These Militias Were Made for Fighting


By Ata Hariri:

The recent ceasefire in Syria was met with cautious optimism by most of the Western media. Most of the papers and radio programs treated it as a very positive thing, but not one that could bring a permanent peace, and yet the hope that this may mark the beginning of the end of the conflict in Syria, as ISIL is pushed back, battle lines stabilise and the guns start to fall silent, was very prevalent.

I believe this is a fundamentally flawed analysis of the Syrian situation based on two main errors, firstly that all parties except ISIL want peace and secondly that Russia is happy with the current situation should the ceasefire hold. Many of the groups in Syria today are only able to justify their existence and so keep their support if fighting continues. While there are many foreign fighters, they are attracted to the very large organisations such as ISIL, YPG or al-Nusra, and most of the militias are very locally based, this is especially true for the disparate “moderate” opposition. They were created when the fighting spread to their areas, at first to defend their area, then they became aligned with a national group and so they started to fight for territory, fight for control, and all the issues that come with that such as funding, weaponry and support. If peace began to look more permanent, and the possibility that the war might end rose, the leaders of these groups would seem much weaker, because while they may have been like kings in their particular parts of Syria, on the national stage they mean nothing. As a result they have a huge incentive to derail the peace process, put obstacles in negotiators’ ways and issue unreasonable demands, in order to make their region look threatened and so encourage more locals to flock to their support. The national representatives of the “moderate” opposition, the SNC, have fairly little control and influence, and in reality are subject to the special interests of the most powerful or cunning of the local leaders, and so too would be susceptible to stopping the peace process in its tracks, should more of the Syrian people demand greater accountability from their leaders. This leads directly on to the second problem – Russia. While at first a permanent ceasefire, even with many violations, may seem like a palatable option to the Russians it is in fact quite the opposite. It is not because, as some observers have claimed, that Russia wants Bashar al-Assad to regain supremacy over the entirety of Syria, even they accept that that is now an impossibility. However they will not be satisfied with a thin sliver of Latakia, and a route down to Damascus. No, what they want is Western Syria as a whole to be under Syrian government control, most likely not including the YPG controlled areas around Afrin, as they want to maintain good relations with the PYD and Syrian Kurds in general. However this means that the rebel Southern Front must be destroyed in its entirety, that the Syrian army must be allowed to crush all opposition between Damascus and the Israeli border, that no powerful rebel group can remain in Idlib, and moreover that the Syrian Army no longer be reliant on Hezbollah support to do this as that would mean reliance on the Iranians, and the Russians know how fast seemingly solid alliances can fall apart. There is no way that the SNC would accept the conditions above, the fact that the opposition between Darra and Damascus is broadly made up of groups accepted by the West, and relatively loyal to the SNC is a source of great pride and strength, so how could they accept their destruction?

One of the most intractable problems of the Syrian civil war is that the social and military ecosystems that have developed are all reliant on the continuation of fighting as outlined above, and it is these same groups that would then have to subject to a ceasefire, but also one that they can prevent. The Syrian civil war will go on until either, and this is a highly unlikely scenario, the Russians, Iranians, Qataris and Saudis decide that Syria must just be left to its own devices, or until the corruption and violence becomes so unacceptable to the Syrian people that despite the danger involved they overthrow the groups that rule them, and work towards an independent, and lasting peace.

Ata Hariri is a Kurdish student living in London, studying political science at the LSE.

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