Checkmate in Syria?

Ceylan Ozbudak

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As the curtains tumble down on the Syrian civil war, it's time for the world to face the truth. What we are all witnessing now may be the closing scenes. Forgive me for ruining the ending for you, but in the real world, harsh realities must be dealt with in a timely fashion. The conclusion, shocking for many, may be: This time the villain prevails. Assad wins. What does he really win? Debatable.

In order to understand how it came to this, we need to rewind back and review the conflict now that it can be seen with the wider lens history provides. On March 15, 2011, protested erupted in Syria at the tail end of the Arab Spring. The military of the regime struck back with brutal repression. Within months, a group of citizens and some defections from the military had formed a coalition of sorts with the goal of bringing the Assad regime down. Where did this uprising go wrong? In that moment, to be quite honest. This enterprise was doomed from the start. I'm certainly in favor of democracy movements and certainly in favor of the overthrow of tyrannical regimes. Certainly the government of Assad would qualify as tyrannical, and then some. But here is another harsh reality worth mentioning. History will remember the Arab Spring for its delusions as much as for its successes. Something, which is right for one country, does not universally apply to every country. I'm also not saying if something is difficult, there is no point in trying. Mark Gorman said: “Not all dreamers are winners, but all winners are dreamers. Your dream is the key to your future. The Bible says that, "without a vision, a people perish." You need a dream, if you're going to succeed in anything you do.”

Syria’s bare truth

There was a sense after the revolt in Tunisia seemed to grant success so quickly; this was possible anywhere in the Middle East. This was, as we now know, an irrational miscalculation. Revolutionaries seemed to believe if you amassed enough people in the streets and on the internet and they all yelled and typed the same things, at the same time, you could cause any government to flee and a beautiful new constitution to magically appear. What a foolish thought this was. The Syrian uprising was a rash action, doomed to fail from the start. Successful uprisings have certain required ingredients. The cupboard in Syria was bare.

If this conflict were a chess match, Assad has resources remaining all over the board. Checkmate seems only a few moves away.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Some of the key ingredients are of the political sort. The most straightforward way is simply to have an overwhelming majority of the population feeling the same way about the same thing. It might be hard for people to imagine given the cruelty of his regime, but Bashar al-Assad had, and still has, a large base of support. Whether this is by coercion, often violent, or free choice is another matter, but regardless, he was never in an overwhelming minority situation. This makes it tough to find local support for your revolutionary movement. The situation in Libya demonstrated this dynamic quite well. If you can't establish an overwhelming majority in opposition, then you typical need a powerful ally to weigh in on your side and tip the scales for you. Superpowers are called superpowers for a reason. Russia was clearly never going to be on the side of anyone trying to overthrow their dear ally. This despite numerous excellent reasons why they should have been extremely interested, especially in the early days of the uprising.

But would a rousing rendition of America the Beautiful by the opposition fighters really have been such a waste? Public displays of affection, and also animosity, go over massively in Washington, one way or the other. And they certainly get a lot of play in the always-on American news media. This isn't a suggestion to bow down to America. It's about the practical necessity of having a powerful friend when you need one. And the opposition should have quickly realized they definitely needed one. American military intervention was never very likely at all, but wasn't a sincere request required, no matter how humiliating or humbling it might have been? In any event, no such alliances or support was arranged, much to the detriment of the usurpers.

Another key element is leadership. It's been proven over time you don't necessarily need anyone brilliant or especially wonderful to lead a revolutionary cause. But you need someone charismatic, a figure to rally around, even if their greatness is mostly symbolic. The Syrian opposition then, and still after 2 years, still has no one of this nature. It's not enough to have a cause. People will get in the street for a cause. But people fight with leaders. The Syrian opposition has had a gaping void here from the start. It's also obviously a huge matter for the regime in power to have leadership which is willing, in some notable percentage, to desert them. The Syrian regime has always been a very tight group, many from Assad's own family. Yemen should have provided a previous example of how difficult this wall of loyalty can be to break down.

Military advancements

The other main factor in a successful uprising is obviously the military aspect. An overwhelming number of revolutions involve a military effort eventually. Simply asking a government to step aside has about the same success rate as asking a fat kid to give up his cake. If you want it, you generally have to fight them for it.

The world prior to the 1900s was full of uprisings. There are probably numerous reasons why they were so common, but from a military standpoint, one notable one was the difference between a “national army” and a “revolutionary army” was simply not so large. Your average professional soldiers perhaps had matching outfits and hats, and this wasn't even always the case, but a nice kit does not necessarily make for overwhelming might. The average citizen had a horse in his pasture just as good, or nearly so, as the one a solider would have been riding. The average citizen likely owned a rifle nearly as good as, or identical to, the standard issue one a soldier might carry. Armor and machines hadn't even been invented yet, or were in a very primitive stage in the period approaching 1900. The wars of antiquity were therefore as much about numbers and courage as anything. If you had a reasonably similar number of fighters, and could teach them to line up straight and shoot in the same direction, you had a viable revolutionary force. Today, things are so very different.

The fighting in Syria has demonstrated very clearly the advancements made in military technology over the last 100 years and how very large the gap between an official state-supported army and a revolutionary force of the people has become. Fighters with Kalashnikovs cannot do battle against MiG aircraft. For this reason, 1 of 4 conditions become essential for a modern-day successful uprising. If the nation has a very weak military, in the case of Mali recently, then perhaps the attempt can be successful on its own, at least until foreign power was used on behalf of the incumbent regime. But if the country has a formidable military, you either need their support, as in the case of Egypt, you need them to step out of the way and stay neutral, or you need a powerful ally to defeat them for you, as was the case in Libya when Western allies eventually intervened.

The only meaningful military intervention came on behalf of Assad's regime, where Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah all joined the fight to varying degrees, Russia mainly with their money and supplies, Iran and Hezbollah with actual forces on the ground. Certainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia have backed the opposition, but they are investors, not warriors. These changed the conflict from a legitimate fight for rights and freedoms into a sectarian proxy war between regional opponents, Shi'a on one side, Sunni on the other. The revolt had been hijacked and the objectives changed. NATO allies have mostly stayed far away from the military aspects of this conflict. Even after the infamous “red line” was supposedly crossed, support from the U.S. has been little more than giving other nations a green light to do as they please. As could have been expected, no one has jumped to the task. The increased flow of weapons, especially of advanced types, will help the opposition for a little while. But it won't be a decisive measure.

Of course, the U.N. has spent their usual gallons of ink “strongly condemning this or that” in the press, with the typical yawns from the expected places. There has been talk of a political solution in Geneva, granting a partial victory of sorts for the opposition, but to make any deal, it takes two to tango. Assad is not going to be a willing dance partner. He finds no reason to negotiate. If this conflict were a chess match, Assad has resources remaining all over the board. Checkmate seems only a few moves away.

Assad is willing to be the king standing at the end.

The trick is… where will he be standing if he stands unbroken? On a giant field of absolutely nothing? A country of ruined buildings, no industry, no infrastructure, no tourism, no international validity, no people to rebuild the country, no morale, an absolute nothingness. He can be the king of a barren hill. Will we be able to call Syria a real country after he proves he can stand still? For how long will Russia keep supporting the Syrian economy? For how long will Iran resist keeping Syria alive with the money they don’t have? The question no one is asking at this point is; will Syria have postmen delivering the mail, mosques people can pray in, factories where people can work if Assad wins? Will anybody call it a win? Like Bryce Courtenay eloquently stated in The Power of One; “Winning is a state of mind that embraces everything you do”.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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