Anyone who has been to the Qal’at Salah al-Din (or Saladin Castle) in the lonely North-West corner of the perennially war torn Syria can only marvel at its remarkable feats of both engineering and shear, bloody minded determination. After all it is not an simple task to slice a 28m deep, 14 to 20m wide and 156m long tench out of living rock in what is, even today, in the middle of nowhere. Adding to this marvel is a single, lonely freestanding stone needle, once encompassed by a mass of its like, now standing solitary, lonely, reaching up like a hand-less arm to provide support for a draw bridge that is no longer distended. One can stand for hours amongst the ruins of this quiet place, pondering history and war as they gaze out over the gorges that flank the citadel and stretch out into the wild, lush hills that encompass it. Long ago the din of war rang loud in this tranquil place as the rampant armies of Saladin descended on it to drive the bevy of heavily armored foreigners from the safety of its clutches. The battle only lasted three days, two of which consisted of Saladin lobbing massive stones at the citadels crumbling walls before eventually sensing the time was right to storm the gates, ordering thousands of feverish men forward to claim their prize. In the end those who found themselves standing before the great conqueror were able to buy back their freedom, but the fall of the citadel was another step in eventual ousting of the foreign invaders from what was known in the west as Outremer. Today the tranquility that surrounds the Qal’at Salah al-Din belies the devastation that has spread across this historical powder-keg of a country. As the Romans, Persian, Byzantines, Ottomans, Greeks, Mongolians and many others have found before them, Syria is a land built on the embers of its destruction. It is a land saddled with the burden of many conflicting histories that affect not just those countries that occupy the space around this remarkable place, but simmers just as violently in the hearts of those living within its borders. Tribal, personal, historical and religious conflict flows within the very fabric of what the modern country is built upon leaving the tension bubbling away beneath the surface, waiting for the opportunity to once again be unleashed. This time the trigger was not the arrival of a foreign legion intent on conquest, although aspects of this would come in time, it was an internal dispute, long in the making, that forged an opportunity created by a troubled man in Tunisia.
The tranquility and beauty of Qal’at Salah al-Din belies the devastation that is being wrecked in the rest of the country
The story of Syria’s revolt, as convoluted, mismanaged and discredited as it has been, is fairly well known. Some will put it out there as the white knight, represented by the oppressed Sunni majority, rising up against their oppressor, the black knight dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, a man who would see the deaths of hundred of thousands if only to preserve his life style of plenty and see a ruined land passed onto his Facebook weilding breathren. Others cast it as but another chapter in the perennial struggle between Sunni and Shia, the two conflicting arms of Islam, as they fight to demonstrate that their interpretation of the holy texts are correct. Still more would claim it is simply a proxy war, a civil struggle hijacked by greater powers determined not to let their side lose. Perhaps it is a little of all of this and then some; the only certainty is that there is no foreseeable conclusion to this tragedy that can really be considered a win for anyone. At this point in time the world, including most of those fighting among the historical rubble of Syria, are waiting with baited breath for the United States and their apparent Alliance of the not-so-willing to decide once and for all if they are going to dip their toes into another foreign adventure. France, always keen to get involved with the disputes of its former colonies, either out of some sense of responsibility or just to feel important, appears the most enamored with military action, although they are unlikely to do it on their own if America pulls out, after all this is not the wilderness of Mali and a ragtag bunch of Islamic misfits who are scared off by a few fireworks.
Bashar al Assad and his wife Asma have always been depicted as a modern, secular couple, something contradicted by the current draconian brutality taking place around the country.
In truth there appears no real outcome at this point in time that would appear satisfactory to a global community weary of another lawless state cropping up in such a sensitive area. On one side stands Assad, an Authoritarian leader who, like all Authoritarian leaders has a particular likening for having his men throw hoods over the heads of those who believe his tax policy is unfair and dragging them to some hidden dungeon for a good old fashioned beating or worse. He controls via a coalition of his loyal Alawite kinsmen and other minorities as well as a few key Sunni backers. Make no mistake, his rule is bound to the concept of oppression and the threat of severe retribution. In saying this however, he also managed to run a tight ship in an area of desperate unrest, the state was fairly secular in its governance, minorities were not the target of persecution and women were free to pursue education and a life of their own, something that cannot be wholly said for many other Arab countries such as American favorite Saudi Arabia. With his rule the border with Israel has been reasonably peaceful and despite him being tied to the regime in Iran and to the militants of Palestine, it is almost guaranteed that the Israeli government would rather the evil they know than a potential hand-grenade sitting on their doorstep, hence their clear resolve to avoid any direct involvement in the fight save for the odd bombing of weapon convoys bound for Hezbollah and an army of intelligence personnel scouring the countryside for any scrap of information that may add value to their cause. Assuming then that after another year or so of battle, Assad finally claims to have secured the majority of the country, the main centers anyway. He declares ‘mission accomplished’ on the steps of a destroyed Roman temple and vows to hunt the remaining terrorists to the ends of the Earth to punish them. What is left of Syria for him to rule? It would certainly be a country divided, the fissure between Sunni and Alawite in particular would be immense, Assad’s security apparatus would be boosted to unparalleled levels and anyone who emits even the smallest scent of resentment would be round up and disappear. It would be a government build on paranoia and resentment, governing an broken economy, heavily indebted to outside supporters and further crushed by embargoes imposed by an embittered west. Undoubtedly the terrorists who had been pushed out of the towns and cities would establish themselves in the barren east of the country, where Assad’s limited resources can no longer police, free to plot acts of destruction against not just the government mechanisms but conceivably Israel and other enemies of extremist Islam. Culturally the monumental archaeological sites that litter the land, serving to bind it together in a shared history, will struggle to shake off both the destruction they have suffered during years of war, neglect due to lack of funds, interest and looters out to secure an potential income from eager trophy collecting New York businessmen. It will take decades of peace for the country to get even close to what it had been, and even longer should it remain an international pariah as would surely be the case should Assad remain.
al Qaeda linked groups like the Al-Nursa front fight both alongside more secular forces but also, at times, against them, highlighting the fractitious and dangerous nature of the rebel forces.
On the other side of this divide is the rebels, once hailed as heroic freedom fighters battling oppression, now tarnished by the increasing presence of Al Qaeda linked groups, persistent infighting, a lack of a clear structure or strategy, and ongoing concerns that they are manufacturing situations to draw others into the conflict. They have suffered some heavy territorial losses of late but appear to have been rallied somewhat by the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad and the potential intervention it may bring on their behalf. What if the international community do decide that to stop talking and start acting by bombarding the Syrian government and its military? What happens if the rebels launch an offensive that coincides with this attack and Assad’s government, fearing the states imminent collapse, simply disintergrates like Russian communism, leaving the rebels to fill the vacuum in this broken land. Firstly they, like Assad, would be inheriting a country torn apart at the very seams. Its economy and infrastructure would be in ruins, ethnic and religious tensions at an all time high, and homelessness and unemployment leaving many citizens struggling to survive. Coupled with this a large portion of the best and brightest of Syria, would have fled the conflict to safe havens in other countries leaving it desperately short of qualified men and women to help rebuild. Unlike with a government victory the economy would not necessarily be the biggest problem. One can imagine that should the rebels win, the international community would be quick to offer assistance in this regard. The big issue however will be actually ruling. Due to the factitious nature of the rebel forces, there is no clear dominant group that would slot into a leadership roll, as there was in Libya. Instead there stands an uneasy alliance between a number of groups of differing sizes and abilities from small localized militias to large paramilitary, Al Qaeda backed groups. Each appear to have a different set of goals, ambitions and visions for Syria, many of which are polar opposites. For example, some groups would like to establish Syria as an Islamic state, one piece of a future caliphate stretching across the Middle East. It will be governed on the principles of Sharia Law and will no doubt have a major ambition of finally scratching an Israel sized itch. Other groups envisage a secular state, based on that of neighboring Turkey as enacted by the legendary Mustafa Ataturk, prior that is to it being hijacked by the current government. It is clear that which one of these options the west would be backing but the difference of opinion can only mean one thing should the Rebels win: A second civil war, this time between the secular and Islamist groupings. There appears no way that these two groups will be able to successfully co-exist in Syria and should the rebels prevail then the west and Israel will no doubt be quick to intervene to prevent the militant Islamists taking over, a scenario that is all but unimaginable if peace is to ever take hold in the area. There is also the concern that should the rebels succeed in defeating the Assad regime a massacre of significant proportions could occur against the defeated minorities including Alawites, Christians and Kurds (there are already unconfirmed reports of atrocities occurring against the Kurds in the north by Al Qaeda linked groups).
The violence has left Syria in ruins
With both of these scenarios resulting in outcomes that are far from satisfactory, the international community has been very hesitant at becoming involved. After all no one wants to be seen providing advanced weaponry to terrorist groups, or help secure a victory for the rebels only to see it result in a massacre of civilian populations, or be caught up in a war with such incredibly blurred lines of loyalty, or even forced to pump billions of dollars into an eventual reconstruction and rejuvenation of such a broken country after the rampant mismanagement witnessed in both Afghanistan and Iraq; and that is not even mentioning the possibility of the conflict widening even further and turning into a regional event. So what are the options in Syria? What can be done to successfully bring an end to the conflict, mitigate the threat of the terrorist groups that have taken residency in the rebel ranks, and put Syria back on the path to become both a successful country and member of the International community?
American and Russian talks have so far only highlighted the divergent opinions of the two sides.
First and foremost it appears almost certain that a reconciliation government can not be created that will include Bashar al Assad, simply because he is the symbol of all that is wrong with the Syrian government whether directly or not. He is therefore clearly the biggest obstacle blocking potential peace. Russia are standing by their man and would not be too keen to press forward with his removal as it would undoubtedly undermine their position as Syria’s key ally. Assad himself has already dug himself into a position that will be difficult to extricate himself from, and the Allies and rebels will not be able to mount a climb down big enough to state that they would form a government with their sworn enemy, even if Assad did leave that option on the table. No doubt offers of a comfortable asylum for the Syrian President and his family have been made and no doubt these have been dismissed out of hand. Another option, although also highly unlikely, could be to leave Assad in place but severely restrict his power, giving him a figurehead roll similar to that which many royal families now cling to in Europe. For this to even have any weight at all however, there would need to be a dramatic reversal on the battlefield and Russian approval. Unfortunately it seems the only likely way Assad is going to be removed is if those closest too him decide he can no longer viably lead, the Russians decide to remove their support for him, or he is killed.
With the death toll and resentment rising the situation in Syria is only getting worse, and potentially even more dangerous.
One major step in putting pressure on Assad could be to step up the rhetoric toward the controlling Alawite minority. One of the major reasons the army has proven itself so resilient during this conflict is because of its sectarian nature. Alawites, and many of the other minorities in Syria, see this conflict as a life or death struggle for their people. Many Alawites, Christians and Kurds fear that to lose this war will be the end of their people in Syria, and with so many radical elements forming large militant sections of the Rebel forces it is hard to disagree. As mentioned earlier the Kurds have already reportedly been attacked by al Qaeda linked militants in the north of the country, while the beautiful ancient town of Maaloula, one of the last places where the language of Jesus, Aramaic, is spoken is currently the focus of some intense battles with reports of forced conversions and destruction of churches filtering through to normally rebel friendly western media outlets. The Alawites themselves are in a particularly vulnerable position as the kinsmen of the President and hated religious enemy of the extreme Islamists. Should the Government fall there is the potential for a massacre not seen since the days of jack boot wearing Germans. Which is why the America and her allies much reach out to the minorities above all else. They need to convince the Alawites that their future is secure, that should the Assad government fall their livelihoods, homes and culture will be protected from retribution. Perhaps getting a UN resolution guaranteeing this would be a good step although admittedly a long shot. Convincing the Alawites of their future, regardless of who holds the seat of power will go a long way to convincing Assad that he has no future and perhaps even encourage those close to him to force his hand.
It is certain that Assad has to go if the country is to find a long term solution to the current conflict.
After the debacle of post war Iraq and the ongoing security issues plaguing the new state of Libya it is essential that, should the rebels eventually prevail, the bulk of the army and its institutions remain in place. Most of the men fighting for Assad are doing so because it is their job, it is what they were trained to do. Any incoming government must act quickly to first remove the extremist elements from the Syrian army and then build on the core that has already been established. History has shown time and again that most armies will fight for whoever pays their bills so as long as the cash keeps coming the army can largely remain intact. This will prevent any extended period of lawlessness and ensure that there is a core group of trained and disciplined soldiers in place to maintain order, particularly with the ongoing threat of extremist elements to be dealt with. It will also be essential to get a early grip on the militia situation. As seen in Libya, it becomes very difficult to control these roving groups of bandits, who see themselves as doyens of freedom and protectors of their particular area, if they are left to their own devices for too long. Any government will need to integrate any willing militia elements into the army but ensure that those who either refuse to play ball or to go back to their pre-war lives disband, forcefully if necessary.
It seems as if Syria has a long road to walk before the healing can begin.
Unfortunately most of these scenarios are still some time away. At the moment the world waits until an opportune time appears for them to step in, content to play it out in the UN and through diplomatic and covert channels, hoping that things will sort themselves out without causing too much collateral damage to the region. Whatever the result the loser in all of this will be the Syrian people who have seen their country, a beautiful land of magnificent historical treasures, a Mediterranean kissed coastline and an immense vibrancy and energy, crushed beneath the feet of an uprising hijacked by a extremists and an Authoritarian leader seemingly hell bent to see this thing through to the end. One wonders if Bashar al-Assad ever visits the tranquil surrounds of Qal’at Salah al-Din, only a short distance from his ancestral town of Qardaha, to contemplate the quiet calm, the rolling tree covered hills stretching out of the grasp of the ruined castle into the distance, and regrets not stopping this from the start, not working more to find a compromise with those protesters who chanted for change before it became what it became.