Two Years on the Road to Damascus

What will the President accomplish on his visit has been on the lips of Israeli’s for weeks while on the lips of Syrians has been the question; What will ensue when the President leaves; especially with the ingress of the jihadists. It is essential not to bamboozle the requisite of Assad’s regime termination with the overture of regional jihadist interference.

March 2011 is the date remembered when the Arab Spring came to Syria while March 2013 is the date to be remembered that the largely secular nationalist rebels have been joined by jihadist militants from Iraq and Jordan and elsewhere. The March 2011 onset was a call for reform; for more political freedoms, and economic justice and jobs; while the March 2013 prelude is a call to curtail jihadists and regional destabilization.

The Assad regime responded brutally to the 2011 secular demands. Vast swathes of major cities have sustained enormous damage; the death toll is an epidemic figure; the country’s infrastructure is in shambles; the rebels are fighting as ferociously as the regime; and the Syrian government is using its military to bombard rebel-held civilian areas with all available means including surface-to-surface missiles.

From 2011 to 2013 the demonstrations migrated towards armed rebellion, to a guerrilla war and now are engaged in conventional battles. The pioneer rebel fighters were members of nationalist anti-regime militia groups, loosely affiliated through the Free Syrian Army, pious Muslims, and some members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Regrettably the loose infrastructure enabled jihadist infiltration primarily from Iraq and Jordan to assist the floundering insurgency campaign.

For example the Jabhat al-Nusrah group originating from Iraq and benefiting from Al-Qaeda’s blessings and material support has earned its battle flag from performances in Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al-Zor. Its modus operandi include assassinations of military and security officials, car bombings, suicide bombings, and use of improvised explosive devices.

Other examples include the Falcons of the Levant Division and the Brigades of the Freedom of the Levant who worked together to take the Taftanaz Syrian Air Force base in mid-January 2013. The Falcons leader Ahmed Abu Issa desires a Syrian Islamic state. Both these groups have popular support from the urban lower middle class reminiscent of the Iraq circumstances; namely those suffering from the socioeconomic crisis; young men willing to die to improve their communities lives.

Exacerbating the domestic dissension is the alignment of Damascus with Tehran, the capital of the Twelvers Shi’ism, whom the jihadists regard as polytheistic. This and the libertine, secular, Alawite ruling sect who are not seen as Muslim by the militants; has turned Syria into a beacon for excoriation by the global militant jihadists.

So while the denouement of the Syrian civil war is still way off; the question persists; What will ensue when the President leaves?

There has been some somber in-fighting among the rebels; there are too many local and regional power groups. There is no clear contender for control of the entire Syrian state centrally through the Damascus capital; nor is there any possibility of Syrian fragmenting resulting in economically and politically viable statelets. It is not probable that the jihadists will seize power in their own right.

Conversely the jihadists are the joker in the pack of cards; and have the ability to influence any and all dispensing. They are capable of being a significant perpetrator of violence. They are able to wreck the road to Damascus and Syria with it. They can also be the unifying factor among the disparate rebel forces to create an Islamic Syrian state.

Of true apprehension is that the borders of Syria with Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are geographically and ethnically porous. The jihadists can moreover bloat the Syrian battle beyond its sovereign borders. Israel’s military cannot deter an insurgent type warfare and will face protracted difficulties in engaging in combat. The counter-insurgency wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed the longevity, intensity and futility of such asymmetrical engagements.

Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kurdish Iraq need to engage in a war of hearts and minds to convince Syrians living in the areas adjacent to their territories not to support the jihadists. Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kurdish Iraq need to engage in a war of hearts and minds to support the end of the Assad regime and jihadist involvement.

The message to be conveyed in the war of hearts and minds is that the Syrian conflict needs to be contained domestically to Syria; without losing sight of the objective; reform, more political freedoms, and economic justice and jobs; all without an Assad regime and without the necessity and involvement of jihadists.

Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.