Guest Contibutor Gerald B. (Jerry) Thompson , COL (Ret), USA, a former military officer and DOD official, is currently a consultant on Middle East affairs.
“We’re not very good at understanding other societies. Every game is an ‘away game’ for us.”
Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Speaking at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, 9/17/ 2013
Every country’s political culture is unique. Syria is no exception. As we search through our recent past experiences in intervention operations such as Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan for lessons that may apply to our consideration of intervention in Syria, we need to be sensitive to the differences in political culture we encountered in each situation. Our ability to discern such differences is not a notable U.S. talent nor, as a consequence, have we shown much ability to adapt policies and strategies to these differences.
Our understanding of the “other” culture - in this case, Syria’s political culture - more than our own or others, should shape our analysis of the situation and the political and operational concept of any intervention we might contemplate, especially regime change.
Comparing our experience of invasion, occupation and regime change in Iraq with the situation we confront in the Syrian insurrection raises a number of issues that deserve analysis. Among these are differences in the political cultures of the two countries that have received far too little attention. Among these is the difference in the role sectarian, ethnic and class identities played in the political culture of Syria and Iraq.
In Syria, these communal identities were manipulated to structurally reinforce regime legitimacy. In Iraq, they were repressed, even denied to exist, as Saddam tried to impose a greater “Iraqi” identity in their place. It is too simplistic but it frames the thought to say, “Saddam’s Iraq was anti-sectarian while Assad’s Syria was and is sectarian.”
My concern is that communal rivalry in a post-Asad Syria may become irreconcilable and make successful governance impossible. Should this occur, the fragmentation of Syria would become virtually inevitable; the continuation of the conflict among mini-statelets would become quite possible, and could, very plausibly, destabilize the Middle East region. In such circumstances, redrawing the map of the Middle East is not an inconceivable outcome. If the United States were to choose to somehow mitigate that outcome, the diplomatic effort required will be unprecedented.
What have we learned from our experience in Iraq that is relevant to Syria?
Both Syria under the Assad regime and Iraq under Saddam Hussein were rigorously repressive, pervasive, authoritarian regimes. Neither permitted any meaningful opposition. In Iraq, as a result, there was no alternative legitimate entity able to step in and govern when Saddam Husayn’s regime collapsed. In the short term, a power vacuum developed and the aggrieved population took out their revenge on their oppressor, primarily in the form of massive looting. Less visible was the campaign of deliberate assassination, notably by Badr Corps operatives, taking targeted revenge against former Ba’th Party members. Both the broad-scale looting and the direct, targeted revenge were soon subsumed in broader civil conflict.
It is not my purpose here to analyze the post-regime change civil conflict in Iraq except to say that it is helpful to think of it as many separate, often overlapping conflicts:
· A resistance campaign against the occupation by primarily Sunni Arab groups, often operating in tactical alliance with al-Qa’ida-affiliated “foreign fighters.”
· An internal struggle for leadership among several predominantly Shi’a groups.
· An internal struggle for leadership among several predominantly Sunni groups.
· A broad but disorganized resistance against the central government seen variously as dominated by former exiles, or under the influence and control of Iran, or simply exerting unfair and unjust control and influence.
· A wary confrontation between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in which both attempted to define the relationship between the two entities on their own terms.
Taken together, there was widespread civil conflict and resistance against the occupation forces which reached extremely high levels of violence, caused enormous human suffering and impeded development of a post-Saddam governing authority with broad political legitimacy.
At their heart, each of these overlapping conflicts was fought over the question of the distribution of power, authority and the benefits of the state. With the exception of al-Qa’ida, no group was attempting to win sole authority. All groups realized that, at some point, there would need to be a political settlement and they fought to maximize their relative position whenever that day might come. al -Qa’ida was the exception and its maximalist goals resulted in its influence being diminished. This struggle continues.
So, very broadly, there was a pattern in Iraq and there is a high probability that we will see a similar pattern in Syria:
· Regime collapse;
· Power vacuum;
· Revenge taking;
· Struggle for relative power in the successor regime.
Most notable for the purpose of comparing the experience of Iraq with what may possibly be expected in Syria is the lack of truly sectarian motives in the Iraqi civil conflict, especially when compared with the form of communal conflict we may see in post-regime change Syria.
Sectarianism in the Political Culture of Syria Compared With Sectarianism in Iraq
The role of sectarianism in Syrian political culture has been very different from the role of sectarianism in Iraq for more than a generation, perhaps three generations.
Since the end of WWI, France, then Syrian regimes, manipulated communal identities in a structural way to produce a complex balance of these interest groups. “Divide and conquer” was the way it was described, but the reality was both more complex and often more vicious that that sound bite implies. As a consequence, Syrian political culture has a deep experience of ethnic and sectarian group identity being part of the structure of the governing regime’s legitimacy.
This was never the case in Iraq.
Saddam Husayn’s regime in Iraq was virtually anti-sectarian throughout its tenure.
Some readers will question this assertion, given the common media and politically driven image of Saddam’s regime as a Sunni chauvinist tyranny led by a clique of a previously unknown tribe which held power by brutally suppressing the disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities of Iraq, notably the Shi’a and the Kurds, but also the Christians,Yazidis, Turkmen. Actually, this common image of Saddam’s regime is more caricature than truth. Of course, like all good caricatures, there is a kernel of truth in it. But, taken literally, it is at least as misleading as it is revealing, and it has mislead us in a great many ways in post-Saddam Iraq.
It is more accurate to see Saddam’s regime as having metamorphosed through stages, over 30+ years and three major wars (and several internal conflicts), rapid development and more rapid decline. For its first decade and into the early years of the war with Iran, Saddam’s regime was dogmatically anti-sectarian. By the end of the Iran war, it had become a Stalinist-clone personality cult in which the currency for access to power was loyalty to Saddam. However, even then, sectarian identity had little to do with the legitimacy of the regime in any structural sense. Joseph Sassoon noted in his Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, based on post-2003 access to the Ba’th Party files, that the Ba’th Party database format did not provide a space for “sect” or “religion” right on through the 1990’s.
This is very different from the more structural role that sectarian and ethnic identity has played in Syria, which favored Alawis, coopted certain elites and minority communities and deliberately repressed others, notably Sunnis and, perhaps especially, Sunni Islamists, such as members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood. Syrians were favored or denied on the basis of who they were in addition to their loyalty to the regime. In Iraq, the currency of favor was simple – loyalty to Saddam. If Saddam felt an individual was loyal, he/she would be advanced – without regard to that person's communal origins.
How might “sectarian conflict” evolve differently in Syria compared to its experience in Iraq?
In Iraq, the population as a whole was repressed. In Syria access to privilege (and repression) has been manipulated among narrowly based family and communal groups.
Whereas in Iraq, resentment of the regime was broad-based, it was also focused on the Ba’th Party and Saddam’s personally directed security apparatus. When the regime fell, revenge taking was targeted on these specific people – relatively well-defined, personalized targets. And, the revenge-taking phase was quickly absorbed into a wider, more complex internal struggle for relative strength in the post-Saddam governing entity. Limiting ourselves to the very strictest definition of the term, “sectarian conflict” never happened in Iraq. What happened was a fundamentally political competition among groups struggling for power.
Post-Asad Syria may be very different and could become much more violent than Iraq. In Syria, the targets of resentment for revenge taking are more likely to be groups rather than specific individuals: communal groups such as Alawis and Christians, coopted families who have been part of the regime’s patronage and power networks. Such groups are likely to be targeted because of their group identity without regard to what they may or may not have done politically as individuals. We have already seen examples of such behavior.
The phase of revenge taking and the competition for power in the follow-on regime in Syria may well blur together and take the form of an identity war. This could become a true inter-communal conflict in which interest groups aim to eliminate the potential power of their competitors for the sake of their own survival. Instead of evolving toward a political competition over the distribution of power, the conflict could spiral downward. A kind of mutual genocide is not unthinkable in that we could see communal groups attempt to annihilate other groups for the sake of their own survival.
At that point, we would have reached sectarian war in the fullest sense the term implies.
What are the potential consequences of regime change/regime collapse in Syria?
The violence of Syria’s insurrection is spreading into Iraq and Lebanon and cross-border incidents have occurred in Turkey, Israel and Jordan. This spread of Syria’s violence is likely to continue. In the event of regime change/collapse, the violence of Syria’s insurrection could expand rapidly and uncontrollably.
In the power vacuum and revenge taking following regime change/collapse, some degree of territorial fragmentation of Syria will be a virtual certainty. In the power vacuum after Asad’s removal, revenge taking on the basis of group identity or inter-communal violence in the competition for power, as described above, will cause the various groups to seek security in geographical areas where they are predominant and can establish control. These areas may very well take on the behaviors of mini-statelets as they take action to protect their security.
Where this fragmentation may lead is a matter of speculation. In the short term, it could mean that the Syrian nation-state as it has been known through most of the 20th century will effectively cease to exist. Whether it may be drawn back together by a future post-Asad regime is certainly doubtful but not impossible. It happened before, under the French mandate.
Fragmentation might lead to some form of highly decentralized or federated system of governance. On the other hand, these decentralized communities of Syria might establish relationships with similar communities along Syria’s current borders, blurring the meaning of those borders, perhaps rendering them effectively void.
Ultimately, this sort of process could lead to a “Greater Kurdistan”, uniting the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq with the Kurdish region of Syria. Would this entity be nominally part of Iraq? Or Syria? An “Alawi homeland” might emerge in the northeast of Syria. Similarly, there might emerge a “Sunnistan” in Syria based around Damascus, Homs and Hama that might merge with a self-declared autonomous region of Anbar/Salah ad-Din in Iraq.
And then, there’s Lebanon and Jordan. It is not inconceivable that we could see the end of the post-WWI order of nation-states in the Middle East. Re-mapping the Middle East is a real possibility. Such an outcome would certainly cause stress among long-term United States interests and relationships in the region.
What could mitigate that outcome?
Revenge taking presumes a power vacuum after regime collapse/removal. If a capable entity were available and able to step in and exercise governing authority immediately, it is possible that the revenge-taking phase could be preempted or, at least, substantially constrained.
Such an entity would have to be regarded as legitimate by a preponderance of the population and, in particular, the communal groups themselves. This means that it would have to have been existing and present in some capacity for some time prior to regime change/removal, have demonstrated its capacity to govern, and the various groups would have satisfied themselves that their concerns would be treated fairly by this entity. That is a very tall order.
For such an entity to emerge and prove itself will require the support of the various external supporters of the different groups contending for power in Syria now. This will require the cooperation and collaboration of Russia, Iran, Turkey, the European Union, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Obtaining that sort of support from this group of interested parties is also a very tall order.Despite the difficulty, this sort of outcome – providing a relatively orderly transition of power rather than an abrupt and conclusive change or collapse of the Assad regime – is far preferable from the standpoint of both strategic interest and minimizing human suffering.
Achieving this outcome will require extraordinary diplomacy, subordinating all other activities to the diplomatic effort. The scope would be broad, including military and humanitarian assistance to the opposition, sanctions and concessions, and what may seem to be unrelated diplomacy and programs with Iraq’s neighbors, including with Iran and Israel and Russia. The United States will have to prioritize and may well find itself turning these other programs to support this diplomatic effort that is focused on Syria.
The United States has never pursued this type of policy before, ever, anywhere. We should expect that success in Syria will challenge the United States' own capacity for diplomacy and its understanding of governance in other cultures.