Conflict in Syria: Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?
#Syria, article from the London Review of Books
[The following article appeared in the London Review of Books, vol. 35, no. 11 (June 6, 2013).]
For the first two years of the Syrian civil war foreign leaders regularly predicted that Bashar al-Assad’s government would fall any day. In November 2011, King Abdullah of Jordan said that the chances of Assad’s surviving were so slim he ought to step down. In December last year, Anders Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, said: ‘I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse.’ Even the Russian Foreign Ministry – which generally defends Assad – has at times made similar claims. Some of these statements were designed to demoralise Assad’s supporters by making his overthrow seem inevitable. But in many cases outsiders genuinely believed that the end was just round the corner. The rebels kept claiming successes, and the claims were undiscriminatingly accepted.
That Assad’s government is on its last legs has always been something of a myth. YouTube videos of victorious rebel fighters capturing military outposts and seizing government munitions distract attention from the fact that the war is entering its third year and the insurgents have succeeded in capturing just one of the 14 provincial capitals. (In Libya the insurgents held Benghazi and the whole of the east as well as Misrata and smaller towns in the west from the beginning of the revolt.) The Syrian rebels were never as strong militarily as the outside world supposes. But they have always been way ahead of the government in their access to the international media. Whatever the uprising has since become it began in March 2011 as a mass revolt against a cruel and corrupt police state. The regime at first refused to say much in response, then sounded aggrieved and befuddled as it saw the vacuum it had created being filled with information put out by its enemies. Defecting Syrian soldiers were on television denouncing their former masters while government units that had stayed loyal remained unreported and invisible. And so it has largely continued. The ubiquitous YouTube videos of minor, and in some cases illusory, victories by the rebels are put about in large part to persuade the world that, given more money and arms, they can quickly win a decisive victory and end the war.
There is a striking divergence between the way the Syrian war is seen in Beirut – just a few hours’ drive from Damascus, even now – and what actually appears to be happening on the ground inside Syria. On recent trips I would drive to Damascus, having listened to Syrians and non-Syrians in Beirut who sincerely believed that rebel victory was close, only to find the government still very much in control. Around the capital, the rebels held some suburbs and nearby towns, but in December I was able to travel the ninety miles between Damascus and Homs, Syria’s third largest city, without any guards and with ordinary heavy traffic on the road. Friends back in Beirut would shake their heads in disbelief when I spoke about this and politely suggest that I’d been hoodwinked by the regime.