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Syrian opposition, West 'fed each other's false expectations'

The protests that led to the Syrian civil war began six years ago. Carnegie Fellow and analyst Yezid Sayigh discusses how the fight became so intractable.

Syrien Zerstörung (Reuters/K. Ashawi)

Two women and a child walk through the rubble in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria, on March 8

DW: The war in Syria is moving into its seventh year. We have heard a lot about the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad. But even the most ruthless dictator cannot stay in power without some support. What do we know about the public support for Assad?

Libanon Yezid Sayigh (Carnegie Middle East Center)

Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his work focuses a number of topics including the Syrian crisis, the political role of Arab armies, and security sector transformation in the Arab world

Yezid Sayigh: Today I think, and through the crisis and the civil war, there are not a great many Syrians who actually genuinely think he is a great president. But there are a lot more Syrians who don't believe there are any viable alternatives and have lost faith in the opposition. So we have probably a very large number of Syrians who are alienated from politics and are probably no longer willing to engage politically, and that may affect any future transition of any kind. But historically we have a family - father and son - ruling since 1970, who have never relied purely on coercion. They have certainly demonstrated their readiness to use violence and even extreme violence like the torture of prisoners or mass killings as in the city of Hama in February 1982. But like most governments anywhere they also rely on co-opting the population on securing its compliance through providing certain social and economic rewards. And so, in fact, the Assad regime did actually enjoy quite a lot of domestic tolerance and acceptance, including by the sectors that finally turned against it. So rural Syrians,  people living in farming areas, were generally seen as supporting the regime until at least 2008, because they were benefitting from it. They benefitted in the early years from the liberalization policies.

It was only when resources started to run out, competition from powerful cronies near to the president or in the security agencies started to crowd in on private markets and black markets, and also with droughts and the migration from rural areas towards cities - it is only in the last few years, finally, that sentiment turned strongly against Assad.

The opposition on the other side seems extremely fragmented. What makes it so difficult for the opposition to unite under one banner?

There are various reasons for this. One is that the opposition had almost no serious political experience. At least the people who were recognized in the West and outside in Arab countries as representing the Syrian people or the opposition, they had no significant party experience, because party politics were banned unless the parties joined the government of the Baath party. More important may be: There were no independent trade unions, labor unions, professional unions - through which people could gain the experience of collective action. It is very different from the Palestinian case, where after loosing their homeland or expulsion in 1948, Palestinians became very involved in political parties in the Arab countries that hosted them. By the time the PLO emerged as an armed organization, it built on something like 15 or 16 years or so of extensive grassroots experience. This was entirely missing in Syria.

Another is that, contrary to rather simplistic assumptions by people outside Syria who see a pro-democracy movement against a nasty dictatorship or Sunnis against Alawites, Syrian society in fact is far more complex. There is not a single Sunni character or Alawite character. And so like in any other civil war in reality you have very, very diverse social, economic and political tendencies at local levels as we see even today in the armed opposition in having literally thousands of different armed opposition groups.

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Finally the Assad regime - father and son - always ran their political control by treating different parts of the country and different parts of the population in different ways.  So they didn't treat all farmers alike or all Sunnis alike or all urban people alike. Aleppo was allowed a lot of freedom to develop its business and seek investment from neighboring Turkey. Raqqa was given a lot of state support and assistance. Deir-El-Zor, on the other hand, was punished for having risen in protest against Syria's joining against Iraq in 1991 under the US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait. Deir-El Zor had had close ties to Iraqi society and therefore it was punished by the regime and starved of resources. So the regime always operated in very different ways in different areas.

And I think this had an effect: When there was an opposition, that opposition itself also tended to mimic the regime in having very different trends and different local concerns and priorities in each area as well. All these things have worked against them.

Finally, we have the role of external powers: The western governments and the Gulf governments in particular that supported the opposition, very quickly started pursuing their own separate agendas, funding different types of groups independently of each other. They also pursued different ideological or political models in terms of supporting Islamist groups or non-Islamist ones and so on. These outside governments never improved their coordination. Even when they started to coordinate through military operation centers in Amman and in Turkey, they failed to genuinely pool their resources and agree to a single agenda, when dealing especially with the armed opposition inside Syria.

Bashar al-Assad Interview (Reuters)

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks in Damascus during an interview on Chinese TV on March 11

All of this has ended up fundamentally undermining the cohesion of the opposition and weakening attempts by its recognized leadership to assert their authority and control over the people who had followed them. 

How much is outside influence responsible for turning peaceful protests into a brutal war in the first place?

No society is isolated and cut off completely, except maybe North Korea. And therefore there will always be outside influences. And even when the outside attempts not to do anything, that is an outside influence as well. For a start we have to accept that there have and always will be influences and we can't sort of say any one thing is exclusively responsible for a particular outcome or a political direction. However, I think the initial year of the conflict, 2011, was very important. First, because in the beginning of 2011, something happened: it happened in Tunisia, in Egypt - the people rose up, they got rid of "presidents-for-life" dictators.  This was a dramatic event and it influenced many other people including in Bahrain who rose against domination by the monarchy and of course in Syria. So that was one outside influence. The West's support, politically or rhetorically, for these uprisings and then its support for the uprising in Libya - specifically with military intervention - all had a huge impact on Syrians and their expectations.

It convinced the opposition in Syria for instance, that the West was genuinely committed and would support it. And therefore they became a bit overconfident about the imminent fall of the Assad regime. But in early 2012 another very critical event happened. That was when the Saudis - for reasons unrelated to Syria but related to their competition with Iran - decided to escalate against the Assad regime by going to the UN Security Council seeking a resolution demanding the departure of Assad. And that is a very serious diplomatic and political escalation, which the West endorsed. They supported the move instead of telling the Saudis: "We have to consult with Russia and China on this. We know they are not happy about what happened in Libya. We need to make sure everyone is on board for this, it's a very extreme position for the Security Council to take." Instead, the Saudis just went ahead, the West went ahead. And of course we ended up with the Russian and Chinese veto.

I think it's another example of how the West, until then, had totally misunderstood the situation in Syria. Although almost everyone in the world did so: former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barack, for instance, was saying that he thought the Assad regime would fall in three weeks; the Russians apparently believed the same. And so of course, the West went too far in endorsing the Syrian opposition's position without checking or forming a serious assessment, and then about two or three weeks later the Western governments changed policy by supporting a UN security plan in mid-March 2012 calling for a ceasefire and negotiations. That of course is a far less extreme position.

So we have an American, French and British policy in particular - backed by pretty much the rest of Europe - that fell for the simplistic assumption about the nature of the regime, its position in society, the idea that it would fall instantly. This encouraged over-optimistic thinking by the opposition. So the two fed each other's false expectations, and got stuck with them. 

With this outside influence at play I actually had in mind: the funding of various militias for instance through Saudi Arabia, Qatar, some Gulf monarchies, help for the Nusra Front from Turkey and so on. But nevertheless, with so many outside players in the game in Syria, where does this leave us in respect to the Astana talks starting on Tuesday and Geneva IV next week?

Clearly the outside influences very much include Iran, Russia and Hezbollah supporting the regime. Without them the regime probably would not have survived. So these have been critical factors. That has been true throughout the conflict, although the Iranian and Russian role became really important only from the summer of 2012, after the opposition took half of Aleppo. That was a turning point in their policy. The point I am making is that they now have emerged as the most important external power as everyone else has more or less pulled out. The US, the Europeans, the Saudis, Qataris, all the most important external supporters of the opposition and Turkey since last summer have basically taken a position which is: "We have done as much as we can. We can't and will not do more, From now on we just hope to stop the violence, but we won't even do much to ensure that."

That means first, that in my view, the Geneva Process will not produce any results. I think that there will be no formal political agreement ending the war in Syria. 

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Astana won't produce a formal deal, but what it has produced is a forum for Turkey and Russia - and to some extent Iran - to work out practical arrangements on the ground. It is a process rather than an end result, which is pulling Turkey deeper into a position that it can't escape - where it no longer backs the opposition forcefully, where it accepts de facto the regime's continuation, where it will be telling the opposition: "we have done as much as we can, from here on you just have to accept the outcome."

So we are looking at continuing violence for another year or two. But we are already in the final phase, where we can see pretty much the final outcome. The violence is just part of the maneuvering between these different parties until we reach a place where it sort of starts to wind down - with the one exception being the fight against "IS" in the east.

This interview was conducted by Matthias von Hein.

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