The Expert’s Lens
Many “Syria Experts” in the US academia portray the Syrian Revolution through what Elias Muhanna recently termed as the “sectarian lens”. In a guest comment on Elias Muhanna blog about Lebanon (Qifa Nabki) Joshua Landis, President of the Syrian Studies Association and the publisher of Syria Comment blog, presented a “theory” which makes analogy between the events in Syria and surrounding countries and the events associated with recent Ethnic Cleansing in Europe, which have taken place subsequent to world wars and resulted in more “ethnically pure” composition supporting the post WWI framework of nation states. Landis argument is best summarized by his concluding words:
In sum, we are witnessing the rearrangement of populations in the region to better fit the nation states that were fixed after WWI. Some new borders are being drawn, such as those around the Kurdish regions of Iraq and perhaps Syria, but mostly, what we are seeing is the ethnic cleansing of much of the region to fit the borders.
The validity of a theory depends on its ability to explain as much as possible of the facts on the ground. While outliers may eventually come up and result in refining theories, the fundamental structure should still be able to connect actions to forces and motivation. The simpler the connection, the more elegant is the theory and the more likely it is to receive recognition and acceptance. The process is easier in physical sciences than in social and political science. But at the fundamental level, it remains the same.
The situation in Syria is very fluid and highly complex. But we can try to test the “ethnic cleansing” by wearing the “sectarian lens”, through which the primary motive for each actor would then become the creating of the largest possible “sectarian” homogeneous region that would provide the sect/ethnicity with security, safety, and increase its chances of survival. This of course assumes also that these sects/ethnic groups are acting as coherent units with well-defined criteria for survival, even if such assumption is furthest from the truth, which is the case especially for the Sunni Arab population of Syria.
Please note that much of the discussion below relies on news, interacting with activists who have been to Syria as well as with activists who have strong connections to internal opposition groups in Syria. I remain appalled by sectarianism, but I am finding it increasingly hard to discuss Syrian affairs without addressing sectarian issues after the “Syria Experts” have successfully forced the regime’s narrative as the only salient analysis framework.
This is very important in the way it serves the regime’s propaganda campaign. For most in the west, especially those who take the “Syria Experts” seriously, thinking of ethnic cleansing brings a flood of false images of Syria’s minorities being massacred and/or expelled from their homeland on massive scale. The Assad regime and its backers welcome such narrative because it assists the regime in presenting the Syrian Revolution as nothing less than a crime against the minorities of Syria. In that framework, the Entire Sunni Arab population of Syria would become the aggressors, who deserve international condemnation. The regime and its backers would then be eligible for international support to prevent those “Sunni Terrorist’s” from accomplishing their horrific goal even at the cost of raising to dust cities large and small and causing the worst humanitarian crisis we have known in decades.
I will try, from within this distorted framework, to investigate how fraudulent it is. This is in hope of returning the discussion to to its appropriate framework and that is the historical crime against humanity being contemplated by actively supporting the prolonging of the Assad regime’s miserable and misery causing despicable life. I will start by highlighting that when talking about ethnic cleansing, one should look at both sides as potential agents and not only by the real victims of the regime, who are being fraudulently portrayed as the aggressors.
An Irrational Regime?
For the Assad regime, the most rational and cost-effective choices would have been to solidify its gains after its sectarian-motivated destruction of large parts of Homs and promptly move to establish said state by transferring manpower and weapons for the protection of the “homogeneous proto-statelet” in the Alawite heartlands in the Coastal mountains. As rational decision makers, acting in fear of being expelled, the regime and its backers should have embarked on a wide scale cleansing, not only through horrific localized massacres as it happens in Banyas and Baida, but through large-scale forcible removal of Sunnis from the entire coastal zone. This would also mean that the regime and its allies in Iran, Russia and the plethora of sectarian gangs of thugs in Iraq and Lebanon would have had to recognize that: (a) there is no realistic condition under which they could entertain the possibility of sectarian cleansing of the entirety Syria of its Sunnis, or (b) the error of endlessly maintaining their forces in a bleeding war-zone.
The Assad regime and its supporters have been successful, through a sustained terror campaign to cause a massive and horrific humanitarian disaster as manifested by the scale of the refugee crisis in much of the country side of Syria and in rebellious areas in cities like Homs and Aleppo. With unmatched brutality and criminality, they have emptied many villages, fully destroyed entire neighborhoods and small towns and villages, and flooded both the countryside and neighboring countries with refugees. However, carrying out these series of war crimes to their ultimate conclusions requires committing an additional war crime, which is the colonizing of these areas by regime’s sect and/or its allied groups on a massive scale required to establish permanent “absolute sectarian majority”.
No sane person would argue that the regime and its Russian, Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi backers are above such depravity. But it is highly improbable, and they know it, that those allies can execute such undertaking. Ethics have nothing to do with this but logistical and political reasons beyond their control that remain insurmountable. First, rebel groups remain active in these areas, and second none of the neighboring countries including Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, would tolerate permanent Syrian Refugee communities, with the latter two being least likely to allow a second community of refugees to establish a permanent presence.
Short of annihilation, a massive scale conversion of Syria’s Sunni Arabs into Shia faith, remains the other theoretical option to establish Syria as a more pure and homogeneous Alawite-Shia state, but Iran’s very active decades long campaign to convert Syria’s Sunni and Alawite population into Shia faith has miserably failed. One must not ignore also the ultimate devastation of the Alawite community itself being viewed by hardline Shias as an apostate، if they continue to play into Iran’s hand.
The regime and its Iran controlled backers know well that they cannot establish a homogeneous or even a minority-soup state over the entire land mass of Syria. But they are still executing a policy of atrocious and murderous genocide against the largely Sunni population in Syria’s countryside and in rebellious cities. The genocide against Sunni Arabs in these areas would therefore seem a pointless crime with only hateful punitive “Assad or we burn the country” campaign being a much more likely and far simpler explanation.
Unable to establish a homogeneous sectarian state through sectarian-cleansing of predominantly Sunni Arab areas, the only option left for the regime and its Iran controlled backers under the “ethnic cleansing” theory would have been to cut their losses and retreat into areas they can defend over the long-term. The current situation, despite of the much hyped “military success” of the regime and its Iran controlled sectarian militias backers, has proven catastrophic not only to the Alawite community of Syria, but increasingly so to Hizbulla and to the sectarian gangs of Iraq. Both allies have received substantial beatings in many parts of Syria with Hizbullah risking weakening both the cohesion of its own base and its political clout in the Lebanon. Any further erosion of that clout would mean that Nasrallah (in reality Iran) would need to use brute militia force to sustain a veto over Lebanese sovereignty at the least opportune time.
It would have appeared more rational, once more assuming one is wearing “sectarian lens”, for the regime’s allies to halt their bleeding, and to force the regime to retreat to its base without additional losses. Yet they persist in their indulgence in Syrian blood, and continue to risk the highly probable of horrific consequences including the potential expansion of the war into their own bases in Iraq and Lebanon.
Ethnic cleansing usually requires rapid waves of forcible “disengagement” of warring ethnic groups through expulsion, which would subsequently allow for more stable conditions in cleansed areas. This has not been the case so far in Syria, despite of the massive refugee crisis and it seems that even as the regime and its backers continue to suffer losses, they continue to appear as irrational actors when primacy is given to the “sectarian lens”
It is hard to argue against “ethnic cleansing” when 7 million Syrians are now refugees. But to use this tragedy to present a justification for the real criminal whose barrels of death, missiles, and hoards of imported terrorists backed by Iran have caused this tragedy appears to many, including this writer as sinister. The main consequence of accepting this theory, in its presentation context, is to rationalize the actions of this brutal gang as being defensive, by presenting the Syrian Revolution as an “ethnic cleansing” operation.
Rhetoric and Realities
On the rebels’ side, we also see no serious undertaking aiming to cleanse Syria of its minorities. I am sure that the old “secular-sectarian” group of Assad propagandists are by now howling in anger at me, but I would argue that the real anti Assad forces have not yet taken any concerted action in the direction of rearranging the populations to suite their vision. True, the presence of Islamists has amplified the sectarian aspects of the militant side of the conflict. But that is due to several reasons, among which are the simplicity of their mobilizing message (see Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, 27/12/2013), and its appeal in the marginalized rural areas, which have suffered significantly from the regime’s brutality. Yet, an earlier attempt in the summer of 2013 by the highly suspect ISIS to spread its actions into the coastal mountains, seems to have faded and ended with the murder by ISIS of one of the key FSA commanders in the region.
It is now obvious that the actions in the coastal mountains, even with the highly publicized instances of ugly sectarian murders, were primarily aimed at boosting ISIS and Al-Nusra sectarian credentials and secondly to decimate and/or absorb FSA forces, who were starting to build up their presence in the region in anticipation of future large-scale attack on regime forces and fortifications as well as to defend villages that may get out of the regime’s control.
In essence, and despite of their increasingly rabid sectarian rhetoric, sectarian actions by ISIS and similar groups have aimed primarily to boost the credibility of these groups as avengers for Sunni victims of regime massacres and as defenders of the Sunni population at large and not to cleanse Syria of its Christians or Alawites. These are both recruiting campaigns and campaigns to establish hegemony of sinister radical Islamists over the rebellion for their own agendas in the already “liberated” areas and not concerted campaign to “ethnically cleanse” Alawites or Christians.
Even when some ”Syria Experts” give credence to regime’s spokespersons such as the despicable Agens de la Croix, they know well that Syrian Christians, well-known as conflict-averse communities, are leaving their homes in Syria more because of the conflict in the areas they reside in, which is destroying all of Syria (largely through regime actions) and causing a massive scale deterioration of personal security to everyone, than because of specific actions targeting them directly. Many members of the Christian community of Homs, for example, who now reside in Christian and mixed villages in the mountains, such as Mashta El Heleu, fled their homes as a direct result of the regime’s vengeful bombardment of their district including historical churches in the city. It is noteworthy that the bleeding of Syria’s Christian community has continued to occur with acceleration under the forty years of the Assad brutal regime.
Furthermore, also based on actions and results to-date, targeting few predominantly Christian towns by various units of rebels has mostly been a response to abusive regime forces and Shabeeha militia in the area. These were tactical operations aiming to demonstrate force and weaken the regime and its forces. On the other hand, One could argue that the recent kidnapping of nuns by rebels is part and parcel of an ethnic cleansing operation, but from the chatter going around concerning attempts to release the nearly 60 thousand female detainees in regime torture dungeons, the kidnapping seems to be a part of a “prisoners’ swap” game with the rebels having been given the impression, by the west and by regime allies such as Russia, that a dozen Syrian Christians would be far more valuable to the west than the hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, including women and children, who are threatened by eminent death in regime torture dungeons every day. The chatter indicates that the rebels hope that a higher level of pressure would be exerted on the Assad regime to free the thousands of female hostages it holds under the threat of torture, rape, and death when they hold a few valuable hostages.
In summary, there is yet to emerge the outlines of large scale concerted “ethnic cleansing” campaign by the rebels on the scale seen in central European countries Joshua Landis cites as examples bolstering his hypothesis. These are facts, no matter what Agnes de la Croix and her followers in Canada, France, UK, and the US try to spin it otherwise.
Serving the Regime’s Narrative
In no way should the above be taken as an attempt to whitewash the sectarian context of the message of the regime and its Iran controlled allies, or of ISIS, Al-Nusra and/or other rising groups with constantly shifting alliances and names. As indicated above, these groups do need the sectarian message for recruitment and mobilization. But the context of “cleansing” remains less applicable in the rebels’ case than in the light of the numerous “massacres” conducted by the regime and recently by its Iran controlled backers.
To serve their main purpose of deceptively framing a victory of the Syrian Revolution as a victory of Sunni terrorism, ISIS and similar groups are mainly concerned about establishing bases for training and recruitment. These will also serve in launching regime-narrative supporting media coverage through specific “horrific” actions such as decapitation and torture. To do so, they do not need full control of Syria, but only a small part, which seems to be what ISIS is actively doing by solidifying its presence in Northern Syria. The “Syria Experts” never mentioned that ISIS is doing so unmolested by a regime, who has thrown its most recent campaign of terror bombardment through barrels of death against civilians and not against the well-known headquarters and camps of ISIS and its cronies. The meticulous and seemingly deliberate avoidance of real confrontations between the regime’s Iran funded and backed alliance with ISIS is beyond suspicious. None of the esteemed “Syria Experts” have tried to analyze this ominous fact. To the contrary, they seem to jump on the regime’s bandwagon and preach its deceptive slogan (me or terrorism). When confronted with the reality of collusion of interest and actions between regime and ISIS and by the clearly regime-favorable outcomes of ISIS’s actions, these experts try very hard to dismiss that by insinuating that ISIS is merely preparing to launch attacks on “Alawites” at later point. These detached and aloof “intellectuals” seem to have blinders on when reading the infamous threat “Assad or we burn the country”. A phrase that rarely, if ever, shows up on their radar or prophesies.
Despite of the evidence implicating the regime and its Iran controlled backers in numerous massacres, proponents of the “Ethnic Cleansing” theory have repeatedly failed to highlight the regime “sectarian” actions and its cleansing, for whatever reason, of 7 million Syrians from their homes. Their assertions, as seen from their obsessive focus only on “Islamists” rebel groups and figures, apply only to the revolution’s side (although most supporters of the revolution do not consider ISIS as part of the revolution) as the only side motivated by their theory. There is no coincidence in this, and it is consistent with the context of presenting, as the ultimate prediction of the theory, the current situation in Syria in a bipolar mode consisting of two, they claim, mutually exclusive options: that is Assad (the so called secular regime) or Terrorism (all who are against this abominable regime). However, to Syrians, who are suffering the brutality of the Assad regime and the iran controlled militias, and perhaps to many in the region, who recognize Assad’s and Iran’s hand in their own national tragedies, the mere distinction between Assad and terrorism is a historical dishonesty. Characterizing such regime as a “secular-regime”, notwithstanding anemic attempts to sound “objective” by attaching to it the characteristics of being “brutal, but tolerant and protective of minorities”, is fraudulent, deceptive, deluding, and to the families of the countless victims of nearly half a century of brutal and criminal regime, is outright sinister.
Vindictive and Delusional
Behavior on the ground, especially by the Assad regime and its imported thugs clearly indicate a highly vindictive motive against anyone daring to oppose it, despite of the increasingly evident sectarian tone of Iran’s clients. Actions, including political statements, also indicate a delusional conviction of the regime’s long-term survival and return to the pre 2011 conditions, intact, to rule over all of Syria. Brutal vindictiveness are well-known and documented characteristic of more than four decades of thuggish ruling mafia clan and their goons. The delusional conviction is a necessity for a regime, which, despite of its reliance on a particular sect, knows well that it cannot rule a homogeneous (sectarian/ethnic pure) society for reasons intrinsic to its thuggish and conspiratorial nature and to the formative and normative structure of its deployment of sectarianism. The political utility of the regime’s deep rooted sectarianism disappears in such societies, which endangers the primary core value of the regime’s strength as argued rather flawlessly by Hani El Sayed a year ago in a well thought and highly informed study. It also robs Iran, the main culprit in prolonging the suffering of Syrians of its primary medium of regional malfeasance, which is exercised by taking countries in the region as hostages to groups of well-armed terrorist gangs acting on directly on its behalf, or indirectly for its benefit, towards the realization of a Persian, religiously-masked empire of hegemony.