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The Intimate Geopolitics of the Syrian Conflict

President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the...

President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the early 1970s. From left to right: Bashar, Maher, Mrs Anisa Makhlouf (the then new First Lady of Syria), Majd, Bushra, and Basil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Riyadh: Sunday 12th August, 2012:

It is no coincidence that as the Olympic Flame completed its last relay towards the Stadium and the world turned its collective attention to the competition for small metal disks, tanks were simultaneously rolling towards Syria’s commercial hub, Aleppo.

The Syrian Civil war and the current battle for Aleppo has been the occasional subject of anguished reminders from people , that amid the glorification of sporting prowess, a colossal human tragedy was unfolding.

Of course, the human cost of all wars is terrible, and all civil wars have that peculiar characteristic of being both at one and the same time, events of global importance, sucking in the attentions of neighbours and great powers and also curiously intimate and domestic affairs.

The tragedy of families torn apart by civil wars is actually something with which most people are familiar, even when the conflicts themselves are now mere history.

Anyone who has watched Gone With The Wind, or the 1980’s television series North And South, is familiar with the way in which the American Civil War divided not only countries but also individual families and friendships. Yet the curious interplay between the domestic and heartfelt nature of civil war and the global, geopolitical involvement are less well articulated in relation to the American Civil War.

America’s subsequent rise to Global Hegemony has helped to obscure the fact a great deal of the strategic and tactical decision-making  at the heart of the war’s narrative, was in fact conceived in response to a need, on the part of the protagonists, particularly the South, to obtain the diplomatic and military patronage of the great powers of the day.

Lee’s decision to invade Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, for example, was a result of three factors. Firstly, the victories of that spring such as that at Fredericksburg had made an invasion possible, secondly, the Invasion might in some way help to relieve the pressure on the besieged town of Vicksburg, and thirdly, in doing so, the British might be sufficiently impressed, as indeed they nearly were already, to offer to recognise the Confederacy.

Note that the invasion, itself was not necessary from the point of view of tactics in the Eastern Theatre. Lee had been holding down the far superior Union numbers for two years and had no need to extend his supply routes. Moreover, he had no prospect of attempting either a siege or invasion of Washington DC itself, which was heavily defended and would have rendered his army a sitting duck to the various Union armies range against him.

Moreover, it is unclear how significant an impact a Southern victory at Gettysburg would have had in the outcome at Vicksburg given that win or lose the high ground, Lee would still have lost a quarter of his army and been forced to withdraw. We can see therefore that the real prize was obtaining British Support, just as the Free Syrian Army, has been required to prove its metal in order to persuade the International community to actively support its cause.

The sad truth for the families whose men are risking their lives against neighbours, brothers and friends, is that, with will-power, swagger and bravery, conflicts can be escalated to wars, but that wars can only be won with international support. There are examples of course of this not being the case. But not many. The Bolsheviks were ultimately triumphant over an invasion from the international community, principally because the White Russians quickly exhausted the support of an international community still recovering from WWI.

In the case of Syria, there have been many voices which have articulated concern that the conflict has failed to ignite western involvement due to the absence of oil. There may be some truth in this, at least in as much as it is hard to see the world reacting with such timidity if this conflict had ignited in, say, Dubai.

But this misses an important point.

The war has exposed aspect of Syrian Society which were all but unknown to a tiny number of regional experts.

For example, even those who were aware before the conflict, of the complex and evolving relationship between Hezbollah, Iran and the ruling minority sect in Syria (the Alowites), might have been completely unaware of the complex system of patronage that existed and which was exposed by the defection of the powerful Tlass family to support the revolution.

It sounds obvious with hindsight, but a minority regime such as that of Al Assad, cannot function effectively on brutality alone. For the majority Sunni population of Syria and the various minorities which had not had access to power, would simply not have tolerated the regime for so long unless powerful vested interests were being looked after.

The defection and subsequent political manoeuvring of the Tlass Clan, to place themselves in a powerful position to succeed the Assad regime, highlights not only the way in which the previous regime was seen to operate on the ground but also points to a potential future for Syria in which little has really changed, where the various interest groups are each bought off through a complex system of patronage.

Would a post war Tlass lead Syria really be so different from the prewar one?

It is quite possible to see a scenario where Assad falls and a revolutionary government emerges, possibly democratically, but where only the senior figures actually change. Such a scenario might protect Syria from some of the worst effects of war, suffered, for example in Iraq, but it would do so by leaving most of the low and intermediate system of government in place.

There is of course another, possibility. In the aftermath of the popular uprising against the Shah of Iran, the Islamic revolution that emerged, proceeded to execute huge numbers of junior officials, often in a retributive manner, as long-held grievances were recounted before incriminated men, whose source of power had evaporated from above them.

The Shah’s regime had been a brutal one, and most of these junior functionaries, whose patronage had allowed them often cruel summary powers were swiftly dispatched to grim fates.

Of course, the Modern Iranian Islamic Republic has a real vested interest in maintaining the existing system in Syria, with Assad at its helm. Such a scenario would secure Syrian and Iraq firmly within the Iranian Sphere of influence, while the fall of Assad, might release the ambitions of Sunni’s and Kurds in Iraq to once again defy the Majority Shia government.

Such an end to the conflict would serve to empower the Turks and Saudi’s regionally, and reverse the power of Iran, at least temporarily. Paradoxically, such a reverse may focus the Iranian efforts to develop a viable Nuclear weapon, after all.

In my next post, I intend to explore the complex geopolitical web currently centred on Syria and how the politics and foreign policy of countries as seemingly uninvolved as China are affected.

But it should not be forgotten that whatever type of Syria emerges from the conflict and whoever ends up as its titular Head of State, it is ultimately those who fought and their families who will be required to make sense of the system of government which follows.

Moreover, the large confederacy of interest groups (some sponsored by individual powers and others not) which make up the Free Syrian Army, are likely to have very different ideas as to what the future make-up of the country and its system of government should be.

The fear is that the recriminations and disappointments which follow this conflict, might well fan the flames of the next.

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