Few who knew Syria well doubted that the revolution that started in 2011 would lead to a bloodbath. But rather than helping, foreign intervention turned it into an even bigger catastrophe. Syria specialist Nikolaos van Dam recommends books that shed light on Syria's tragic civil war.
Nikolaos van Dam is a Dutch diplomat and scholar, author of a classic text on Syrian politics and sectarianism, The Struggle for Power in Syria (2011). During the civil war, he served as the Dutch Special Envoy to Syria, operating from Istanbul, and had intensive contact with most of the parties involved in the conflict. His book, Destroying a Nation, reflected those experiences.
We last spoke in May 2011, before these peaceful demonstrations in Syria turned into a vicious civil war. You described a beautiful country, much of which has now been destroyed. Nearly half a million people are dead, and more than six million have fled Syria as refugees. Almost as many have become internally displaced persons. At the time, I was naively optimist; you already seemed to know it was going to end badly. For people who haven’t read your latest book yet, can you explain how we’ve got to where we are now?
The picture is rather simple. Everyone with some knowledge of Syria should have known beforehand that trying to topple the regime would lead to a bloodbath. I predicted that in the 1996 edition of my first book on Syria, The Struggle for Power in Syria. But the opponents of the regime were very optimistic, or rather overoptimistic, partly because of the so-called Arab Spring, which resulted in President Mubarak of Egypt and President Ben Ali of Tunisia voluntarily stepping down. On top of that, there was the attack on Libya, where the regime was toppled thanks to foreign intervention. But the power structure of the Syrian regime is quite different from that in Egypt or Tunisia, and the Syrian opposition apparently were not aware yet of the disaster-in-waiting.
The Syrians opposing the regime thought that they were also going to be helped from abroad. In July 2011, that first year, the American and French ambassadors visited Hama to see the demonstrations. Their presence was interpreted as support, because normally, under such a dictatorship, you don’t publicly talk to the opposition. Then, gradually, the peaceful—well not everyone was peaceful—demonstrations became overshadowed by radical Islamist movements. They saw the so-called Arab Spring developments in the region as an excellent opportunity to present themselves as viable alternatives in their efforts to spread the rule of Islam.
Various countries then started to intervene. First, they tried to mediate, but then they started to intervene indirectly by providing billions of dollars in arms shipments and other aid. Turkey opened its borders to let the arms through from the north.
The countries that supported the opposition militarily all had their own favorites. They did not coordinate effectively, however, to oppose the regime. That prevented the opposition from becoming stronger. They have now been defeated, to a large extent, but even after seven years they are not at all united.
“Gradually, what started out peacefully became very bloody, as could have been predicted”
The main point is that the opposition didn’t get enough support from abroad to topple the regime. And then, when the opposition was able to bring the regime into real danger in 2015, the Russians came in to prevent the regime’s overthrow. The Iranians were already there. What was a civil war for a short period turned into a war by proxy. Gradually, what started out peacefully became very bloody, as could have been predicted.
So in fact what happened is that the support of the opposition, by (mainly) the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, led to a prolongation of the war. The opposition couldn’t win, but these countries kept shipping arms to them.
One of the key issues was that already early on, the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said that President Bashar al-Assad had to go. Western countries kept saying this because they were convinced that it was right that he should go. They supposedly based their policy on moral principles. But being on the right side of justice doesn’t mean that you can achieve what you want. They said that Assad had to go, but were not prepared to provide the necessary means to help in achieving it. They did not adapt their goals to their limited means, but nevertheless kept saying that they wanted Assad to leave.
It is a detail, but not unimportant, that in June 2012 there was the so-called Geneva Declaration which was agreed upon by all parties, including the Russians. The key point in that declaration was that there should be a transitional governing body with full executive powers, in which people from the Syrian government and of the opposition and other parties could participate. It did not say anything about the president, but Hillary Clinton said immediately afterwards that the president could not be part of the future of Syria. And most countries rejected any kind of dialogue with the regime, except through the United Nations. Meanwhile the opposition claimed they wanted a political solution, but that the regime had to go. If that is how you negotiate with a party that is stronger, it is not going to succeed. If you say, ‘I want to negotiate with you but at the end of our negotiations you will have to leave and we will bring you to justice (in other words, you will be executed)’, it won’t work. That is something very elementary. It will only work if you can defeat the regime militarily, but this turned out to be impossible.
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Also, during the demonstrations, there were many people who shouted that the regime should be toppled and the president executed. These are aims I don’t think you would be allowed to demonstrate for in most Western countries. You are asking ‘peacefully’ for something very un-peaceful. Anyhow, it doesn’t work.
It would have been better to strictly stick to the formula of the Geneva Declaration. That doesn’t mean that the regime would, in that case, have negotiated, but it wasn’t tried seriously because of the additional demands or preconditions which (predictably) were rejected by the regime that was in a stronger position. A compromise, including some real power sharing, was apparently excluded by both sides.
Now you have a situation where the regime will simply try to recover all the Syrian territories. But it is complicated because in the northwestern province of Idlib there are still a lot of armed groups. Some are related to Al Qaeda. Others belong to the Free Syrian Army. Yet others are remnants of military opposition groups that have been defeated elsewhere in the country, and were then deported to Idlib Province. They are not going to give themselves up voluntarily because they have no prospects. And the regime is not going to negotiate with opposition parties that are, in its view, on the verge of being defeated, or have already been defeated elsewhere in the country.
Turkey is occupying parts of the north. Turkey has also supported some of the military groups in Idlib in the northwest. But one of the results of foreign military intervention is that the strongest Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, has been able to take control over a great part of the north. They were very instrumental in defeating the Islamic State. As a result, they are friends with the United States. But since these Syrian Kurds are also friends with the PKK, the strongest Kurdish party in Turkey, the Turks do not want them there. If they achieve some kind of autonomy inside Syria—which is their aim—it would affect the Kurds in Turkey. Even if they don’t get autonomy, which most probably they will not, it has already affected the situation of the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere in the region.
None of the countries that have interfered in Syria have got anything positive out of it. They have only got something negative back. This foreign military interference has resulted in more terrorism and the presence of the Islamic State in Syria—thanks also to the toppling of President Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It has led to large numbers of refugees and great instability.
“Being on the right side of justice doesn’t mean that you can achieve what you want.”
So my original view, and it hasn’t changed much, is that it is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. If nothing had been done, the regime would probably have been able to suppress the opposition much earlier. There would have been, perhaps, 30,000 dead. Now there are 500,000 dead, with Assad still in power, and the country in ruins.
The opposition groups should have thought it over more than once before starting their revolution. But this is easier said than done. Things don’t work that way because the revolution was to a great extent spontaneous—it happened thanks to the Arab Spring and social factors like poverty, drought, and also severe suppression. But as I put it in the Arabic edition (2018) of my new Syria book, if you want to defeat and kill a lion—Assad means ‘lion’ in Arabic—you must be well-prepared beforehand to be the stronger and better armed party, so as to prevent being defeated and killed yourself.
All this does not mean that even if Assad wins the war—and it is heading that way—there will be peace. After so many dead, so many people who have fled, after so much destruction, the situation now is much, much worse than at the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011. They have to rebuild the country. Even if they have enough money to do so, they don’t have the necessary number of people to do the job, the technicians, the builders. Many people forget that.
Socially so much has been destroyed or damaged that most people inside Syria will probably put up with the situation for now and not do anything against the regime, because the situation is already bad enough. Maybe they will wait for another opportunity to start yet another revolution in the future that they might expect to be more successful (and less disastrous). And the present disastrous situation in Syria is a very bad recipe for creating stability and peace. In any case, many refugees outside Syria will keep the flame of the revolution going because they want to get rid of the regime even more now.
A lot of refugees are scared of going home aren’t they? Many ran away to avoid military service so they’ll get in trouble if they return.
On paper there have been various kinds of amnesties. If these are genuine, then they can go back, but they would, of course, be drafted into the army, just as they had to serve before. Also, the amnesty does not apply to ‘criminal activities’ and the regime’s concept of what is criminal is very wide. If you have opposed the regime you will probably be in difficulties.
There are so many Syrians outside Syria who have shown their colours via social media. If you show a Syrian flag with three stars, you are opposition, if you show a flag with two stars you are supposedly with the regime. And the regime is noting down what all these people abroad are saying.
I know some people who got into a lot of trouble because when they met with some friends and acquaintances something was said against the President. There were informers present. They not only arrested the people who criticized him but also some of those who didn’t speak out against them. Being neutral is apparently not always enough, you have to explicitly say that you are against those who are against the President.
If I were a Syrian, I would not dare to go back. You don’t have any guarantee that you will be treated reasonably. Also, according to one of the authors I have recommended, Fabrice Balanche, Assad doesn’t even want many of the people who have fled back. Syria was already relatively overpopulated before the Syrian revolution, and suffered from severe economic problems, unemployment, severe drought, water shortages and other issues that helped trigger the Syrian revolution. In Balanche’s analysis, it will be easier for Assad to have a few million fewer people when he starts rebuilding the country, certainly if those people are against him.
As you’ve just mentioned Fabrice Balanche, let’s start with his book. It’s called Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War (2018) and it has lots of very interesting maps. His view, I believe, is that already in the 1990s civil war was inevitable. Can you explain why some people thought that?
In the period between 1976 and 1982, a military offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood started killing Alawis. Their aim was to topple the regime and polarize Syria on a sectarian basis. This culminated in the massacre of Hama in 1982, where about 30,000 people were killed. It was, perhaps, another example of Sunni Islamists imagining they could win because they are the majority of the population. But being in the majority doesn’t mean anything when the real instruments of power are in the hands of people from the Alawi minority.
From then on a civil war, or at least a reckoning, seemed inevitable. Just as it may be inevitable that in the future—it’s impossible to say when, of course—there might be a new uprising. There are so many people who do not want to be reconciled; they want to settle accounts because so many people are dead.
“If I were a Syrian, I would not dare to go back. You don’t have any guarantee that you will be treated reasonably.”
I chose Fabrice Balanche’s book because he is very clear about sectarianism. Sectarianism is played down by many, not only academics but also many people from Syria. They say it doesn’t play a role, or that the other side is sectarian but we are not. Many Sunnis and opposition people say the sectarian factor is not important to them, as far as their own motivations are concerned.
But the dynamics of the conflict mean that sectarianism is bound to be important, because the instruments of power and repression are mainly, if not all, in the hands of Alawis. The elite units of the Syrian Arab Army, including the Republican Guard and the Tiger Forces, the security services and the pro-regime armed militias that have been established, like the Shabbiha, are all recognizably Alawi-dominated. They are not only Alawi, but most of the key people are.
Although Balanche clearly recognizes that there are all kinds of other factors that are important, he stresses that the sectarian issue cannot be ignored. It’s a real factor. He demonstrates that by using explanatory maps. He shows how the opposition areas were mainly Sunni, whereas the non-opposition areas were mainly inhabited by minorities. It doesn’t mean that all these people are motivated by sectarianism, but hardly any defectors from the army were Alawis or from other minorities. Balanche is showing all this on the basis of solid facts and statistics.
People may argue that it is an oversimplification to say that it is ‘Sunnis against Alawis’. It is a simplification indeed, but when it comes down to it, one of the most important things is who has the power, and these are Alawis. (One should not say ‘the’ Alawis, because many Alawis oppose the regime).
When Balanche started his in-depth research in Syria in 1990, he already noticed that the country’s sectarian divisions were glaringly evident. The Alawi community was the backbone of Hafiz al-Assad’s classic patronage system: in exchange for political support, they were given material benefits that only increased their sectarian loyalty. The regime knew very well how to agitate the Islamist threat in order to strengthen Alawi loyalty. Yet this privileged relationship increasingly frustrated portions of the majority Sunni population, especially those who suffered deteriorating living conditions. As a result, civil war—Balanche noted—seemed inevitable in the long term.
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From the beginning of the Syrian revolution, in 2011, Fabrice Balanche has been saying that the regime is very durable and could not be easily toppled. I was saying the same thing. This was at the stage of the conflict where the people predicting that Assad would have a long political life were accused of being pro-Assad—just because they said his chances of survival were high. Balanche was working at the time at the University of Lyon, but was reportedly disqualified for a senior job there just because his views on the possibilities for the survival of the Syrian regime— which turned out to be completely correct (!)—were disliked and rejected (based as this criticism was on wishful thinking). He is now working at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
This book is available electronically, but I have a print version. I prefer that in terms of seeing all the 70 coloured maps and so on.
But to recap, Balanche is saying sectarianism was an essential factor in this civil war: the fact that Alawis—who are only about 11 per cent of the population—have held the power all these years and done some very vicious things to stay in power.
Yes. His book clearly demonstrates sectarianism in a way that has not been done by anyone else, certainly not with detailed maps, showing demographic developments, sectarian changes, tribal and ethnic groups, military developments, refugees, changing population compositions in different cities, quarters, regions and so on.
By the way, Balanche uses a wide definition of sectarianism, denoting not only religious communities, but also ethnic and tribal groups. ‘Sect’, in this book, is described as any social group whose members share a common identity and are able to create a strong solidarity link. ‘Sectarianism’, in this sense, therefore also includes ethnic groups, like the Kurds and Turkmens.
Let’s move on to the next book on your list, which looks fascinating. It’s by David Lesch and is called Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (2013).
This book remains highly topical. When you read it—I just reread all the parts of it I had underlined (and there were many)—all of his analysis is very well argued and sophisticated. David Lesch told me that ‘The Fall of the House of Assad’ was the subtitle the publisher wanted, but if you read the preface you will see that he himself thought the Assad regime could very well survive the domestic uprising.
David Lesch is, to my knowledge, the only foreign academic who has had extensive personal access to President Bashar al-Assad. He actually wrote an earlier book about the Bashar al-Assad regime, called The New Lion of Damascus. His second book is important for me, because he gives an insight into the mentality and inner workings of the regime. Lesch has noted, for instance, that the power accumulated over the years by the Syrian Mukhabarat (intelligence services) has led to systematic recklessness, which backfired against the regime.
For instance, he writes about how he once came to Damascus to interview the president but was stopped and interrogated for three hours. And he said, ‘But I am going to see the president!’ This was an indication that in Syria the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, and that they did not seem to care. The intelligence services were acting on their own initiative, and this, according to Lesch, meant that there developed a disconnect that is both dangerous and an abdication of authority. It means the president does not always have full control over them.
Another thing Lesch mentions is that the regime doesn’t like to be told what to do, and that it does not like to make concessions when under pressure. But what I pointed out in my book is that Bashar al-Assad does not like to give in when he is in a position of strength either.
The book is quite personal, isn’t it? As we can tell from the title of his previous book, he had high hopes for Bashar. In the preface, he talks about the ‘fall’ of Assad being in the metaphorical sense, that it’s about Bashar al-Assad’s ‘journey to the dark side.’
He’s very disappointed by Assad. He got to know Assad quite well and even tried to send him messages with policy suggestions at the beginning of the revolution. Later on, David Lesch accepted that in order to stay in power, Bashar al-Assad had to play according to the Syrian rules. He notes that the regime cannot reform, because then it would undermine itself. His knowledge and evaluation of the internal workings of the regime is a very important aspect of this book.
Lesch is actually going to publish another book next year (2019), entitled Syria: A Modern History. I have read the manuscript. His forthcoming book is much more general, starting from early times, through Roman and Ottoman times up till now. It is an excellent and balanced analysis of Syrian contemporary history, enabling readers to access and understand the wide-ranging complexities of Syria today. People interested in the Syrian revolution can focus on the last part, where he sums up his analysis and conclusions of what has happened since the publication of his earlier work, and what he expects to happen with this revolution and Syria’s future prospects.
I’m fascinated to read about the mentality of Bashar al-Assad, because as a non-Syria expert, that’s been one of the hardest things for me to understand. I thought he was basically a UK-based ophthalmologist, only propelled to power because of his older brother’s death. But in your book, you point out that he only spent 18 months in the UK. He’s a product of Syria.
In general people have tended to look at the Syrian revolution mainly from the perspective of the opposition and neglected the realities of the regime, except for its cruel dictatorial aspects. That is what is also missing in various books. They take the regime for granted. They don’t look at how the regime is, in fact, extremely strong because of sectarian, family and other loyalties.
People would have done better to know more about the regime, because if you want to defeat your adversary, you must know it. That is what you will find in both the book by Lesch and the one by Fabrice Balanche.
Let’s move on to your next book, which is by Christopher Phillips. This is called The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (2018).
If you look at the Syrian war as a war by proxy, this is, I would say, the best book. It’s the first book to propose the thesis that much of this foreign interference has in fact prolonged the war instead of helping win or shorten it. In the book Phillips also gives a very good analysis of the Islamic State (IS). He notes that IS had ‘many parents’, and that if the Assad regime bore responsibility for it, so did his many international enemies, including Western countries, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others—who on earlier occasions supported trends which led to that movement. And IS would not have had a chance if the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein had not been toppled during the US-British invasion in 2003.
“None of the countries that have interfered in Syria have got anything positive out of it. They have only got something negative back”
Phillips also discovered, through interviews, that at a certain moment President Obama wanted to declare that President Assad should step down. At that time, various people thought that Assad could fall any minute, so the American president felt he had to make a statement before that happened, just in order to be ‘on the right side of history’. This influenced all kinds of other politicians, because they simply echoed what Obama had said. But the US ambassador in Damascus at the time advised that you should only demand Assad step down if you could also impose it. This is another element in the war: politicians making demands they cannot implement. For instance, if they threaten military action and then don’t do it, it is better not to threaten it, because you lose all credibility.
This book by Christopher Phillips I found to be one of the best books I have read on this period, particularly the international factor. It is very multifaceted.
Since we spoke all those years ago, I know a little bit more about Syria because my husband and I have had Syrian refugees living with us. They’ve moved on now and got on with their lives, but we still have many Syrian friends. I did get a sense of a feeling of helplessness about the war from them, that it’s been taken over by all these international actors, and it’s not really in the hands of the Syrians anymore. You would agree with them, then, that foreign involvement has made this war worse?
Certainly. Also, it means that for a solution you will need an agreement between the countries that have been involved in Syria. Some have got involved because of strategic interests. Some—like the Americans and the Israelis—want the Iranians out. The Turks don’t want any Kurdish element with power on their border. What Phillips writes—and myself also, by the way—is that their interference has put fuel on the fire. They intensified the fire of war through their actions and not even in a coordinated way!
The opposition says, ‘If the Russians had not interfered we would have won the war against Assad long ago.’ But if the opposition had not been supported by billions of dollars of arm shipments from abroad then they wouldn’t have stood a chance. They would not have got anywhere near as far as they did.
Many people or politicians talk about Russia or America or Turkey or Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Fewer people talk about the Syrians themselves. Whatever side you are on, the Syrian people have been the victim of all of this. But foreign observers often don’t involve them in these discussions. If this was just debates, it would be different. But 500,000 people are dead. There are so many victims, there is so much destruction.
That’s why it’s better to admit that the war against the regime is being lost. But, as I said, even if Assad wins back Idlib, there will still be huge problems because America and various other countries will be looking out for their own perceived interests.
Let’s go on to your next book, The Syrian Jihad (2017) by Charles Lister, and the role Islamic extremism has played in this civil war. He writes, ‘Syria has become home to the largest, most complex, arguably the most powerful collection of Sunni jihadist movements in modern history.’
He is probably right about that. He even predicts that they will play a role for decades to come. I do not agree with everything Lister says in his book, but this is, as far as I know, the most detailed study about the Islamist opposition groups. For that reason alone it is an important book.
There are often discussions about who are the moderates and who are the radicals. Lister argues that in the past, there were still a lot of moderate people and groups, but that by now, behind the scenes, many of those moderate groups have begun to adopt many of the same political positions as their Syrian Islamist compatriots. The problem is that in a war that has lasted seven years and may last even longer, people cannot remain fully moderate.
And, of course, moderation is a relative concept. You can have moderation in political thought, you can have moderation in the way you fight, and so on. It is not always really clear what ‘moderate’ means. In the West, in general, the Islamists are seen as radicals, which they are. But if you asked Robert Fisk about moderates and radicals he would completely disagree with Charles Lister on this point.
Still, this book is a very good way of getting a better idea of how the Islamic State came up—first as Al Qaeda in Iraq, then as the Islamic State in Iraq and then as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and then the Islamic State without any additions. They now consider themselves a movement which has no geographic restrictions.
Lister also deals with the issue that Western countries supported these so-called moderate groups. But in their battles against al-Assad and IS these moderates would sometimes have to work together with Islamists purely for opportunistic or strategic reasons. This happened, for instance, if there was an attack by the regime or IS on a certain area where both Islamist radical organizations and the generally more moderate Free Syrian Army happened to be located together. In such cases the moderates involved faced a military choice: either they could die while refusing to cooperate with the Islamic radical organizations, or they could survive, but would then be accused of collaborating with the extremists. So temporarily and purely for non-ideological reasons they worked together.
“The problem is that in a war that has lasted seven years and may last even longer, people cannot remain fully moderate.”
Western countries do not want to continue to support moderate groups if they work together with Islamist radical organizations, let alone the group that stands for Al Qaeda (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, previously called Jabhat al-Nusra). But if Western countries do not support these so-called moderates, the indirect consequence is that they will become weaker vis-à-vis the Islamist groups. So that is one of the issues Lister discusses.
This book is also a historically important survey. I found it a very useful book when I was working on my most recent book. That is true of all these books I am recommending, they are the books I considered the most useful in getting a richer understanding of the situation in Syria, in addition to my own experiences with the country over many years, most recently as the Dutch Special Envoy for Syria.
The extremists get a lot of press coverage because the stuff they do is so horrific. In your view are they actually a very important component in the civil war, these jihadists?
Yes, they are a very important component. They started to overshadow the other, more moderate groups, already early on, from the start of the Syrian revolution. The most powerful groups that remain are the more radical Islamist groups. So the strongest group is the one that now call themselves Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Another strong Islamist movement is Ahrar al-Sham. And then there is Jaysh al-Islam, part of whose fighters were deported to Idlib Province after their defeat east of Damascus. Then there are many other smaller Islamist opposition groups. According to Lister, in 2015 at least 150,000 insurgents within as many as 1,500 operationally distinct armed groups were involved in differing levels of fighting across Syria. Some were within broader umbellas and fronts and others existed entirely independently.
Interestingly, Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist movement, together with the Islamist Jaysh al-Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, all signed the Riyadh Declaration of December 2015. That declaration was an important and moderate compromise saying that Syria was to be a pluralist country where religious and ethnic groups would not be discriminated against and everyone would be equal. But the more radical Islamic groups do not really consider non-Sunni Muslims and Christians as equals. For political reasons, however, these opposition groups became salonfähig or acceptable for participation in the ‘Higher Negotiations Council’ because they signed that agreement. The leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Muhammad ‘Allush, was at the time even appointed as ‘principal negotiator’ of the opposition delegation for the negotiations with the regime in Geneva.
But that doesn’t mean that if these radical groups had won the war they would have stuck to these agreements. That is a completely different thing. Charles Lister worked at the Brookings Institution in Qatar and was dealing with a lot of Track II meetings of the Syrian opposition, which ran in parallel with the intra-Syrian peace talks. In that context he met very many representatives of these military groups.
I did as well, in my function as Special Envoy for Syria. I not only met people from these armed opposition groups, but I would also find out what they really thought. They may have signed the Riyadh Declaration but what they said in those Track II meetings gave a clearer picture of their real thinking.
And what did they really think and want?
In Riyadh, the central identity and aim was to be Syrian. No other identity was to be more important than being Syrian. But then during the Track II meetings some people—from the Islamic current within the Free Syrian Army—said, ‘Yes, but we must also be very clear that Syria is part of the Arab nation and part of the Islamic world. The revolution cannot achieve its aim if the Islamic element is not there.’ Then the Kurdish representative would say, ‘Yes, but we already agreed on something else in Riyadh.’ Then another Kurdish representative would say, ‘Well. If you say you belong to the Arab nation, then I must say that we belong to the Kurdish nation of 50 plus million people.’ And so on. That is how some of these meetings went.
Here some of them said rather different things than what their leaders had agreed upon in Riyadh and showed that, in practice, they would not fully subscribe to these principles. Because if ever the regime had been toppled it would have been toppled by the military and not by civilians. And the military are these people from Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, the Free Syrian Army and others. They would have been the ones to decide what was going to happen and what wasn’t.
So you have the world on paper and the world as it really is.
Have any Syrians you know joined these groups? Within Syria, what kind of people are attracted to joining Islamist groups?
Syria already had enormous economic problems, and the war has made things much worse. To survive, many had to join armed forces, and join the group that paid the most. For instance, I know of people from the Free Syrian Army who went to Al Qaeda or IS early on because they paid more. There is continuous movement. At a certain moment Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham were the strongest military opposition groups. The first wanted to incorporate the other. They refused. Then they started trying to get each other’s military over to their side. Many changed groups not for ideological reasons, but for practical reasons, to keep their families alive. Because after seven years of destruction and war, they hardly have anything to live on. This is a phenomenon that has continuously generated shifting alliances.
Many of these alliances are what we call marriages of convenience. It is just for a certain strategic, pragmatic, temporary purpose. Look at the regime and the Kurds, the PYD in the north. Assad has provided them with arms, not because he likes them, but because he can use them against his other enemies. Assad has also been accused of cooperating with IS. If he did so, it was mainly as a kind of war economy, with limited means, to weaken as many of his opponents as possible. Then, when one group is eliminated, the other group which has helped him may be the next target. My guess is that if all the other groups are eliminated and the Kurdish PYD are still there, then Assad will not say, ‘Thank you for your cooperation against the others! You want autonomy, well you have earned it.’ Or perhaps Assad might temporarily give them some kind of autonomy if that were useful for him to use against Turkey. But these are alliances not of friendship but of perceived military necessity for that day or that period.
Let’s move on to your last book, The Alawis of Syria (2015) edited by Michael Kerr and Craig Larkin. If you want to understand Syria, it’s presumably very important to understand this minority, members of which have held power so long.
There are various books on the Alawis. Some only deal with Alawi religion, say, or a specific aspect. This book is about the history and political role of the Alawis, with twelve chapters by various authors with very good reputations. Some of them have published individual books on the Alawis, like Stefan Winter, Fabrice Balanche and Leon Goldsmith. Other authors are well-known for their long-time expertise and books on Syria under the Ba’thist regime, like Raymond Hinnebusch and Carsten Wieland. Wieland served for several years as a senior expert for the intra-Syrian talks in the office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria in Geneva, and therefore is also privy to most of the inside political developments that took place in this field.
There is a chapter by Raphaël Lefèvre, not primarily about the Alawis, but about one of their biggest enemies, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. And then there are chapters by two journalists I found very good. One is by Aron Lund, who is one of the best journalist writers on present-day Syria.
The chapter by Stefan Winter is about the Alawis in the Ottoman period. He notes that the Alawis have always been portrayed in history as a persecuted minority. Winter, however, gives a different view. He says that the Alawis were generally tolerated in the mountains and were not persecuted all the time as some allege, that’s an unjustified cliché.
So if you look at this book, you will find a very rich variety of writings about the Alawis in Syria. They also write about religion, which in itself is not so crucial. For the Alawis, it is more about the social loyalty, the social cohesion of certain groups. In this whole issue of sectarianism, many non-Alawis consider Alawis as unbelievers or heretics.
Some chapters are better than others, but you have a very rich combination of chapters from a variety of high quality authors. They also give some guidance on further reading if you would like to read more on this subject.
In the context of the civil war, because the regime is Alawi-dominated, there is a temptation to cast them as the bad guys in the conflict. But the Alawi community has also been very hard hit by the war. In places like Tartus, families have lost fathers, they’ve lost brothers, they’ve lost sons. It’s taken a heavy toll on them as well.
This is perhaps one of the weakest points of the regime, that so many people from the Alawi community have been killed. It is the Alawis that are fighting on the front lines. Sunnis are fighting also in great numbers, of course, because the composition of the regular army is a reflection of Syrian society with its Sunni majority; but when it comes to very sensitive operations, where the regime really has to fully trust the military, it is mainly Alawis. Since they are so heavily represented in the elite units of the armed forces, logically, they will have a lot of people killed. There were weekly funeral processions in Alawi villages. At a certain point, those were forbidden, because it was giving too negative an image of the regime.
The regime, in a way, forces Alawis to be loyal, because if its Sunni opponents were to win, the future of many Alawis—including those who are opposed to the regime—could be very bleak. It is for their own survival that they have to be loyal to the regime, even if they are against it.
In terms of the future, I think the danger for the regime from the inside may be bigger than from the outside. It is from Alawi people, who know the inner workings of the regime and who are themselves part of the structure, that the biggest potential threat to the regime lies. But of course any person even suspected of being against the regime or cooperating with others against it will immediately be executed or put in prison because the regime has spies everywhere. There is hardly anyone who dares to lift his head.
“There is no Nelson Mandela in Syria.”
But talking about Tartus and the coast, that is another interesting thing that comes up in Fabrice Balanche’s book. In the middle of the last century, these coastal cities were mainly Sunni. So Latakia, Baniyas and Tartus were majority Sunni and the countryside was majority Alawi. But due to migration over the last 50 years under Alawi-dominated Ba’thist rule, the majority of these cities has now become Alawi.
Another important point is that many people, including Sunnis, from Idlib, Aleppo or many other places, who have fled from the war, have fled to the so-called Alawi areas, because they expected it to be safer there than elsewhere. They fled towards the regime in the expectation that they would be safer there than in any other warzone.
Your book, Destroying a Nation, is excellent, and very analytical in approach. You try to assess whether this war could have been avoided and so on. But from the preface—and also our last conversation—I know you are also very fond of Syria as a country. How do you feel about everything that has happened?
Of course, I am very fond of the people from Syria. During my frequent visits, I got to know the Syrians as friendly and charming, open-minded and tolerant and respectful heirs of rich civilizations.
When talking about refugees, I can talk in particular about the Netherlands, where the refugees are doing very well, in general. But it has been such a difficult time. In Damascus, they have been bombed from the outskirts, but in general, life has continued there. But in many places all over the country—in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deraa, Raqqa—there has been war and destruction everywhere. Quite apart from the many refugees outside Syria, there are millions of people internally displaced. They are in a state of shock. The grudge against the regime is so great that I hardly see any possibility for reconciliation, particularly not under the present dictatorship. And who could lead the reconciliation? There is no Nelson Mandela in Syria. After all this death and destruction, it may take generations before you can talk about any kind of normalization.
I am sure the regime will continue to try to keep its present power structure, because it is their main guarantee of staying in power. They will use the most draconian measures against their opponents. That is what they have been doing for over half a century, only now it is on a much bigger scale.
The economic situation for the people of Syria is extremely difficult. There is a lot of corruption and embezzlement, people who have got in the habit of pressurizing other people in order to get money. It is Syrians against other Syrians. To undo this is very difficult. Loyalty to the regime depends to a great extent on favoritism, on money, on fear. And all this interference from foreign countries, even if it was supposedly well meant originally, has just brought further disaster.
To end on a somewhat more positive note, I would like to underline that the Syrians are a resilient people. They have endured and survived many challenges in the past. And even though the present crisis may be their biggest challenge yet, and it may perhaps even take generations to overcome the present disaster, the Syrians are in my view bound to overcome it, if their past experiences are something to go by. Therefore, I share the conclusion of David Lesch’s new book: ‘In the end, I bet on the Syrians’.
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Nikolaos van Dam is a Dutch diplomat and scholar, author of a classic text on Syrian politics and sectarianism, The Struggle for Power in Syria (2011). During the civil war, he served as the Dutch Special Envoy to Syria, operating from Istanbul, and had intensive contact with most of the parties involved in the conflict. His book, Destroying a Nation, reflected those experiences.
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