The Somalization of Syria

The recent Russian military escalation in Syria is one more nail in the political solution’s coffin

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

When former U.N. Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi sounded the alarm in 2012 over the “Somalization of Syria”, he was shrugged off by the Assad regime and dismissed by some in the opposition. His warning, three years and many militias later, is materializing at a fast pace in Syria as both victory and a political solution seem out of sight.

Very much like the overthrow of former Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 after five years of conflict between his regime and the rebels, Somalia’s state of chaos and fragmentation compares in more than one way to the trajectory of the Syrian conflict.

The lack of international interest in finding a long lasting solution for Syria and limiting any intervention to counterterrorism or regional security parallels with the case of Somalia and promises a long drawn-out conflict.

No winners and no breakthroughs

Despite the lofty talk of a political solution in Syria, expecting such an outcome in the near term is unrealistic and farfetched given the schism among internal and regional actors over the post-Assad power structure.

Also, the speed at which the fragmentation is happening on the ground, and the gains that ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are making, have introduced new set of realities that torpedo the Geneva II framework.

“Nothing is moving; everything is stuck,” U.N. Syria envoy Steffan de Mistura was quoted in al-Monitor telling an NGO analyst most recently.

The recent Russian military escalation in Syria is one more nail in the political solution’s coffin

Joyce Karam

Even De Mistura’s effort at achieving a temporary ceasefire in an Aleppo suburb collapsed earlier this year.

Despite the humanitarian cost of more than 250,000 dead and millions displaced or crossing in despair to Europe, the Syrian regime is not at a point of seeking a major power-sharing compromise while the rebels are marred by divisions and competing agendas.

This reality is rendering many diplomats and negotiators hopeless, with some choosing to limit their goals to relief efforts and focus on preliminary local needs.

Similar to the central government in Somalia, the Assad regime’s control is dwindling by the day and as the conflict takes a heavy toll on its military and reinforcements.

Today, it is Iran and Hezbollah who are negotiating with the rebel group Ahrar Sham in Zabadani, and it’s Turkey who is vetting the rebels to deploy in its “safe zone” inside Syria. This is all whilst ISIS expands into Palmyra and fortifies its unchecked power in Raqqa.

On the opposition side, it is the more extreme groups such as Ahrar Sham, Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra who are gaining prominence while moderate groups such Harakat al-Hazm, cited once by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, has effectively dissolved.

Rebel leaders who were also seen as moderate in Washington such as Riad Asaad or Salim Idriss or Jamal Maarouf were not able to withstand Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Neither were the 60 trained fighters by the United States, who were either killed in the battle or got kidnapped by Nusra.

The Syrian factions, however, face a similar reality to those in Somalia, where neither group including the regime has the power to achieve an outright military win, and are instead trapped in a war of attrition. As in Somalia, the battle lines constantly shift and gains and losses alternate between the regime and the rebels - with neither side the permanent victor or the vanquished.

Russian escalation and adjustment

The recent Russian military escalation in Syria is one more nail in the political solution’s coffin. Russia, very much like Turkey, the United States, Syria’s neighbors and Iran is adjusting itself to a long conflict in Syria, and trying to preserve its geopolitical interests on the Syrian coast through propping up the Assad regime.

Syria, akin to its Somali counterpart, is gradually becoming a counterterrorism battlefield while substituting Harakat al-Shabaab with Nusra and ISIS.

The international community seems to be adjusting to the humanitarian catastrophes through containment, and only intervening to strike ISIS or Al-Qaeda affiliates. On the other hand, the internal chaos and fragmentation ensued from the fighting is being left to play out.

And it’s all at the expense of Syria’s future as a state with a functioning central government.

In Somalia and since 1986, more than half a million people have died while the international community kept its distance from intervening.

In that conflict, only its neighbors Ethiopia and Kenya stepped in to secure their interests. This scenario is replaying in Syria, whereby the intervention is only understood in anti-ISIS terms, and regional actors such as Turkey and Israel have only intervened to achieve key goals against Hezbollah or the Kurdish groups.

Iran and Hezbollah’s intervention meanwhile is focused on expanding Tehran’s role, and seeking new military presence near the Golan heights to threaten Israel.

Without a peace deal, “Syria would be transformed to hell...what will happen is Somalization” predicted Brahimi in 2012.

In 2015, Syria has made this transformation and its Somalization is happening before our own eyes - as geopolitics and counterterrorism define the global response.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.