It is impossible to begin without mention of the U.S./Russia cooperation agreement. Anything that ameliorates the suffering deserves kudos. The agreement has two inherent propositions:
- Address the horrors of war by tactical measures.
- Serve as a basic, incremental step away from conflict and towards political process.
So it might enable some good, akin to the small favor of a meal for a homeless person. It’s not going to change a life, but it leavens a life for a brief interval. The value of that is not to be dismissed. But the specialty of this blog is the largely immoral world of international relations. Because his volumes are so thick, I beg the indulgence of Henry Kissinger, who writes (paraphrasing) of the need to take small steps of uncertain moral value, in the hope that eventually, a better world will result.
The U.S./Russia agreement, by parties outside the region, is probably not a step towards that better world. The intent is blocked by too many parties native to the region. But potential value is backstopped by conceivable near term accomplishments, such as the lifting of numerous sieges throughout Syria, and the cessation of aerial atrocities. The terms have not been made fully public. Plausible reasons are to:
- Allow fixing it by dynamic adjustment, without loss of credibility.
- Avoid use of allegations of violation by the combatants for propaganda.
- Completely remove from view the issue of compliance by the Russians, with the hope that the personal touch will do what public embarrassment cannot.
- Completely remove from view the issue of separating the rebels-who-are-not-terrorists from ISIL and Al-Qaeda.
The diplomatic mind casts the intermingling of the rebels with ISIS and terrorists as an issue, which can change, in contrast to a fact which cannot. In Turkey in Syria; The New Ottoman Empire; a Brief Note about Cultural Affinity, I wrote
Relative to the other players, Turkey and “the Kurds”, or the five or so groups of them, are unique to this region in the degrees of their Western cultural affinities. Cultural affinity is not of great significance to the diplomatic mindset, which is typically occupied with statecraft, geopolitics and, for us, the universal rights of man.
This is one wording of the dilemma that afflicts U.S. strategy in Syria. The largest-by-far opposition group, Ahrar al-Sham and (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) Ahrar al-Sham: The “Syrian Taliban”, contains, along with Islamists, a Salafist component. Scholars debate whether Wahabism includes Salafism, or the reverse, the issues being historical precedence, commonality of beliefs, and divergences. All of the issues are debatable, save the popularization of Wahabism by a particular historical figure, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab .
The cultural distance of the western observer offers the objectivity of detachment. The apparent doctrinal differences are close enough to merge with variations of the emotional states of the practitioners. These emotional states are dictated by the facts of war, which promote instinctual atrocities in the absence of strong social controls. Avoiding needless doctrinal analysis, Salafism, and by extension or primacy, Wahabism, contain the origins of the modern terror era. Opponents to the idea must refute Gilles Kepel, who coined the term Salafi Jihadism in 2002.
The seeker of a political solution might ask whether the Islamist component of Ahrar al-Sham could moderate the Salafist component. Here open source analysis relies on an “almost-fact” with no apparent exceptions. In every case of conflict in Syria and Iraq involving ethnic Arab groups, the more radical groups have dominated those with traces of moderation. The current success in Iraq against ISIL is not an exception; it has been enabled by U.S. air power, logistical support, and numerical advantage. And much of it is the work of the opposing fanaticism of Shiite militia.
Except for ISIL, all parties to the conflict have expressed the intent to be governed by their own versions of the laws of war. For the sake of due diligence, let’s look at some statements. Hassan Aboud, leader from 2011-2014, said in an interview with Al Jazeera, (Wikipedia)
“Democracy is people governing people, according to rules they please, We say that we have a divine system whose law is Allah’s for his creatures and his slaves who he appointed as viceregents on this Earth.”
A diplomat might argue that Aboud’s statement does not represent the opinion of the majority of Syrians. But even if it happened to be so, Aboud’s group has the most guns. The Wikipedia article quotes a statement from this video (English subtitles), 49:00, by Mohamed Najeeb Bannan, a judge of the “Islamic Front” umbrella organization with which Ahrar al-Sham associates:
“One of their mistakes is before the regime has fallen, and before they’ve established what in Sharia is called Tamkeen [having a stable state], they started applying Sharia, thinking God gave them permission to control the land and establish a Caliphate. This goes against the beliefs of religious scholars around the world. This is what [IS] did wrong. This is going to cause a lot of trouble. Anyone who opposes [IS] will be considered against Sharia and will be severely punished.”
Without clarification from the speaker, the significant meaning of the above is that the only thing ISIS has done wrong is to criminalize, under sharia law, opposition to ISIS. It might be the tendency of the western diplomatic mind to fill in perceived ambiguities with the products of the western mindset. But the statement is not political hyperbole, with potential for subsequent moderation. It is the statement of an Islamic scholar, and judge, who has been trained to speak precisely, in accord with his religious tradition. By inference, the regime of Syria under Ahrar al-Sham could be virtually identical to one under ISIS.