“Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game,” demonstrated that contrary to the popular narratives, most Syrians seem to support President al-Asad over the armed rebels. Moreover, it was argued that most of the casualties from the conflict were combatants, that the regime probably controlled more territory than the narrative suggested, that the dynamics of the conflict seem to favor the regime in the medium-to-long term (a bold claim at the time), and that the influence of foreign jihadists was far greater than their numbers may suggest—influence which would only grow over time.
These claims have been unanimously vindicated: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has actually changed their methodologies, now distinguishing more clearly between combatant and non-combatant civilians; while there is still much to critique about their specific numbers (and their ideological bias), they now acknowledge as well that most of the casualties have been combatants. The Arab League has recently stated that about 40% of Syria is outside of the government’s control, meaning the regime controls the majority of the country (contrary to previous rhetoric that the regime controlled less than a third of Syria). And as I argued in “The Numbers Game,” the parts of the country which are not being administered by the government are generally not being controlled by the rebels, either. Moreover, as projected, the regime has been making strides in retaking these ungoverned territories since December 2012—to include a number of rebel strongholds. Finally, rebel forces are increasingly reliant upon the weapons, training, and leadership of Jahbat al-Nusra and other transnational jihadist organizations—and are increasingly adopting their ideologies; The New York Times has gone so far as to report that there was no evidence of a “secular” fighting force anywhere in rebel-held Syria. Unspeakable crimes are committed daily by the rebels, to include instances of cannibalism.
Deploying the same methodologies from “The Numbers Game,” I subsequently demonstrated that despite the media fetish on regime airstrikes and calls for a no-fly zone in Syria—deaths from aerial bombardments amounted to less than 9% of the total casualties, most of which were likely combatants. These numbers have since been echoed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Despite the apparent success of these analyses, in the most recent issue of Middle East Policy my friend and colleague George Abu Ahmad leveled a number of serious charges against me, attempting to undermine my conclusions and proposing an alternate method for understanding the conflict in Syria. I will briefly respond to these criticisms here:
On the Composition of the Opposition
“There is no set of maxims more important for an historian than this: the actual causes of a thing’s origin and its eventual uses, the manner of its incorporation into a system of purposes, are worlds apart; that everything that exists, no matter what its origin, is periodically reinterpreted by those in power in terms of fresh intentions…in the course of which the earlier meaning and purpose are necessarily either obscured or lost.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, XII
Abu Ahmad argued that I had overstated the role of extremists in Syria. In an attempt to justify this charge, he posited first that I had glossed over all the rebels with the same brush, and that my particular characterization was reliant on a selective reading of history. Specifically, it was argued that I ignored the peaceful and diversely-constituted origins of the protests, as well as the regime’s initiation of violence in the conflict. However none of these charges prove sound.
In “The Numbers Game,” and in a host of other articles and lectures, I have consistently emphasized the regime’s role in instigating the violence. However, it is also a fact that a contingent from among the protestors exploited the regime’s authoritarian impulses, intentionally and successfully goading security forces into overly-forceful responses in an attempt to grow their numbers; this is a common tactic in protest movements—acknowledging these methodologies on the part of the opposition does not in any way justify the regime’s crackdown, but it does help explain it. Another significant contributing factor was the al-Asad regime’s paranoia of Western meddling, and its conviction that the U.S. played a significant role in building the protest movements in Syria and throughout the Middle East; this fear was more-or-less justified, although this neither entails nor implies that the regime’s particular response was.
Acknowledging these complexities does not even approach “blaming the victims,” as Abu Ahmad suggested.
The charge of a selective reading of history turns out to be somewhat ironic. While the protest movement may have initially been (more-or-less) peaceful and diversely-comprised—Abu Ahmad conveniently ignored that the protest movement was also extremely small; it never really reached the population centers of Damascus or Aleppo; often the counter-protests in support of the regime were larger than those against it. Moreover, the protestors were initially calling for an acceleration to Bashar al-Asad’s reform agenda, not for his resignation. So if we understood the opposition primarily in terms of its initial aims, methods and composition—it is hard to see how one could arrive at Abu Ahmad’s conclusion that the international community should intervene militarily in Syria in pursuit of regime change. Ultimately, however, it is unclear what value dwelling on the origin of the protests has for understanding its current methods and composition.
As it relates to the supposed diversity within the opposition, there is a huge disparity between the types of people who protested against the government and the extreme minority (of an extreme minority) who would ultimately take up arms against it. While the former was somewhat diverse, the latter is a much more homogenous group. Although the armed opposition does contain tokens from among minority populations like Christians, Sufis, and Kurds, it is disproportionately comprised of Sunni Arabs—primarily agrarians who were disenfranchised as a result of President al-Asad’s economic liberalization scheme. This group, who constitutes the core of the armed opposition, is much more concerned with taking revenge upon Syria’s economic and political elite through violence and looting than in any lofty ideals about freedom and human rights. In fact, according to a recent U.N. report, the overwhelming majority of the armed opposition is disinterested in, or even averse to, democracy and pluralism.
Regardless of how the protest movement may have started, the armed insurrection is increasingly sectarian and increasingly extreme; these are the facts, which Abu Ahmad himself acknowledges. However, what my interlocutor fails to acknowledge is that, regardless of sect or ethnicity, the overwhelming majority of Syrians do not support the rebellion–even by the most generous estimates, it is hard to establish that more than 2% of the total population has taken part in the protests or armed struggle. And the movement’s limited popularity is actually on the decline as a result of the rebels’ ineffectiveness against the regime, their infighting, their increasing extremism, their inability to provide services or security in “liberated” areas, the increased incidences of crimes against the civilian population, etc. This trend was also predicted in “The Numbers Game.”
Framing of the Conflict
Abu Ahmad argues that we should understand the conflict as a war between the jaysh al-nizami (the mukhabarat and the military) and the jaysh al-hur (the armed opposition forces). The supposed advantage of this framing is that it corresponds with the popular usage, as coined by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya. However, as Abu Ahmad also acknowledges, while these are the predominant media outlets of the Middle East, they are also unabashedly pro-rebellion, reflective of their ownership (by the state of Qatar and the Saudi royal family, respectively). Moreover, while these sorts of reductive binaries are easy to squeeze into prepackaged narratives, they tend to correspond rather poorly to reality. Ironically, it is my interlocutor who ends up painting not only the opposition, but also the regime, with broad brushes—apparently, the goal of Abu Ahmad’s critique was merely to gloss them over in a different hue (as opposed to developing a more nuanced understanding).
Referring to the armed opposition monolithically obscures the diverse and often conflicting methods and ideologies of said forces—as well as their lack of coherent structure and leadership. The so-called “Free Syrian Army” is widely-recognized to be a brand-name as opposed to a coherent fighting force; the “jaysh al-hur” should be similarly understood. The opposition is comprised of hundreds of militias—most of them untrained civilians, not army defectors; most of them distinctly sectarian. There is a good deal of infighting (both political and violent) among these militias, which will become increasingly prominent in the absence of a common enemy (such as in the increasingly-unlikely event that the regime is successfully deposed). These factions often have radically incompatible visions of how post-Asad Syria should look, insofar as they are concerned with that at all. However, many of the armed groups have been occupying themselves primarily with seizing resources and looting, or else striking out at ethnic and religious minorities (who are widely perceived as being regime sympathizers). Among “rebel” militias comprised of minorities like the Kurds, many of them are separatist groups concerned with seizing territory for themselves and protecting their own rather than overthrowing the regime.
Most significantly, the armed opposition is not representative of the broader opposition movement. While Western media focuses primarily on the Syrian National Council, due primarily to their perceived friendliness to Western intentions—this group has never enjoyed legitimacy on the ground in Syria. They were and remain largely an expatriate movement stationed outside of Syria—despite the contentious process of expanding into the Syrian National Coalition. In contrast, there are a number of indigenous opposition movements who have, from the beginning, rejected the armed struggle and continue to call for negotiations with the regime without preconditions. The most significant of these groups is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC).
But even within the oft-discussed SNC, the issues of pressing for a military solution as opposed to negotiations is a matter of contention: Shiekh Moaz al-Khatib has (in)famously stated that there is no military solution to this conflict, calling upon the SNC to negotiate with the regime immediately, abandoning any preconditions that Bashar al-Asad resign (the fate of Syria, he argued, was far more important than the fate of one man); he has further claimed that establishing an alternative government over the “liberated” areas would likely lead to a partitioning of Syria. Ultimately, he resigned from his post as president of the SNC in disgust, claiming that neither the opposition nor their international supporters seem primarily concerned with saving Syria (as opposed to geopolitical and economic gains). All of these critical nuances are conveniently papered-over in the framing Abu Ahmad suggests.
Similarly, it is critical to draw a distinction within the regime between the mukhabarat and the Syrian army (as opposed to simply referring to them by the monolithic “jaysh al-nizami“), as the two have been in tension. The mukhabarat was responsible for most of the surveillance, torture, abductions, and other crimes against civilians—formerly, they acted with a great deal of autonomy and little accountability. In the early stages of the conflict, they were actually calling the shots for the entire security apparatus. However, the government has been reforming its security sector over the course of this conflict, and the Army now runs the show. They are much more trusted and respected by the Syrian people—and in order to maintain this confidence, the army has subverted and marginalized the mukhabarat, even to the point of prosecuting agents if they step out of line or commit crimes against civilians. This is an extremely significant development as it relates to a negotiated settlement and post-conflict reconciliation, and it is also one of the primary factors contributing to the regime’s gains in recent months. Glossing over the regime in a homogenous fashion as Abu Ahmad suggests would obscure these important dynamics.
Abu Ahmad is right to point out the contradictions among leftists and anti-imperialists in frequently supporting anyone who opposes the dominant power structures, regardless of how repressive they might be. However, this criticism is not relevant to this particular author or his arguments (in “The Numbers Game,” or in general). In my analyses of the Egyptian revolution, I ruthlessly critique the leftist and liberal protestors as undemocratic (a veritable precursor to Abu Ahmad’s arguments); I draw from Nozick’s (right-oriented) Anarchy, State and Utopia in formulating an account of legal pluralism commensurate with the Islamic jurisprudence; in another analysis, I argue against the supposed universality of Enlightenment-era ideals, so beloved by leftists. In short, I am neither a leftist nor an “anti-colonialist/ anti-imperialist.” In fact, I do not find either conceptual framework to be useful; they are not relied upon in any of my large body of published work. Accordingly, Abu Ahmad’s critiques of these contradictions, while valid in general, serve as little more than red-herrings in this context.
Undermining the other side of the purported contradiction, I have nowhere argued that Bashar al-Asad should be given “the benefit of the doubt,” as Abu Ahmad insinuated. Instead, I have insisted that Bashar al-Asad be understood as a complex figure rather than as a villain in some B-list movie—if for no other reason than to assist with the formation of effective policies with regards to the President and his regime. More significantly, I have argued that the international community must respect the will of the Syrian people. As the domestic population overwhelmingly fails to support the armed opposition, and as somewhere between a plurality and a majority actually support the government (viewing its response to this crisis as either a necessary evil, or else as an excesses they can tolerate in light of the alternatives)—it does not seem to be the right of external actors to force a violent revolution upon them against their will.
As I argued in “The Numbers Game,” expatriates and refugees tend to be dramatically unrepresentative of the broader populations of their countries of origin. Accordingly, it is unclear why the opinions of expatriate armchair activists and their Western sympathizers should carry greater weight than the domestic population who actually lives in Syria and most directly bears the consequences of these developments. If there was compelling evidence that most of the population wanted the President deposed by any means necessary, to include international military intervention towards this end, I would be on the forefront of calling for these policies—but as I demonstrated in “The Numbers Game,” the evidence points in the opposite direction; Abu Ahmad provided absolutely no countervailing evidence which would undermine these findings.
And for all of these ill-placed attempts at highlighting inconsistencies, Abu Ahmad’s own account is full of contradictions. For instance, after criticizing analysts for making too many speculations on the consequences of intervening in Syria, my interlocutor proceeds to make grandiose projections about non-intervention—going so far as to claim that by refusing to oust Bashar al-Asad, the international community would be setting a precedent for dictators to crush “democratic uprisings” with the tacit approval of the U.N. and other bodies. Of course, this is a precedent which has been, and continues to be, set around the world—it is unclear how or why an intervention in Syria would meaningfully address this trend, absent frequent interventions elsewhere (for which there is little global appetite). More significantly, Abu Ahmad fails to address the more disturbing precedent of the U.S., France, England, and the G.C.C. funding and arming non-state actors to overthrow foreign governments in direct violation of international law–first in Libya, now in Syria. It is hard to see how these actions, which Abu Ahmad supports and wishes to expand, pose less of a threat to the global order and international law than “allowing” Bashar al-Asad to remain in power would.
Then, after spending a good deal of time describing and then defending a “false-flag” account of Sheikh Ramadan al-Bouti’s death (based on nothing more than an internet video of dubious authenticity and the comments of various bloggers), Abu Ahmad argues that “by Occam’s Razor” we should avoid false-flag speculations as it relates to chemical weapons use in Syria, simply accepting that it was likely the regime who deployed them (with the connotation being, of course, that such an infraction demands an armed international response). But it is never made clear what Occam’s Razor is being applied to, specifically. For instance, if we apply Occam’s Razor in light of each party’s respective motivations or incentives, then we should arrive at the conclusion that the rebels were responsible both for Shiekh al-Bouti’s death as well as the use of chemical weapons.
Regarding the late al-Bouti, as Abu Ahmad points out, he was one of the most prominent Sunni religious leaders in Syria and a staunch ally of the regime. As the opposition is drawn almost entirely from among the Sunnis (who comprise 70% of the total population), the well-respected shiekh was of immense value in undermining the rebels’ sectarian narratives in this critical population—as Bashar does not have many prominent Sunni religious leaders standing up in his defense, al-Bouti was clearly worth much more to the regime alive than dead. Bashar’s supposed incentive for terminating this critical asset, as well as the purported method of carrying out this assassination—they are implausible and flimsy, much like the video “evidence” from whence the theory is derived. However, if it would satisfy Abu Ahmad’s critique, this author is prepared to acknowledge that the “false-flag” theory of al-Bouti’s death is, strictly speaking, possible—albeit totally implausible.
Vis a vis chemical weapons, the regime has radical disincentives to deploy them, and absolutely no need to utilize them. The rebels on the other hand are desperate for foreign arms or intervention, and accordingly, for some way of shaking the international community out of its gridlock. The Obama Administration’s talk of chemical weapons as a “red line” provided an apparent means to accomplish this. In fact, a U.N. investigation tentatively concluded that there was no evidence of the regime having used chemical weapons; instead, the evidence seemed to suggest that the weapons were deployed by the rebels. These findings were recently complimented by the Turkish government’s arrest of a group suspected of having ties to the al-Nusra Front who were found with Sarin gas in their possession. That is, not only was Abu Ahmad’s application of Occam’s Razor both vague and inconsistent—it also promoted conclusions which have since been falsified.
The “Real” Debate
Claiming that military intervention is ill-advised in the Syrian theater is in no way equivalent to saying that the international community should do nothing at all—unless we suppose that all external actors are capable of doing is bombing things or supporting and escalating conflict. This nuance seemed to momentarily evade my interlocutor. Comparing me to right-wing non-interventionists (perplexing, after also falsely framing me as an anti-imperial leftist), Abu Ahmad summarized my conclusions in “The Numbers Game,” as follows: because we do not have a clear picture of the facts “on the ground” in Syria, the international community (and the U.S. in particular) should refrain altogether from getting involved in the conflict. Such a caricature altogether misses the point of my analysis.
First, it is not a matter of getting “perfect information” before taking action—the entirety of human judgment occurs under uncertainty of varying degrees; I nowhere argued that policymakers should wait around for more or better data (which may never materialize). In fact, I largely took for granted that the popular numbers were more-or-less accurate and sufficient to inform a strategy—what I was challenging was the way these data were being misused and misunderstood in the popular discourse (by policymakers, analysts, scholars and media institutions alike); that is, I was arguing that we should be making better use of the information we already have. Secondarily, I argued that these groups should recognize and acknowledge gaps in their information, avoiding making bold public claims which are not substantiated by any reliable evidence (or especially if the intelligence seems to contradict their narratives). Finally, I suggested that policymakers should proceed with care when operating in domains of exceptional uncertainty—a claim underscored throughout N.N. Taleb’s Antifragile, which Abu Ahmad drew from in his critique.
My entire research curriculum is oriented towards exploring the adverse effects of misinformation, disinformation and ignorance in the geopolitical and tactical spheres. The purpose of this criticism is not to undermine “U.S. hegemony,” but instead to help policymakers design and implement more effective, efficient, and beneficent strategies in the Middle East—and secondarily, to help the public more profoundly understand and engage with these critical issues; these goals transcend the U.S. administration and citizenry. As a token of this analytic method, the purpose of “The Numbers Game,” was to derive clearer data which could inform effective action in Syria, not inaction. In fact, resultant from my analysis, I proposed a positive strategy: the international community should immediately push for a negotiated settlement without preconditions, and for a de-escalation of the conflict—the United States is uniquely positioned to drive for this outcome, should they so desire. This is a strategic engagement in the Syrian conflict, not disengagement.
In fact, on the critical normative aspects of the crisis in Syria, Abu Ahmad and I are in general agreement (despite the wide disparities which persist between us with regards to its descriptive dimensions). In “The Numbers Game” and subsequent analyses, I have also argued that the longer the crisis goes on, the more sectarianism, extremism, and lawlessness will become entrenched; on this point, I found particularly insightful Abu Ahmad’s description of fitna as an “antifragile” system. In recognition of this reality, like Abu Ahmad, I have long argued that decisive action was necessary in Syria, and that U.S. half-measures are unquestionably escalating and propagating the conflict, both within and around Syria, rather than resolving it. Abu Ahmad and I are even in agreement as to the necessity of international intervention into the conflict—the primary difference between us relates to the aims and methods of said intervention: should it be oriented towards peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in support of a negotiated settlement (my position)? Or should the intervention be military in nature, oriented towards particular geopolitical and security objectives (chief among them being the immediate removal of Bashar al-Asad from power, but also securing chemical weapons, etc.)? An authentic challenge to my position would successfully argue that the latter course of action is more likely to realize the will and interests of the Syrian people than the former—my interlocutor offered absolutely no evidence in support of such a challenge.
However, in closing I would like to acknowledge that Abu Ahmad is a mentor of mine from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal. Underlying his sharp and passionate criticisms, and my own frank rejoinder, is a mutual respect for one-another and a common desire to promote the policies which will best realize the aspirations and interests of our brothers and sisters within and around Syria. It is my hope and expectation that this exchange between us can help elevate the discussion and, most importantly, move it forward.