A Guide to the Syria Conflict


Michael Binyon, leader writer and former diplomatic editor for The Times, explores the background to the Syria conflict in conversation with Pod Academy’s Tanjil Rashid.

Pod Academy: Let’s start at the beginning. Why did the Syrians decide to rise up in March 2011?

Michael Binyon: I think it was probably the influence of the “Arab Spring” in other countries. Nowadays, Arab television viewers and those who have social media take a very keen interest in what’s happening elsewhere. They had seen what’d been happening in Egypt and Tunisia, and I think there were a number of people who felt they wanted to make a point in Syria. So we had demonstrations, mostly by schoolchildren in Deraa, which is when it began, and where it began, in a town right down in the South of Syria on the border with Jordan. It was to some extent a signal that they wanted dialogue, they wanted political reform, change, they wanted movement in a country that had seen very little of this.

PA: But some countries in the Arab world haven’t been influenced by the Arab Spring and haven’t risen up. What conditions existed in Syria that instigated this uprising?

MB: Well I think almost all countries felt some effect of what had happened in Tunisia and then Egypt. Yes, Algeria wasn’t affected, they for their own special reasons, partly because they’ve had a long civil war, didn’t react really to the move for greater democracy. I think there was a feeling there that nothing would happen that hadn’t already happened and would lead to catastrophe. But almost all the other Arab countries, to some extent, had some sort of reaction to the movement in Tunisia especially, and Egypt and Libya.

In Syria I think the conditions were ripe in that there had been very little political dialogue for a long time – the Ba’ath party, the government of Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad, had more or less been immovable, they are immovable, they had very little dialogue with the rest of the country. It was a minority government by Alawites, who are a religious minority within Syria. They have not actually changed much for many, many years, and there was just a general feeling of frustration.

PA: So would you say it was a general malcontent among the entire Syrian population, or was it in any way concentrated in any particular sectors of Syrian society?

MB: Well, I think there are two things. It was a malcontent over certain issues, particularly corruption. There was a real, real anger at the way the ruling clique, the family around Assad, his brother-in-law and his extended family and several others, who are actually using their positions to enrich themselves tremendously. It had become very blatant. There was a feeling that the Arab world in particular was getting rid of some of these corrupt cliques, and Syria, too, would like to do the same. There was also discontent particularly among the Sunni Muslim heartland.

PA: So how does the sectarian situation in Syria play into this current conflict?

MB: Well, I think it’s at the root of the whole thing. There is a thirst for revenge in the Sunni groups particularly in Homs and Hama for what happened in 1982, when Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, turned his army onHama, where the Muslim Brotherhood had staged an uprising against the Damascus authority and was brutally put down. It was not very well known at the time – there were no social networks, no podcasts, no iphones, so not much news of it came out, but up to 20,000 people were killed in that operation. Of course for the families of those massacred, there was an eternal promise of vengeance. I think many of the people who are most deeply antagonistic to Assad are those who are associated with events in Hama.

PA: The massacre in Hama in 1982 Hafez al-Assad succeeded in putting down, at great human cost. What makes this uprising different?

MB: I think because the eyes of the world are now onSyria, it’s not easy now to just turn your guns and your army and your airforce onto a city and smash it to pieces without the world reacting much more vigorously. We now know the human cost of what’s happening, we now know the massacres that have taken place in various cities, provinces and villages, we know what families have suffered, we know the almost personal vendettas – we knew nothing about that 30 years ago.

PA: So you think the role of the global media has been quite influential in stoking the conflict?

MB: Very influential. As it was, of course, inEgyptandTunisia. The whole of the Arab Spring has been very much driven by and influenced by social media and the fact that people have instant communication with each other, to organise protests, to see what’s been going on elsewhere. After all, inSyria, we wouldn’t have known anything about what’s happening there unless we had seen what people have been broadcasting on their mobile phones. No journalists from outside have been allowed in to report fairly and unhampered what’s been going on, only a few people who are being very much monitored by government minders.

PA: The opposition isSyriasay that the uprising started off peacefully, while the Assad regime insists that the opposition were violent from the outset. What’s the truth?

MB: The truth is somewhere in the middle, though a bit closer to what the opposition say. In other words, it did start off as a peaceful protest, it was by many standards a liberal, innocuous affair, people calling for reforms, greater human rights, greater freedom of expression, a more normal political atmosphere. It quickly changed into a more bitter struggle, because with the violent government repression of what happened in Deraa, you brought in a lot of angry tribes who began to look at the government as a tribal enemy and then you got into much more fundamental loyalties. It’s also true that among the opposition groups there were some who right from the start saw this as a chance to get even with the Alawites, particularly Islamic fundamentalists (Sunni, Al-Qaeda-linked) saw an opening and were quick to cease it.

PA: So do you think Syria is reverting to a more primal, tribal sectarian conflict at the moment?

MB: Yes, I do. But it’s extremely complicated because there are so many different splits and divisions within the Syrian opposition.

PA: So you have the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council… what constitutes the opposition?

MB: It’s made up of a whole number of different groups and players. As you say, the Free Syrian Army, well, this is a fairly loose arrangement of defectors from the Syrian army. But equally, you have tribal and then ethnic groupings. You have religious divisions. You have the Alawites, that’s an offshoot of Shia Islam. You have the Druze, who some way back in the past are another offshoot from Islam. You have a fairly sizeable Christian minority rather caught in the middle of all this. And the you have the Kurds and other ethnic groups different from the Arab majority. So with so many divisions and such a patchwork of loyalties, that the opposition is a coalition of all those who at the moment feel excluded from power.

PA: You mentioned Al-Qaeda. What evidence is there that there are Al-Qaeda operatives in Syria at the moment?

MB: The evidence is more or less anecdotal. There are a number of people who have said that they have seen people from outside, even mentioning Chechens, people from Europe, Islamists who’ve come even from Britain to fight with groups in Syria that appear to be from outside. And Al-Qaeda themselves have made it clear they do have influence and are very much engaged in the struggle. You’ll see that in some of the statements they’ve put out calling on Al-Qaeda loyalists to go and fight and help overthrow the Assad regime. It’s anecdotal, but in some instances there have been eye-witnesses.

PA: If there’s evidence there are some very unsavoury groups in the Syrian opposition, do you think the West, Britain, America, the Gulf States, Turkey are making a mistake in supporting the opposition so strongly?

MB: I think there’s a real worry now in some of the centres of Western decision-making that, maybe, they don’t want to over-commit themselves. There has been an attempt to hold the opposition to a set of values, to get them to pledge democratic commitments, etc. I have to say, not with much success. The opposition is very fragmented and there is a worry the West could very much find themselves tied to a group that has some fairly unsavoury characters in it without any clear democratic objectives. The West could find itself sucked into, basically, a civil war.

PA: The Syrian National Council, based in the West, offer a lot of democratic rhetoric, but is there a discrepancy between their aims and objectives and the Free Syrian Army inside Syria?

MB: Yes, there is a discrepancy between what’s being said outside Syria and what’s happening on the ground. No-one doubts there have been terrible massacres perpetrated by the government and its thuggish militias. But equally, there have been credible reports of pro-government groups either being kidnapped, shot at, ceased, massacred, taken prisoner, held hostage. I think both sides have now descended to a level of brutality and retaliation that is pretty unsavoury.

PA: Do you think it’s still possible for the opposition to claim the moral high ground?

MB: Well, they’re certainly doing so at the moment. But they have to show they are abiding by their democratic rhetoric, that they’re ready to admit their differences opinion with each other, they need to be more inclusive, show they’re not simply a Sunni, anti-Alawite group seeking revenge for Hama, that they’re inclusive of minorities including Druze, Christians, who at the moment are very frightened of being steam-rollered by a Sunni majority, possibly with an Islamist agenda.

PA: Do you see any parallels with Afghanistanin the way the West backed the mujahideen to expel the Russians?

MB: To some extent, but not really. I mean, the West backed the Taliban – well, the Taliban hadn’t existed, but they backed, certainly, mujahideen and Islamist groups – using whatever opportunities they had to fight the Soviet presence. And then they began to pay the price. At the moment, the West hasn’t really intervened physically inSyria. They are helping supply arms, but even there they are quite cautious. But the West has been very careful not to go beyond a certain point of involvement, probably with the example of Afganistan in their minds. And cautious, because they do not know which groups exactly will use the arms to do what.

PA: There’s a lot of talk bandied about at the moment about the Shia crescent,Iraq,Iran, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon,Syria. Do you think the importance of this Shia alignment is overstated, or is this one of the faultlines that will shape the future of the Middle East.

MB: I think it’s slightly over-stated if you look at the actual strength of the alignment. Certainly, there are Shia groups within Lebanon, Hezbollah particularly, but they’re not the only group and by no means controlling all Lebanon. But it’s not overstated if you look at it through the eyes of the Saudis, who are very frightened at Iran spreading its influence all around their borders. The Saudis are in a jumpy state anyway because of their slightly unsure constitutional future with their ageing monarchy and no clear line of succession. They have bitterly resented Iranian influence. They feel vulnerable even in their own eastern provinces where Shia have been in revolt for a long time. They see the hand of iran all around them, especially in Syria. this is one reason why Saudis have been so vociferous and generous in supporting Syrian insurgency. They are worried about it.

PA: To my mind, the Syria conflict is tearing up many past assumptions about the Middle East. For example, now we find the Gulf States,Israel ,America, the West, even Hamas, all on the same side, while Hamas and Hezbollah, previously thought to be allies, are now on opposing sides. In what ways do you see past assumptions are changing as a result of the Syria conflict?

MB: This is very typical of the Middle East. It’s a kaleidoscope. You twist it and change it and suddenly the pattern is completely different. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a real shake-up of alignments and the political landscape.

One or two things still hold good, namely Syria’s support from Iran, which actually dates back a long time, to the rivalry between the two Ba’ath parties in Iraq and Syria. And on the principle my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the Iranians supported Syria because they were antagonistic to Iraq. But you have all sorts of new factors brought into this.Israelis rather on the sidelines, which is just as well because that could be a very destabilising factor. But a new actor has been brought in in a very big way,Turkey. Up till now they had very little influence in the Middle East, but with the Islamist government of Erdogan,Turkey is now a very powerful player in the region, particularly with Syria, because it is a neighbour and because previously it was very supportive of Assad, but perhaps now the most hostile. What the Turks do will be absolutely crucial to the future of Syria.

PA: I remember when I was in Syria, just after Israel’s invasion o fGaza, and Erdogan had made this speech denouncing the Israelis. In Damascus I remember seeing banners put up by the regime congratulating “the great President Erdogan”, which I’m sure by now have been taken down. If you look at the way Turkey has changed sides, do you think these alliances will hold good for a while to come?

MB: Well, they never have in the past. All alliances have been pretty temporary and expedient. If you look at Syria’s involvement inLebanon, for example: at one point they supported the Christians…

PA: Well, they came in supporting the Maronite Christians

MB: Indeed, and then they supported the Palestinians, and they switched sides here and there. Look at various other alliances, who has been pro-Palestinian or anti-Palestinian, and so on. At one point Syria supported the alliance created in the first Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait, that was Syria as an ally of the US. That’s certainly not the case now. These things go back and forth.Turkey is a very interesting example. As you say, there were very strong links between the two governments until a couple of years ago. The Turks felt that Syria was a key ally in pacifying their turbulent eastern areas where the Kurds are powerful. Now that’s all changed. Once again Syria is supporting the Kurdish insurgency against the Turks. So it’s very often, who is with me, who is against me, who is my enemy’s enemy and my friend’s friend?

PA: You mentioned the Kurds. What likelihood is there that the conflict will spill over into Turkish Kurdish areas, or Lebanon?

MB: It’s already happening. In Lebanonthere are already battles taking place between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian groups, especially in the North. There is a Shia population, they are feeling under pressure, as the Sunni groups in Lebanon are larger. There have been killings and battles going on in villages around Tripoli, there are shellings across the border, there are Syrians in hot pursuit of those who have escaped to Lebanon. It is having a very destabilising effect, not to mention the fact that one of the big players is Hezbollah. They are really unsure now whether they can rely on Syria for their weapons, given that the other group that used to be pro-Syrian, pro-Assad, in the Gaza Strip, is Hamas, who’ve turned decisively against Syria. SO it does vary according to how the civil war, which I think it now is, fluctuates.

PA: At the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, President Morsi of Egypt, of the Muslim Brotherhood, denounced Syria and Iran, inside Iran. How are other Arab nations involved in the Arab Spring?

MB: Most of them are preoccupied with what;’s going on in their own countries. Most are fairly exhausted by the turbulence of what they’ve experienced. That’s certainly the case for Egypt. It’s true, yes, President Morsi has been toTehran, the first visit by an Egyptian President since 1979. He’s trying to reach out and play the responsible statesman. But I think he’s pretty preoccupied by the still unresolved constitutional issues withinEgyptand that’s also true ofTunisiaand even more so inLibyawhere the post-Gaddafi settlement is far from clear and where there’s tribal rivalry and enmity. Most fo these countries are looking at Syria as an example of what could happen if everything goes wrong, as a salutary lesson of what they must avoid. But I don’t think any of them are really engaged inSyria, it;’s just too difficult and too remote from their own concerns.

PA: In Libya, Britain, France and America intervened quite strongly. Why do you think they’re not doing the same inSyria?

MB: Several reasons. First of all, there is absolutely no appetite in public opinion, in either Europe or the USA, to get involved in yet another conflict with a Muslim country in a turbulent region. And the feeling is that afterIraqandAfghanistancost so much in money and lives, there is no wish to stir up that turbulent area again. The second reason is: military intervention is simply impossible. It’s not clear what the target would be, where one would intervene, who you would separate, what the objectives would be, and how you would exit.

PA: What about, say, a no-fly zone?

MB: A no-fly zone in principle is fine. It would have to be along the border between Syria and Turkey. But the problem is patrolling it. If you have a no-fly zone, you have to enforce it, and that means sending planes up and down the area to make sure the Syrians don’t try to bomb the people taking refuge in it. The Syrians have a very sophisticated air-defence system, supplied by the Russians, in full-working order. That has not been eliminated and unless the allies undertook a bombing campaign to eliminate the air-defences, then it wouldn’t work because the patrol planes would be shot down. To actually launc a mission to disable Syrian air-defences… that’s quite a big operation, that’s military intervention on a big scale straight away. The West hasn’t reached that stage yet.

PA: You mention the Russians. Why do they see it as being in their interests to support Assad?

MB: There are several reasons for this. First of all, because the Russians for many years have had a very big investment in Syria. Their main investment is their use of Tartus, the port on the Mediterranean where the Russians are able to base their ships, their only access to the Mediterranean, their only warm water port, as it were. It’s not completely in their control but they have extensive permission to use it. Secondly, there’s a very large presence in Syria, at least 10 000, many of them military advisers, so they’re quite closely tied to the current regime. Thirdly, it’s a question of example. The Russians have had an alliance with Syriafor well over 40 years and they don’t want to be seen abandoning their allies in time of troubles, because this would send a very poor signal to other countries that have reasonable relations with Russia, a feeling the Russians are likely to scoot out any time there’s trouble. And finally, the Russians have a very large arms trade with Syria and they don’t want the new government overturned to find the new government repeals all those contracts and doesn’t pay them the large amounts of money they are owed.

PA: Is there any sign the Russians are changing course with regard to Syria?

MB: There have been a few signs. I think the Russians are deeply troubled by the way it’s going. It reflects very badly on them, particularly in the wider Arab world, where the Russian veto at the United Nations have gone down very badly and have been tremendously criticised by Arab states, which the Russians are very unused to, having posed as champions of national liberation and Arab aspirations, particularly in the conflict with Israel. The Russians are unused to being cast as the bad guys, they don’t like it. I think they have begun to put pressure on Assad to negotiate. But in the present situation, I think that’s out of the question. The Russians play a very zero-sum game, as regards the West. If the West is pressing something that they think would be to the West’s advantage, the Russians will oppose it. Therefore, they opposed the three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria. They then felt they were on Syria’s side. The only concession they have made was to agree to the Annan Mission, which was a way of putting pressure on both sides. But that has now failed. So the Russians don’t really have a diplomatic track now to go down.

PA: And what about Iran? Are there any rumblings within the Iranian regime to push Syria to negotiations?

MB: Yes, there are. There are also within Russia. Both countries are worried. If Assad falls, all their own interests collapse with him. If they put all their eggs in one basket, if they back Assad to the hilt and are against any negotiations with the rebels, then if the rebels win, they have lost everything. For Iran that would be devastating because Syria is still its only window into the Arab world. The Syrians are the only Arab country with good relations with Iran. The Syrians have been able to supply weapons to Iran’s allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and to reach out to the wider Arab world. If that door is closed, they will have lost everything. The Iranians have put a lot of effort into Syria, but they’ve also tried to hedge their bets a bit, by talking about coalitions, governments of national unity, they’ve offered themselves as mediators. In other words, they’re looking to build bridges with the opposition.

PA: What potential solutions are there for the Syria conflict?

MB: Very difficult to say. The Annan Plan was one solution but, frankly, it did not work. Both sides see the fight as one for existence, neither side was willing to make any concession, to give the military option the miss. They still believe this must be resolved by force of arms. As long as both sides think military might will prevail, I don’t see much chance for diplomacy.

PA: Do you think the opposition is making a mistake in being so steadfast?

MB: Well, in their terms probably not, as they seem to have Assad fairly rattled. But he’s not yet falling. There’s been a lot of optimistic talk among the opposition, saying the regime is crumbling, people have been defecting – yes, there have been one or two defections, including high-powered ones, but actually as Assad himself just recently said in his television broadcast, “let them go, they are cowards!”. Those that don’t have the stomach for the fight, are better off out of it. Assad is now consolidating his loyalists around him and he’s not yet shaking. The problem is that the Syrian economy as a whole is in a ruinous state an dteh country will collapse economically. And then Assad will lose the support of the all-important merchant class, who up till now have been backing him.

PA: And Aleppo, the commercial capital, is in rebel hands…

MB: Yes, it is. Well, not completely, but certainly, it’s unclear who controlsAleppo. It’s not in government hands. It’s also true thatAleppo, as an industrial, commercial capital, is a key city. The government cannot afford to fall. If it does, essentially the beginning of the end has started.

PA: Do you think it’s already the beginning of the end?

MB: Possibly. I would be wary of forecasting an immediate collapse. Many people have said he can’t survive, but they’ve been saying this for some months. He’s showed himself to be fairly cool and calm in television interviews. If he was really rattled, that would have shown. What I think is was a big blow for him were those deaths caused by a bomb explosion inside the security headquarters, where key advisers and security officials were meeting. If similar kinds of attacks can take place, then he will be in trouble.

PA: Britain, as it happens, condemned that attack. Do you think Britain’s being hyprocritical in supplying equipment to the rebels while putting on a diplomatic front opposing “terrorist attacks” like that?

MB: It’s very difficult.Britain doesn’t want to be drawn into this. There is a huge feeling of anger over what he’s doing, condemnation of his tactics, which I think is genuine. The wish to supply equipment to help the humanitarian efforts of the rebels is also genuine. But perhaps it’s a little bit hyprocritical supplying things like night-vision goggles, so-called non-lethal weapons, when they know full well that quite lethal weapons are getting in freely from Qatar and Saudi Arabia across the Turkish border. But I think the West, as long as it’s taking a hands-off position, really doesn’t have much option but to stand on the sidelines and voice moral support for the rebels without going much further.

PA: So do you think the present British government is correct, more or less, in its policies?

MB: Yes, but I have to say the policies are not very effective. If one looks at the alternatives, they probably all look worse. Actual intervention would be a mistake. It is not yet at the stage where we are seeing a bloodbath. We’re seeing some very grizzly massacres, but outside intervention would simply increase the fighting without resolving anything decisively.

PA: One of the potential solutions people are talking about is the ‘Free Alawite State’. Is that viable at all?

MB: It’s completely unviable. They did try it once, when the French had their mandate over Syria between the wars. In the early years of the French mandate there were also tensions with the Alawites. There was an attempt to separate the coastal strip of Syria as an Alawite stronghold, rather along the lines that Lebanon was split off as a Christian stronghold for the Christians of then ‘Greater Syria’. But the problem is then you would have Alawites outside the area, who would either face massacre or retaliation. You would have the same sort of problem as you had when trying to divide India when the British pulled out in 1947, where all the Muslims caught on one side and all the Hindus caught on the other side, either had to move or were subject to the most terrible retribution and massacres. That’s what would happen. And also, such a state would be too small and economically unviable.

PA: The Alawites are already saying they feel this threat of retribution, that they are in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation, which is the justification the Alawite Shabiha militia is using. Do you think there is the potential for it to get very bloody with regard to the Alawites?

MB: Yes, indeed. I think that fear is a very real fear. And it’s sadly because of the actions of the government, because of their intransigence, it has come down to a fight for survival, and that’s very much how those around Assad see it. It is a fight for survival. They do fear the longer it goes on – and the more people are killed and the more there is tribal vengeance sworn against the other, which is quite a strong factor still – the greater the danger of indiscriminate massacre of the Alawite minority, should the government collapse.

PA: So would you say you are sceptical about a peaceful solution?

MB: I’m not sceptical about the need to try for one. I’m simply fairly sceptical about whether any such solution is possible at the moment with this present level of hostility, the present mistrust, and the present despair of all parties, including the Russians, who in the end hold the whip-hand in this. The despair of all of them about what they should do.

PA: And on that desperate note, I think we should finish up. Thank you very much, Michael.

MB: Thank you.

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