|Russia and China Mull Syria … and Saudi Arabia|
Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao had an interesting question to discuss during their summit in Beijing. Is it good business
and good geopolitics to acquiesce to a Sunni Arab triumph in Syria? Or is Syria the place to hold the line against a destabilizing and counterproductive projection of Saudi Arabian power into Iran’s near beyond?
Absent from the discussion is the United States, which has abdicated any claims to moral or political leadership and contents itself by bleating from the sidelines as the Western media pleasures itself with fantasies of righteousness.
Meanwhile, Syria bleeds … and bleeds … and bleeds.
The simplest explanation for the massacre of almost 200 villagers at Houla and Qubeir is brutal payback by regime irregulars with a dash of ethnic cleansing. The possibility of a false flag operation – a massacre orchestrated by regime opponents in order to discredit the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and polarize opinion – would appear to be unlikely. Murder will out, as Shakespeare put it, and it would be nice to think that even amid Syria’s chaos the most brutal strategist would shrink before the political risks of trying to murder scores of civilians and try to pin it on the other side.
However, accurate details of the massacres have yet to emerge. Most recently Rainer Hermann, Middle East correspondent of Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, further muddied the waters by accusing the rebels of committing the Houla atrocity. 
If one steps back and adopts the standard of cui bono? – who benefits ? – to the atrocities, it is undeniable that the massacres have been a propaganda godsend to the opposition.
Post-Houla, broadcasting dire warnings of an impending massacre of civilians seems to be becoming a staple of rebel media management whenever it faces a regime counter-offensive. Most recently, the rebels assaulted the town of al Haffeh. When government troops appeared to seal off the town and prepare to retake it, the Free Syrian Army warned of another impending massacre and announced to the avid international media it was spiriting civilians out of the city to safety. For its part, the government broadcast wiretaps of what it claimed were rebel provocateurs discussing plans to stage a Houla-style outrage at Haffeh and the nearby town of Tal and blame them on the government.
The cry of (looming) massacre also encourages the deployment of what one might term “the Benghazi gambit” – using claims of imminent civilian peril to short-circuit discussion and investigation at the international level, push for a quick military solution, and then take advantage of the “winners write history” privilege to bury any traces of error, skullduggery, and dishonesty by the good guys.
The narrative of escalating Syrian government brutality is important to Assad’s enemies, as it counters another, more embarrassing narrative: the increased flow of money and material aid to the rebels, aid that is in contravention of the ceasefire, helps elicit more brutal government action to quash the rebellion, and thereby justifies the provision of more clandestine aid to “protect civilians” while rendering the failure of the Annan mission even more likely a virtuous cycle, at least for the opposition committed to Assad’s downfall.
A sure sign of the increased flow of aid to the rebels was the deployment of publicly unsubstantiated accusations by the US State Department that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria. Perhaps the State Department has unique insights into the flow of military materiel from Russia to Syria, but the key change in Syria is not in the order of battle of the government forces; it is the increase in military capabilities of the local rebels thanks in significant part to foreign supply of arms.
Likewise, escalating foreign outrage over the Assad regime’s brutal excesses and the emergence of the detested irregulars- the shabiha – as regime shock troops has paralleled the climbing death count of government security forces.
The fact remains that the only clear path to a negotiated solution of the Syrian crisis requires a military stalemate, not regime overthrow.
Assad’s strategy (and that of Russia and China) appears to be to neutralize the armed opposition militarily, and then goose the political process by releasing the domestic moderates among the hundred thousand or so political prisoners his secret polices services have placed in their grim inventory. Indeed, that’s where things were headed after Assad’s forces crushed the rebels at Babu Amr in Homs and held parliamentary elections … and before a flood of international condemnation and an increased flow of arms heartened the opposition.
The fact that the United States is working toward the exact opposite end by encouraging the armed struggle now remorselessly polarizing the country and grinding away at the regime’s legitimacy (or more accurately, just letting Syria collapse into chaos) is, I suppose, a subject that the infinitely capacious and flexible American conscience will find a way to deal with.
To be fair, the United States, the EU, and Turkey have been paragons of timidity when it comes to effecting the overthrow of Assad. The overt military option is off the table and Turkey, which by rights should be seizing the regional leadership role, has apparently acquired a serious case of cold feet now that the inclusive liberal revolution has turned into a sectarian-tinged uprising that threatens to bring unrest and anxiety to Kurdish populations in Turkey as well as Syria.
Attempts to tease out the significance of Houla and Qubeir, together with the impression that the Assad regime is on its last legs, has turned attention to a possible endgame: a bloody spasm of ethnic cleansing in the Alawite homeland of the coastal mountains, followed by some sort of hunkering down by pro-regime forces as they negotiate for their future with a triumphant new regime in Damascus.
This speculation fueled comparisons with Bosnia – another gateway justification for increased foreign intervention.
There are indeed some interesting historical precedents for Alawite separatism.
Alawite communities, which now constitute about 12% of Syria’s population, were marginalized during the Ottoman empire thanks to widespread condemnation of their heterodox and esoteric religious practice by Islamic authorities. Indeed, traditional Alawi belief apparently includes some unique elements, particularly the deification of Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, that would make it extremely difficult for it to pass muster with mainstream Muslim practitioners.
The Ottomans categorized Alawites as apostates, referring to them by the dismissive term of Nusayris (a term that has re-emerged in heated discussions of the Syrian situation on Muslim-related message boards and even in media accounts).
Until 1870, clerical fatwas declared it was permissible to slay Alawites and take their possessions; in the latter decades of the Ottoman empire Alawite thieves were still occasionally crucified or impaled for their transgressions – a punishment that was not applied to Muslims and had been eliminated for Christians almost 100 years before.
At the fall of the empire, only one “city” – a Christian town with a population of 2,600 – allowed Alawites to reside within its walls. The rest lived in small hamlets under conditions of medieval poverty and subjugation to the Sunni political, economic, and administrative elite residing in the important coastal towns of Latakia and Tartus.
French assumption of the Syria mandate after World War I, though resented by most Syrians, was a godsend to the Alawites. The French, applying the proven divide-and-rule template, supported the Alawites’ aspirations to equality and dignity, at least for a time, as well as enrolling them disproportionately in the military force it created to slug it out with the Syrian nationalist uprising. The French administration also promoted the use of the more dignified term “Alawite” instead of “Nusayri”. From 1922 until 1935, when the French government achieved a satisfactory accommodation with the local governing authority in Damascus, the Alawite areas enjoyed autonomy as the “Sanjak of Lattakia”, with their own rulers and flag, albeit with a French tricolor in the corner.