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Its action backfired.
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Riots broke out all over the country. As they did, the government attempted to quell them with military force.
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It failed. So, during the next two years, what had begun as a food and water issue gradually turned into a political and religious cause. Some observes believe that there are actually over 1, brigades. A reasonable guess is that, including both part-time and full-time insurgents, they number about , fighters.
As in the Afghan war against the Russians, the insurgents are split into mutually hostile groups. This has made them impossible to defeat and very difficult to engage in negotiations. In Afghanistan, the Russians won all the battles and occupied the entire country sporadically but could never identify any leadership with which they could negotiate.
Indeed, even while fighting the Russians, the Afghan guerrilla groups fought against each other for territory, money, weapons, access to smuggling routes, leadership, old ethnic hatreds, and more. Consequently, despite massive foreign aid, they were never able to defeat the Russians. As we shall see, this pattern has been repeated in Syria. There the war has reached a stalemate in which neither side, regardless of the promise or provision of weapons and money by outside powers, is likely to prevail.
In Afghanistan, the principal cause for the splits among the rebels was largely ethnic: the Tajiks, Turkmen, Hazaras, and Pashtuns, even in the face of mortal dangers, remained bitterly, even murderously, hostile to one another. In Syria, quite different causes of splits among the brigades are evident. To understand the insurgency there, we must look carefully at the causes.
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The basis is religion. During the course of the Assad regime, the interpretation of Islam was undergoing a profound change. This was true not only of Syria but also of understanding, practice, and action in many other areas of the world. Millions of Sunni Muslims throughout Africa and Asia—and even some Shia Muslims—have found inspiration in the writings of the fundamentalist Egyptian theologian Sayyid Qutb.
Whether or not the governments of their homelands were favorably disposed to Islam, many found the compromises made with modernization or Westernization politically weak or religiously unjustified. Moreover, in areas under non-Muslim rule, such as Russian-controlled Chechnya and Chinese-colonized Xinjiang, they felt oppressed.
Others began to find the all-too-common discrimination against them in Christian lands intolerable.
Meanwhile, in Syria, while many Muslims found the Assad regime acceptable and many even joined its senior ranks, others saw its Alawi and Christian affiliations, and even its secularism and openness to Muslim participation, insupportable. What has happened is that the aims of the two broad groups—the Syrians and the foreigners—have grown apart in a way similar to the split that occurred in Arab nationalism. The Syrians focus on Syria and seek the overthrow of the Assad regime much as their fathers and grandfathers focused on the task of getting the French out of their country—their watan.
Their nationalism is single-country oriented. The foreign jihadists, like the more recent nationalists, put their emphasis on a larger-than-Syria range.
For them, it is a folk nationalism not only to the Arab world but also to the wider world of Islam, affecting a billion people across the globe. What they seek is a restored Islamic world, a Dar ul-Islam , or a new caliphate. It might become clearer to Westerners if we think of this split, mutatis mutandis, in terms of Russian affairs: Stalin focused Communism on a single country whereas Trotsky attempted to cause a world revolution. I want to emphasize that this is not a recondite or theoretical point but is of major importance in understanding the current hostilities and will be fundamental in any attempt to negotiate a ceasefire or a lasting settlement.
Having said that, I want also to emphasize that there is no doubt that, however much they disagree among themselves, which they obviously do, all the rebels regard the conflict in Syria as fundamentally a religious issue. Particularly for the native rebels, as I have pointed out, the religious issue is overlaid by ethnic complexities. It would be a mistake to regard the Syrian war, as some outside observers have done, as a fight between the forces of freedom and tyranny. If the opponents of the regime are fighting for some form of democracy, they have yet to make their voices heard.
And, as in Afghanistan, they have fought one another over territory, access to arms, leadership, and division of spoils as bitterly as they have fought their proclaimed enemy. This fracturing has made them impossible to defeat—as the Russians experienced in Afghanistan —but also, so far at least, incapable of governing on a national scale. But they are moving in that direction. The more radical groups, led by Al-Nusra Front, give the appearance of having studied guerrilla warfare as it occurred elsewhere. Among other things, they have learned that to stay alive, much less to win their battles, guerrillas must earn the support of the people; in areas they control, they provide essential services.
Overall, these add up to an alternative government. As the most venturesome and best informed of the foreign media reporters witnessed :.
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The al-Nusra Front, the principle [sic] jihadi rebel group in Syria, defies the cliche of Islamist fighters around the Middle East plotting to establish Islamic caliphates from impoverished mountain hideaways. In northeastern Syria, al-Nusra finds itself in command of massive silos of wheat, factories, oil and gas fields, fleets of looted government cars and a huge weapons arsenal.
The commander talked about the services al-Nusra is providing to Shadadi's residents. First, there is food: sacks of wheat, baked into bread and delivered to the people every day through special teams in each neighbourhood. Then there is free electricity and water, which run all day throughout the town. There is also al-Nusra healthcare, provided from a small clinic that treats all comers, regardless of whether they have sworn allegiance to the emirate or not. Finally, there is order and the promise of swift justice, delivered according to sharia law by a handful of newly appointed judges.
All observers agree that the foreign-controlled and foreign-constituted insurgent groups are the most coherent, organized, and effective. This is little short of astonishing as they share no common language and come from a wide variety of cultures. Paradoxically, governments that would have imprisoned the same activists in their own countries have poured money, arms, and other forms of aid into their coffers. The list is long and surprising in its makeup: it includes Turkey; the conservative Arab states, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia; the EU member states; and the U.
The United States has a long history of covertly aiding insurgents in Syria, and has engaged in propaganda, espionage, and various sorts of dirty tricks. Both are right: it has not been on a scale that has enabled the rebels to win, but it is a form of action that, had another country engaged in it, seeking to overthrow the government, any American or European administration would have regarded as an act of war under international law.
Such covert intervention, and indeed overt intervention, is being justified on two grounds, the first being that the Syrian government is a tyranny. By Western standards, it is undoubtedly an authoritarian regime. Whether or not it gassed hundreds of its citizens, it has certainly killed thousands with conventional weapons. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the rebels are known to have killed at least 20, and perhaps as many as 30, government soldiers, about twice the number of rebel casualties, and both sides have committed documented atrocities.
However, the standards Western nations proclaim have been applied in a highly selective way. The EU and the U.
Moreover, in the massacres carried out in September and October this year and investigated by Human Rights Watch, the perpetrators were not just foreign fighters but also native Syrians. In one video, a rebel commander is seen eating the heart of a soldier he has just killed; in another, a group of rebels murder captive soldiers who are bound and lying face down in the ground.
Another group recently carried out an attack on an old, established, and peaceful Christian community whose members, incidentally, still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus presumably spoke. These are not isolated acts. Scenes being enacted in Syria today recall the massacres and tortures of the wars of religion in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Most urgent in the minds of the EU and the U.
This is a very serious charge. However, doubts remain about who actually used the weapons. And, more importantly, even though the weapons are indeed horrible and are now generally considered illegal, several other states the U. Terrible as they are, they are only a small part of the Syrian problem—more than 99 percent of the casualties and all of the property damage in the war have been the result of conventional weapons.
Getting rid of chemical weapons will neither in and of itself stop the war nor create conditions favorable to a settlement. And, of course, it is not over. We have only guesses on the total so far. More than 2 million people have fled abroad while more than 4 million are internal refugees, remaining in Syria. We have perhaps more accurate estimates on the cost of the spillover into Lebanon. The Syrian refugee population in the country has reached at least 1 million, making Syrians now almost a third of the total Lebanese population.
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In Jordan, the story is similar. Half a million refugees are camped out there. Nearly as many have fled to Turkey. Tens of thousands more, mainly Kurds, have fled the genocidal attacks of the Syrian rebels and gone to Iraq. Before the war in Syria began, Syria was itself a refuge for others. As a result of Israeli occupation of formerly Palestinian lands, half a million Palestinians took refuge in Syria. They were followed by more than , Lebanese who fled the war between Israel and Lebanon. Upwards of 2 million Iraqis fled during the American attack and occupation of their country and about 1 million of them, roughly half of them Christians, went to Syria.
As the war in Syria has grown bloodier with massacres and summary executions of Christians and Shia Muslims by Islamic fundamentalists, all but about , have returned to Iraq.
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