With the Syrian tragedy currently dominating the headlines, the “something-must-be-done” chorus has returned to urge “action”.
Almost everyone, from Moscow to Washington and passing by Paris and London, is talking of a “political solution” through negotiations or simulacra of negotiations.
The problem is that those who talk of a solution do not even agree on what the problem is.
Until last week, the Western powers defined the problem as one of a despotic regime using terror and massacre to silence a rebellious nation. Because Bashar Al-Assad is the public face of that regime, the idea was that his demise should be the first element of a solution.
Now, however, most Western powers, starting with the United States, have dropped their “Assad-must-go” mantra. Thus, they are left without even a definition of the problem.
At the other end of the spectrum, as Assad’s backers, Russia and the mullahs of Tehran have their definition. To them Syria is a sovereign state attacked by foreign terrorists. The solution is to help Assad destroy them.
Defining what is happening in Syria is not easy. It all started as a popular uprising against a despotic regime which morphed into crackdown against all dissent. That in turn forced elements within the uprising to take up arms; the movement morphed into a civil war.
The trouble is that even the term civil war does not fully describe the Syrian situation.
A civil war happens when the active elements of a nation are divided in two camps of more or less equal strength. In Syria that was not the case.
The Assad regime does have a popular base, especially among the Alawites and to some extent Christian communities. But that base is not large enough to divide the nation into two camps of equal strength. What falsifies the balance of power is the regime’s armed superiority, especially the air force, which helps hide the relative weakness of Assad’s popular base.
Another key feature of a civil war is the absence or at least the peripheral effect of foreign belligerents on either side.
Again, that is not the case in Syria. According to conservative estimates some 20 percent of the men fighting for Assad are foreigners, notably “volunteers” from Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah branches in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.
For its part, the anti-Assad camp has attracted large numbers of Jihadists from more than 80 countries.
Both camps benefit from crucial financial, logistical, and propaganda support from foreign powers.
There is, of course, no civil war without some foreign input. Even in the first major civil war recorded in history, between two generals of ancient Rome, Marius and Sulla, both used foreign mercenaries and were financed by foreign supporters. The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 was a mini dress-rehearsal for the Second World War with Fascist powers and the USSR backing rival camps.
In the case of Syria, however, foreign intervention is far more important than it was in the civil wars in ancient Rome or contemporary Spain. Some aspects of the Syrian situation make it resemble a proxy war among rival outside powers rather than an internal conflict.
One point often raised by Western leaders, most recently by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, is that they do not know “which is the good side to support.”
Often there is no good side in a civil war. Even if the two sides initially consist of choir boys, they are soon sucked into the vortex of savage violence dictated by the very grammar of civil war.
Marius or Sulla, Caesar or Pompey which one was white, and which one black? That depended on the observer’s point of view and interests.
In the French Civil War following the “Great Revolution” the Vendee rebels, romanticized by Honoré de Balzac in “Les Chouans” and by Anthony Trollope in “La Vendee”, were often as ruthless as the party of the Guillotine from Paris.
Also in the romantic view of the American Civil War, which was really a war of secession, the North represents the good side and the south the bad. However, the North had its share of war crimes, not to mention the havoc wreaked by “carpet-baggers” who arrived in the south in the wake of its defeat.
In the romantic view of the Spanish Civil War the Republicans were the good guys and the Phalangists led by Generals Mola and Franco, the bad ones. However, both sides committed atrocities that we now label “crimes against humanity”.
What about the Russian Civil War of 1917-22?
Would a victory by Kolchak and Denikin have made Russia a better place than the one ruled by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin who won the war?
In a civil war the first rule is to survive. And that means learning to resemble the adversary as far as possible. If the adversary is exceptionally savage, the challenger will also end up the same way. That Assad should produce the Jihadi throat-slitters is no surprise.
Ordering Frunze to wipe the Kazakhs off the map, Lenin sent a brief cable: “Capture their animals, kill their men, and throw their women and children out of our borders.”
The father of “Scientific Socialism” was copycatting the Kazakh tribal chiefs he was fighting.
Civil wars never end in a draw. One side must win totally, even if only a Pyrrhic victory.
The loser accepts unconditional surrender or flees into exile as was the case with the defeated Southern camp in the Yemeni civil war of 1994.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to arrange a ceasefire. That is mere posturing. A civil war never ends with a ceasefire, especially one negotiated by outsiders.
Since the Second World War we have witnessed over 240 civil wars, some lasting for decades.
On occasions, the outside world did contribute to ending the war by withdrawing support from one side, for example when the Chinese pulled the carpet from under Holden Roberto’s feet in Angola, or by increasing help for one side to crush its rival as was the case with Western support for Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.
The Lebanese civil war was a special case because of the sectarian structure of the society which sustained it. Because there were more than two camps, the goal could not be total victory for one side. That, in turn, gave rival foreign powers the clout to impose a settlement on their respective clients.
Could the outside world find a similar solution for Syria which is now also divided into numerous semiautonomous entities often sustained by sectarian sentiments?
Do not hold your breath.