Samer Abboud’s Reflections on Syria

The following text by Samer Abboud is from his talk at the Reflections on Syria event with Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture on September 8 , 2018, at Sought in Philadelphia, part of the ear-whispered programming. Samer Abboud is an Associate Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies at Villanova University. He has published extensively on contemporary Syria, including a widely read book on the conflict titled Syria (Polity, 2018).

There used to be a joke about Lebanon that if you understood the country, then it was badly explained to you. I start my brief talk on the Syrian conflict with this joke both to temper expectations but also to suggest that what we call the Syrian conflict or the Syrian crisis is constitutive of a set of overlapping and intertwined processes that have impacted the lives of Syrians since 2011. In my brief talk today, I want to talk about these overlapping processes and to take us, very briefly, through some of the key events of the last seven plus years.

To do so, what I would like to do today, in the interests of time, is to ask the question of where the Syrian conflict stands today. An informed and reasonable response to this question has changed over the course of the conflict. This is especially the case in Syria where we have the co-existence of multiple, identifiable patterns at different stages over the last seven years: civil war; revolution; regional war; uprising; proxy war; humanitarian crisis, regional interventions, and so on. The conflict has elements of all of the above but cannot be reduced to a single one. What I would like to do today is suggest that there are three distinct phases defining the last seven years that have determined how we answer the question of where the conflict stands. Each of these phases corresponds to unique political and military situations.

The first phase was in the initial years when regime change was a possibility in Syria. The choice, so to speak, during this phase, was one between the regime or revolution. The main drivers of the conflict were determined by either the desire to overthrow or preserve the regime in some form and this shaped the politics of both domestic actors and regional states that intervened into Syria. Indeed, even though the initial protests in Syria were aimed at reform, they very quickly adopted the common language of the Arab uprisings and began calling for regime change. The context of these protests is important. In the decade preceding the protests, Syria had undergone economic changes that had negatively effected the most vulnerable of society while enriching many of those connected to centers of power. Wealth was being created in the country but it was not being distributed to the margins of society. This coincided with a continued stifling of political activity in which many people were unable to make demands on the government or the regime to addressing their increasingly dire economic situations.

So, when the protests broke out, they were occurring in a particular domestic context as well as a regional one that was emerging after the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. As they spread throughout the country, they came to be defined by two contradictory features: they were national in character, and totally decentralized in their leadership. While occurring throughout the country, the absence of political parties, associations, unions, or any institutions of the sort from which to organize and mobilize them meant that many of the protestors and then the local councils that grew out of them, were operating in specific local conditions with limited support. The demands of these groups may have been national, but their specific conditions and possibilities were very much localized. Many Syrians outside of the country began to form ineffectual opposition groups that would pledge support, but were never able to fully deliver. And, of course, by the summer of 2011, there was an armed movement that grew in response to continued regime violence and repression of protests.

What defined the Syrian opposition at this time was not its unity, but its fragmentation, over key issues of political vision and strategy and thus its inability to develop a national momentum to overthrow the regime. During this period, the regime and its allies were similarly engaged in a struggle of self-preservation. It was clear in mid-2011 that political negotiations and compromise were not going to prevent conflict and thus the regime and its allies began to act accordingly.

The second phase of the conflict is defined by the lack of a political or military resolution to the question of whether the regime or revolution, or whether some compromise of the two, would be an acceptable political outcome. Until around 2015, this phase was defined by both a military and political stalemate. The failure of a political outcome slowly contributed to growing and metastasizing violence as the Syrian conflict attracted new subjugating actors. It is during this period that we see the rapid rise of armed groups, such as Islamists and Kurdish militias, and regime-aligned groups such as the national defense forces. From around 2013, many of these groups began to control large areas of the country.

At the same time, the drivers of violence began to shift away from principally focusing on regime targets. First, the proliferation of armed groups meant new competition over territorial gains. Second, the emergence of a war economy in Syria incentivized new forms of violence. In both cases, so-called opposition groups spent as much time fighting each other as they did regime forces. This also meant that fighters moved between different groups seamlessly, as material resources and opportunities became more important than ideology or politics in drawing people to fight.

The military and political stalemate emerges because the armed groups are strong enough to continue fighting yet too weak to overtake and control territory. Regional rivalries further ensured that resources were directed towards different groups to help maintain the stalemate. Such balances on the battlefield were reflected in the political arena, where major actors, including those inside of Syria, remained intent on a military solution to the conflict and did not invest seriously in a political process. A military stalemate never made political concessions attractive.

The stalemate phase was thus defined by the commitment to a military solution by all parties, the undermining of all political attempts at peace, the further expansion of violence, and the continued displacement of suffering of Syrians who were caught within this conflict landscape.

The Russian intervention that began in September 2015 completely altered the dynamics of the stalemate period and represents the beginning of third phase of the conflict. The Russian military intervention has mainly focused on suffocating the armed groups, containing them in pockets of the country and then, through indiscriminate violence and the negotiation of so-called truces, forcing the displacement of civilians and the cleansing of areas. As some of you may have noticed in the news the last few weeks, there are questions about whether there will be a new military offensive against Idlib. Idlib is the area in which all armed groups were allowed to retreat after these attacks and subsequent truces and as you may have noticed in the news the last few weeks, there is an assumption that it will be the next area targeted by the Russian military.

The overwhelming force employed during the intervention, coupled with on-the-ground advances by regime aligned forces has meant that many areas of the country are falling back under regime control. Paradoxically, Russia’s intervention has made politics possible. And here I mean not a politics of negotiation or compromise but one of imposition. What we are seeing emerging in Syria after 2015 is a new conflict that looks radically different than the one in 2011. The threat of perpetual violence remains today and is deepened by a series of laws passed under the guise of reconstruction that seek to strip Syrians, especially those outside of the country, of what rights they had as citizens and residents of the country.

To return to the question that I presented at the beginning, where does the Syrian conflict stand today? Tripartite agreement between Iran, Russia, and Turkey through the Astana process reflect both the internationalization of the Syrian conflict and its future trajectory. The agreement of the guarantors solidifies something we have known for a long time, mainly, that the Syrian crisis will not be solved by Syrians, and it will certainly not be solved to the benefit of Syrians. In other words, the current politics on offer holds no possibility for the realization of long-standing Syrian demands for political freedoms and in doing so prefigures a solution to the crisis that will come to the detriment of many Syrians. That solution is emerging in the aftermath of the Russian intervention.

In this context, Syria’s many possible futures all look bleak. In the beginning, the choice may have been between a regime and a revolution, but the evolution of the conflict has rendered both choices impossible at this point. Moving forward, Syria’s futures will be decided by the patterns of the post-Russian intervention period, none of which will move the country closer to actual peace, none of which will bring about progressive political change, and none of which will restore the social fabric of a country destroyed by more than seven years of brutality.

To conclude, I want to read from a passage in my book which I wrote as I was watching many people, including people I love and care about, celebrate what they saw as a victory for Syria and the regime: “It is important to restate the obvious here: that nobody has won this war. Celebration and jubilation among regime loyalists masks the trauma that the country has endured and will continue to endure as it emerges from the aftermath of the destruction. There is no time for celebrating the outcome of the conflict today. Everyone has lost.”