Civil war’s path of chronic struggle

Hisham Melhem

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Civil wars are characterized by ferocity and a sentiment that ordinary wars do not usually have. Civil war fighters know one another. Thus they view their fighting from an existential or an absolute perspective that leads to a winner and a loser and not a settlement. Countries whose civil wars ended with a winner and a loser (America and Spain) had better chances of rebuilding the country and establishing a stronger basis for the state. But this was achieved following a difficult transitional phase, especially for the loser. Countries whose civil wars ended with settlements, especially following international intervention (Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Iraq), remain fragmented and subjected to fall again into a civil struggle.

The war in Syria is a mixture of political, ethnic and sectarian struggles, and it is not likely that it will end with negotiations and a political solution. The American-Russian announcement of a plan to hold an international conference to find a negotiated solution for the war appears to be built on wishes and illusions rather than a serious correction of the dangerous political and sectarian issues which surfaced in the past two years. This is not only in the battlefield but also in the region.

A negotiated solution

Perhaps a negotiated solution would have been realistic during the first six months of the uprising, that is before the ferocity of the regime’s response turned it into an armed rebellion that paved way for the interference of regional parties and turned the struggle, even if partially, into a proxy war. The war increased tension between Sunnis and Shiites in the Arab and Muslim world.

Moscow’s ability to influence the decisions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is limited because the latter is aware that a “settlement” would topple him

Hisham Melhem

During civil wars, the local player enjoys an independency and an immunity that protects him from foreign pressures because his life (and not only his interests as the case is with foreign players) is at stake. So he resists the concept of settlement, especially if it would weaken him or exclude him from the formula. In the Syrian case, this means that Moscow’s ability to influence the decisions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is limited because the latter is aware that a “settlement” would topple him and that, in addition to himself and his family, his sect will too be defeated.

Add to this the increased dependency of the Assad regime on Iran’s resources and military and logistic capabilities (this also includes Hezbollah whom the American intelligence estimates has trained fighters spread in Syria numbering 2500, according to the Wall Street Journal). This increased dependency means that Iran is currently more important than Russia on the level of guaranteeing the survival of the Assad regime. On the other hand, Washington’s capability to influence the armed opposition is also limited, and it cannot even use arms to pressure it. The opposition’s fragmentation increases the difficulty of ensuring foreign influence on its various factions.

Fighting will continue, and Syria is walking the path of what can be called “the soft division” - that is sectarian and ethnic entities that struggle for a long time.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on May 9, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

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