in Libya is not matched in Syria. It would seem that instead of being ignorant of what is happening they are sufficiently aware to be paralyzed. That is an improvement, we would say. Except that IS is waiting.
But then it has become the conventional wisdom that IS is being squeezed on all sides and is weakening. It is not Assad squeezing them, nor the Syrian opposition, nor the Americans, nor the Russians. It must be the Kurds. As with Scheherazade, the endless fables are woven. She may have lied, but at least she was beautiful. There is precious little beauty in any of this edition of the Arabian Nights.