Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad dynasty, established by a clan of the Prophet’s tribe to rule the first Islamic empire. Syria is where, in 1516, the absorption of the Arab world into the Ottoman Empire began, with the Ottoman victory in the battle of Marj Dabiq; where the nahda, the cultural renaissance of the Arab world, blossomed in the 19th century; where the unified Arab kingdom that the British promised the Hashemites, who led the 1916-18 Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, was to have its capital. It is where, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the most politically developed and socially radical version of the dream of Arab unity was conceived by the founders of the Arab Socialist Baath (‘resurrection’) Party. Syria is also the terminus of the Arab Spring.
The country today is in ruins: there are more than 200,000 dead, many thousands of them children, about four million refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, some seven million people internally displaced and many towns largely destroyed. The movement sparked by the Tunisian revolution has ended up consigning Egypt to a new phase of military dictatorship bleaker than any before and precipitating the descent into mayhem of Libya, Yemen and Syria. The most substantial beneficiary in the region of this turn of events practises the most zealously intolerant, retrograde, vindictively sectarian and brutal form of Islamist politics seen in our lifetimes. Islamic State – with its capital and organising centre in Raqqa in northern Syria – now exerts control over much of Syria and Iraq and is spreading its tentacles south to the Gulf states and west to North Africa. How is this dreadful turn of events to be understood?
Jean-Pierre Filiu, who teaches at Sciences Po in Paris after a career in France’s diplomatic corps which included tours of duty in Jordan, Syria and Tunisia, argues in his new book, From Deep State to Islamic State, that the Arab revolutions (as he calls them) have been foiled – Tunisia apart – by successful counter-revolutions organised by the ‘deep state’. In Syria – as in Egypt and Yemen – the deep state is the hard core of a regime that strongly resembles those of the Mamluks in Egypt and the Levant long ago. He holds the Syrian ‘Mamluks’ responsible not only for the devastation of their own country but also for the rise of Islamic State, with which, he suggests, they have been in cahoots. The ‘Mamluks’ are the main – indeed the only – villains in his story. His solution is to keep the revolutions going at all costs and get rid of the ‘Mamluks’ whatever it takes.
The notion of the deep state became fashionable in media coverage of Egypt in 2011. Filiu notes that the term originated in Turkey, where it connoted not merely the secretive apparatuses of the state such as the police and intelligence services but above all the shady nexus between them, certain politicians and organised crime. Part of his argument is that the deep state is beyond the law: its members see themselves as custodians of the higher interests of the nation and believe this authorises them to get up to all sorts of unavowable things, not only working with criminal elements but even engaging in what would otherwise be regarded as criminal acts. The sense that they have an unqualified right to do whatever they choose, he argues, is premised on a patrimonial view of the state and a paternalistic view of the people, both views determined by the collective self-interest of the deep state actors themselves.
There is of course truth in all this. But states – at any rate, all states that endure – have their hidden depths and, for very cogent reasons, make a point of veiling what they get up to – let’s speak French here – by means of ‘le secret d’état’. In the Ben Barka affair of 1965-66, the leader of the Moroccan left was abducted and murdered during a visit to France as the result of a conspiracy involving a large cast of characters including French police and intelligence agents, Moroccan agents, the Moroccan interior minister and French gangsters. A few of those involved – mainly the gangsters – eventually stood trial and went to jail. Paris’s prefect of police, Maurice Papon, was obliged to resign and others, including the head of the SDECE (France’s equivalent of MI6 at the time), took early retirement.


The state and the deep state are not two things but all of a piece, in what we call democracies as well as in dictatorships. Talk of the deep state in Egypt suggested that its discovery was an unpleasant surprise, which indicates a good deal of naivety on the part of the Egyptian revolutionaries. Would-be revolutionaries who set out to transform a state – let alone overthrow it – need to know what they’re up against before they start. Why, then, does Filiu make so much of this? The answer is that he links his thesis about the counter-revolutionary behaviour of the deep state to his thesis that the states in question are ruled by ‘Mamluks’.
The original Mamluks were the slave soldiers employed by the Abbasid dynasty from the late ninth century onwards. Dynasties established on the basis of descent from the Prophet’s family, clan or tribe often faced equally plausible rival claims; troops recruited from the dynasts’ own clan or tribe could never be wholly loyal, since they would also owe obligation to other ambitious individuals or families. The answer was to form armies of slaves imported from far afield, non-Arabs and non-Muslims: Kipchak Turks, Circassians and Georgians and, in a later period, Albanians and Greeks. Eventually the strategy backfired. Because the military profession was reserved to Mamluks, some of them rose to positions of great power and transcended their original ‘slave’ status, and a Mamluk elite eventually emerged. In 1250 it seized power in Egypt and Syria and established the Mamluk Sultanate, with its capital in Cairo. Later the Ottomans would recycle and refine this recruitment strategy with the devshirme, the ‘harvest’ of young boys from Christian families in the Balkans and southern Russia, who would be taken to Istanbul, converted to Islam and trained for careers in the army (as Janissaries), the palace or the bureaucracy. The key principle was that the army should not be recruited from the free-born Muslim population.
Just as the original Mamluks, once in power, pretended to be serving the caliph, and thus secured legitimation for their rule, Filiu argues, so today’s ‘Mamluks’ pretend to be serving the people, securing a dubious legitimation via rigged elections and plebiscites. But there’s no need to invoke Mamluks and caliphs to show, for instance, that the Algerian army has acted as the sovereign arbiter of the political process while pretending that sovereignty resides in the people, and that it is merely the people’s servant. In a polemical book that betrays deep hostility to the nationalist cause in France’s former possessions, Filiu offers the radical view that the ‘Mamluks’ were crude usurpers of the original national revolution, which they hijacked at independence; he insists that this was the case in Algeria before broadening the charge to apply it to Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But the people who storm the Bastille are rarely the people who construct a new political order on the ruins of the old regime; those who do the constructing can always be accused of hijack.
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Before we can clarify what is to be done about Syria, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first is why the nationalist movements in these countries, and Syria in particular, were militarised. Without an answer to this question, demilitarisation – the indispensable task of a serious democratic opposition – can’t be undertaken with any prospect of success. The second question is: who have been the real hijackers of the Arab uprisings from 2011 onwards, and how have they gone about it?
Algerian nationalist politics were militarised in 1954. Until then political parties led by civilians had peacefully put forward variants of the nationalist ideal. But successive governments in France refused to make any serious concessions. The founders of the National Liberation Front (FLN) left the most vigorous nationalist party, the Parti du Peuple Algérien (PPA), having decided that there was nothing for it but to fight their way out of the French embrace. The military’s political primacy wasn’t seriously questioned after independence until the 1980s but, because the explicit challenge to it from 1989 onwards came from the Islamists, the Westernised and secularist part of the middle class looked to the army for protection, lending it new, if temporary, endorsement. The demilitarisation of Algerian politics became a matter of public debate with the winding down of the violence after 2001. But achieving it requires a reinvigoration of civilian politics, and that will take time as well as new thinking. The serial wars of intervention in the Middle East and North Africa since 1990 and the ‘global war on terror’ since 2001 have provided the most unfavourable context for such a change that one could imagine.
The notion that the military are ‘Mamluks’ and hijackers is most persuasive in the Egyptian case. For all its shortcomings, the political life of Egypt after the end of the British protectorate in 1922 was an improvement. Egyptian sovereignty was massively qualified by the ‘four reserved points’ according to which the British retained control over ‘security of imperial communications’ (primarily the Suez Canal); defence; protection of foreign interests and minorities; and the Sudan. But Egypt had a measure of freedom and, however unsatisfactory, a political life to call its own. And then, between 1952 and 1954, the army took over. Those Free Officers who argued that, after some house-cleaning, they should return to barracks and reform the army while allowing civilian party politics to resume were defeated by Nasser and his followers; the Americans, fixated on the Cold War and wanting a reliably anti-communist strong man rather than democracy, arbitrated in Nasser’s favour. Under Nasser, Egypt became a political desert but made headway in achieving full independence by securing the British evacuation of the Canal Zone in 1954 and nationalising the canal itself in 1956; Nasser himself gained immense popularity and legitimacy in the process. But his regime lost the Sinai to Israel in 1967 and, in order to get it back, his successor, Anwar Sadat, prostrated Egypt before the United States. It has remained a depressed client state to this day. Sadat increased his own freedom of action by encouraging the army to develop its economic interests as a surrogate for an active political role, a strategy continued by Mubarak. The army commanders became at least partially independent of Egypt’s economy and society, insulated from the populace to a considerable degree (in that sense resembling Mamluks), while maintaining close relations with their American counterparts. The recent emphatic remilitarisation of Egyptian political life, after just two and a half years of inevitably turbulent civilian politics, owes a great deal to this history.


The militarisation of Syria’s political life occurred in fits and starts. It began with Husni al-Zaim’s coup in March 1949, the first military coup in the Arab world, launched with American encouragement if not prompting. Four and a half months later Zaim was killed during a second coup, carried out by Colonel Sami al-Hinnawi. Hinnawi soon lost out to Colonel Adib al-Shishakli, who took command of the army in December 1949. Shishakli didn’t at first take over the government but used the army’s capacity for persuasion to shepherd civilian politicians before assuming overall political control – though still operating behind civilian front-men – in November 1951. To consolidate his authority he did what Nasser was soon to do in Egypt: he banned all political parties and set up the Arab Liberation Movement as a regime-controlled surrogate. But by this point the army itself had been politicised. In February 1954, a number of senior officers (including some linked to the Baath Party and others to the Communists) rebelled; to his credit, Shishakli went into exile rather than allow a civil war to erupt, and civilian party politics resumed. But four years later, the army commanders, supported in varying degrees by civilian politicians, gave up on Syria as a viable political entity and begged Nasser to take them into a political union. The terms he imposed were the abolition (again) of all political parties in Syria, to bring it into line with Egypt, and the subordination of Syria to Egyptian stewardship. That Syria’s elite, which didn’t lack political sophistication or principle, should have allowed this to happen was an index of its despair at ever resolving the geopolitical – and therefore existential – problems the Syrian state faced.
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The carving out of the mandate territory of Palestine and the British protectorate of Transjordan had amputated historic Syria’s southern regions, about two fifths of its overall territory and coastline, while state frontiers were erected between Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem. As the mandatory power in Syria and Lebanon, the French sliced off further districts – Tripoli, the Biqa‘, Saida (Sidon) and Sûr (Tyre) – and added them to Lebanon, creating a Greater Lebanon that was more than twice the size of the old Ottoman governorate and reducing Syria’s coastline to the districts of Alexandretta, Latakia and Tartus in the far north-west. As if that wasn’t enough, France then ceded to the British the whole of the Mosul region, which it had been awarded in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. In 1918, advised that the region probably contained huge oil reserves and that the Royal Navy would require oil, Lloyd George told his French opposite number, Clemenceau, that he wanted Mosul; Clemenceau provisionally agreed. The deal finally went through in 1926 and Syria lost this territory too, as well as the prospect of significant oil wealth; Mosul and its population became ‘Iraqi’. And then, in 1939, the French ceded the Alexandretta (Iskenderun) district – comprising about 40 per cent of what was left of Syria’s coastline – to Turkey, which renamed it the province of Hatay. Independent Syria has never accepted this transfer; a map I bought in Damascus shows the Iskenderun region as part of Syria. But Syria’s case has received no international support. France’s last act in her nonchalant serial charcutage of Syria reduced its coastline to the provinces of Latakia and Tartus.
That the infant democratic republic of Syria was not a viable state on its own was widely acknowledged by its politicians during the first decade of independence. But they couldn’t agree on what to do about it. Some sought to recover the territory lost in the imperial carve-up. This idea had support in Lebanon too, where many people still thought of themselves as Syrian. In Beirut in 1932 a Greek Orthodox Christian called Antun Saada founded the Parti Populaire Syrien with an explicitly irredentist purpose; subsequently renamed the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, it had support in Syria in the late 1940s in both civilian and military circles. In 1948, politicians from Aleppo founded the People’s Party: Aleppo’s prosperity had historically depended on its strong trading links with Mosul, whose loss had caused the city and its merchant elite to suffer. The People’s Party favoured developing political ties with Iraq, and even envisaged some kind of federal arrangement. But Iraq is more than twice the size of Syria and far richer; it would have dominated any political union. Above all, under the Hashemite monarchy it was seen as a British client; free at last of the destructive ministrations of France, few Syrians wanted to come even indirectly under imperial sway again. The foundation of the state of Israel – seen as a menacing development in itself – meant that recovering lost territory from the former mandate of Palestine came to seem impossible; the same applied to territory lost to the British-backed kingdom of Jordan. But it was the efforts of the Americans and British to exploit the Cold War in order to subordinate Arab states, beginning with the Baghdad Pact of 1955, that brought the crisis to a head. Nasser’s refusal to bow to this pressure, followed by his successful defiance of the British-French-Israeli attack in 1956, and, more generally, his championing of the principle of non-alignment, made him seem an indispensable ally – if not Syria’s saviour.
Three and a half years after the formation of the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria in 1958, few Syrians still supported it; in September 1961 a military coup led by an anti-Nasserist officer backed by Jordan and Saudi Arabia succeeded and the UAR disintegrated. The bewildering series of coups and counter-coups that followed the Egyptian overlords’ departure was finally resolved by the Baath Party, which took power in 1963 and performed the role carried out by the Jacobins in France in 1793-94 of bringing a new order out of chaos. But this wasn’t the Baath Party of its founders, Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Akram al-Hawrani, who had gone along with the UAR idea with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Under the secret leadership of something called the Military Committee, formed by army officers serving in the higher reaches of the UAR in Cairo, a ‘new Baath’ had come to power. Its most dynamic figure was Salah Jadid, a leftist whose views determined Syrian government policy from 1966 onwards. Committed to pan-Arabism, Jadid was also committed to the Palestinian cause. Influenced by advisers who had just returned from Algeria in raptures over the success of the Algerians’ guerrilla struggle, Jadid encouraged the Palestinians to wage guerrilla war on Israel from their bases in Syria, disregarding the Israeli practice of massive retaliation.


Ever since the Syrians had decided that the UAR was a mistake, reducing their country to the unbearable condition of an Egyptian colony, the pressure to find another solution had been immense. Jadid’s adventurist policy compounded the problem, contributing as it did to Israel’s devastating pre-emptive war in June 1967 and the aggravation of Syria’s vulnerability by the loss of the Golan Heights. The Syrian minister of defence at that time was Hafez al-Assad, one of Jadid’s colleagues on the Military Committee, and long a close ally. Assad decided Jadid’s policy was folly and in November 1970 he seized power, determined to make Syria a viable and defendable country, whatever it took. A central element of his strategy was building strong alliances with distant and powerful states that had no ambitions to take Syria over, among them the Soviet Union and, from 1979, Iran. At home, he sought national unity in an effort to secure consent to the authoritarian aspect of the regime.
Assad’s ‘corrective revolution’ was popular at first. He moved to the centre ground in domestic as well as foreign policy, abandoning Jadid’s doctrinaire leftism, allowing an appreciable measure of liberalisation in economic matters, courting Sunni business circles and consulting widely with Syria’s notables. He rebuilt the armed forces and other state institutions, and even allowed four other political parties of the Syrian left to operate, on condition that they did so as members of a National Progressive Front in which the Baath retained primacy. In short, Assad performed the function in the Syrian national revolution that Cromwell had performed in the English revolution: he stabilised it so that the country could be governed and defended. In the process, he induced the Syrian Baath to concentrate on making Syria itself, at last, a viable state. The retreat from the romantic pan-Arabism that had encouraged the Baath to seek the Egyptian embrace didn’t signify a repudiation of pan-Arabist principles but a new political realism. Assad’s Syria saw itself as the champion of the Arab cause, but from 1970 onwards its policy was pan-Arabism in one country.
In what sense, then, can Assad and his wing of the Baath be accused of hijacking Syrian independence? They weren’t responsible for the militarisation of Syrian political life, a process which began years before they took power. More coherently and more effectually than any of their predecessors, they sought to make independence a reality. The tragedy for Syria is that Assad lived so long.
Under Assad, Syria was a republic ruled by an autocrat. A republican autocrat is a contradiction in terms. Cromwell ruled Britain as a republican autocrat and when he died the army commanders tried to maintain the status quo by getting his son to succeed him – the prototype of what the Arabs call tawrith al-sulta, the ‘inheritance of power’ that occurred with Bashar al-Assad’s succession in 2000. But Richard Cromwell seriously tried to liberalise the Protectorate; the army felt threatened and deposed him after nine months. Assad fell ill in 1983 and it seemed for a moment that his younger brother, Rifat, would take over, in what would have been an anticipation of the Cuban scenario. But Assad recovered, sent Rifat into exile and carried on for another 16 and a half years, grooming his eldest son, Bassel, to take over. When Bassel died in a car crash, he summoned Bashar to be groomed in his place. So in Syria, unfortunately, the Cromwellian succession worked; in England it had been a fortunate fiasco.
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With Assad’s death, autocracy gave way to an oligarchy in which Bashar was the public face of a regime he could not dominate as his father had done. Allowed to make minor reforms and to bring on younger men of his own choosing, he was undoubtedly made aware of red lines that could not be crossed. In this respect Syria resembles Algeria and Yemen, and for that matter Mubarak’s Egypt. All of them have been national security states whose rulers have calculated that liberalising in earnest would compound their already serious national security problems, enabling hostile powers to manipulate the new political parties that liberalisation would bring.
It isn’t that such regimes are entirely unreformable. But qualitative political reform can only come about if they are put under sustained pressure by effective movements from below – movements that articulate demands which can be defended as strengthening the state by enhancing its legitimacy. This is the lesson that much of the opposition in Algeria has drawn from the bitter experience of the 1990s: positive change can only come from non-violent activism that seeks to establish a national consensus on a project of reform. The theoretical possibility of such a thing happening in Syria in 2011 was destroyed almost at once.
The brutal repression with which the regime responded to demonstrations in Deraa in the far south of the country backfired; it ensured that the revolt would spread across Syria, initially in the form of increasingly angry demonstrations but soon as an armed insurrection. This was to prove disastrous. A lot then depended on the leaders of Syria’s opposition. A major meeting was convened in Antalya in southern Turkey. One of the most respected Syrian exiles, Burhan Ghalioun, a Sunni Muslim from Homs who taught political sociology at the Sorbonne, explained his refusal to attend: ‘It is a collection of many of those who want to benefit from and exploit the revolution to serve private agendas, including, unfortunately, foreign agendas. Unfortunately, very few of those participating are really interested in serving the revolution or sacrificing for it.’ The organisers of the meeting were the Syrian Muslim Brothers; they were looking to Turkey for patronage and Erdoğan was happy to oblige. A key part of their strategy was the co-option and manipulation, as front-men, of Syrian democrats like Ghalioun.
On 23 August a body called the Syrian National Council was formed to ‘represent the concerns and demands of the Syrian people’ and established its headquarters in Istanbul. A few weeks later Ghalioun was named as its chairman. He seems to have negotiated an understanding that enabled him at first to exercise some influence in favour of non-violence; on 28 October, Bassma Kodmani, the SNC’s spokesperson, referred to the ‘frightening possibility’ that what happened in Libya would happen in Syria: ‘Nobody wants a war; nobody in the opposition wants to see a bombed Damascus.’ She was mistaken. Plenty of people wanted a war.


The regime seems to have believed it had to suppress the revolt quickly and at whatever cost before it addressed the underlying grievances that had led to unrest in the first place. But if this was what the Assad regime had in mind, it was a miscalculation, as officers unable to stomach the repression began to desert. On 29 July five such officers announced the creation of the Free Syrian Army. In September the FSA absorbed another grouping, the Free Officers Movement. By October the FSA had gained Ankara’s support and was given permission to site its headquarters in Turkey’s Hatay province. By December it was liaising with the SNC, and the SNC’s hopes of leading a non-violent movement were evaporating. Ghalioun had continued to chair the SNC but was kept on a short leash, being re-elected only for three-month terms. By May 2012 he had abandoned his opposition to the militarisation of the anti-Assad movement, but then abruptly decided that his position had become untenable and resigned. On 11 November 2012 a new body to speak for the Syrian opposition abroad was established, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, or Syrian National Coalition for short, and the Syrian National Council folded itself into this organisation, securing 22 of the 60 seats on its ruling body. The National Coalition was sponsored by Qatar and its founding meeting was held in Doha. It elected as its president Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni from a distinguished Damascus family who had served as imam of the Umayyad mosque. But he didn’t last long either, resigning on 21 April 2013. In an interview with Al Jazeera the next month he explained that ‘the people inside have lost the ability to decide their own fate … I have become only a means to sign some papers while there are hands from different parties involved who want to decide on behalf of the Syrians.’ Anonymous sources told Al Jazeera that al-Khatib was not a ‘team player’. In January, without consultation, he had publicly offered to negotiate with the Syrian government. Presumably he believed his colleagues would dissuade him and so presented them with a fait accompli; in any event, the ploy failed. The possibility of a negotiated political solution had resurfaced, only to be nipped in the bud a second time.
Some reports suggest that, in sponsoring the National Coalition, Qatar was doing Hillary Clinton’s bidding. Qatar’s move irritated the Saudis and incited them to closer involvement. Riyadh was flatly opposed to any negotiations with the government and advocated arming the rebels; Washington, London and Paris were soon publicly considering the idea. By this time, however, the armed rebellion was no longer dominated by the supposedly moderate FSA. Explicitly jihadi movements, notably the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, were gaining ground. This development signed the revolution’s death warrant.
One picture of the condition of the armed rebellion in early 2012 is provided by Jonathan Littell, who got himself smuggled into Syria from northern Lebanon and witnessed what was going on in Qusayr and the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Homs. His book, a diary of 18 intense days, consists of his raw and confusing daily jottings. He writes from a frankly partisan viewpoint but his accounts of numerous incidents show the dedication of doctors and nurses, the courage of the people, their hospitality and generosity, and even their sense of humour, manifested at moments when everyone bursts into laughter despite the ever present terror in a city where regime snipers cover the main thoroughfares and no one knows whether they can cross a street in safety or whether their next attempt will be their last. But Littell also bears witness to the fact that the ‘revolution’ is winging it on a hope and a prayer. The local FSA officers are brave and businesslike, but there is no sense that the FSA is operating like a real army with a plan of campaign. Several of Littell’s interlocutors say they have been counting on Nato coming to the rescue: they have a realistic assessment of the revolution’s prospects of surviving without outside help but can’t calculate the realpolitik. And several of them worry that their revolt will be rebranded as a jihad. They didn’t explain why, and Littell seems not to have asked.
The rebels Littell writes about were mostly Sunnis. They were pious Muslims or at least believers, even those who liked a drink and a smoke, but in the main they were not sectarian. The majority seem to have hated the regime for political reasons and could distinguish between Alawites in high positions and Alawites in general. They exemplified, perhaps in its dying moments, Syria’s tradition of religious tolerance. This outlook represented a continuation of the original spirit of the uprising in Tunisia, the demand for the dignity that only the end of arbitrary rule can bring. Littell says that ‘they dream less of democracy, a concept that no doubt is very vague to them, than of the rule of law,’ but I’m not sure that they wouldn’t have understood democracy, given that between 1945 and 1958 Syria had experience of it, however disappointing. But the moment the armed revolt became a jihad, it was bound to descend into an explicitly Sunni affair and a sectarian war.
It is often suggested that the Assad regime contributed to the transformation of the civil war into a jihad. I don’t doubt that this is partly true. For one thing, it naturally tried to rally the Alawite community behind itself; it also enlisted the support of the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah movement. And it concentrated its fire at first on non-jihadi rebels, thus allowing the jihadis to make headway. This is almost exactly what the Algerian generals did in the 1990s in order to turn public opinion against the Islamists by tarring them with the extremist jihadis’ atrocities. It should be no surprise that the Assad regime resorted to the same strategy. But those most responsible for the jihadis’ advance were the external actors who backed and bankrolled them and supplied them with arms. The behaviour of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait can at least be understood: the Gulf states are Sunni sectarian monarchies governing disadvantaged Shia minorities, with Iran, the Shia power that gained most from the overthrow in 2003 of Iraq’s Baathist regime, just across the water. They were bound to want to topple the Assad regime – the central link in the Iran-Damascus-Hizbullah alliance – if the opportunity presented itself. It is the policy of the Western powers that needs to be questioned.
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It was clear early on that the Nato intervention that had taken place in Libya would not be repeated in Syria. Russia had gone along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised Nato’s war on Gaddafi, but Russia’s ties to Syria were far stronger and any attempt by Washington, London and Paris to secure a mandate for a second regime change war under UN auspices was bound to be vetoed. Instead of seeing how different the Syrian case was, the Western powers recycled as much of their Libya strategy as possible. They repeatedly cast the Assad regime as the sole villain and forced Russia and China to look like outliers when they vetoed Security Council resolutions pushing this line. They set up an organisation called Friends of Syria on the model of Friends of Libya to whip UN member states into line and deprive the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran alliance of possible allies or useful neutrals. They undermined the Syrian government’s claim to international legitimacy by persuading the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership on 12 November 2011 and later to admit the Syrian National Coalition instead as Syria’s legitimate representative. And they sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting.


On 30 June 2012, a meeting of what was described as an ‘action group’ on Syria, comprising Hillary Clinton, Sergei Lavrov, William Hague and a representative of the Chinese government, was held at Annan’s invitation in Geneva (the meeting is known as ‘Geneva I’). During the meeting Annan issued a communiqué announcing that the action group had agreed on the need for a ‘transitional government body with full executive powers’ which could include members of the present Syrian government and of the opposition. Following the communiqué, Clinton declared that Assad could not himself remain in power; she was promptly contradicted by Lavrov. Matters were patched up sufficiently for the final communiqué to declare that the meeting had agreed on 1) the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers that could include members of the government and opposition, and should be formed on the basis of mutual consent; 2) the participation of all groups and segments of society in Syria in a meaningful process of national dialogue; 3) a review of the constitutional order and the legal system; 4) free and fair multi-party elections for the new institutions and offices that would be established; 5) full representation of women in all aspects of the transition. The devil was in the detail of the first point, since it could be read as meaning that opposition forces could veto the nominations of any of the proposed Syrian government members of the transitional body – such as Assad – just as the government could veto nominations of opposition figures. It was clearly Assad’s position that was in dispute.
Six weeks earlier, I had attended a seminar held under the Chatham House rule led by a senior official involved in devising and executing Western policy on the Syrian crisis. It was made clear to the audience that the policy was to secure regime change. And it was also made clear that the authors of this policy were intent on negating Annan’s efforts to secure a negotiated settlement. Annan abandoned the job as mission impossible in August 2012.
It was surprising that the immensely experienced Brahimi then agreed to take it on. One of the dynamic young FLN diplomats who made his country’s case during the Algerian war, Brahimi had later been ambassador to Cairo and to London, under-secretary general of the Arab League and UN special representative to South Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq. When I heard he was tackling the Syrian problem I assumed that he believed he had a chance of resolving it. In the event, he couldn’t, and eventually he resigned on 13 May 2014. Why did he fail?
After immense labours, Brahimi succeeded in convening a major international conference (‘Geneva II’) in January 2014. On the very first day, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, declared: ‘There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern.’ So the US position was unchanged: Assad had to go, which meant that the Syrian government would not engage in talks on the formation of the transitional authority. The Geneva II talks got nowhere.
In an interview with Der Spiegel a month after his resignation, Brahimi was asked to what extent the dispute was about Assad:
BRAHIMI: The issue of President Assad was a huge hurdle. The Syrian regime only came to Geneva to please the Russians, thinking that they were winning militarily. I told them ‘I’m sure that your instructions were: “Go to Geneva. But not only don’t make any concessions, don’t discuss anything seriously.”’
SPIEGEL: What about on the other side?
BRAHIMI: The majority among the opposition were against coming to Geneva. They preferred a military solution and they came completely unprepared. But at least they were willing to start talking with President Assad still there as long as it was clear that, somewhere along the line, he would go.
The point here is not that one side was slightly more or slightly less intransigent, but that by making the future of Assad the central question, and insisting on his departure, the Western powers, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan – not one of which is a democracy – as well as Turkey, which under Erdoğan has slid a long way towards authoritarian rule, made it impossible for a political solution to be found that would at least end the violence. It is in ways like this that the Arab uprisings were really hijacked.
The Tunisian revolution was a real revolution not because it toppled Ben Ali, but because it went on to establish a new form of government with real political representation and the rule of law. The hijacking of the Arab uprisings by the Western powers has been effected by their success in substituting for profound change a purely superficial ‘regime change’ that merely means the ejection of a ruler they have never liked (Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad) or have no further use for (Mubarak), and his replacement by someone they approve of. In seeking this change in their own interests, they have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for the consequences of their policies, from Iraq to Egypt to Libya to Syria.
Three days after Brahimi’s interview, on 10 June 2014, Islamic State fighters heading east from northern Syria captured Mosul.
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Islamic State came out of Iraq, as Patrick Cockburn explains: the movement initially called the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) or in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), had roots in al-Qaida in Iraq, which, under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, waged sectarian war on the US-sponsored regime in Baghdad and the Shia in general until Zarqawi’s death in 2006. Al-Qaida in Iraq were jihadis; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria are jihadis; the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria were jihadis. But Islamic State is something else. Cockburn provides an invaluable history of IS along with a powerful critique of Western policy in Iraq and Syria and an unsparing analysis of Shia politics in Baghdad. In their book Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan lean much further towards Filiu’s thesis, that the rise of IS can be blamed in large part on the Assad regime, and they devote a chapter to the dealings between the Syrian intelligence services and Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq. I don’t doubt that such dealings occurred. Syria opposed the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of the Iraqi state created a zone of insecurity the length of Syria’s eastern border. Syria was bound to make it its business to get a handle on what was going on in western and northern Iraq by establishing contacts with and infiltrating whatever armed movements emerged there. But I think Cockburn is right when he dismisses as a conspiracy theory the idea that Assad helped create IS, not because I refuse to consider conspiracy theories (conspiracies occur), but because the theory ignores the fact that IS and the Assad regime are fighting each other. Besides, Assad has had sound military reasons to concentrate on other fronts and leave IS in the north-east for later. The regime might also, as Lakhdar Brahimi told Der Spiegel, be trying to say to Syrians: ‘“This is the future you will have if we are not there anymore.”’
Hassan and Weiss refer indiscriminately to IS and other jihadis groups as ‘takfiris’. But not all jihadi groups are takfiri. Bin Laden’s al-Qaida was originally waging a classic jihad against ‘Crusaders and Jews’ – i.e. the West and (at least notionally) Israel. The question of takfir arose where would-be jihadis took on their own, nominally Islamic, governments, as in Egypt and Algeria. Sunni doctrine endorses jihad against infidel powers but condemns rebellion against a Muslim ruler as fitna, division of the community of believers, the supreme evil, so rebels have to legitimise their revolt by denying their rulers’ Islamic credentials. This is what Zarqawi’s group did in confronting the new Shia regime in Baghdad and it is what Jabhat al-Nusra and others have been doing in Syria. Such takfiri jihadis rarely if ever have a notion of how to replace the state they are fighting. The leaders of IS have such a project. And while their movement has been fighting states whose Islamic credentials they deny, they have been constructing a new state in remote regions where the former central power has, at least temporarily, lost all purchase. As such, the movement they most resemble is the Taliban. Brahimi told Der Spiegel that he feared Syria would become ‘another Somalia … a failed state with warlords all over the place’. What is taking at least partial shape in Syria – unless the country is partitioned, which is also on the cards – is another Afghanistan.
When the Afghan jihadis – backed, like their Syrian successors today, by the Gulf states and Anglo-America – finally overthrew the secular-modernist Najibullah regime, they immediately fell out among themselves and Afghanistan collapsed into violent warlordism. But, unlike Somalia, Afghanistan was rescued by a dynamic movement that suddenly appeared on its southern marches and swept all before it, crushing the warlords and finally establishing a new state. In the aftermath of the jihad our governments had sponsored and our media had enthusiastically reported, secular modernism was no longer on offer: militantly retrograde Islamism was the only political discourse around and it was inevitably the most fundamentalist brand that won. The victors called their state an emirate, the realm of an amir (‘commander’, ‘prince’). IS calls its state a caliphate – khilāfa – and this matters.
No doubt strictly local factors have facilitated IS’s project. Their capital, Raqqa, a large town in a strategic location on the Euphrates in the centre of northern Syria, has long had ties with Iraq. To the west of Raqqa, near the Turkish frontier, is the town of Dabiq, where, in 1516, the Ottomans’ victory over the Mamluk sultanate in the battle of Marj Dabiq opened the way for their conquest of the Arab lands. In Islamic eschatology, Dabiq is one of the two possible locations of a battle between Muslims and an invading Christian army which the Muslims will win, their victory marking the beginning of the end of days. Dabiq is the title of Islamic State’s official online magazine.
Since the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 its restoration has been proposed at intervals by various Sunni Islamists: it has long been a declared aim of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Liberation party, and in 1994 the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria went so far as to name the members of a restored caliphate’s new government. These rhetorical gestures led nowhere. But IS has done what others talked of. It has an army comprising highly equipped regular forces as well as guerrilla forces, it controls a large territory, it has an oil industry, it has a tax system, it has a system of local government and a system of justice. It fights like a state, it sees like a state and it punishes like a state. It carries conviction and meets with belief. It doesn’t care that it horrifies us; it knows that millions of Muslims have been horrified by what our governments have been doing to them.
The Taliban chose not to call their state a caliphate because they had no wider ambitions: their emirate was simply a new and better form of the Afghan state. IS, on the other hand, is reconnecting northern Iraq and northern Syria – reverting to what the Sykes-Picot agreement envisaged before Lloyd George amended it – and it isn’t a simple emanation of jihadi Islamism. The former members of Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, whom IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took with him into the new project, haven’t been building IS by themselves.
When the Taliban began their drive across Afghanistan, they had the backing of Pakistan. The movement had matured in the madrasas of Pakistan’s north-west and there is no doubt that the Pakistani intelligence services were supporting it: Pakistan had every reason to be weary of the vacuum to the north, and what better way to fill it? IS, remarkably, appears to have grown and spread without the backing of any other state. Except that isn’t quite right: it has had the backing of an ex-state – the Baathist state overthrown in 2003.
As Hassan and Weiss explain, after the 1990-91 war, Saddam acted to shore up his regime by enhancing its religious legitimacy: he wanted to combine the ‘pan-Arabism in one country’ that he, like Assad next door, had long been pursuing with a resurgent Islamism. Iraqi Baathists developed ties with Sunni religious figures and the gulf between formerly divergent outlooks was bridged. Al-Baghdadi, born in 1971, comes from a tribe with a noble ancestry that goes back to the Prophet’s tribe, the Quraysh. But his birthplace, Samarra, was a Baathist stronghold and his family undoubtedly had Baathist connections. He was always going to be open to the idea of collaborating with former Baathists if the terms were right.
The ‘Islamic faith campaign’ that Saddam set in motion was orchestrated by his loyal lieutenant Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a member of an important Sufi order, the Naqshbandiyya. When Baghdad fell to US troops, al-Douri went on the run and was never tracked down. Reported at intervals to have died, he was busy building an insurgent network of his own, Jaish Rijāl al-Tarīqa al-Naqshbandiyya, ‘the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order’. The JRTN is rumoured to have played a considerable part in the ‘Sunni insurgency’ between 2003 and 2006. The relationship between al-Douri’s organisation and IS is unclear; it may be an alliance rather than a merger. But there is no doubt that numerous senior figures in the IS are former Baathists, including some former officers of the Iraqi army who had nowhere else to go after Paul Bremer’s fateful decision in May 2003 to dissolve the army and dismiss all members of the top echelons of the Baath Party from the state administration. The presence in its upper ranks of ex-Baathist officers largely explains the military prowess that IS has demonstrated. But there may be more to the Baathist connection than that.
In a lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School last March, the Palestinian scholar Yezid Sayigh argued that the Iraqi Baath supplied the organisational template for Islamic State and that this has shaped its geopolitical perspectives and strategy. Unlike the Syrian Baath, which limited its strategic ambitions to its ‘near-abroad’, the Iraqi Baath in its heyday had ambitions far afield. No doubt Baghdad’s eternal rivalry with Cairo had a lot to do with this. The Iraqi Baath recruited members and established branches across the Arab world, in Jordan and Lebanon but also in Libya and Mauritania; Sayigh suggested that the reason IS has been following the same script is that Baathist savoir-faire has been available to it. And this in part explains the logic of the decision to call the state a caliphate. Pan-Arabism is a concept that has had its day but pan-Islamism has become contemporary again, and the architects of a caliphate, if they continue to succeed, have a chance of outflanking all their rivals within Sunni Islamism and attracting allegiance across the Middle East and North Africa and even beyond (IS may already be making headway in the Caucasus). So we may be seeing the resurrection of a form of Arab nationalism in the medium of fundamentalist pan-Islamism.
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Cockburn argues that ‘for America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the caliphate is the ultimate disaster.’ There are certainly grounds for thinking he is right. But there are also grounds for wondering. His book went to press before he could take account of the extraordinary revelation that US intelligence had anticipated the rise of Islamic State nearly two years before it happened. On 18 May, a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated 12 August 2012 was published by a conservative watchdog organisation called Judicial Watch, which had managed to obtain this and other formerly classified documents through a federal lawsuit. The document not only anticipates the rise of IS but seems to suggest it would be a desirable development from the point of view of the international ‘coalition’ seeking regime change in Damascus. Here are the key passages:
7b. Development of the current events into proxy war … Opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighbouring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre of the temporary government …
8c. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.
So American intelligence saw IS coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it. The precise formula used in paragraph 8c is intriguing. It doesn’t talk of ‘the possibility that Isis might establish a Salafist principality’ but of ‘the possibility of establishing’ a Salafist principality. So who was to be the prime mover in this process? Did IS have a state backing it after all?
A second piece of evidence is a map prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters of the US War Academy and published in the Armed Forces Journal in June 2006. It shows a ‘New Middle East’ that, as imagined by Colonel Peters, would annoy most of the region’s current governments. What is striking is that, in place of Iraq and Syria, it suggests there could be three states, an ‘Arab Shia’ state extending up to Baghdad, a ‘Sunni Iraq’ and then ‘Syria’, with the last two shorn of their Kurdish districts, now included in a new state of ‘Free Kurdistan’. On its own the map proves nothing beyond one man’s imagination and the fact that a journal found it interesting enough to print. But it suggests that the partition of Iraq has been envisaged in senior US circles as a possibility for the last nine years. With the advances IS has made over the last year, talk of partition, both of Iraq and of Syria, has been increasing.
What we can make of this is, of course, unclear. At one extreme, conspiracy theorists will argue that it supports their claim that the Western powers have been deliberately creating chaos for unavowable reasons of their own. At the other end of the spectrum, one could hypothesise that the DIA document may have been read by four unimportant people in Washington and ignored by everyone else. In the middle, showing more respect for the DIA, we could imagine something else: the possibility that, in 2012, American and other Western intelligence services saw Isis much as they saw Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups, as useful auxiliaries in the anti-Assad drive, and could envisage its takeover of north-eastern Syria as a helpful development with no worrying implications. If Islamic State escaped whatever influence Western intelligence services may initially have sought to have on it and went its own way, this means that people have been playing with fire.
I don’t pretend to know what the truth is. But there is no need to prove malign intent on the part of the Western powers. The most charitable theory available, ‘the eternally recurring colossal cock-up’ theory of history, will do well enough. If a more sophisticated theory is required, I suggest we recall the assessment of C. Wright Mills when he spoke of US policy being made by ‘crackpot realists’, people who were entirely realistic about how to promote their careers inside the Beltway, and incorrigible crackpots when it came to formulating foreign policy. Since it is not only American folly and incompetence that is in the dock, I would also recall the assessment of Ernest Bevin, who remarked that ‘superiority is claimed by the middle class in the realms of government, when as a matter of fact their work is a monument of incompetence.’
Western policy has been a disgrace and Britain’s contribution to it should be a matter of national shame. Whatever has motivated it, it has been a disaster for Iraq, Libya and now Syria, and the fallout is killing Americans, French people and now British tourists, in addition to its uncounted victims in the Middle East. The case for changing this policy, at least where Syria is concerned, is overwhelming. Can Washington, London and Paris be persuaded of this? Cockburn quotes a former Syrian minister’s pessimistic assessment that ‘they climbed too far up the tree claiming Assad has to be replaced to reverse their policy now.’ But at least one significant American voice has been arguing for the last five months that this is indeed what they should do.
No one was a more zealous advocate of the ‘support the revolution/regime change’ policy than the US ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, Robert Ford. He believed in the policy of backing the ‘moderate’ elements fighting the regime and unhesitatingly called for them to be armed. But he drew the line at the more extreme jihadis, and notably at Jabhat al-Nusra, unable to accept that the US could support an affiliate of al-Qaida. This wasn’t a problem for Paris, apparently. In early May, on a visit to Qatar, to which France had just sold 24 Rafale jets, François Hollande declared that it was French policy to aim for a transition in Syria ‘that excludes President Bashar al-Assad, but comprises all opposition groups as well as some individual components of the regime’.All opposition groups. And this wasn’t a departure: in December 2012, his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, declared, with reference to Jabhat al-Nusra, that ‘sur le terrain, ils font du bon boulot’ (‘on the ground, they are doing a good job’). Ford couldn’t stomach this, and had the courage to accept that the policy he had championed had failed.
What can be done about Islamic State? As things stand, very little. As Cockburn was among the first to point out, air power will not stop it and nor will the corruption-ridden and demoralised Iraqi army; meanwhile, the much more combative but ferociously sectarian Shia militias are driving Sunni Iraqis into Islamic State’s arms. Sending in Western troops would be folly, a gift to the enemy. Training a few hundred Iraqis here or a few hundred Syrians there is obviously not a serious policy but a fatuous surrogate for one. What does this leave? The answer is that unless the Syrian army takes on Islamic State, IS will stay in business indefinitely.
On 10 June the Telegraph’s defence correspondent reported that Western officials were working to persuade Moscow and Tehran to abandon Assad. The argument they apparently put forward was that, since he is losing the war, the strategic priority for Russia and Iran must be to prevent IS capturing Damascus. Even if you accept the first part of the premise, there are gaping holes in the idea as reported by the Telegraph. If Assad is dropped, what next? If the regime holds together and carries on regardless, the jihadi movements and IS will continue to fight it. Why should the Syrian army do better in those circumstances than it is doing now? If the regime implodes, as it could well do, its army can hardly be expected to keep fighting and hold the IS at bay. And if it implodes but ‘moderate’ Sunnis are somehow eased with magical promptness into the saddle, the state won’t maintain its strong relationship to Iran; it will reverse course in deference to its Gulf sponsors, and Tehran will have suffered a strategic defeat that will greatly weaken its alliance with Hizbullah. Why should the ayatollahs agree to this? And in such circumstances Moscow would be bound to lose most of its purchase on Damascus as well. The notion that getting rid of Assad will facilitate the defeat of Islamic State is wishful thinking, a crackpot’s daydream. If the Western powers genuinely want an end to Islamic State, they must will the necessary means to this end.
Think-tankers shrink from proposing policies they know the governments they are addressing won’t want to consider. But I’m not a think-tanker. And, apart from wanting an end to the war in Syria for its own sake, I want and believe that every real democrat would want Tunisia, the sole democracy in the Arab world, to be helped and defended from the depredations of all forms of terrorism. Western governments must be induced by public opinion in their own countries to drop the veto on a negotiated end to the war in Syria that the demand that Assad must go has amounted to. This stance, pre-empting the right of the Syrian people to decide the matter, has always been wrong in democratic principle and it has been catastrophic in practice. This doesn’t mean that they have to declare that Assad can stay. That too would be wrong in principle. But they could moderate their position: they could say that they believe Assad should step down before long but that they recognise it is for the Syrian people to decide. They could encourage those elements of the opposition that originally wanted to negotiate with the regime to do so. They could suggest that the formation of a national unity government, to include respected figures representing the non-violent opposition, would be a positive development. And they could give an undertaking to the Syrian regime that, as soon as a negotiated agreement between Syrians has been reached on the way forward, they will support the regime’s efforts to re-establish government control of the national territory. They have much to atone for, but that would be a start.