A few thoughts on Syria

Tolstoy wrote War and Peace as a retort to all the armchair European analysts of his time, who wrote and discussed Napoleon’s conquests, and his failure in the Russian winter in the year 1812. Their analysis always sounded reasonable, and explained all the events by attributing clear decision making and brilliant analysis to Napoleon and his enemies. Tolstoy’s problem with this was that he saw all the intellectuals of his day as just observing all that happened, and then crafting a nice story as an explanation. A grand success from the French was due to Napoleon’s sheer brilliance. A failure was due to a tragic mistake, or a stroke of misfortune. The messy complexities of actual reality were smoothed over. Tolstoy saw it differently, and even suggested that Napoleon wasn’t particularly great. He viewed Russia’s success as a fluke. In his view the entire course of history is chaotic, and since we miss so much of what truly happens, we convince ourselves the course of history is set by the grand commanders and pivotal moments.

I sometimes wonder if we make this same mistake with Syria. We have our major players: The Assad regime, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Al-Nusra (al-Qaeda), the Kurds, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, the US, and now Russia. We then look to each player and ascribe strategic intentions, and use that in our analysis. What is interesting though is there seem to be two separate areas of information, with only slight overlap, on Syria. The first is the standard journalism information, and the second is from non-professionals scanning and interpreting the vast amount data posted by combatants and civilians on social media. The subreddit /r/syriancivilwar aggregates the most interesting data, which is usually far more personal and noisy than the stories on NPR or the NYtimes. On the other hand, they are often videos of fighting or discussion, or personal thoughts. The more I read and watch the more confusing Syria becomes. Things rarely become clearer, and it’s obvious they aren’t that clear for people on the ground either.

What is the Free Syrian Army? Is it really a moderate group of soldiers working together against oppression? To me it seems like a term we have assigned to groups of rebels each fighting to protect their cities from outside threats. What is the al-Nusra front, and what is their goal in Syria? The Institute for the Study of War argues that smaller opposition groups might ally themselves with larger groups (like al-Nusra) as larger outside threats approach. Part of the problem is when we speak about Syria, we assume there is a semblance of organization and communication that makes belonging to a faction simple and systematic. I think an important question is to understand what drives Syrian civilians to affiliate themselves with a group. My impression is that if you are a man, and not in a major city, you need to form a militia to protect your town or village, since without any formal protection you are essentially living in anarchy. These are then characterized as ‘opposition’ groups, and somewhere along the way they are clumped together with the FSA, or ignored.

I worry that the analysis and stories that we hear on Syria misunderstand the entire country. While there are concrete issues with Russia involved, in terms of understanding the civil war itself, it is closer to anarchy than anything else. And if that’s the case, I think trying to ‘arm moderates’ or support the right side won’t work, since there is no clear side or organization (although there are wrong sides, namely ISIS and al-Qaeda). I think the only end to the war will come when some person or group gains overwhelming power, and can create an authoritarian government.