It is becoming increasingly clear that the Syrian revolution is going to be this generation’s Spanish Civil War, albeit with a probably less decisive outcome.
The Assad brothers and their cohorts clearly understand, by now, that they can only exit this mess “in a box.” Consequently, with the support of their fellow Alawites, who see this as an existential fight, they will be a hard nut to crack. As the rebels gain traction, the regime will circle its wagons and retreat to its Alawite redoubt to continue the fight.
Years ago, my late father told me a story about Rifaat Assad, the notorious family enforcer of the previous Assad generation. After the massacre of Hama in the early 1980s, the late King Khalid of Saudi Arabia was understandably outraged. Hafez Assad consequently sent his brother to meet with the king to try and “explain,” but the old king was in no mood to listen to any excuses. With his well-known bedouin bluntness, he heaped abuse on Rifaat for “not fearing God and killing the Muslims of Hama.” Rifaat swallowed the abuse and left. In the car to the airport, he turned to his government escort (who later recounted the story to my father) and told him, “We have the highest respect for His Majesty and appreciate his feelings, but you must understand that if we ever get threatened again, we will be willing to wipe out not only Hama but also Damascus.”
Plus ça change…!
The Assads will fight and fight hard. At the same time, the Jihadists are coming, drawn to the conflict like moths to a flame! They smell “victory” for the first time since the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This time, unlike Iraq, they are fighting on the side of the majority population and will benefit, at least indirectly, from international support. They also smell the sweet scent of sectarian war, a quasi-orgasmic experience for people like them, and one where they expect to finally settle scores with the Shia and Iran. So, this party is unfortunately just beginning, and we had better fasten our seatbelts.
The international community has very little leverage on the ground. The West has learned the hard lessons of military intervention by now, and even the Turks who made a huge amount of noise in the beginning are staying put.
Attempts by outsiders to “package” a leadership for this revolution are naïve and bound to fail. This revolution, like all bloody revolutions throughout history, will ultimately be taken over by the most aggressive, brutal, and determined elements within it. No “outsiders” will be allowed to parachute in and take over from the rebels on the ground, who will have paid for “victory” with their blood and tears.
The rebels will also certainly not accept the well-coifed and perfumed man-about-town, “General” Manaf Tlas, a man who looks like he is auditioning for a Latino soap opera rather than seeking to lead a revolution. This reminds me of an astonishing scene I witnessed, in the early 1990s, of Manaf’s father, the then Defense Minister, lounging around, intoxicated, at a beach club in Cap d’Antibes, playing backgammon with his buddies and attempting to chat up the local girls, all the while surrounded by a conspicuous army of Syrian and French bodyguards. It was a performance better fitting a mafia don than the military chief of that supposed “bastion of Arab resistance,” Syria.
This revolution’s leaders, when they finally emerge, will probably be blood-soaked extremists in no mood to compromise. People don’t go through unimaginable suffering to then turn around, at the end of a hard-fought civil war, and hand the “show” over to a group of émigrés alighting from foreign capitals. That is not going to happen!
As for the Assads, it is not inconceivable that they could still end up leading their flock from an Alawite garrison enclave, in some patchwork attempt by the international community to retain Syria’s integrity as a state. After all, if criminals like Samir Geagea and the other Lebanese warlords of civil war fame were able to repackage themselves as respectable political leaders and become members of Parliament and cabinet ministers, then why not the Assads?
While outside powers focus on trying to influence the course of this conflict, a feat which will likely elude them all, they risk ignoring the area where they can actually make a tangible difference, and that is in the humanitarian arena. Here, urgent assistance to the rapidly increasing flow of refugees from Syria should be generously extended, including residence and work opportunities in any country that can host them. This civil war may take years, and rebuilding the country in its aftermath will take decades. In the meantime, a human tragedy will unfold for the millions of Syrians, of all sects, who will need shelter, food, medical care, and jobs. Addressing the Syrian peoples’ needs in a substantive and meaningful manner should become the top priority for all who really seek to help.