Mustafa Amin writes from Damascus: Fighting in the suburbs of Damascus between the Syrian army and insurgents reveals, in the words of President Bashar al Assad, that the country is at war. The pro-Assad TV station has also been attacked and bombed to shreds. Battles rage elsewhere in Syria.
There are three groups engaged in the conflict: Syrian government forces, the insurgents and foreign jihadists. They all have different agendas. The military is rebuffing the insurgents to maintain the rule of the Alawite Shia minority. The insurgents would like to see a Sunni dominated state. The jihadis favour an Islamic republic with Sharia Law.
Damascus is supported by Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, the insurgents by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and the jihadists by radical Saudis and others.
The shooting down of the Turkish F-4 jet fighter united NATO behind Ankara. Turkey has warned Syria that if its forces approach the Turkish border, it may be construed as a warlike act. Ankara would then have a pretext to invade.
Cool heads are needed in this environment of hate, violence and revenge seeking. How would one now expect President al Assad’s regime to react? Its first priority is to remain in power. Therefore, the interests of the country come second. A rational decision would be to negotiate an end to the violence and regime change. This will not happen because defeat poses an existential threat to the Alawites, Christians and other supporters of the present order.
Damascus is now under siege. Experience of similar situations reveals that decision makers rely on past experience. Force has worked in the past so it is now the only option. It is extremely difficult to convince the besieged that there is another option: negotiation. Even when defeat stares them in the face, they will continue fighting. They see concessions to the opposition as shameful and a betrayal of their principles.
President al Assad is now a hostage to his own military. They, as a group, find it most difficult to change course. Each officer’s decision will be made in his own interests. Under duress, it will be increasingly difficult for military leaders to agree among themselves. They, in turn, will find it more onerous to persuade their subordinates that orders are also in their interests. This tension results in some officers defecting to Turkey and Jordan. They have abandoned their comrades because they do not believe the regime can survive. Again they act in their own interests. Those officers who are not Alawite will find it easier to defect. Eventually a hard core of Alawites will be left. Rationally they should give up an unequal fight. But they will not. Irrational behaviour increases as the situation becomes more dire. They prefer to go down with the regime and bring Syria down as well.
So the conclusion is that a lot of irrational decision making is going on in Syria at present. However those involved are convinced that they are acting rationally. No wonder Kofi Annan had such a limited impact. He put forward a rational argument – stop the fighting and start negotiating – but all this fell on deaf ears. He made the mistake of believing that rational arguments would change the behaviour of the regime.
No, the Syrian imbroglio will continue until the Alawite regime has been physically eliminated. Iran and Iraq, and Turkey may be drawn in on opposite sides. So expect a long drawn out conflict. This will result in great loss of life and immense material damage. To the outsider this is irrational. To those involved it is totally rational to fight to the bitter end.