Crisis in Syria
Before I begin, I would like to give you some background information on Seif-Eldeine. The thing to note is that he has a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Tufts University, and is currently studying at Lesley University to get an M.F.A. in poetry. Along with this, the Massachusetts Review nominated his poem “No One and Syria’s Struggle to Sleep” for a Pushcart Prize. He was a finalist for the Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, the Frost Place Chapbook Contest and the Frontier Digital Chapbook Contest. Plus, you can find his work in the Massachusetts Review, Poetry Daily, Typehouse Literary Magazine and Star 82 Review. So, without further ado, here is the interview.
(Josh): How did the regime get in charge, and how has it maintained control ever since?
(Seif-Eldeine): Hafez Al Assad came through the Syrian Air Force. The military at the time was segregated from the general population, leading to a group that relied on both the Alawite religious sect and, increasingly as Assad took charge, the Ba’ath political party. The Ba’ath party was in control of Iraq at the time and spreading through Arab countries. The Ba’ath party controlled Syria starting in 1963, and Assad made his way through the ranks. First, he was named Commandeer of the Air Force, then Defense Minister and finally when he was the youngest of a triumvirate of Ba’ath party members, he seized control himself. This was in 1970, after 12 years of both successful and failed coup attempts, the Syrian government pretty much settled into the form it is today.
How significant was the Tunisian Revolution to the Syrian Civil War?
The Tunisian Revolution was significant, it gave Syrians a model to follow to fight their own rights, as did the larger context of the Arab Spring. The arrest of the boy in Dera’a who graffitied the anti-Assad slogan was probably more significant.
What role did the Syrian Drought play in the uprising?
It’s hard to measure its significance among all factors, but it certainly played a role in the disenfranchisement of farmers from the regime and their migration to urban centers. Farmers and rural workers were originally among the coalition of Ba’ath party members, but over the decades the Ba’ath party evolved into an Oligarchic state focused on the concerns of Syria’s metropolitan merchant class and large corporation owners tied closely to the state.
As attention shifted from rural segments of the population to the economic elite, this created political and economic anxiety. Syriatel, a mobile telephone provider and Syria’s largest business, is the largest symbol of this corruption for the Syrian people. President Assad’s cousin owns it and enjoys economic benefit and regime support for its continued benefit, while Syria’s response to its urban poor alienated a once important political faction.
Is the dictator really even in control?
Internal dynamics of the Syrian state are hard to decipher by even its closest allies. Modernization attempts Bashar Al Assad attempted after Assad’s ascendancy to the Presidency in 2000, such as the symbolic change of school uniforms to non-military ones, suggest Assad originally envisioned a less authoritarian government and more open political process. These reforms were quickly rolled back after a couple years. Whether Assad himself or the power centers his father left behind pushed back these reforms are unclear, as is the source of their political strategy today.
What role has the U.S. played in the conflict, and what should we be doing?
The U.S. has armed the F.S.A. (the Free Syrian Army), put together the Syrian National Council and supported the Syrian Defense Forces (who are dominated by the Y.P.G., a Kurdish fighting group.) The F.S.A., a group of defectors from the Syrian army, have proved ineffective in battle and are all but annihilated. Their commander, Colonel Riad Al-Asaad (not to be confused with Assad) operates out of Southern Turkey. They still hold territory in North Central West Syria and parts of Dara’a, in Southern Syria. The Syrian National Council was put together by the U.S. and western allies to plan for a post-Assad Syria. The fact that the council had no influence on the forces on the ground became apparent quickly as did the fact that it was becoming dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is now defunct and was an utter failure.
The only action that the U.S. has taken in Syria that has proved to be effective is supporting the Syrian Defense Forces in Northern Syria. The S.D.F. has taken and held large parts of Syria north of Haleb (Aleppo), including the former capital of DA’ESH (I.S.I.S.) in Raqqa. They have a functioning government system in the North that mostly reflects the liberal ideas Americans would hope we are spreading. Supporting this group has not come without costs. Originally designed as a collaboration between F.S.A., Y.P.G. (Kurdish forces) and other factions, the group now is dominated by the Kurds. While this is helpful because the Kurds reflect a Western Democracy ideal better than other partners we have had, it has alienated some allies.
We have relied on Turkey for long in this war, especially with support for the F.S.A. and as a base of operations for both our Air Forces and Special Forces (along with those from Britain, France and Germany.) Turkey has a large Kurdish population in the Eastern part of the country. A group called the P.K.K. has long fought for Kurdish independence there through violent means. The P.K.K. is recognized as a terrorist group and the Turkish government has had to violently put down insurrections. Right now, the Turkish government is allowing Kurdish fighting forces like the Peshmerga (from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq) to come through its borders to join the fight. As they cross into Syria to fight I.S.I.S. and the Syrian government, Turkey bombs them and other Kurdish Allies.
In the long term, the regional governments will run into these same sectarian problems. The Y.P.G. may want to join a larger Kurdish nation and even if they don’t, have very different ideas to the F.S.A. about how a new Syria should look. The F.S.A. is involved in the regional councils that are administering Northern Syria, however it is the Y.P.G. that has done the heavy lifting in the Syrian Defense Forces. This could further lead to tensions and resentment. The Y.P.G. also has to worry that Kurds are minorities in the larger cities like Raqqa. Should they advance further South, they are going to run into even more ideological differences.
I think the best thing the U.S. can do right now is support the S.D.F. in taking Deir Ezzor, the last Syrian city North of the Euphrates not under S.D.F. control. Currently it is under contest between I.S.I.S., the S.D.F. and the Syrian government. Deir Ezzor is extremely strategically important because if the S.D.F. can hold it, it would control all territory North of the Euphrates River, making it much more difficult for the Syrian government to cross the river without taking heavy losses.
They can then solidify Northern Syria and try to secure passage North for both refugees and decimated Arab fighting forces and possible allies south of the Kurdish territory but North of Assad’s stronghold in Damascus. This would be a very difficult task, but I do not think the U.S. can afford politically to support a S.D.F. campaign moving south if the majority of the fighting forces are Kurds. Only when they can get a force that more reflects Syria’s diversity should they go South, and the first city they should try to secure after Deir Ezzor should be Haleb (Aleppo.)
What kind of proxy wars are going on and why? Also, which countries are on what sides, and are there any “good guys” in all of this?
At this point Seif-Eldeine quoted Rumi:
“Beyond right and wrong, there is a field.
I will meet you there.”
Then, he went on to explain:
Everyone has their own interests in the area and I believe these interests are legitimate, whether I personally disagree with them or not.
The situation really has put the U.S. at odds with its most important allies in the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Neither want to see a liberal style Democracy manifested in the Kurds that the U.S. and Western allies support. Perhaps more importantly, Syrian Sunnih Arabs as a majority group do not want to be ruled over by a minority group and politically disenfranchised as they have been under the Ba’athist regime for decades. The Kurds are without a homeland and the events in Syria and Iraq may give them their chance. Out of all the factions in this war, they and Jubhat-Al Nusra seem to be the only ones who have gained rather than lost.
I talked a lot about Turkey before so I’ll skip that here, but Saudi Arabia has given us headaches supporting Al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat Al-Nusra. Russia has its only warm water port in the intelligence stronghold of Tartus, the area of the country Assad’s family is from. They also rely on Syria to buy its military hardware and serve as a counterbalancing force against U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia. The region has turned into a series of proxy wars for Iran and Saudi Arabia, the head Shi’ite and Sunnih leaders of the region. The U.S., Western allies and Jordan are on the side of the Sunnihs and the Russians and China on the side of the Shi’ites as wars have raged in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
Further complicating things, we allied with Iran, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite dominated government of Iraq in order to rid the area of I.S.I.S. If it weren’t for the Iranian nuclear deal and the subsequent joint effort of U.S. marines, Hezbollah, Iraq and Iran, Northern Syria and Central Iraq may still be dominated by I.S.I.S. This strategy was a clever one by former President Obama, as he both derailed Iran’s nuclear deal and turned them into allies against I.S.I.S. at the same time.
Post-I.S.I.S. destruction in Syria and Iraq, we are going to see tensions again rise between the Sunnih and Shi’ite factions. All factions have been focused on eliminating I.S.I.S., and now that Deir Ezzor is its last stronghold in Syria or Iraq, we will see the S.D.F. butt heads with Syria and Iran again.
China has not put any forces on the ground but has supplied the Syrian government with weapons as well as funded the rebuild of its capital, Damascus.
Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have handled the brunt of the refugee crisis, each with over a million refugees residing in their country. These countries are not rich enough to support such a burden and I’m sure tensions between citizens and refugees will rise over time, as they did with the Palestinian crisis in the past.
My disappointment with the Gulf Countries, rich with their oil fields, cannot be overstated. Countries that have no hesitation supporting the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat Al-Nusra have turned away refugees.
Is there anything the U.N. could be doing to help?
The U.N. cannot possibly help with the interest of its permanent members at odds (Russia and China supporting Syria, Britain, France and the U.S. supporting the S.D.F. and other rebel factions.) Militarily, I believe Britain, France and the U.S. are doing exactly what they should be doing right now, sending special forces to the ground in a support capacity to the S.D.F. and supplying the S.D.F. and F.S.A. with weapons. Whether you want to blame Obama or Congress, the biggest opportunity was lost when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested a no fly zone and Obama brought it to Congress where it was voted down. Once Russia put its own forces on the ground and started to control the airspace in Syria, that severely limited the support Germany, Britain, France and the U.S. could provide without risking a escalation that could lead to World War.
So, what would actually need to be done to bring stability to Syria?
Let’s figure this out you and me, then we can get our joint Nobel Prize.