The Endgame In Syria: Four Possible Scenarios

syria_control_mapWhen the Syrian civil war erupted in March 2011, it was another episode of peaceful protest in what was termed the “Arab Spring” that began in Tunisia and was followed by another wave of protests in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya.  Many pro-democracy optimists expected a quick end similar to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, but their wish did not come true.

Given Syria’s pan-Arab history, as articulated by the Ba’ath Party ideology, its proximity to Israel, its involvement with Lebanese Hezbollah, and more importantly, its strong alliance with Iran, Syria’s protests became a point of interest for more than the Syrians.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states interfered by arming and financing anti-Assad militants and turned what was a peaceful civil protest into an ugly civil war with unspeakable manifestations: ethno-sectarian killing, massacres of civilians, beheading, and in some cases eating raw organs of Syrian soldiers.  The regime of President Bashar Assad matched these acts with atrocities of its own.  In a very short time, the conflict developed into a war of many belligerents with no good guys.

The conflict also attracted Iran, Israel, Turkey, and some non-state actors such as Lebanese Hezbollah, some Iraqi and Afghani volunteers fighters, and the Da’ish (the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham).  Certain Western countries joined the conflict later and a coalition to fight Da’ish in Iraq and Syria was formed and led by the United States.  The last, and most dramatic, development in this regard was the open involvement of Russia in support of President Assad.

damaged-buildings-syrian-civil-war1This article presents several possible scenarios for the future of Syria’s civil war, which claimed so far more than 250,000 deaths, more than 4 million registered refugees, more than 8 million internally displaced people, more than $200 billion in economic loss, and four of every five Syrians are living in poverty.  The U.N. estimates that it will take more than 30 years to restore the Syrian economy to its pre-war level, which was not good to begin with.

The First scenario can be a continuation of the current conflict without a peaceful of military resolution.  With the fighting forces on both sides holding their military and financial strength, and the continued external help for all parties in the conflict, the war can be prolonged for several years.  The Lebanese civil war of 1975 lasted more than fifteen years, and we are less than five years in the Syrian conflict. This scenario would have a devastating impact on Syria and the region.  The international community must strive to prevent it in any way possible.  A long war in Syria will make it impossible to achieve stability in Iraq, it will threaten the security of Lebanon and Turkey, and it is almost certain to destabilize Jordan, which is barely holding.  It will also increase the catastrophic human suffering and feed the growing challenge of refugee flood, which already reached western Europe and is stirring a partisan debate in the United States.

The second scenario can be the survival of President Assad and his regime after defeating the militant opposition.  This scenario is becoming even more realistic than it was a few days ago, because of the terrorist attacks in France and the results of investigating the downing of the Russian passenger plane after its take-off from Egypt.  For the Western world, Syria is already becoming what Afghanistan used to be just before September 11, 2001.  This country cannot be allowed to become a launching pad for the new pattern of conduct Da’ish is adopting — taking the conflict to Europe and beyond.

While this scenario is less traumatic than the first one, it will send a horrifying message to dictators that you can murder your way out of a revolution if you manage to hang on long enough.  It will also have dreadful consequences for the Syrian people, as the regime will take its time retaliating against those who opposed its authority, just as Saddam Hussein did after surviving the 1991 Uprising.  History showed us that bitter dictators retaliated by executing first and investigating later, if ever.  Being innocent is not a guarantee to avoid persecution.

A mass grave is uncovered in Hilla, Iraq. The bodies are suspected of being Iraqi civilians during the 1991 uprising against the Saddam Hussein regieme. This mass grave containing thousands of bodies, is the largest discovered in Iraq to date.
A mass grave is uncovered in Hilla, Iraq. The bodies are Iraqi civilians executed during the 1991 uprising against the Saddam Hussein regime. This mass grave containing thousands of bodies, is the largest discovered in Iraq to date.

Saddam killed more than 200,000 Iraqis in the aftermath of 1991, most of whom are still in undiscovered mass graves.  No courts or even investigations took place.  Indeed, all the victims were systematically murdered in death camps without any concern about their personal conduct.

The third scenario may involve the overthrow of President Assad by military means.  Depending on how this is accomplished, Syria can descend in an all-out civil war with the various groups that are currently fighting the regime turning against each other as it happened in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces.  After all, other than their hostility toward the Assad regime, these militant groups (Nusra Front, Da’ish, Free Syrian army, to name a few) have nothing in common and they all have different worldviews on the future shape of Syria: Islamic state, military dictatorship, a caliphate, or something else.  Democracy is not on the agenda of any of these groups.  Therefore, this scenario can be another version of the first scenario, but without the participation of the current regime.

The fourth scenario is a negotiated settlement between the regime and some elements of the opposition to share political power in a transitional period, with President Assad remaining in his place.  This is perhaps the most likely successful end to the conflict because it will give incentive to the Assad regime to accept a face saving exit from the current stalemate, it will be supported by Iran and Russia, and it will prevent future atrocities against innocent Syrians by any side of the conflict.  It can also be the best way to facilitate a smooth transition to the solution that was attempted in Geneva and Vienna, with the ultimate goal being a Syria without President Assad.

Although this last scenario may seem hard for those who would like to see President Bashar Assad defeated and humiliated, it might be the best possible outcome, given the alternatives outlined here and the support Assad has received from his domestic and international allies.  Many lives will be saved by ending the conflict, and the suffering of millions will finally come to an end.


What About The Factory Of Terrorism?

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.
SaudiWith every flame of terrorism, world leaders point their blame and guns aimlessly and conveniently ignore the real arsonist: Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology and petrodollars.  The Saudis adopt Wahhabism as their official state religion and grant the Wahhabis exclusive control of religious affairs, the judiciary, and the determination of school curricula in religion, history, and literature.  Saudi school textbooks are full of hate and religious extremism that can be converted into impulses of active terrorism with the simple spark in the mind of the graduates of these schools.  Kids from young ages (13 years old and up) are taught to hate the Jews, the Christians, the Shia, the Sufis, and all other “unbelievers.”  That’s essentially everyone except for Wahhabis.

In history textbooks, Saudi students are taught about the “glory” of personalities and rulers, from early Islam to the founders of the Saudi dynasty, who are not better than Abu Bakr Al-Baghdady, the leader of Da’ish.  They killed prisoners of war, took innocent people captives and auctioned them off, they chopped heads and hands, and committed just about every atrocity we can think of.  This dehumanization of the victims and the glorification of historic criminals serves as a backdrop of the terrorist mindset.

The after-school time is not a break from this mind-corrupting message.  Saudi mosques openly preach hatred and call for violence against all “unbelievers”.  These are not only the junior clergy, but top ones as well.  Kalbani, while holding the position of the Imam in Makka, told the BBC that Shia scholars are unbelievers, and “there may be room for argument” regarding the status of the Shia masses.

Then comes the role of petrodollars, billions of which have been spent to polish the Saudi regime’s image and market Wahhabism to the world by building schools around the world to teach the same aforementioned curricula and mosques that preach the same poisonous rhetoric.

Saudi 2These efforts by the Wahhabis and their patron, Saudi Arabia have produced generations of extremists who view Islam and the world only through the hateful lens of the Wahhabi extremism.  If we want to tackle this wave of terrorism and its driving hate ideologies, we need to start at the source: Saudi mosques, schools, and Saudi-financed media.  That is where the R&D (Research & Development) of terrorism is conducted.  Poor countries that provide bodies for terrorist networks are just cheaper and more convenient places of operation.


With its more than 10 million barrels per day in oil production, Saudi Arabia has been considered “too big to fail”, just like the giant banks in the West, and  Saudi leaders know this dirty detail of the international system.  They exploited their customers’ economic point of weakness to the fullest extent and traded oil security for the values of freedom and democracy.  Until this position changes, we may count on religious extremism to be with us for a long time.  Worse yet, we will see more of its manifestations in our Western cities time and again.  Our security people are doing the best they can, but as they say: “We have to be successful all the time, and the terrorists need to be successful once.”  Instead of playing by these vicious rules, reverse them and do the right thing once: go after the genesis of terrorism.

What Is American Foreign Policy in the Middle East?

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

middle-east-sales-890x395The longstanding United States foreign policy in the Middle East has been focused on a few basic principles: (1) ensuring Israel’s security, (2) supporting the stability of key friendly regimes, (2) protecting the flow of Gulf oil into the world market, and (4) combating terrorism (used to be the containment of Communism before the Soviet collapse).  The current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is showing all symptoms of long term failure.  Setting aside the despotic regimes in the Persian Gulf and Jordan, there are no real partners the U.S. can count on – the relation with Israel is one-way and has no added value to the U.S. standing in the region.  And even these partners are becoming a moral liability for the U.S. as they continue to oppress their people, and as some of them export religious extremism and finance the terrorism that is associated with it.  The countries where revolutions took place are either war-torn or struggling to forge a new orientation on the international theater.  All signs indicate that it is time for the U.S. to re-calibrate the Middle East foreign policy, but these signs are missed, or simply ignored.

The U.S. policy toward the Arab States of the Gulf has suffered some incoherence since the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran.  On the one hand, the Obama administration correctly concluded that the Iran Deal is the best possible way to protect U.S. interests and ignored all calls from the opponents of this deal, including Saudi Arabia.  To make it up for this oil-rich ally, the U.S. agreed to look the other way as Saudi troops in Bahrain continue crushing the peaceful protests against Bahrain’s oppressive minority rule.  But this was not enough to please the high demands of Saudi Arabia, so the U.S. made another gesture by supporting the Saudi-led war on the Yemeni opposition to the government of pro-Saudi President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.  The results of U.S. support of this Saudi-led cruel bombardment of Yemenis, including innocent civilians, remain to be seen.  yemenSo far, no real accomplishment have been made by the Saudi-led coalition, except for the massive death and destruction, some of which has been described by credible international organizations as possible war crimes.  It is hard to see what the U.S. national interest in lending support to such a military and moral quagmire.

In Iraq, a country the U.S. invaded in 2003 and changed its political regime at the cost of more than a trillion dollars and sacrificed the lives of more than 4,000 soldiers, the U.S. is not claiming its full reward.  The U.S. democratization prescription for Iraq has failed to produce a decent form of governance and the Iraqi military, trained and equipped by the U.S., has not held together due to inadequate organization and flawed planning.  Iraq stands today as a de facto divided nation where the Kurds – themselves are divided as well – rule their own territories without any input from the Federal government, except for the annual allowance they receive from the Iraqi oil revenue.  Their 17% share is calculated as $115 billion in the years 2005-2014.  The predominantly Sunni Arab provinces west and north of Baghdad are controlled by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a barbaric terrorist group with a Wahhabi Islamist ideology, with only a few areas are war zone controlled by the Iraqi forces.  The third part of Iraq is the predominantly Shia region, where the government enjoyed an attitude ranging from tolerance to reluctant support, has witnessed persistent mass demonstrations against government corruption and lack of good governance.  The U.S. does not seem to know how to fix the country after breaking it twelve years ago.

There is a general perception that Iraqis are allied with their co-religionists in the region: the Shia are allied with Iran, the Sunnis are allied with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states and the Kurds are close to Turkey.  While this may accurately describe some leaders and a number of Iraqis, the truth is that most Iraqis recognize the problems of their sectarian neighbors.  This statement by Shaykh Ghaith Al-Tamimi, a public intellectual from Iraq – a religious scholar – sums up the general Iraqi feeling as we see it expressed on the social media, in intellectual writings, and when speaking with Iraqis:

“The U.S. role in Iraq is destructive and shameful, as their continuing to play games with our fate is bitter and cruel.  As to the Iranian role, it is immoral and opportunistic, using Iraqi bodies and blood as a bridge to reach temporary political goals, while Iraqi orphans will remain as a curse on [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards’ policy in Iraq and Syria.  The [role of] Arab states and their ally in supporting terrorism, Erdogan’s Turkey, confirms without a doubt that the Arabs possess no values, nobility, or a sense of humanity.”

If this sentiment truly represents the way most Iraqis feel – I believe it does – then all regional and International players have lost their gambles in Iraq.  But why do Iraqis feel this way?

Iraqis blame the U.S. for leaving behind them a corrupt and inept government and when interfering it is to further establish and aggravate sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq.  Another accusation is that U.S. government has not done its part to stand by Iraq against the security threats and when it did it was only half-hearted effort.  The most cited example is the U.S. failure to spot and deal with the open manifestations of power by ISIL in many Iraqi areas.  And this is not only an Iraqi perception.  In a recent Congressional hearing, U.S. Representative Ed Royce (R-California) stated the following: “If you can take out armored divisions, you could certainly from the air take out pickup truck in the open desert.”  Iraqis dramatize the situation a little bit, saying, “If you can detect water in Mars, how can you fail to see ISIL convoys in Mosul?”

Iraqis find it unacceptable to stand by for more than a year as their second largest city remains in terrorist hands and more than tree million Iraqis are displaced in several provinces.  YazidiISIL is already wreaking havoc in the territories it controls and molding a generation of young population into its own image.  Meanwhile, the U.S. refuses to fully support the predominantly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) because of the close relations some of its elements maintain with Iran, and insists that any final attempt to liberate Mosul must take place after the recruitment of a Sunni force to be trained and equipped by the U.S., a plan that has not shown any potential so far.

Among all of the cases of U.S. policy struggle, the Syrian case is the most challenging.  Three problems make Syria a terrible can of warms: (1) there are no good guys to support, even for the U.S. where the bar of decency for allies is so low it is crossed easily by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  On one side, there is Syrian President Bashar Assad, a loathsome despot who inherited his father’s brutal rule of terror and added more of his own.  And on the other side stands an assortment of terrorist groups radicalized, armed, and financed by oil-rich Arab States of the Persian Gulf.  The U.S. allocated a hefty $500 million to identify, recruit and train “moderate Syrian opposition to Assad, but only had four or five fighters, a number that Senator Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) described as “a joke”, because the expected number of trainees was 5,400 by the end of 2015.

(2) The Assad government has the commitment of several regional and international forces, a coalition led by Russia and includes Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as some Iraqi and Afghani volunteer Shia units, in addition to a large part of the Syrian armed forces that maintained loyalty to President Assad.  This made the war unwinnable by the militant opposition groups in spite of the foreign support they receive from their respective foreign patrons. (3) The U.S. priorities in Syria are not aligned with the priorities of the key regional allies and the groups the U.S. is willing to support.  The stated U.S. policy is to focus the fight against ISIL, while the regional actors have overthrowing the Assad regime as their top priority.  When asked to reconcile these competing priorities, the U.S. administration dodge the question.

When it was attacked in Iraq, during Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s term, ISIL moved to Syria and captured some territories that were made soft by the fighting between the Syrian forces and the opposition.  Having established a launching pad in eastern Syria, ISIL began to coordinate with the Sunni opposition to the Iraqi government to have them facilitate the ISIL invasion of Mosul at a time when the Iraqi political elite were off-guard paying full attention to government formation.  By taking Mosul and other territories, ISIL controlled a vast territory with about eight million people and vast resources of oil, water, agriculture, and archaeological treasures, in addition to the capture of large sums of cash (more than $500 million in Mosul’s Bank alone).  They also generate cash from taxing local populations, human trafficking, and unbelievable as it sounds, the Iraqi government continued to send millions of dollars to former employees in ISIL-controlled areas as salaries where ISIL is taking up to 40% taxes on this money, curtsey of the Iraqi government.  But cash has not been the only thing they got from the Iraqi government.  They also captured an arsenal of American military hardware and ammunition from the Iraqi forces that abandoned everything and melted away.

The longer ISIL stays in power in these Iraqi and Syrian territories the more permanent their social and political damage will be.  They are harming innocent civilians, complicating the conflict in the region, and radicalizing a generation of young people who are a captive audience in their hands.  There seems to be no articulated U.S. strategy to end the menace of ISIL any time soon.  Will there be a well-defined strategy in the upcoming future, given that we are heading toward an election year?  Only time will tell.  But the continued lack of focus in U.S. foreign policy and the increased role of competitors, especially the Russians, the U.S. may eventually have to make painful adjustments to the definition and scope of American national interests in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Abadi Visited Najaf, But No Meeting With Grand Ayatollah Sistani

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

عبادي صدرIraqi Prime Minster Haider Al-Abadi is facing a big conundrum: how to turn corrupt and anti-democratic political parties, including his own, into instruments of democratic reform.  He ascended to the top executive position in Iraq after a bitter dispute over political power following the April 2014 elections whose results went in a landslide in favor of then the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and his political bloc, State of the Law, of which Al-Abadi was a candidate.  Thanks to the convoluted Iraqi election system, Al-Abadi gained a parliamentary seat in Baghdad with only 5,151 votes, not even close to independently deserving a seat.  Yet this did not rule out his appointment as prime minister instead of Al-Maliki in spite of the latter’s gain of 721,782 votes.  The appointment of Al-Abadi came in the midst of loud national and international calls for political change in Iraq, where corruption constantly placed the country among the worst five countries in the world.  Yet, one year later, Iraq is still going rapidly into a tailspin, as the desired change is still a fading illusion on the far horizon.

Prime Minister Al-Abadi presented a first rate political and economic platform for his government and received complete national, regional, and international support the like of which was never given to any of his predecessors.  Yet, the day after taking office he abandoned his promises and continued to govern with the same corrupt political personalities of the past government and the rate of corruption continued to grow unfettered.  To make matters worse, oil prices decreased significantly in 2015, leaving Iraq with a very significant budget deficit – about 90% of Iraqi revenue comes from oil exports.  Government corruption and incompetence continued to cripple the general services in the country, especially the national supply of electricity.

The heat waves of last summer gave the disappointed Iraqis the last needed push to take the streets against the government, leaving Abadi’s government in an unenviable position.  Under Abadi, Iraq was made of three zones: a Kurdish region that has been quasi-independent since the 1990’s, a Sunni region largely controlled by ISIS, and a Shia region whose population is the supposed political constituency of PM Abadi and his party, but now taking the streets to protest government incompetence and corruption.  Now, with winter’s first rain storm, the anger protesters is reinforced by the flooding of Baghdad and several major Iraqi cities and the inept governmental efforts to provide any relief in the absence of credible preparations for the rain season.

As if this was not enough to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire, another giant player entered the political ring soon after the protests started: the Shia religious authority, represented by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani issued instructions to the Prime Minister to “strike corruption with an iron fist.”  By this call the protesters – predominantly Shia – received endorsement from the highest moral authority in the country.  Iraqi politicians, including the icons of corruption among them, came out and cynically endorsed political reform.  Once again, Prime Minister Hayder Al-Abadi received a great mandate that could have changed the contemporary history of Iraq, but alas, he was unwilling to use it, or too incompetent to put it effectively to action.

PM Al-Abadi’s so-called “reforms” have boiled down so far to three categories: (1) a set of unconstitutional political reforms that were never implemented and finally struck down by the court, such as the elimination of the positions of Iraq’s three vice presidents, (2) measures that were meant to increase the Prime Minister’s power at the expense of other government branches and even the local provincial governments, in a gross departure from Iraq’s progress toward true federalism, and (3) a number of measures that hurt the Iraqi poor and middle class sectors of society, but never came close to the fat cats in the ruling class and the parasitical political elite. The most infamous of such measures was the new salary structure of state employees that brought more protesters to the streets.

PM Al-Abadi’s trip to Najaf this week was meant to boast his legitimacy and buy some credibility for his claims of reform, but this did not seem to materialize.  For any Najaf trip to be successful, it has to be crowned with meeting Grand Ayatollah Sistani.  عبادي يعقوبيBy going to Najaf and not securing such a meeting, PM Al-Abadi left no doubt that he lost even the benefit of doubt the Grand Ayatollah was willing to give him.  This begs the following logical question: why would he go to Najaf and expose himself to such a devastation?  Well, it is the same reason that made him go down the path of political self-destruction: personal imprudence, coupled with the lack of a professional team of advisers.

It is true that PM Al-Abadi took office in the wake of the greatest collapse in Iraq’s security, represented by the fall of Mosul and other Sunni cities in the hands of ISIS, and he inherited an empty treasury and corrupt bureaucracy, but two facts do not bode well for his defense: (1) he has been a leading figure in the the ruling Da’wa Party and chairman of the parliamentary Finance Committee during the past years; and (2) as a prime Minister, Dr. Al-Abadi showed no inclination toward reform until he was pushed to it by mass demonstrations in Baghdad and southern provinces.  His Security performance was not impressive either.  He lost the second largest Sunni city, Ramadi, to ISIS overnight in the same way his predecessor lost Mosul.  Therefore, the faith that many people had in him as a potential reformer may have been misplaced.