Cartoon by Bryant Arnold

Cartoon by Bryant Arnold

So far on this blog, I’ve looked at the Islamic State, complained about American policy in West Asia, and described the influx of refugees overwhelming Europe. Yet somehow I haven’t yet gotten to the crux of the problem: the Syrian Civil War. Well, time to fix that.

Syria is a medium-sized Arab country with a long and interesting history. Most of it isn’t particularly relevant for this post; suffice it to say that it’s had its periods of glory, from the Assyrian Empire in the 1st millennium BCE to the Umayyad Caliphate (empire) in the 600s, but for the most part it’s been under the thumb of various regional empires: Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian, and most recently, Turkish. It also has several major minorities: the Alawites, a secretive, pseudo-Shi’ite sect; the Kurds, a non-Arab ethnicity living in the north and northeast; the Ismailis, another Shi’ite sect; some Christians; and the Druze, an entirely different religious group with roots in Greek philosophy and Judaism. The majority, meanwhile, are Sunni, the orthodox branch of Islam that most of the surrounding countries also follow.

When World War I brought down the Osmanli (Turkish) Empire that ruled over West Asia, Syria was quickly scooped up as a French prize. France was interested in Syria because of old missionary connections on its coast, and to round out its North African possessions with some stuff on the other side of the Mediterranean, but it was never embraced by the Syrians. To prevent uprisings against its rule, France carved Syria up into 5 different colonies, mostly along sectarian lines — the Druze got a state in the south, the Alawites got a state along the coast, the Turks got a state in the northwest (which later joined Turkey). This was unpopular among the locals, who revolted against French rule anyway, with no luck.

Thus, even though the point of the French “mandate” was to prepare Syria for self-rule through the guiding power of French civilization, the Syrians didn’t have much to work with when they finally got their independence in 1946. The new country became dominated by rich Sunni urban families who had been patronized by the French, but a bunch of political parties proliferated and jockeyed for power anyway — Communists, Islamists (Muslims who see their religion as having an explicitly political role), nationalists, socialists, Francophiles. The army, which the French had promoted to keep the whole thing together, was also a major factor, and early Syrian politics were a mess of coups, unstable coalitions, and political bickering. It even united with Egypt at one point to make a point about Arab nationalism. (The union failed, so I guess the point that was made was different from what the Syrian generals intended.)

Finally, in the ’60s, one party won out in the ideological power struggle: the Ba’ath Party. It combines various crowd-pleasing elements, like socialism, concern for the rural poor, Arab nationalism, and hatred of Israel, with a carefully secular focus to avoid offending any of Syria’s religious groups. By 1970, one figure in the regime was dominant: Hafez al-Assad, an air force pilot who had used his base of loyalty in the military to outmaneuver his competitors. He crushed all opposition, established himself as an absolute dictator, and spread Ba’athist ideology to legitimize his rule.

One problem, though: He was Alawite, and not very religious either. Even though Alawites only make up about 12% of the Syrian population, an Alawite cabal soon dominated the military, government, and Ba’ath Party. Assad’s defeat in 2 wars against Israel and his support of the Shi’ite revolution in Iran weren’t popular either. Frustrated at the repressive governance of an infidel, Islamists rose in revolt against him in 1980 and secured control of 1 major city (Hama, in the sort-of center). But Assad called in the army and air force, which took care of it mercilessly. From then on it was clear that Assad was in charge, that resistance was hopeless, and that Ba’athist ideology was a charade to appease the masses. Assad’s real base of support was force and violence, and he was cruel in punishing those who opposed him (or hinted at opposing him). He was basically Saddam Hussein Lite (Hussein, by the way, also subscribed to the Ba’athist ideology).

Hafez's son and heir, Bashar al-Assad. Image source: WikiLeaks

Hafez’s son and heir, Bashar al-Assad. Image source: WikiLeaks

Syria’s malaise had a lot of resemblances to the malaise in other Arab countries: a corrupt, narrow elite, lack of economic opportunity in a mostly state-run economy, a secular regime presiding over religious minorities, the army and ruling party acting as a “deep state” keeping order behind the scenes, and a growing population of discontented youth. It was no surprise, then, that Syria exploded in 2011 with the Arab Spring. Just like in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, angry crowds marched in the street, calling for Assad to step down. 2 questions hung in the air: 1) How would the new Assad react? Hafez had died in 2000, passing the throne on to his son Bashar, a weird-looking and comparatively quiet guy who had mostly dialed back his father’s stifling repression. 2) Would Syria’s combustible ethnic mixture explode under the tension?

Unfortunately, both of the questions were answered badly. Assad opted for token reforms and dialogue first, then reached for guns and tear gas when those didn’t mollify the protestors. He made it very clear that any political reform that threatened his family’s power base was off the table, and protestors were dragged off the streets, beaten and electrocuted, and shot. Faced with these brutal tactics, the protestors armed themselves, and by the summer the protest movement had mutated into a full-fledged civil war, with neither side backing down.

This was going on in Libya at the same time… but it got worse in Syria, and fast. The Syrian army is strong and well-armed. It has a secure base of power among the Alawites and the country’s upper classes. Syria also has a powerful ally — Russia. The alliance dates back to Soviet times, when Moscow hoped to curry favor with disaffected Arabs through military and financial aid. Eager to protect its last remaining ally from that lost cause, and to keep its useful naval base on the Mediterranean, Russia protected Syria in UN debates and supplied it with weapons and military equipment. China also backed up Assad’s retaliation, since China hates rebellions against dictators in general. The rebellion was divided and disorganized — although this was a problem in other Arab resistance movements too — and its leadership was based in Turkey, cut off from the fighting.

The biggest factor in making the Syrian war a total bloodbath, though, was sectarianism. Assad’s bias towards Alawites in the army and security forces morphed into outright prejudice against Sunnis, who tended to defect to the rebellion anyway. The army began carrying out shocking massacres of entire Sunni villages. In retaliation, Sunni militias wiped out Alawite villages outside of the usual coastal zone where the Alawite stronghold is. Iran and Iraq, the two Shi’ite powers, backed Assad. Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militia in Lebanon, intervened in the Lebanese border zone to attack Sunnis. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, all Sunni countries, supported rebel groups with their own money and arms. The idealistic democratic yearnings of 2011 melted away into religious zealotry fired by bloodthirsty rage.

The whole time, Assad dismissed the rebellion as a terrorist uprising. He needed to keep the people under his thumb, you see, otherwise the terrorists would win. He had a point: radical Islamic groups participated in the uprising as well, and jihadists migrated into eastern Syria from neighboring Iraq. But the Syrian army targeted the more moderate and secular rebels over the fanatics. The secular opposition, grouped together in the coalition “the Free Syrian Army,” is hampered by internal disagreements and factionalism. Jihadist fighters have a clear agenda and stalwart foreign backing from pious Arabians: a restoration of the caliphate, the golden age of Islam from way back in the Early Middle Ages (and as I mentioned at the beginning, based in Syria). As a result, the Free Syrian Army did lose ground and jihadists — “terrorists” — seized the initiative.

And so what was once a struggle for freedom from oppression and stagnation degenerated into a jihad. Fired up by Islam’s cult of martyrdom, jihadist warriors surge into the battlefield with little regard for their own safety, proving to be fearsome fighters but at the cost of losing their own lives. Jihadists take grisly photos of their dead with staged smiles to encourage hopeless and/or confused foreign youths to come to Syria and give their lives for God as well. Fanatical Sunnis butcher their opponents, torture them sadistically, and even cut out and eat their hearts to give them strength. The army machine guns entire villages, used poison gas on at least 1 occasion, pounds middle-class neighborhoods with artillery, cuts off food and medical supplies to civilian areas, and mercilessly bombs its cities into submission. By 2013, the war had become a savage shitstorm eclipsing all other wars (currently ongoing, anyway) in its body count and destruction.

As if all this wasn’t enough, in 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most prominent of the jihadist/terrorist groups fighting in Syria, lived up to its name and established an Islamic state in east Syria and north Iraq — Islamic in its opinion, anyway. As my older blog post explained, it’s freaked out the whole world with its mass executions, draconian laws, religious intolerance, and hostage beheadings.

The war has dragged on for 4 years now, yet the situation has barely changed. At times it’s appeared that the rebellion is doomed; at others (including now), that the regime is losing ground. In general the situation has been what it is in the map above: the Islamic State controlling the east, Kurds fending off intruders into their northern territory, an FSA stronghold in the northwest, and rebels fighting it out with the army in the rest of the country, including the 2 big cities, Aleppo and Damascus. There have been a few major offensives — in May, the Islamic State took Palmyra, an ancient oasis in the actual center of the country — but no decisive changes.

The bloody stalemate and carnage has drawn foreigners into the conflict. As already mentioned, Syria has become a proxy for Iran, which funds Hezbollah and advises the Syrian army. Saudi Arabia, always worried about strategic victories for Shi’ites, supports the more conservative and overtly religious Sunni militias. Turkey, which had been making a conscious effort to repair strained relations with Syria, quickly moved into opposition when the war heated up, and provides refuge for moderate Syrian rebels and refugees. Its role in the war has been limited by its hatred of the Kurds, though; most Kurds live in Turkey, and the Turkish state fears a strong, well-armed Kurdish army more than it does a strong, well-armed Syrian Arab army. (A Kurdish insurgency, the PKK, has roiled southeastern Turkey for decades.)

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries have clamored for Western intervention as well. The West, which was mostly optimistic during the Arab Spring and particularly eager to see the troublesome Syrian dictatorship uprooted, has staunchly supported the opposition. Yet for the most part Western countries haven’t intervened in the war decisively. The closest they came was in 2013, when Assad attacked a Damascus suburb with sarin gas. This is considered a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), so America began to beat its war drums again, albeit reluctantly. Britain refused to join it. The American public response was mostly negative. Barack Obama dropped the idea after Russia proposed an intervention to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile instead.

As I have noted before, there has been loud and sustained shouting about Obama’s supposed cowardice in America for years, and some Europeans have claimed it is America’s moral duty to punish the Syrian dictatorship. But the Syrian battlefield is combustible. The Syrian state has deep roots, a solid army, and durable institutions. Having witnessed the chaos that ensued in Iraq when those were pulled out by the roots, Obama is loath to try that again, especially since he prides himself on pulling American troops out of Iraq and America has no stomach for another prolonged occupation. Some fret that pumping more weapons onto the battlefield will merely pile on the corpses and smash more infrastructure without really solving anything.

And, yes, there’s the terrorism issue. The question of how much of the Syrian rebellion were “terrorist groups” (or potential future terrorist groups) was always in the background in the beginning. With the rise of the Islamic State, the question is front and center. If America arms Syrian rebels, would those arms one day be turned against it, a la Afghanistan in the ’90s? Who is America’s real enemy — a hostile if not exactly threatening Syrian regime, or crazed Muslim fanatics? Hawks have always urged the US to fund moderate rebels, but as mentioned before, the FSA is weak and fractious. And would Syrians support American puppets?

Freaked out by the Islamic State, America has nonetheless assembled a coalition to “degrade” it (push back its military and political advances): NATO, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco and Iran have all performed air strikes against it over the past year. The attacks have set back the wannabe caliphate a little, but without a ground assault, it looks like it’ll be hard to dislodge. Although it’s hardly popular in the areas it rules over, many locals (who are mostly Sunni) prefer their strict order to the chaotic carnage of the Alawite government.

America faces a dilemma when opposing Syria, however: it doesn’t want a power vacuum that the Islamic State or other jihadist groups (Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.) could exploit. The CIA is training and arming “carefully vetted” non-fanatical rebels, but they are still minor players in the war. The overly sectarian nature of the war is also repulsive for Westerners: unlike Syria’s Muslim neighbors, they don’t care which religious group takes power, but they are mindful that whichever side loses might get exterminated, with the blind fury of years of violence driving the victors to criminal actions. Without a clear vision for what kind of Syria it wants, and without very strong backing on the ground, America is left “without a Syria strategy” (as Obama bluntly put it last year). Its secretary of state (foreign minister), John Kerry, convened a peace conference in 2013 to try to resolve the conflict peacefully, but to no one’s surprise, it didn’t go anywhere.

Syria, before and after. Image source: Ways & Steps

Syria, before and after. Image source: Ways & Steps

Meanwhile, Russia has an idea: just support Syria. Worried about the Islamic State’s appeal to Muslims around the world and desperate to secure its toehold in West Asia, Russia has stepped into the war last week, thrusting the issue back into the headlines. Although hostile Westerners have claimed that Russia is merely trying to distract everyone from the morass of its war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin points out that the Islamic State is the greater threat, so foreigners should support the regime that opposes it. His arguments are undermined by the fact that Russian planes are attacking the FSA instead and flying in the west of Syria, far from Islamic State strongholds. Although it’s way too soon to tell whether Russian intervention will be decisive in saving Assad, it’s awoken worries of a new Russo-American conflict, since Russian and American military advisers are now operating on opposite sides.

With no end of the war in sight, most ordinary Syrians have packed up and moved out of the war zones, or at least into a safer part of the country. Many have fled Syria altogether, fueling a huge surge in the refugee numbers I wrote about last month. While some have headed for Europe, lured by its safety and wealth, most remain camped in squalid, depressing tent cities in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The latter 2 countries have been overwhelmed by the millions of refugees, and aren’t sure how many more they can take.

Meanwhile, Syrian planes continue to barrel-bomb civilians; soldiers continue to gun down unarmed people; food and medical supplies remain scarce; children are growing up without parents or an education; civilians caught on the front lines are tugged between a dictatorial army and rival sectarian militias, either of whom will kill them for supporting the other; roads, houses, mosques, parks, and stores are shattered by rockets; women and girls are routinely gang-raped; the economy is at a complete standstill; Syria’s precious cultural heritage — medieval mosques, legendary souks (markets), the pre-Muslim temples of Palmyra — is brought to ruin; and the optimistic dreams of 2011, of a free, prosperous Syria, shrivel in the face of fatalistic jihadism, sectarian identities, unbridled hatred and animosity, and the bitter realization that the government would rather destroy the country and massacre its people than cede its power.

God help Syria. It will take a long, long time to recover from this tragedy.



Algeria's dictator, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Image source: IGIHE

Algeria’s dictator, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Image source: IGIHE

The Arab world — and indeed, much of the world as a whole — was rocked by massive protests and violent uprisings in the turbulent year of 2011. Decades of systemic political repression, stagnant centrally planned economies, high unemployment, a huge youth bulge and a growing realization that better options existed but were just ignored by Arab leaders proved to be a combustible mix. In Arab country after Arab country — Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq — crowds poured out into the streets, chanting “THE PEOPLE DEMAND THE FALL OF THE REGIME!” A few dictators were actually toppled.

But 1 country, huge yet located on the margins of Araby, mostly escaped the worst violence and social upheaval. Algeria, a perpetually overlooked Arab country in northwest Africa, saw the same protests and riots as other Arab countries, but did not metastasize into a full-blown war zone — or, you know, a democracy. Why? What makes Algeria somehow different from the other troubled Arab nations?

Despite its Arab identity, Algeria is a different beast from most of its brethren. Along with its neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia (who are together called “the Maghreb”), it speaks its own variety of Arabic mostly unintelligible to those further east. It has retained a major native minority population, the Berbers, who also speak their own language and fiercely defend their distinctive culture. The Maghreb is fairly isolated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, from the rest of Africa by the massive Sahara Desert, and from other Arab countries by big, mostly empty Libya.

Most of all, though, Algeria is Frencher than other Arab countries. It was conquered by France in 1830, long before other African countries were, in a bid for France to stroke its ego after losing the Napoleonic Wars. France decided to engage in a bit of a mission civilisatrice (“civilizing mission,” its version of the “White Man’s Burden”) and bring its culture to the benighted Arabs. Algeria was organized along French administrative lines; roads, ports, and railways were built; restaurants, cafes, bars, patisseries, and boutiques sprouted in the cities; a French settler colony was nurtured. Yet Algeria’s amalgamation with France was imperfect; the majority of Algerians never felt very French and mostly lived separate lives from their colonizers. The charade of Francification collapsed in the 1950s, when an indigenous revolutionary movement, the FLN (Front of National Liberation), arose, turning on its white masters with long-repressed fury. After a brutal war of independence, France gave up and left. French colonists, Algerian collaborators, Jews and Christians were expelled. It’s a story worth telling in more detail, but I’ll save it for a later blog post.

With the FLN victorious, it took over Algeria, remolding the country into a more Arab, socialist state with strong state control over the economy. Algeria has huge oil and gas reserves in the Sahara Desert, which gave the government a huge windfall, especially in the oil crises of the ’70s. It was able to spread the oil money around to its friends, creating a close-knit clique that dominated the economy and ran off a patronage network. Ordinary people were bought off with cushy housing, food, and fuel subsidies. Education and women’s rights were pretty good by Arab standards.

The problem, of course, was that this combination of lucrative natural resources and a self-satisfied elite generated the usual result: corruption. The private sector was neglected; infrastructure investment lagged. Algeria mostly continued to use the same buildings and systems left over from the colonial era. The FLN and army monopolized power; elections were a sham. Unemployment climbed, especially for those without useful skills and education. A sense of stagnation and torpor mingled with increasing anger and discontent.

In 1988, this discontent erupted in protests and riots. Rattled, the dictator of the decade, Chadli Benjedid, decided to actually carry out political reforms after the uprising had been repressed. A constitution was enacted; opposition parties were finally allowed to form and campaign in elections. The FLN had been discredited a quarter-century after its revolution; the romantic guerrillas of its youth had morphed into complacent, greedy oppressors. Instead, the public rallied around the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), a party dedicated to political Islam (or Islamism). It’s unclear how extreme its doctrines were; its president was more moderate, while the vice president was more radical. But the FLN had steered clear of political Islam, preferring to cultivate a mildly Westernized, secular bourgeoisie. Its leadership was nervous when the FIS won local elections in 1990.

When FIS supporters started to form armed brigades and attacked government offices, and when FIS leaders started disparaging the idea of democracy, the army had enough. It overthrew Benjedid in 1992 and cancelled the impending legislative elections. Outraged, the Islamists went to war. The FIS was mostly marginalized in the war — groups called the GIA and GSPC played more prominent roles — but whatever: the point is, various jihadist groups took over big portions of north Algeria (the important part of the country) and harassed the government. Both sides committed heinous massacres, sometimes against innocent bystanders. Women forgoing the veil would be shot by Islamists. Men with thick beards might be gunned down by soldiers. The elite in Algiers (the capital) avoided leaving the city for fear of their lives. Foreigners were kicked out, and for years media reports were scarce, making the war relatively obscure considering that over 100,000 died.

Although radical Islam didn’t scare the world as much in those days, making the war an obscure sideshow, by the late ’90s the violence had grown too loud and was generating too many refugees to ignore. The war gradually petered out after the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president in 1999. He enacted amnesties for former rebel fighters, taking the air out of their rebellion.

This crummy photo is literally the only verified portrait of Mohamed Mediène, the shadowy security chief who actually rules Algeria. Image source: Snipview

This crummy photo is literally the only verified portrait of Mohamed Mediène, the shadowy security chief who actually rules Algeria. Image source: Snipview

If the story above seems sort of familiar, that’s because it’s very similar to what Egypt went through recently. Egypt also had a stifling socialist bureaucracy stiffened by military and security forces and an angry, underemployed, swelling youth population. Egypt also had a short period of democratic reform and public political participation. Egypt also had an Islamic political party emerge as the best-organized opposition force (the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Egyptian leadership also decided that allowing them to take over the country was a risk not worth taking. (The difference so far is that Egypt’s civil war is nowhere near the scale of Algeria’s.)

Meanwhile, depressingly, the situation in Algeria has not changed much. Bouteflika continues to rule over the country 16 years later, his mandate extended 3 times in fraudulent elections. A fighter in the revolution, he is now getting old, and had a stroke in 2013. As a result, he barely appears in public anymore, and often heads to France for medical treatment. Other political parties are allowed, but they barely matter, since real power lies in the hands of the “deep state” (or as it’s called in Algeria, le pouvoir, “the power”). A shadowy network of generals, political operatives, spies and businessmen pull the strings, with Mohammed Mediène, the mysterious, unseen chief of security, the real power behind the throne. Widespread cynicism means most people don’t vote.

Algeria still has its oil and gas wealth, which gives the regime $190 billion in reserves. This has allowed it to stay in power by buying off unrest. But the public sector remains bloated and inefficient (it comprises 60% of the economy). Private sector jobs are hard to find. 70% of the country is under the age of 25, and many of those are under the age of 15. Economic growth hasn’t kept up with population growth, meaning that a lot of those young people have nothing to do all day. Some cause trouble; protests are a regular occurrence. The recent fall in global oil prices means there will be more unemployment and most likely cuts in infrastructure projects and subsidies. Housing shortages in the cities adds pressure.

Although the war is over, a bitter malaise still hangs over the country. The GSPC was never really defeated; in 2006, it rebranded itself as a far-flung branch of al-Qaeda (“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”). It is a shadow of its former self, and mostly seems to extort hapless villagers, smuggle drugs and tobacco, and take hostages. Yet it still causes violence, most spectacularly in 2013, when it seized a gas plant in the Sahara Desert and took 800 hostages, some of them foreigners. A lot of those angry young men leave the country to find work in France… but others join the Islamic State or other jihadist groups and cause trouble. As a result, Algeria has one of Africa’s biggest, most well-equipped armies, with 150,000 personnel and a $10 billion annual budget, and operations against insurgents and gangs continues — now with more foreign support, since it counts as “counter-terrorism.”

In short, Algeria, despite its unique identity and distance from the core of the Arab world, shares a lot of Araby’s problems. Its youth are denied viable and fulfilling opportunities; living standards pale in comparison to Europe; the elite are more concerned with staying in power and skimming off oil incomes than any kind of reform. Violence is an ongoing concern, fanatical religion has a big appeal and the treatment of minorities (in this case, the Berbers) isn’t very nice.

Algerian Spring

… So why didn’t Algeria explode in the Arab Awakening? There were protests, actually (as seen above), mostly against food prices and the lack of affordable housing, and they occurred at about the same time as the uprising in Tunisia. Bouteflika made some token concessions: he lifted the state of emergency that had given the military and police free range since the war and gave more government support to struggling entrepreneurs and the unemployed. But large-scale change (or for that matter large-scale violence) didn’t transpire.

The main reason why is that Algeria already knows what the consequences for fighting The Power are. Libya has collapsed into chaos; Egypt has reverted to heavy-handed dictatorship; Syria is the world’s worst current war. But most of all, it knows from its own experience how painful and bloody prolonged civil war can be, and how political Islam grows in power when the central political order collapses. Given the choice between more stagnation and dictatorship and a vicious, confusing, multi-sided battle for supremacy, Algerians have sullenly concluded that the regime they’ve known all their lives is a safer option.

And given the unrest rocking Arab countries in the east, who can blame them?

This blog post is dedicated to Jack Mayer, whose love of and enthusiasm for Algeria was infectious and made his class a pleasure to take.


Image source: Flickr/US Department of Defense

Image source: Flickr/US Department of Defense

In general I try to avoid focusing on U.S. policy in this blog. I’ve written about U.S. foreign policy before, and I’ve written about issues in which the U.S. plays a major role (like the post earlier this week). But I don’t like commenting on American policy too much, since this is a global site and I try to keep it from fixating too much on one nation’s perspective. That being said, I’ve written an article that might be of interest to anyone following events in North Africa and West Asia, and anyone involved in debates on U.S. policy there. To sum it up, I am exasperated at the arguments that critics of Barack Obama’s foreign policy make and I feel that they don’t adequately appreciate the region’s tangled conflicts and woes and aren’t learning anything from historical examples. Read more on the foreign policy blog “Charged Affairs” here.