Samir Altaqi/Esam Aziz/Assad and ISIL Can Make the Political Solution in Syria Obsolete/Iraq and the Question of the Nation State in the Middle East


Assad and ISIL Can Make the Political Solution in Syria Obsolete
Samir Altaqi/Esam Aziz/Middle East Briefing/August 15/15

The current picture in Syria looks as follows: An effort to alter the balance of power on the ground is coupled with a parallel effort to unclog the pipes of contacts in an attempt to reach a multi-party consensus on a political deal. However, when we bring this general picture, with its two parallel lines, to earth and try to fit it on what is really happening in Syria we discover immediately that the dress does not fit. There are many sources of complications. The immediate, and most important, are two: Assad and ISIL. Let us see the way they both try separately to derail the two parallel lines we just mentioned. When the Russians blamed the Saudis for blocking any political solution, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad ben Salman assured President Putin that Saudi Arabia is ready to go the extra mile to find a political solution. Putin asked “even meeting with Syrian officials?. The answer was “Yes, provided that your country will be present in the meeting”.

It was arranged after the meeting that Syria’s Chief of intelligence Ali Mamlouk and a Russian delegation headed by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov would go separately to Saudi Arabia and have a trilateral meeting. The meeting took place at the end of July. The Saudi side of the story tells us that Mamlouk asked the Saudis to stop aiding the opposition. The Saudis said they will do that only if Iran and Hezbollah stop aiding the regime. Damascus refused the Saudi proposition and the meeting was declared a total failure. But what was striking is that Assad leaked the news of the meeting in two steps. The first was to ask permission for Memlouk’s private plane to land in Kuwait on its way to Jeddah, which is taken as an alert to the GCC that Riyadh is negotiating with Damascus without prior coordination with its closest allies. The second was passing a report in a pro-Syria Lebanese newspaper which included what the Saudis consider a distortion of what happened in their meeting with Mamlouk. The Syrian side of the story is that Riyadh understands that the problem of terrorism is a two edged sword and that it ready to negotiate with Assad.

One of the valid explanation to why Assad decided to leak the news of the meeting is that he understands that the diplomatic track may ultimately cost him his chair. He believes that Syria is heading to be either divided into two, the Western Alawi enclave in one side and the rest of Syria in the other. Or that a gradual change in the balance of power coupled with diplomatic efforts can force him to cede power and allow the birth of a new Syria, unified in a way or another where he and his gang have no place. This second scenario is the one that Assad resisted all along. If he and his Iranian allies cannot keep the chair of the President of all of Syria, their Plan B is to go west and establish a pro-Iranian mini state. However, Assad fears one thing: It is that Iran would sell him off if negotiations gave it some of the strategic objectives it badly wants, mainly a corridor to Hezbollah.

This fear in the minds of senior Syrian officials is actually a minor one. The feared scenario is not likely. Yet, it is there. At one point or another, and under pressure from the Syrian people, the opposition and the international community, the relevant parties may accept a deal at the expense of Syria’s ruling Mafia. Indeed, the Iranians have a different take. They do not look at Assad from any personal angle. They look at Syria from the perspective of protecting Hezbollah. They understand that Assad, as the President of all of Syria, is a dead man walking. But they still inflate his role as a scarecrow to maximize the weight of their bargaining chip if it boils down to negotiating or to organize the withdrawal to the west in case Syria becomes two Syrias.

The Iranian left their ultimate options opened. If a united Syria based on a Taif-like deal emerges, and if this deal guarantees their interests, be it. If not, then a western enclave headed by Assad.
As it is now, the most likely option is ultimately partitioning Syria. In hedging his bets, Assad prefers to see a long term fight between ISIL and non-ISIL forces in the rest of Syria. That will give him some time to breath in his western enclave and may even lead to international intervention. At that point in time he would have a chance to pull a deal that is better than remaining in his western pocket, waiting for the Sunnis to attack him and his forces and unify their country again.

The Russian attempt to unclog channels has reached an impasse when the Saudis refused Moscow’s plan of collective cooperation, even with Assad, to confront terrorism.
Simply put, Assad has a clear tactical benefit in ISIL expanding its presence at this critical moment. It will delay any attacks on the west, it will complicate any diplomatic solution that is done at the expense of his head and it will turn the non-Assad Syria into hell. Neither Iran nor Assad have reached a strategic decision to accept anything close to what the opposition wants, which is a unified Syria under the control of one government. Therefore, they both will fight to improve terms on the ground in case of negotiations or to secure the strategic areas vital to the future Syrian enclave and Hezbollah. ISIL does not welcome the diplomatic talks neither, But in the case of the organization, and as it understands that things are moving towards a change in the balance of power, it decided to work on the ground to block any potential deal.

It is clear therefore that Assad calculus is the first “curve” that makes the dress unfit to the body, or that makes implementing the two parallel lines mentioned above inapplicable on the ground.
ISIL is the second undesired “curve”. In an important strategic development ISIL was able to connect its area of control in East Qalamoun with Syria’s eastern desert. Currently the organization is preparing to cut the Damascus-Homs highway and potentially rush to Damascus from north to capture it before the “Western Front” gets it. ISIL’s capture of Al Qariyatain, south of Homs is so important to the extent that it is seen as a game changer. One of the important significance of this step is that it targets the “Strategic Triangle” where the Syrian Army stores most of its strategic weapons. Rockets, chemical warheads, relatively advance munition and many sophisticated military equipment is stored in this triangle. The triangle defined by the power station which is roughly 20 miles south of Homs, the village of Hassaia and the village of Qara. This is where the legendry Division 18 is stationed. In other words, this triangle, now targeted by ISIL, is the center of Syria’s strategic forces.

ISIL also is advancing in the north of Aleppo as well. It just surprised the opposition with a swift attack that ended with controlling the strategic village of Om Hosh. It is targeting the Syrian army Infantry College. And it is focused on Assad forces air base in Kwaires. If it is to capture these strategic points, it will be able to cut Aleppo from the north, a step that will certainly disrupt opposition plans to take Aleppo and leave Turkey with one of two options: either to fight ISIL even beyond Ankara’s buffer zone or talk again to the terrorist organization. ISIL is also trying to reactivate its southern front through its allies in Lewa Al Yarmouk. Yet, the opposition forces are achieving progress towards Daraa which can fall any time. The reason of reactivating its southern operation is that ISIL wants to stall the opposition advance towards Damascus. ISIL’s view is that any flag other than its black one is an enemy flag and it should not be raised, particularly on Damascus due to its political significance.

The structural contradiction in Assad-Iran objectives is that if they welcome ISIL advances from the point of view of protecting the west by pushing everybody to fight everybody else, this will abort any Taif deal. In other words, the tactical steps taken now do not necessarily facilitate the objective. Unless if the objective is only implementing Plan B, that is the withdrawal to the west.
Assad-Iran gambit is indeed very risky. One scenario shows that clearly. If ISIL becomes a dominant force in all of Syria (except the west), who will be able to stop it from creeping to the west? This gambit may lead to international intervention where UN forces protect the western enclave. There is an assumption in Washington and other Western capitals that the situation can be managed if Assad withdraws to the west and the opposition takes the rest. This assumption is illogical. It simply reduces the role of ISIL to less than what could be realistic. It also neglects the dynamics within the Syrian opposition based on the false proposition that this opposition can be fully controlled through regional capitals. This idea errs insofar as it assumes that this control is a constant.
What is clear from this complex picture is that Assad and ISIL are the two obstacles facing the implementation of any concept related to political solutions. Furthermore, a deeper reflection upon the components of the Syrian crisis in their motion, and not frozen in any present moment as is commonly done, reveals that the political solution will be much more difficult in the future than it is at the current configuration.

The one thing that is astounding in this picture is how the Syrian opposition is standing passively when everybody else is busy amputating their own country. The Turks got their buffer zone, the Jordanians and Israelis have already theirs. Assad and the Iranians will go west. And Hezbollah is fighting to secure the area adjacent to his portion of Lebanon. The rest of Syria will be left to the Syrian opposition to kill each other and for the Syrian people to continue bleeding. The opposition hears the voices of quarters very far from the killing fields, yet they do not seems to hear the calls of their homeland, neither the noise of knives partitioning their country.

Iraq and the Question of the Nation State in the Middle East
Samir Altaqi/Esam Aziz/Middle East Briefing/August 15/15

How to defeat ISIL. Really?
The source of populace energy trapped in Baghdad and the South of Iraq is the system of governance in the country. Strangely, this is the same source, albeit in a totally different perspective, for the energy seen in Central Iraq that helps ISIL. In Baghdad and the South, the system is seen as incapable of preserving the unity of Iraq and of efficient governance. In the Center, the system is seen as sectarian. While both diagnosis testify to the shortfalls of the system in Baghdad, they are different in content. An efficient government, in terms of bureaucratic performance, does not automatically mean a non-sectarian one. Technically, there could be a sectarian government that is efficient as such. Therefore, the term good governance should not be defined on “technical” bases. It should always be understood in social, political and economic terms in addition to the efficiency of its internal mechanisms. Even inclusiveness does not make governance good. The issue, particularly in Iraq, goes far beyond these limits, contrary to the common political lexicon used when people talk Iraq. This is said on commenting on the US Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) recent efforts to develop a better understanding of how the Middle East could be in 5-15 years, parts of it were covered recently in published papers.

The first fact that should be discussed is related directly to the fight against ISIL. The hard core of ISIL cannot be placed in the group of “interest-driven”, neither in the group of “grievance-driven”. It is ideological, religiously and historically based. True that it cannot be separated in any absolute manner from the two previous groups, interest driven and grievances driven, yet it transcends them to an extent that makes the distance between this ideology and the grievances or interests of the hosting environment quite remarkable. While this represents a difficulty to ISIL to adapt, it also contributes to the misunderstanding of the term “defeating ISIL militarily”. Military action against ISIL is indeed necessary. Yet, it should not stand alone. What should stand beside it is not a political solution that is merely based on “clean” and good governance or a politically inclusive one. For what still remains to be done either in Syria or Iraq is the political solution that assist the historical process of nation-state building.

The second fact that should be debated is that the integration of multiple “spaces” into one country is a function of not only good governance, but also market integration and interdependency. In the South, and within its common sectarian-geographic boundaries, we see Basra, for example, drifting away from Baghdad in a slow but clear motion. So even if Iraq is divided, there is a chance that the division will be further subdivided even under “good governance”. After the Second World War, General Charles De Gaulle was faced with a strong separatist movement in Bretagne in the north-west of France. After all the region is racially Celtic, it had its own language that is not French and it was economically backward. The central government put a comprehensive plan to integrate the region into France. The plan was correctly based on economic interdependency as much as it was based on cultural assimilation. The separatists in Bretagne are now nowhere to be found except in scarce graffiti on the walls in rare occasions.

The nation-state in the Middle East or anywhere else is not merely a political issue. Neither could it be reduced to fit the Clausewitz’s trinity of “Government-Army-People”. For Clausewitz presupposed the existence of a nation state at one point or another of its evolution. In Iraq and Syria and some other regional countries we do not have the luxury of such a supposition.
In the case of Iraq, which could be the future case of Syria, “reforms” should gain a little wider definition. They should include planning for the integration of the three spaces economically in spite of all sectarian and national difference. In Europe, we have seen this process starting spontaneously before the formation of the embryo of the modern political state. In the case of Iraq or Syria, we had the political state seated on social reality that cannot be defined by any stretch of imagination as nation states. These states were created to solve the Colonial powers’ dispute about areas of influence, not as indigenous product of social evolution.

Yet, it is a dangerous notion to “rethink” Sykes-Picot borders in the present stage of the region’s history. It is even more dangerous to leave the current spontaneous forces draw the map as they wish, for the division process will continue to produce sub-divisions. The point of start should be preserving the current borders and trying to explore ways to assist its content to evolve.
In Europe, we had the modern political state as a culmination of a prior process of nation forming. In the Middle East we had this kind of “modern” state imposed by colonial power before this process reaches any reasonable degree of evolution. What should be done now is what General De Gaulle did in the 50’s with the Bretons.

The concept of national integration should be looked at not as a replacement of anti-ISIL military action, but as the valid way to inject a specific component to the term “good governance”. In other words, reforming the central government in Baghdad and even going as far as succeeding in the political process of including the Sunnis in a representative governmental functions are not sufficient to construct the elements necessary to build a nation state.

The political “solution” in Iraq is misunderstood.
The integration of the culture and market and interdependency of the productive activities of regional populations is the one missing element without which preserving the unity of Iraq will remain an almost empty term. A corruption free, if that is possible, and fairly representative government is as necessary as defeating ISIL militarily. Yet, they, together, are not sufficient to stabilize Iraq and keep it one. We are witnesses to the laborious process of nation-state forming in both Iraq and Syria. This process takes many deceptive and twisted paths even in the minds of those Iraqis and Syrians involved actively in it. There is no guarantee whatsoever that this process will indeed reach what it drives at. The process may stumble in illusions, past images and deceptive ideologies, and the two countries may end divided.

As the process in the region is going opposite to the way it took in Europe, the political governments should be aware of where their problems are, as much as the great French General was. You can preserve the unity of a country by sheer oppression like Saddam or the USSR did. Yet, time will reveal that you did not really create a unified country. This is not to say that Iraq and Syria are not nation states. This to say that they are in an early point of evolution towards that end. This process was delayed for many reasons, historical (colonialism), political (post-independence military dictatorship) and economic (oil, planned economies and corruption). But this process is the true name of the crisis of the political state in the Middle East. They are states that are supposed to be ruling nations which actually do not really exist, or still at one point or another of formation.

The real root of instability lies in this diagnosis. And the challenge is to constitute a clear position towards the current historical phase in the Middle East provided it is clearly analyzed and reconstructed in the mind. Therefore, the “political” solution in Iraq is not merely building a “clean” and inclusive government. It is unifying the nation. Putting some Sunnis beside some Shias and Kurds “quantitatively” together in one sac and calling it a government does not make a country or a State. As long as the social and market base is not expanded and integrated, Iraq will continue suffering instability for decades to come. The manifestation of this instability will vary in form, yet it will be always pointing to this delayed process of forming a nation state.
In fact, defeating ISIL or any other similar organization is conditioned by proper definition of where the problem is. The proof that Iraq during Saddam was a “false” nation state is that some loyal “nationalist” Saddamists are now the leaders of the supranational organization.

In the present situation in Iraq, the political energy to build a nation which emerged in a spontaneous form in the recent street protests has not been absent from the minds of a considerable portion of Iraq’s middle class. This energy has a limited chance to gather momentum and push forward. The Iranians for example, as a wannabe hegemonic power, condemned the protests as anti-Islamic. Iran’s army JCS Gen Hassan Fayrouz Abadi said that there “Hidden un-Islamic” players standing behind the protesters who were chanting “Not Sunni, Not Shia. But Secular”. Iraq as a nation is not in the agenda of Tehran. The protesters do not reflect the general sentiments of the population in general. But no protests do in any case. The politicians who are not corrupt and who supported the protesters were reflecting more accurately this sentiment of “enough with corruption”, the trigger motto that represent the minimum denominator of the awakening of the civil society in Iraq.
Defeating ISIL, in a multi layered assessment of the task, requires reformed, efficient and representative governance. But that alone does not say what this governance has to do. If it was to take pictures of new Sunni political reps hugging their Shia colleagues and to tell the Sunni smilingly that they have a portion of the political power, that will soon melt down due to the absence of a real nation state on the ground. You cannot cheat history.

Iraq should be helped to see the long due list of “Do” that was not done by history or previous governments, dictatorial or sectarian. Rail roads, networks of connecting roads, assisting small and medium business to start, better cultural understanding, etc, are waiting. But they should be seen in their political, security and social value before anything else. We should not content ourselves with the poor judgements like: If we reach a semi-clean, inclusive government in Baghdad, that will be it. It is not “it”. What is “it” is what such government will do. The US is not required to dwell again in ridiculous doctrines like “nation building” in the Middle East or anywhere else. Nations are built by their peoples. If it is built for them it will not be a nation to start with. While they do the job of building their nations, the job does them as well. The triumph of the concept of collectively building a nation state by an inclusive and properly functioning Iraqi government is in itself the ultimate defeat of ISIL, and any similar group, both culturally and operationally.