Beginnings of the civil war

The civil war was well underway by the end of 2012. At that time, a number of observers considered that an intervention aimed at removing Bashar al-Assad and his regime from power could have given way to a “democratic” option. It is however possible that this was never an option, even if, at the time, Islamist radicals and other jihadists were obviously less powerful.

Geographically speaking, the country is not, like Iraq, endowed with great quantities of oil nor does it have an economic potential comparable with Iraq’s. It should be recalled that it was France, during its mandate over Syria, that had created the “Alawite state.” More than two-thirds of the country is barren to the east of the coastal strip, in which an overwhelming majority of the population is concentrated.

In the east of Syria, held by the Islamic State (ISIL), only the banks of the Euphrates River are populated, modestly, with the towns of Al-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor. Palmyra is isolated in the desert center of the country. Human occupation in this part of Syria is extremely limited. It is concentrated along the Aleppo-Homs-Hama-Damascus line up to Daraa, which constitutes the country’s backbone and is where most of the conflict is being played out.
Along the Turkish border, the Kurds, with their three centers, Al-Qamishli, Kobanî, and Afrin, have been solidly organized for nearly three years. Built according to a model inspired from the PKK in Turkey, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) rules over Rojava (Syrian Kurdish country). This movement has succeeded in setting up a centralized organization linking together various religious or ethnic groups under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Front, along the model once used by Marxist-Leninist movements.

A Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed at the beginning of the insurrection, as well as a Syrian National Council, half of the members of which were outside Syria (2011). These organizations, supported by the United States, would prove disappointing. Between a regime knowing that it is fighting for its survival and Islamists fueled with the desire to win, these organizations, whose motivations are lukewarm and that are being kept afloat by foreign assistance, do not have much of a fighting spirit. The forces trained by the United States to fight against the regime have evaporated over the years (in October 2015, the United States, after having spent substantial amounts of money, terminated this type of program).

The political polarization to which Bashar al-Assad largely contributed was not entirely on him. In fact very early on, as of September 2012, on the ground there were only Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a proliferation of jihadist movements gathered under the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, a coalition of seventeen Islamist organizations assisted by Turkey and Qatar, including the al-Tawhid Brigade (close to the Muslim Brotherhood), the Farouq Brigades, the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, and others. Starting in the spring of 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra (an emanation of al-Qaeda) became active, soon to be followed by Ahrar ash-Sham.
A particularly effective attack in July 2012 against the National Defense headquarters in Damascus made it seem like the insurrection had the means to topple the regime. The attack killed the minister of defense, the vice-minister, and Bashar al-Assad’s most important adviser, General Hasan Turkmani, right in the regime’s bastion. And a de facto war of attrition set in. What forces were involved in it?

The regime lined up more than two hundred thousand men, seventy-five thousand of which seemed dependable, headed by the fourth armored division made up of elite troops, five well-trained divisions and two special-forces divisions. Opposite them, the insurrectionists were credited in 2013 with forty to fifty thousand men (including Tunisians, Libyans, Saudis, Iraqis, Afghans, Chechens, and others).

The Syrian regime can count on various regional allies including Lebanese Hezbollah militia with their five to eight thousand men, who fought and won the battle of al-Qusayr (May 15 to June 5, 2013). Added to these are a number of Iranian Pasdarans (the Quds Force), including advisers and trainers in charge of training about fifty thousand militiamen (al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi), the Baghdad regime, and finally Iran. In March 2013, a crisis broke out following the use of chemical agents, which was supposed to constitute the “red line” set by Washington. There were several hundred casualties and each side was blaming the other. In addition to the regime’s responsibility, there was mention of chemical agents provided to the Islamists by Turkey in order to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad by prompting US intervention. Which did not happen. And Vladimir Putin astutely suggested to the Damascus regime that they dismantle their entire chemical arsenal.

In 2013, the Islamist movements, which had greater assistance, had more weapons and were estimated at about fifty thousand men. They may very well have been more at that date, but how is it possible to evaluate the number of battle-hardened combatants compared to those who had just joined the insurrection in order to take part in the Jihad?
At the beginning of 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham were established close to Idlib, which they would be able to take over the following year. These movements also took control of Al-Raqqah, which they would later have to yield to ISIL. In April 2013, the Jordanian border went under rebel control.

That year, the United States tried, in vain, to set up a “Syria Revolutionaries Front.” Polarization was obviously occurring at the extremities.

In closing …

Through this work, we have garnered a better understanding of why on the European side we formerly won colonial wars and why, since Vietnam, the United States and Europe can no longer win wars.

The spirit of the age has changed since then end of World War II. All adversaries have come to know us and can manipulate our increasingly faint-hearted and aging public opinion in a demographic context unfavorable to us.

We might add, since Vietnam, the US handicap of what political scientist Stanley Hoffman called “perpetually renewed historical virginity” inhibits remembering the lessons of experience. Which also results in dumbfounding ignorance among decision makers of the cultural field with which they are dealing, and among the military, all too often, in excessive confidence in the capacity of technology to solve problems that are not technological. Added to this are soldiers who remain too little time on the ground without even attempting to know it, practicing unsuitable warfare, and both psychologically and physically in transit.

And then, how can we claim to fight for a people about which we know nothing, not the language, nor the history, nor the culture, when, in addition, we are supporting a manifestly corrupt regime that we have ourselves brought to power? This was in fact already the case in Vietnam.

The armies that we form in our image, or at least based on our model, are not suited to the tasks that befall them: no motivation, no esprit de corps, clunky and badly maintained material, and defective logistics. In a nutshell, they are armies with no desire to win. This was the case yesterday in South Vietnam, as well as not so long ago in Iraq and will still be tomorrow in Afghanistan. As for our troops, overall, they have neither the frugality, nor the rusticity, nor the psychological solidity of the French colonial troops of the Indochina War or of the British at the time of the counterinsurgency in Malaysia. This is the price of peace and prosperity.

The problem lies today in the political will of decision makers who need to consider their respective public opinions, which the media have undermined by selling them daily anxiety.
Admittedly, the United States has been burned, in Iraq like in Afghanistan, by about fifteen years of political failure. It is easy to understand the reservations of the public and the caution of the administration, but the latter knows that it is far from doing in Syria and in Iraq what it had done not so long ago in Kosovo. The bombings there had been more massive by far.

The United States is curbed by its alliances with partners like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are pursuing different goals than Washington’s. In this respect, Russia’s intervention makes it possible to counter, in addition to ISIL, other Islamist movements, which is by no means contrary to Washington’s and Western interests. Of course, Russia will not bring in any fundamental changes. This war of attrition, despite talks aiming to find a compromise, is set to last, given that Islamist movements are not lacking in combatants and that their backers hope that these will be victorious in Syria in the long run.

For Saudi Arabia, which incidentally is opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, this regional war, the epicenter of which is Syria, is in fact targeted at Iran and what Riyadh considers to be the Shia Crescent. But Iran is an old, particularly tenacious state. The lifting of the embargo (January 2016) was a victory for Iran, which in addition, contrary to other states, does not draw most of its revenue from oil.

Turkey is not aiming at anything less than to be the hegemonic Muslim state in the Middle East (its historical rival in this respect still being Iran). A Sunni and Islamist Syria, more or less under Ankara’s influence, is one of its goals. The other is to crush both the PKK and any Kurdish armed movement (which also includes the Kurds of Syria), as well as all Kurdish peaceful political protest. This is fully in line with Kemalism, according to which Turkey is the country of the Turks, the Turkefied, or individuals subjected to its rule. At the end of December 2015, to make the world forget its military failure in Yemen, Saudi Arabia formed a Sunni coalition with thirty-four other African and Asian Muslim countries, officially designed to fight against terrorism. The fuzzy denomination allows any interpretation. Is it about fighting against ISIL or about setting up a common front against Iran? In any event, among these states only a handful is able to act effectively over the long term, including Pakistan, with its known duplicity.


ISIL’s intervention

Come from Iraq in 2012, the Islamic State of Iraq would have many advantages in Syria: proximity of the Turkish border, which volunteers for the Jihad were allowed to cross, and contacts with the Turkish intelligence service (MİT) eager to undermine the Syrian Kurds’ PYD. This would be particularly obvious during the long siege of Kobanî, where a few thousand Syrian Kurd male and female combatants held their ground for months against better armed and more numerous ISIL troops, now supported by Ankara.

In June 2013, ISIL broke away from Jabhat al-Nusra. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda Central, declared that Jabhat al-Nusra was the only legitimate movement in Syria. In January 2014, ISIL clashed briefly with other Islamist movements. Al-Raqqah became the epicenter of ISIL power in Syria. In September, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra clashed. To Turkey’s great displeasure, the United States decided to support those defending Kobanî by bombing ISIL forces.

While until the end of 2013 Bashar al-Assad’s regime appeared to have the upper hand, the Syrian army seemed to have run out of steam in 2014. According to the Syrian Human Rights Watch (under control of the opposition), from March 2011 to June 2014, or in three years, the number of casualties caused by the conflict amounted to one hundred sixty thousand, including forty thousand “rebels,” fifty thousand Syrian soldiers, and fifty thousand civilians.

In the north, Turkey’s influence is significant. Considering that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was doubly concerned, the situation has been followed closely. At the November 1, 2015 parliamentary elections his party obtained a better national score (more than 49 percent) than he had gotten in the previous summer’s presidential elections (41.9 percent) by exploiting the ultranationalism of part of the Turkish electorate and by granting himself the greatest amount of television air time while striking his Kurdish adversaries, namely the combat movement, PKK, and Selahattin Demirtaş’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a democratic parliamentary movement. Erdoğan wished to weaken the Kurds of Syria so as to prevent them from establishing an autonomous unbroken area between Kobanî and Afrin. This was where Turkey planned to establish a no-fly zone. To get it, Ankara allowed the United States to use the NATO Incirlik Air Base again, and committed, in theory, to striking ISIL. Russia would later de facto oppose the plan. Turkey would respond by shooting down a Russian airplane.

Otherwise, in agreement with Saudi Arabia (which had so far refused to assist movements sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood) and Qatar, Turkey actively helped all the Islamist movements federated under Jaish al-Fatah (March 2015) and unofficially, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham.

In June 2014, ISIL achieved a spectacular breakthrough in the direction of Iraq, held by the army of Baghdad. Sometime earlier, it had already seized Fallujah in Iraq, a Sunni bastion. About two or three thousand ISIL soldiers moved toward Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to fight it out against Nouri al-Maliki’s much more numerous armed forces. Al-Maliki had completely alienated the Sunnis with a policy of exclusion, which had been a mistake, but then he made an even bigger one: his armed forces, undermined by corruption, incapable of fighting, disbanded and left quantities of material behind. In their rush to run away, they even left with ISIL the capital they had from the state bank.

It would not be long before ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would use this easy victory to proclaim himself caliph. Sowing terror, ISIL penetrated the Sinjar area where Masoud Barzani’s KDP troops, poorly trained, poorly armed, and surprised, made a hasty retreat, leaving Sinjar’s Yazidis to their fate. After perpetrating massacres and kidnapping women and children, whom they would later sell as slaves, the ISIL columns penetrated actual Kurdish territory in early August, threatening Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and the place of Masoud Barzani’s KDP headquarters.

A quick intervention on August 8 by the US Air Force would stop ISIL’s victorious offensive in its tracks. Meanwhile, the success of the fall of Mosul, the political impact of the terror in Sinjar, and the progression of ISIL elements into Kurdish territory set an impressive attraction trend. Candidates for the Jihad hailed in numbers from the Maghreb, Western Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Caucasus to join a movement that had been able to impose itself in a spectacular way and gave the feeling that victory was at the tip of the rifle.
Working the social networks with great command and imposing themselves in the media and social networks, sometimes with a policy of terror, sometimes by dramatizing horror, ISIL fascinated Western television, which relayed their propaganda abundantly. This contributed to the organization’s aura and to destabilizing spirits in the West. With the help of television ratings, the game was all on ISIL’s side and its most effective achievement. At the strictly military level, ISIL’s progress had been modest (in a year, Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria), but its ideological and psychological impact was now considerable.

In a less spectacular way but militarily more effective, the Kurdish forces of Syria managed in 2015 to seize the strategic position of Tell Abyad, made a successful offensive toward Al-Hasakah, and linked the two districts of Al-Qamishli and Kobanî. Al-Raqqah will be one of their next objectives. Above all, the PYD aims to extend this linkage to the district of Afrin. If they are successful, the Kurds of Syria will have an unbroken autonomous area, ruining the Turkish plan for a no-fly zone. Seeing that Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces were running out of steam, Russia decided to intervene directly.

This intervention allowed the Russians to put their Ukrainian failure behind. Because, whatever one thinks, recovering Crimea, which is Russian, and backing the insurrectionary movements in East Ukraine had not erased the fact that they had lost Ukraine, populated with forty-five million Russian-speaking Slavs who would not be part of the Eurasian Economic Union. Admittedly, Vladimir Putin was able to stop Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO.
Richard K. Betts, one of Washington’s most prominent political observers, wrote in Foreign Affairs (November-December 2014): “In its beginning, the crackup in Ukraine was caused hardly more by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression than by unthinking Western provocations, including unbridled NATO expansion, the humiliating dismissal of Russia as a great power, and the EU’s efforts to convince Kiev to cut its ties to Moscow.”

In addition, Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East today, and this is Russia’s chance to play an important role in a situation where the United States and their allies are forced, by their alliances with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to adopt a cautionary stand. For the United States, stopping ISIL in its march on Palmyra would have appeared as if it was defending the regime’s army. In this respect, Russia has much greater freedom of action and has no qualms about striking Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham in addition to ISIL. It is hard to understand why these highly subversive movements of yesterday, one of which is a member of al-Qaeda, have become respectable since ISIL supplanted them.

Russia has access to the Mediterranean through the port of Tartus and is to have a military base in Lattakia—both in Alawite territory. In addition, Russia has no interest in allowing the return of Caucasian jihadists, yesterday’s nationalists, nor of the Chechens, who are henceforth fighting under the banner of the most radical Islamism.

Vladimir Putin, who had been demonized in connection with Ukraine (the United States had systematically pushed the former USSR back to the borders of Russia), has thus had an international comeback in the Near East. While he is not regarded as a partner, he is at least a useful player insofar as he is openly fighting Islamist organizations that Westerners do not in the least wish to see in power in Damascus. The Russian intervention, without being decisive, weighs heavily in the complex correlation of forces being played out in Syria, the consequences of which are for the most part regional.

Against this background, the role of the Syrian army, for better or for worse, is currently indispensable, in addition to that of the Kurds of Syria, also particularly necessary.

Thanks to the Syrian civil war, ISIL has succeeded in gaining some political substance and in imposing itself as the most dynamic Islamist movement, bringing about an incoming rush of several thousand volunteers.

It is easy to dismiss the caricature of a caliphate and to see ISIL as a terrorist movement (an official designation that muddles a proper understanding of the adversary’s strategy).
ISIL does indeed employ terrorist-type actions, but it also uses guerrilla-warfare techniques, and like in Mosul and Palmyra, goes for traditional-warfare combat with limited, albeit frightening means, given its volunteers for death. In Iraq, the movement is busy actively building a framework for the populations by providing care, electricity, and schools, and organizing it through social control, not to mention the propaganda addressed to the younger generations, who are more malleable than the adults. On the other hand, in Syria, ISIL is essentially occupying a scarcely populated area. ISIL’s core is Iraqi and more than two-thirds of its combatants are not Syrian. Many do not even speak the Arabic spoken in Syria.

Actually, while Syria is ISIL’s battle field, Iraq, in its Sunni area, is really its backbone and its mass-population base. After years of vexations and discriminations from Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia regime, the people are favorable to them. How strong support for ISIL is, is not known, but it would be wrong to underestimate it. (After all, several hundred members of the Abu Nimr tribe were executed for having refused to pledge allegiance.) And well, ISIL plays the part of a revolutionary movement by attracting many youngsters from across the Muslim world, as well as from Western Europe, to join the Jihad.

Like it or not, the movement cannot be conveniently defined as nihilistic. Whatever the Utopia of their project to return to the real or supposed purity of the Islam of the first centuries, theirs is a rallying appeal. Was this not also true of yesterday’s “Marxism-Leninism,” in the name of which so many militants fought and gave their life?

We are dealing with a revolutionary movement condemned to lose because its goals are completely unrealistic—contrary to those of the Chinese or the Indians—but whose disturbance capacity is substantial, lasting, and preoccupying to us. It goes without saying that in this context, any ISIL military success on the ground is propaganda by the deed, and dangerous. This is why, whatever the ambiguity of our official alliances, we need to act to make sure that Islamist movements do not achieve any military victories, neither in Syria nor anywhere else.

Contrary to the Islamists, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, for which we have no sympathy at all, is not conspiring for our defeat. In politics, it is important to know who, in every given situation, is the main adversary. Otherwise, there is no doubt that the goals of our two major regional allies among the Muslim states, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are opposed to ours. And we might add, not only in Syria, but at the regional level and even at the scale of the Muslim world, diaspora included. We should finally point out that we are not directly concerned by the antagonism between Sunnis and Shias. These two rival currents are condemned, like they were yesterday and will be tomorrow, to coexist, and it is preferable that neither of them prevail decisively over the other.


Chapter 9 – The Syrian imbroglio

The wave of protest engendered by a fortuitous event in Tunisia (2010), after having brought down the Tunisian regime, soon caused the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, then that of the Yemeni regime. The West, by getting rid of Muammar Gaddafi, stirred up lasting local and regional chaos. Lastly, more discretely, Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to consolidate the established order in Bahrain, where the Shia majority was protesting against the dictatorship of the Sunni minority.

The protest wave reached Syria in late 2011 with peaceful demonstrations in Daraa, at the Jordanian border. The Alawite minority (thirteen percent of the population) in power chose to engage in a showdown with the Sunni Arabs, who were two-thirds of the total population. The regime, in power for two generations (it had repressed an Islamist protest movement in Hama in 1982) relied on Christians (ten percent of the population) of various observances and on a large part of the Sunni bourgeoisie, which benefitted from the stability of the regime.

Otherwise, the country was made up of Druze (three percent), whom the Sunnis did not like at all, and of Kurds (ten percent) along the Turkish border, who under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, had been partly deported to make room for Arabs. Several hundred thousand Kurds had no official documentation. The Kurds traditionally occupy the Al-Jazira Province (they are many in Aleppo). Although Muslim and Sunni, they have suffered decades of repression in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (and to a lesser extent in Iran), never defended as Muslims but always ostracized as Kurds.