It’s the crucial question in Syrian politics: is there a third way? Is the choice really between the barbarism of the violent jihadis and the repression of President Assad? Aren’t there any alternatives?
It’s a subject full of ‘what ifs’. What if in 2011, right at the start of the anti-government protests, President Assad had made some concessions? What if the Syrian army had targeted the militant Islamic State (ISIS) group with as much ferocity as it used against its more moderate opponents? What if President Obama had been more willing to intervene? All good questions. But they are now a matter of history. We are where we are.
Some can see a third way. The Syrian Kurds now control a band of land alongside the Turkish-Syrian border. Called Rojava, the Kurdish area carries with it the possibility of a degree of autonomy not unlike that enjoyed by the Kurds in northern Iraq. There could be obstacles ahead. The Syrian government has said that if the Kurds were to push for full independence then the Syrian army would fight them. And if Damascus gains strength in the coming years it could seek to crush even more limited aspirations for greater Kurdish autonomy within Syria.
The Kurds also need to worry about Turkey, which now has troops in Syria. President Erdogan would like to turn Rojava into a buffer zone in which it could place all the Syrian refugees currently encamped in Turkey. Nonetheless, for all the uncertainties, the Kurds can at least envisage a future in which neither Assad nor IS are dominating their lives.
But for most Syrians the Kurdish question is a sideshow. The central issue is what happens in Damascus. Will the Syrian state survive and, if it does, who will be in control and how strong will that state be? Even though the Russian intervention has significantly strengthened Assad, it remains difficult to predict what lies ahead. The government believes there are now fighters from 85 different countries active on Syrian soil. Some outside powers such as the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran have conflicting interests which will, no doubt, continue to be expressed through troops on the ground and proxy forces. It seems unlikely that the central government in Damascus will, for the foreseeable future, be able to reassert itself to the point of enjoying the sweeping powers that it wielded before 2011. There will be instability in parts of Syria for years to come.
Those looking for a third way have two routes to follow. Either they could hope that there are enough so-called moderate rebels to overthrow the Assad regime and assert control.
Or they could bank on politics producing a solution in which less repressive politicians take over the Syrian government and carry on the fight against the jihadis. From the outset the US strategy has been to identify moderate rebels and back them. But even the most devoted Obama supporters would have to concede that the policy has failed. That is certainly the view of Donald Trump.
Those who follow Syrian opposition politics believe while there are still a significant number of non-jihadi anti-government fighters, it is the jihadis that have the initiative, drive and determination to impose their will. In the event of Assad falling, it is unlikely that moderates would be the ones to emerge on top.
So what of a political solution might be possible? For that to work then Syria’s brightest and best, now scattered all over the world, would need to return to the country and be politically active. Understandably it’s a risk very few — if any — are willing to take. Assad has shown no genuine interest in reaching out to those who have even mild disagreements with him.
There are many cleavages in Syrian society — such as those based on ethnicity, sect and class. And with the war causing a breakdown in many traditional structures, those differences are now being expressed with violence. But there is one cleavage that is bigger than all the others — the one between the secularists and the Islamists. Events in Egypt help illustrate the point. Faced with a Muslim Brotherhood government, which had won successive elections and which said it was committed to parliamentary politics, the country’s liberals decided they preferred the authoritarian military rule offered by Gen Sisi. Even if their civil liberties were harshly curtailed, they figured that was better than the Brotherhood.
Some Syrian liberals have said that the government in Damascus is so bad they would prefer the Al Qaeda-sympathising Nusra Front. But if the Nusra Front were to actually win power and start the violent imposition of Sharia, the liberals might have little choice but to rethink. The political choices in the Middle East are stark.
–By Owen Bennett Jones
The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.