Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria

Jadaliyya “featured” my “Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game” in their 4/4/2013 Syria Media Roundup. In a transparent attempt to “poison the well” against my findings (and in contrast with the neutral-to-positive tone with which literally all of the other articles were described), my paper was summarized as follows:

“Musa al-Gharbi argues that we do not have a clear picture of facts on the ground, claims that might have been pertinent one year ago but that seem problematic today.”

Ignoring the fact that the article in question was drafted in January 2013 and explicitly makes use of contemporary data, such as the UN casualty report which came out a few months ago (i.e. far less than “one year ago”)—is it the case that the article’s claims are no longer pertinent? If so, it would presumably be because either:

  1. We now have a clear picture of the facts on the ground
  2. The dynamics of the conflict have radically shifted on one or more of my major points, or
  3. The “facts on the ground” are no longer terribly important.

The first option seems ridiculous. The article demonstrated fairly robustly how statistics are being misused and misunderstood in discussing the Syrian conflict—there has been no improvement in the public discourse in the interim. It remains difficult to get reliable information, and virtually all data related to the conflict is rather-immediately politicized. Accordingly, the same myths which were highlighted in the paper are still being perpetuated—they are no more true today than they were when the paper was published.

A charitable interpretation of their evaluation may appeal to the third option: perhaps given the way the conflict has escalated, the “facts on the ground” are no longer so important. As the situation spins out of control, there may be a worry that such analyses seem to trivialize the conflict—or turn into an abstract discussion a situation which is life-or-death for so many within and around Syria. While sensitive to this concern, the takeaway from the article should be that this is a situation which calls for much more attention,  much more care, much more engagement. The purpose of the article was to prompt the public to look more deeply and listen more closely when faced with rhetoric related to the conflict—and to pressure policymakers to do the same.

It may be asserted that the conflict has reached a point where these sorts of discussions are moot: the international community cannot wait around for perfect data to act. Such an argument seems perplexing: it is precisely the gravity of the situation and its likely repercussions which demands more care. While we must always make decisions under uncertainty, there is no excuse to ignore information that we actually already have. Although there are reasons to be skeptical of some of the proposed “facts” (such as the casualty statistics), our analysis largely took for granted that the popular data were correct; our aspiration was to examine more closely what that data tells us—that is, to challenge the ways the intelligence has been interpreted and manipulated. And what the data suggests is that the policies of the United States and its allies vis a vis Syria have been wrong-headed; indeed, as it has been in Syria, so it has been throughout the Arab Spring. I will now briefly explain the (continued) significance of my findings:

The Rebels v. The Regime

In the case that most people support the rebellion and hate Bashar al-Asad, it might make sense for the international community to impose regime-change in Syria. The new government would be much more likely to enjoy popular legitimacy and buy-in.

If, on the other hand, the rebellion is unpopular and most Syrians either support the Regime or prefer it to the rebels—if the public has, in defiance of the opposition, made repeated attempts to work with the regime towards peaceful and piecemeal reform throughout; if the protestors and rebels combined amount to less than 2% of the total population (far from the popular will, but more than enough people to destabilize the country in a trenchant fashion, especially given the outside assistance they are receiving)—were this the case, the most logical course would be to press for a negotiated settlement. In fact, the data suggests that this is the situation.


Negotiated Settlements

If it were the case the Bashar al-Asad was a bloodthirsty and indiscriminate butcher, and the majority of those killed in the conflict have been non-combatants; if Bashar al-Asad was a power-hungry dictator hell-bent on keeping power at any cost—this might undermine the plausibility of a negotiated outcome.

On the other hand, if most of the casualties have been combatants; if Bashar al-Asad has been relatively hesitant to use force, and measured in the use of violence; if the regime has made constant attempts to negotiate, and the primary reason ceasefires have failed has been because the opposition’s “leadership” had no control over the militias (this remains the case): they can agree to ceasefires, but cannot get the rebel forces to comply; if Bashar al-Asad never wanted or planned to be in charge of Syria, and was thrust into power following the deaths of his brother and his father; if Bashar has proposed significant reforms over the course of the protests, to include defining an end to his reign—under this scenario, a negotiated outcome seems viable. And it would be the rebels, rather than the regime, which would have to be pressured to the negotiating table in earnest. It is their calculations which must be changed to bring an end to the conflict.

Again, the facts suggest the latter scenario. Consider the question of who is being killed: according to the SOHR’s most recent comprehensive estimate  (3/31/2013), women and children combined amount to about 11% of the total casualties. This is commensurate with the UN report, which estimated female casualties at 7.5% of the total. For the other 92% which were men, the overwhelming majority that they had age-data for were between 20-30 years old (i.e. fighting age). This dynamic has not changed, despite the rebel’s new guerilla tactics which intentionally aspire to hamstring the regime’s strength advantage at the expense of the civilian population.

While much has been made of the Regime’s supposed indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, Human Rights Watch estimates that since July 2012, 4,300 civilians have been killed by these tactics. Even overlooking the critical civilian v. non-combatant distinction which this report fails to make, considering that as of July 2012 the conflict’s casualties were estimated at 17-20k souls, and are now estimated to be in excess of 70k (with a difference of 50,000 lives lost over the range of the HRW report), while the media coverage would make it seem like the aerial bombardment is the primary reason for Syria’s death toll, the data suggests that less than 9% of the total casualties were the result of these tactics over this time period. When considered in light of the aforementioned data suggesting that most casualties have been combatants, we can see that the regime has been effective at targeting militants—they have not been “indiscriminately” butchering civilians. In fact, a good deal of the non-combatant deaths and atrocities can and must be laid at the feet of the rebels.


Measuring the Effectiveness of Intervention

If, contrary to the consistent and continued assumption the regime’s collapse is inevitable and imminent, Bashar al-Asad’s government will likely survive at least through the coming year; if Bashar cannot reclaim all of the country, but the rebels cannot depose him either; if the increased involvement of the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (following the failed U.N. Chapter 7 bid in July 2012) in support of the rebels has served to propagate and escalate the conflict rather than bringing it to a close—under this assumption, the time may be passed for half-measures. The situation would call for either a full-on military intervention, or a full-throated move towards a negotiated settlement—pressuring the rebels and their allies to lay down their arms as well, and building international consensus for a plan to help restore order to Syria.

This is the case. Looking at the casualties per month, the rate of killings accelerated corresponding to the amount of arms, aid, and training be provided to the rebels. This continues to the present, when aid and training to the rebels has expanded to include CIA training and support: March 2013 has been the deadliest month to date of the conflict—the numbers of refugees have increased at an even faster pace. Thus far, Western (and allied) intervention has, unconditionally, been making things worse rather than better. This is due to the administration adopting towards Bashar the same failed policies they have adopted towards Iran: all threats and coercion, with weak (or altogether absent) incentives and guarantees in exchange for cooperation.   In fact, the U.S. has, throughout, interfered with negotiations, maintaining that there could be no settlement unless and until Bashar al-Asad resigns.


Regime v. Rebel-Areas

In the paper, I argued that the regime directly administers a small and ever-shrinking sphere of Syria—however, the rebels do not control the rest (or really, any) of the country. Instead, lawlessness and chaos pervade the “liberated” areas of Syria, and the rebels have been totally unable to fill the government’s role in providing order and critical services to the population. This remains the case today. I argued that the dynamics on the ground seem to favor the regime in the medium-to-long term, and indeed, it has been steadily gaining ground despite the unprecedented levels of foreign aid and foreign fighters in support of the opposition.

Accordingly, when we soberly consider the immense challenges which will face post-war Syria, it becomes apparent that the entity best able to meet the tasks of reconstruction is going to be the Regime. For this reason, it is imperative that there is not a total collapse of the government—lest we repeat the mistakes of Iraq, where de-Baathification was directly responsible for perpetuating instability and insurgency for the following decade: everyone with the proper knowledge and experience on how to run the country was expressly forbidden from doing so—and in precisely the moment where this experience and knowledge was most needed! This is another reason why a negotiated settlement is critical, rather than attempting to resolve the conflict militarily: with or without Bashar, the regime must remain intact.


Foreign Jihadists

Initially, much as in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, it was held that Bashar al-Asad was a sponsor of al-Qaeda; this was as ludicrous for Bashar as it was for Saddam.  In the paper I argued that while foreign jihadists represent a small share of the opposition fighters, focusing on their numbers obscures their disproportionate influence. In fact, I argued, these jihadists are “the single most influential segment of the opposition—militarily or geopolitically, for better or for worse.” This remains the case. And whomever has the most influence in the final stages of the conflict will have the most leverage in the aftermath, should the Regime collapse.

Those familiar with my work should know that the problem is not a jingoist, reactionary fear of Islamists or illiberals—both of whom I have defended, provided their aspirations represent the popular will. Instead, the concern is that the interests of these foreign fighters and regional groups diverge sharply from those of the broader opposition, to include the indigenous Islamist components (let alone, the majority of Syrian people, who do not support the armed rebellion at all); in the event that the Regime collapses, these foreign elements would likely continue to promote unrest and sectarianism—possibly even using Syria as a launching ground for operations against neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Israel, thereby destabilizing the entire region. We saw a similar dynamic play out in the aftermath of the Libya invasion; in fact, contagion from the Syria conflict is already spreading rather severely—fueled largely by these external actors.


Rather than the conclusions being obsolete, it seems as though my essential claims remain extremely relevant; in fact, they have been vindicated by subsequent developments. The popular discourse regarding the conflict continues to politicize the data: perpetuating the myths that Bashar al-Asad is universally reviled, that the revolution is widely-supported, that the deaths have been primarily non-combatants, that the Regime’s defeat is imminent and inevitable, etc.   It remains critical to get a clear picture of the facts on the ground, and to have our policies follow where the data lead. In the case of Syria, they seem to indicate a negotiated settlement as the best (and possibly only) solution to the conflict; there is no military solution for either side, nor the international community. But again, given its relative strength, the Regime cannot be excluded from discussions about Syria’s future—and Western powers and their allies are in no position to set preconditions (such as Bashar stepping down) to these negotiations. The regime will need to be provided incentives and guarantees instead of threats and coercion; the converse holds for the rebels. Accepting these realities can help policymakers form a more coherent and effective strategy in Syria; it is imperative that such a strategy be developed and implemented post-haste—and that said policies are commensurate with the will and interests of the Syrian people, rather than short-sighted geopolitical aspirations.

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