Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Academic Beauty of the Syrian Conflict

Princes who become Princes by pure luck won't have problems to become this; but to hold themselves on the throne will be difficult.
                                                                                   Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Perhaps developed Western states are no longer really interested in fostering state-building after all.
                                                                                   Antonio Giustozzi, The Art of Coercion

I am fascinated by the Syrian conflict. For followers of Niccolo Machiavelli, readers of geopolitical theories and small scale philosophers of power and violence, this conflict is an academic beauty. How was Bashar al-Assad able to acquire his power? How could he keep his power? And how will he be swept from power? Theories one only reads in books are now laid bare for real, in front of our eyes.

There are no bad guys and no good guys in Syria. There are just - guys. Women are hardly seen on the trigger side of the barrels. Maybe Sheherazad Jaafari is one, the ambitious daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the UN. Bouthaina Shaaban used to publish articles in Lebanese newspapers before the war, explaining the Syrian position on this and that. Barbara Walters is an American grandma, Hillary Clinton the US Secretary of State. Asma al-Assad has checked out, swapping her high heels Louboutins for sneakers. 

Bashar al-Assad didn't become president of Syria by luck. Quite to the contrary. His character and his talent qualified him for being an upper middle class eye doctor in London, going to Chelsea games on a Wednesday evening. He didn't chose the presidency. The presidency chose him. People are born to fulfill a destiny. Only their brains and their guts may not be up to this destiny. They become a danger for themselves and for those around them. Bashar behaves like the scared kid who is holding a gun in his hand, not knowing how to use it properly. The kid then pulls the trigger. Mindlessly. And still very scared. You wanted to live the sex and the London city? Well: "just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in." (Al Pacino in The Godfather III)

"they pull me back in": Stamford Bridge, Chelsea

State formation is usually achieved through ruthlessness. Soft power won't bring you to the top spot, won't hand new territory under your control. But in politics as in sport: it is one thing to become number one, is is another thing to remain the champion. Keeping the monopoly and beating disloyalty asks for ruthless manipulation. There is one headache for dictators the world over, a constant threat that won't let them sleep at night: how to develop a loyal army with a sufficient degree of military effectiveness? Frederick the Great once said that one must fear his officers more than the perils to which they are exposed to. Are you sure of your officers loyalty? Will the weapons and the training you give them turn against you, one day? Bashar al-Assad is now paying the price for not training his soldiers in smart warfare. They know how to fire. But they don't know how to think.

When Assad told Barbara Walters that he is not in control of the army, that he is "only" the president, I thought, what a dumb statement. Meanwhile I think he was telling the truth. What a dumb president. Assad now follows an "après moi le déluge" approach. The regime has chosen the bloodiest of paths to go down, writes Paul Salem from the Beirut Carnegie institute. You can't control a crowd by shelling their homes. Declaring a war on terror is declaring a war on yourself. If it is true that sophisticated military-political actors clearly understand what kind of violence is counter-productive, as Antonio Giustozzi argues in "the Art of Coercion", then the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad are not sophisticated. Quod erat demonstrandum. 

Among the world powers and the global political audience, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi had no support when his monopoly on power was challenged in 2011. Assad does. It shows the geopolitical depth of the Syrian conflict. But I get goose bumps when I hear about "the Zionist project for Syria". I think that's wrong. Israel is bad for the Middle East, but worse are the regimes that use it as an everlasting explanation for a relentless control of their citizens. My face turns even red when I read articles such as "Syrian Crisis: Three's a Crowd" by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an analyst from South Lebanon. How lame is it to deal the Bush card on Syria? Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. Either you are with Assad, or you side with Israel against Palestine. People who have suffered seem to lose the ability to feel empathy for the suffering of others. No one suffers like they have. Would accepting the others' suffering really diminish their own suffering? Assad's Syria is not the frontline state that will save Palestine, as some like to think of it.

That said, here's my theory: the closer your Arab revolution is to Israel, the lesser its chances to succeed. Tunis - Tel Aviv: 2313 kilometers. Tripoli - Tel Aviv: 2025 kilometers. Cairo - Tel Aviv: 406 kilometers. Damascus - Tel Aviv: 214 kilometers. Gaza - Tel Aviv: 71 kilometers. Ramallah - Tel Aviv: 46 kilometers. Sana - Tel Aviv: 2084 kilometers. (Source:

2313 Kilometers: Tunis - Tel Aviv

Rather than conjuring up the Israeli case over and over again, I contend that everything that happens in Syria happens in relation to Iran. Don Hafez Corleone did everything right to win power. Bashar Corleone does everything wrong to lose it. The Arab spring could have been handled. But Iran not complying with Western ideas was too much. Now it is hitting them where you can. And Iran is hitting back where they think they must. Proxies preferred. In 2012, this is in Syria. Mao Zedong, an expert in guerrilla warfare, once compellingly maintained that without developing a centrally controlled military force, it would not be possible ultimately to defeat the state. The USA and the Gulf countries are aware of this. The Free Syrian Army has a command and control center in Washington, with branch offices in Doha and Riyadh. But there is more needed to deal the final blow. A growing stream of studies claims that insurgencies rarely win without external support and the availability of a sanctuary in a neighboring country. My apartment in Lebanon has a big cellar. I don't want Washington to know this.

Hafez al-Assad was a "Jack of all tricks". His son Bashar hires American spin doctor companies to advise him. Dad's tactics don't work anymore. But the Americans don't know better than to communicate with shock and awe. The dream of completely wiping out an insurgency without some political compromise is inevitably attractive. Political leaders are not necessarily less war-mongering than their generals; sometimes even more. Assad's dream has now become his people's nightmare. 

And Egypt? The revolutionaries in Egypt are too peaceful! No massacres, no terrorists' attacks. The US rather supports a violent uprising against a dictatorial regime than helping a nonviolent movement to succeed with a democratic approach. The weapons have been silent in Egypt. The generals are still there, on this election Sunday more than ever. The US still sends military aid to Egypt. The Tahrir people have remained non-sectarian students, not shouting slogans at Iran, and not being able to promise oil deals in case they win. Their lobby attraction is limited. "Well make more fuckin' money. This is America. You don't make money, then you're a fuckin' douchebag." (Ray Winstone in The Departed) Or help them with Iran.

With everybody bogged down in Syria - the US, the Saudis, Qatar, Russia, Iran, Al Qaeda - the world is a safer place. Except if you are Syrian. The UN observer mission in Syria is now suspended. All they were observing was violence. In the absence of power, there is an excess of violence. The Syrian army, the Free Syrian Army and the Jihadists having come to Shams can start their playoffs. It will be a best of seven. Seven weeks? Seven months? Seven years? For many, a protracted war is the favored outcome. They thrive better under chaos. When will the agony have an end?


  1. Almost true. Whats missing is the acknowledgement that the regimes, which have used the excuse of western colonialism to hold onto power with a 'we must be strong under me'approach has a use by date.
    The youth are not as easily kept ignorant as they were when these approaches began to dominate regime logic.
    They know that democracy does allow protest and complaint and they are dissapointed that they are not recieving the same latitude and respect.
    The population in these countries have boomed over the recent decades and the youth have voting power, if not votes. they cannot be held down wwith decades old fears.
    They have seen the middle east ask for western assistance and the hypocracy is not lost on them.
    Even the Israeli creation, which the moderates can see is an abnomaly in diplomacy, is no longer enough for them to not choose a more modern nation.
    Until people realise that the information boom will override the historically approved 'political correctness' that has been the heart of nationalism, then change will be fought by those who would not change.
    I think the gist of it , is the true colonising influence is information without censorship.

  2. Very true my friend. Thank you for your comment. It is not that the youth was deprived of information in the last couple of years, but quite the opposite. They saw what was available in politics, personal rights, freedom, what have you, and realized that they don't have this. Hence the revolutionary movements (I avoid the word "revolution" here...). Affaires à suivre.