Syria’s Two Revolts

Everyone knows that the Syrian Civil War is a military contest between Bashar al-Assad and those who want a new Syria without him.  The US has publicly taken the position that Bashar al-Assad must go, and has been considering whether to increase its involvement in the conflict.

When I first taught a history course, a bit of advice I was given was to work backwards: decide what I want students to get out of the class, write final exam questions to assess that, and then figure out what assignments and lecture content are necessary in order to guide students to the point where they will likely get the desired results out of the class.  In weighing choices, whether in teaching or in other domains, it sometimes helps to start with the desired outcome.

When the war is over, as it will be sooner or later, what will “the new Syria” look like?  The groups that are now agreed on the short-term goal, ousting Assad, will quickly find it difficult to agree on the subsequent goals.  In particular, the jihadi ideology of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ghuraba al-Sham (“foreigners of Syria”), the Syrian Islamic Front, and the Muhajireen Brigade (“The Brigade of Emigrants to the Land of Syria”; كتيبة المهاجرين الى بلاد الشام) will be at odds with the secular leftist agenda of George Sabra and much of the Syrian National Coalition.  It is hard to imagine a government composed of a coalition between adherents of these two ideologies.  Instead, it is likely that whichever side finds itself in power after Assad, the other side will constitute the opposition.

The nature of the opposition might be inferred from previous experience.  If the Islamists gain power, the secularists may be forced to go (or remain) underground or in exile, unless they are provided with outside arms to fight a new revolt against a new Islamist government.  On the other hand, if the secularists gain power, the jihadi groups are likely to declare the new government as un-Islamic and illegitimate as the Assad regime and continue their military revolt.  There is a very real possibility that the end of the Assad regime could mark the end not of the Syrian Civil War but merely of its first stage.

The Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, is something of a wild card, since its only goal is the removal of Assad.  Individual soldiers in the FSA might support either side in a stand-off between secularists and Islamists.  If the bulk of the FSA throws in their lot with the jihadis after the end of Assad rule, “the new Syria” may come to look distinctly like Afghanistan under the Taliban.  On the other hand, if the FSA largely opposes Jabhat al-Nusra and the violent Islamist groups, continued civil war between the two groups is certain, and it will be a contest of who receives greater foreign military aid.  As an ambiguous sign of things to come, FSA brigade commanders complained recently to the Guardian that they were losing troops to Jabhat al-Nusra.  I say “ambiguous” because while it indicates that many troops are swapping teams, the reason most frequently cited (both by continuing FSA commanders and by those who left the FSA) is Jabhat al-Nusra’s better resources.  For FSA soldiers who just want to bring down Assad but are under-supplied with weapons, the swap can look appealing.  On the other hand, the perspective of the brigade commanders may imply that the command structure of FSA is largely opposed to Jabhat al-Nusra, a potential divide between officers and common soldiers.

As usual, I am not advocating a particular strategy, both because no one asked me and because I don’t claim to know the future.  But it might be useful to think of the current civil war as two revolts happening simultaneously, not independently but in tandem, and to realize that the end of the Assad regime in Syria may not be be the end of the war.

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