By Ehsani2 for Syria Comment*
Westerners find it hard to believe that a crisis, such as that afflicting Syria, cannot be stopped. “Surely, someone can and must do something” is the consensus thinking. If the UN has failed to stop it and diplomacy cannot bring it to an end, then the White House must stop the blood letting and use military power to do so. “We just cannot sit back and let this tragedy unfold without doing something.” That is the montra of pundits on TV and commentators on social media.
The sad truth is that those hoping for a quick resolution to this crisis are likely to be disappointed. Contrary to expectations, the US is unlikely to enter into war with Russia over Syria. The moral argument for intervention cannot out-weigh the immense risks that the US military would be taking were it to engage in a direct and costly war with Russia. Despite the hawkish rhetoric of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, chances are that once in the White House, she will come to the same conclusion about using American military force as President Obama. Real world constraints reduce the chance that US will deploy force in Syria. The Syrian opposition and their backers will be forced to rethink their current path.
Most policy makers involved in the Syria crisis insist that “there is only a political solution to the Syria crisis.” The unstated problem with this argument is timing. Can a political solution be arrived at before a clear military winner emerges on the battlefield? Mustn’t one side realize that it has no choice but to accept a settlement before both sides will come to the table? The answer to this question is clear. No political solution can take place before a clear winner emerges on the battlefield. The longer this process is delayed, the longer the crisis will drag on, and the greater will be the death count.
Salafists and Jihadists
Regardless of how liberal and reform minded were the masses who made up the opposition at the beginning of the uprising, those who make up the armed groups today are largely Salafists and Jihadists. They control the battlefield. The Syrian state has long been accused of releasing Islamists from its prisons in an effort to achieve precisely this outcome. While such accusations are impossible to dismiss wholesale, it is important to recall that one of the early and consistent demands of the opposition was for the release of political prisoners. And who were those prisoners? The vast majority were Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood had long been the central enemy of the Baathist regime. Liberals were inconsequential and presented little threat to Assad’s control. The vast majority of the political prisoners brought before the security courts and convicted to lengthy prison terms were jihadists returning from Iraq or Salafists who preached against the regime in surreptitious dawa circles. Leading up to the events of Daraa in 2011, Damascus had for decades charged Islamists with long sentences, often seven years, in prisons such as Sednaya.
The release of prisoners
As the crisis first unfolded in Daraa, Sheikh Sayasneh was invited to Damascus in an attempt by the authorities to de-escalate the situation. One of the key demands of the cleric was the release of prisoners, the majority of whom were Islamists. This pattern was often repeated throughout the early phase of the crisis. The U.N special envoy, Kofi Annan, took up this demand. He too insisted that all political prisoners be released. While many in the opposition are convinced that the release of salafists, such as Zahran Alloush, who was imprisoned for organizing prayer meetings, was engineered by Damascus to help radicalize the opposition, the truth is probably more nuanced. The Syrian State was desperately trying to stop the uprising by using both the stick (swift response against protestors) and the carrot (release of prisoners when urged). While one may still debate this argument and claim that the government’s secret intent was to turn the uprising into an jihad, the fact is that what Damascus sees today are insurgents and Islamist armed groups who want nothing less than to destroy the Syrian State and replace it with a one of their own design, one that would conform to sharia. They call it “more Islamist in identity”.
Different visions of government
The two completely different sorts of government envisioned by each side do not permit a credible political solution at the present time. As for the political wing of the opposition that maintains close relations with Washington, Damascus believes that Qatar has repeatedly prevented this largely powerless group from following US suggestions of entering into more serious political talks during the previous Geneva talks.
Only the battlefield will decide
What the above leaves us with is the hard truth that only the battlefield will decide the next phase of this crisis. This means that the war is likely to continue. The armed groups and their supporters are unlikely to give up the fight. The same is true of Assad and his backers. No one will be able to stop this war until one side begins to collapse or loses enough to bring the fight near to its conclusion. Sadly, when this point of inequality between the opposing sides is reached, the loser will have little to gain from negotiating. Until this scenario becomes the accepted wisdom, we are likely to read the inevitable daily op-eds and opinion pieces that decry the unfolding tragedy and demand that the United States escalate its military intervention.
This article was published at Syria Comment.