A Tale of Two Insurrections: Syria, Iraq, and American Security

Both Iraq and Syria saw massive violence on Sunday. But there is a key difference between the two, and therein lies a cautionary tale for Syria.

In Iraq, guerrillas of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq,” an al-Qaeda affiliate, set off car bombs in almost every single important town and city in the country, leaving about 100 dead. The bombs hit the deep south river port of Basra, the deep south city of Nasiriya, but also the northern, disputed city of Kirkuk. Targets included police recruits and oil facilities, and a French consulate.

These periodic bombing campaigns in Iraq, however, have never resulted in the opposition gaining control over territory. In the absence of territory, they remain small rebel bands playing spoilers. Ultimately, they are sectarian in character and cannot hope to unite the masses.

Also on Sunday, the Iraqi Supreme Court sentenced Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashemi to death for allegedly running death squads. Al-Hashemi is a Sunni and a figure in the main party that represents Sunnis. Regardless of his innocence or guilt, the decree bodes ill for the al-Maliki government going forward. That government cannot thrive without reconciliation with its political enemies, including the Sunnis.

Iraq is deeply divided all these years after the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The US and Iraqi-Shiite approach has been vindictive toward former regime elements (whether Sunni or Shiite). The more radical Sunnis, whether Baathi secularists or believers in political Islam, are unreconciled to the rise of a new, Shiite-dominated government. They manifest that discontent vocally, and a minority of them do so violently.

The radical Sunnis are just playing spoiler in Iraq. They take no territory, and to my mind have little prospect of doing so. The bombing campaigns always cause some pundits to wonder if it was a good idea for the US to withdraw; but they forget that the bombs went off with much greater frequency all the time the US troops were in country. Al-Maliki’s counter-terrorism capabilities are not very good, but the violence is way down from the levels of the American heyday. Iraqis will have to solve their own problems.

Syria also saw nationwide violence on Sunday. Its violent clashes, however, seem to be going someplace. In Iraq, each of the four-times-a-year bombing campaigns is hard to distinguish from the other. In Syria, the fight is over territory. The regime tried to dislodge revolutionaries from a neighborhood in Damascus and in Aleppo.

In Aleppo, the rebels attacked a military base with bombings. A little later, the regime launched an aerial bombing raid against them. The Arabic press alleges that the aerial bombing raid was intended to turn the people of the neighborhood against the rebels.

I don’t think the conflict in Syria is primarily sectarian, though it has a sectarian dimension. It seems to be mostly about class. If you attend to where the opposition has been fiercest it has been in working class neighborhoods and in districts that have seen labor immigration from the countryside. Lots of Sunnis are still on the fence or are supporting the regime.

Just to underline, I am not saying that there is no sectarian element to the Syrian civil war. Since Alawis (folk Syrian Shiites) have disproportionately benefited economically from their dominance of the regime, and many Sunnis outside the charmed circle of government patronage are poor, there is an obvious overlap here.

The Alawis are only about 10 percent of the population, and although they are present disproportionately in the officer corps, there have to be lots of Sunnis supporting the regime or it would already have collapsed. They are supporting it because they derive economic patronage from the government, which is more important to them than whether it is Alawi-dominated or not.

When I hung out with young Syrian activists in exile this summer, they were singing the praises of the minority of Alawis who had joined in the rebellion, and could name the villages and incidents. Their discourse was one of national unity against the regime, not of sectarian hatred. Inside Syria, and especially in the more radical units of the Free Syrian Army, the sectarian attitude does exist. I just didn’t encounter it personally.

And, if Syria is to avoid Iraq’s fate, its revolutionaries have to avoid the sectarian reprisals that have marked the latter, and they will have to fashion an encompassing post-revolutionary identity on the basis of the solidarity of workers and the middle classes.

The conflict in Syria is likely to grind on for a long time.

I have to say, I don’t think it is in US interest for the fighting to go on and on in Syria. The civil war is clearly (further) destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq, and the impact on our NATO ally Turkey could ultimately be severe. Little Jordan is also being blown like a leaf in the wind. I suspect the Israeli security establishment is deeply divided about whether it is good for them for the Baath to fall. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely it is for the opposition to become radicalized, and a raw, radical group in Damascus could prove unpredictable. While some Free Syrian Army units have fundamentalist tendencies, the revolution as a whole does not (being a mass phenomenon it comprises all kinds of people). But in a long marathon of a revolution, the least attractive elements could come out on top.

On the other hand, I don’t foresee US intervention any time soon, and I don’t think unilateral US action is desirable.

A caveat: although the Syrian regime seems to control less and less of the country over time, it still does have substantial military assets and thousands of loyal troops, and many city quarters have not risen. I’d say there is a 30% chance of an Algeria outcome, in which the regime fights a dirty war and ultimately prevails, though shakily.

In contrast, the likelihood that the Iraqi guerrillas can succeed in overthrowing the Nouri al-Maliki government is almost nil. They would have to stop being so anti-Shiite and would have to craft a broader coalition of have-nots, as apparently is the case in contemporary Syria. Otherwise, they’re just extremists who can terrorize people for a few hours every three or four months.

13 Responses

  1. It’s an old story. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore in Young Stalin, Stalin’s main task in pre-revolutionary Georgia was trying to dampen the ferocious pogroms executed by ethnic communities on each other.

  2. This essay brings some clarity to the confusion. The class-based nature of the conflict has been under-emphasized.

    I will pick a bone: “The US and Iraqi-Shiite approach has been vindictive toward former regime elements (whether Sunni or Shiite).” Not true. There were misteps by Viceroy L. Paul Bremmer early on, especially dissolving the army. But for the most part, the United States pushed constantly and desperately for reconciliation. The U.S. funded the Sunni Awakening despite Shitte reservations. The U.S hoped Ayad Allawi might bring a less sectarian government to power, no such luck.

  3. This article underscores a key theme that has been underlying the internal conflicts in Iraq for the last 9 years – the fact that Sunnis have been systematically excluded from fair representation in the government of Iraq. Until the U.S. and U.N. can provide some guidance on this issue, political turmoil will prevail.

    No different than the Shiite plurality largely excluded fron the Lebanese government. The combination of Shiite exclusion and Israeli military adventurism fueled the rise of Hezbollah.

    Syria is different in that no democracy exists at all; it is a dictatorship whose suport is generally those citizens who benefit from the Assad regime. The authoritarian government must be dismantled before a successor ruling body can be organized and installed. This successor body must give equal representation to the component parts of the Syrian citizenry to avoid the ongoing tumult that has engulfed Iraq and that has torn apart Lebanon in the past.

    • “Until the U.S. and U.N. can provide some guidance on this issue, political turmoil will prevail. ”

      Thanks for that. It made me smile. The idea that the U.S. can provide “guidance” in Iraq is risible.

  4. My default position is to credit what Prof. Cole says, but I have seen a fair amount of reporting that claims the Syrian conflict didn’t start out with a sectarian basis, but that sectarian resentments are becoming more and more important. The sectarian character of the conflict has spilled over into Lebanon and is also drawing jihadists into Syria.

    Many observers seem more concerned than you are about the Syrian conflict metastasizing to Lebanon and Iraq because of its sectarian character. Note that Maliki’s support for Assad only increases the resentment of Iraqi Sunni Arabs, and that Iran and the Gulf monarchies are backing the opposing sides in Syria. Given the willingness of the Gulf monarchies to continue to back rebellion in Syria, it’s hard for me to envision an Algeria outcome. Partition seems more likely, actually, with ongoing instability.

    As for the violent insurgency in Iraq, I agree it isn’t going anywhere fast, but on the other hand broad-based rejection of the current government and constitution by Sunni Arabs could certainly emerge, with unpredictable consequences. And as I say, the conflict in Syria does contribute to this prospect.

  5. The CIA has been reported to be on the ground in Syria, from multiple sources, for quite some time. They are definitely running military training camps for Syrian rebels in Turkey. They are also steering money and advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels. What is that, if not US intervention?

    • It is exactly what occurred in Afghanistan.

      There was nothing more decisive in turning the tide against the Soviet Union and its Kabul puppet regime’s army than the Central Intelligence Agency funneling Stinger missiles and bazookas to the Afghan freedom fighters and their allies. This racheted up Soviet casualty counts and made true military victories against the Soviets and the Afghan armed forces.

      • I was referring to this line in Juan Cole’s text:

        “On the other hand, I don’t foresee US intervention any time soon, and I don’t think unilateral US action is desirable.”

        Pointing out that it’s already too late.

        Note also, that the outcome of the CIA interference in Afghanistan re: the USSR has subsequently had an enormous and totally negative historical consequence.

        This kind of politically inspired interference in other country’s affairs
        is what the US does best. It’s also why the US is now loathed by the majority of the planet.

    • Getting away from the purely semantic point, there is a vast difference between supporting the rebels and intervening militarily into a conflict.

  6. The problem with destabilizing Middle Eastern governments is the highly unknowable outcomes. The end result of Western actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, may very well be Islamic extremist governments which are far more hostile and dangerous to the West and to Israel than their predecessors. It would be far better for the West to stay out of these conflicts entirely.

    • The Islamic extremists got their butts handed to them in the election in Libya.

      I’m going to write that again, because it feels so good: “the elections in Libya.” “The elections in Libya.” Ahhhhhhh……

      When the Libyan people rose up to overthrow their dictator, only the most jaded, amoral cynic would think first about relations with Israel, or look at those protests and think first of Muslim extremists.

  7. What is Saudi Arabia’s and the royal monies of the Gulf Sunni States big purse coin doing backing the FSA? What might some of the other worthy motives be for these religious monarchies to get involved? Not to be critical just wondering?

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