Small Wars Journal

The Day After Assad: What to Expect Based on Events in Post-Saddam Iraq

Thu, 03/14/2013 - 3:30am

Early signs of reconciliation?

RT: An early harbinger of how dangerous Iraq would become occurred in 2003 when Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoie travelled to Najaf with a wish to start national reconciliation, having remarked “"We are looking for a new Iraq in which everyone has a share... we want to forget the past and shake the hand of everyone.” But at the Shrine of Iman Ali, the very people who should have listened to this message took part in a deranged attack on his group. Much more horror followed across Iraq, fuelling a terrifying civil war. In Syria however, despite the shocking bloodshed we already have the offer of peace talks. Compared to the sentiment of so many Shia Iraqis toward Baathists, this looks very hopeful (an offer of talks to Saddam would have been unimaginable in the event of a successful anti Baathist uprising, although Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani was willing to deal with him.) But is the offer of talks really a sign of hope or is reconciliation going to be a much tougher challenge?

NR - Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoie’s death was less a story about revenge killings that led to sectarianism than it was a tragedy of the chaos and violence that ensued in Iraq after Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi opposition had relatively less interest in negotiating with the Ba’athists because they had a much stronger hand – the US was essentially going to fight their battle for them. They didn’t need to consider coming to the table. The Syrian opposition doesn’t have the luxury of US support, and so must more seriously consider the option of talks.

Moreover, I don’t think the offer of talks is necessarily a “sign of hope,” but another fracture point between opposition groups who call for negotiations and those who urge armed groups on the ground to keep up the fight. For the Syrian Opposition Coalition, this will be a particularly dangerous balance to strike and will require very accurate reporting from their connections on the ground in order to try to effectively represent the sentiment of those who support them. One potentially ugly scenario is if the opposition strikes a deal with the regime that local anti-Assad militia groups reject on the ground.

Above all else, I would just underscore the takeaway lesson from Sayyid al-Khoie’s death: that prominent advocates for non-violence are often targets in intense, ungoverned conflicts. Sayyid al-Khoie was irreplaceable, and you have to be very concerned when prominent Syrians put their lives on the line to help resolve conflicts, such as with long-time respected dissident Michel Kilo in Ras al-Ayn.

 A paramilitary security solution?

RT: One of the biggest concerns in a post Assad Syria is security. In Iraq we saw time and time again how a lack of security hampered and decimated often badly thought out reconstruction projects. These projects might have been able to fumble along if there had been peace on the streets, but with the growing crime/ looting/ insurgency they often went nowhere fast, wasting billions in reconstruction funds.

The Day After Project mentions the threat of a security vacuum and wisely calls for a plans to secure documents in ministries- key for reconstruction and reconciliation, as well as securing key infrastructure and prisons. This would have been a great move in 2003, but the coalition did not have the troop numbers and often did not think to secure vital areas, amazingly including huge arms dumps! Vital documents like payrolls and lists of Ba’athists were stolen or burned, further slowing transition. In Basra, a British officer found a resourceful policeman who had made copies of his staff roster and working together, the two men made a temporary security force that proved very effective until the CPA shut it down, saying essentially the new state has monopoly on violence, not militias.

There then followed some years of fumbling trying to build a competent ISF, and only much later during the surge, the Sahwa militias proved to be Iraq’s best force multiplier in reducing violence. But that has not come without problems that we increasingly see today- the government do not trust them. Hastily assembled militia forces could be hard to control and dangerous, but I feel in the short term they might be the only option for Syria until a new army/police are constructed with a solid code of ethics and national loyalty. What kind of dangers do you see with transitional security provided by paramilitaries in a post Assad Syria? The obvious danger is perhaps infiltration by extremists among local transitional security forces, or the risk that some of these groups may completely reject government initiatives and make their own laws...

NR- It seems like the security sector reform solution in Syria has to be somewhere to the right of Libya’s in terms of building stronger central government control over the “monopoly on violence” without being so ideologically committed to the concept that it ends up hurting rather than helping the reconstruction process. In theory this should be possible: Syria is much smaller and more densely populated than Libya (four times as many people in a country a tenth of Libya’s size), so the country should be more easily governable. In practice, however, there are tremendously complex problems associated with this process. Let’s look at three major ones:

First, we are already seeing divisions emerge between local groups that had participated in the armed opposition at a very early stage and larger governance structures. It is easier to fight than it is to govern: the bigger challenge will not be using the militias of the Free Syrian Army to fight the regime but forcing them to make the necessary compromises in peacetime.

If foreign-based members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition become key leaders in the transitional government, their demands for disarming militias that participated in the uprising will seem ludicrous because they didn’t participate in the fighting. In that light, they will have no choice but to work with these militia groups to remain popular and effective, but once you give these groups power it is hard to take it back.

Second, which militias do you empower? There is a growing lawlessness in Syria perpetrated by armed gangs who steal to make a living. Will the post-Assad state prosecute them? How will they divide those gangs that steal from those that sell sheet metal confiscated from an Aleppo factory in order to buy bullets to fight the regime? How will it distinguish those groups from ones that haven’t taken anything? What will they do when they realize that many of the ones with the “cleanest” record are the extremist groups? The transitional government will have to build an adaptive approach to dealing with these militias while still building local faith in the fairness of the new system.

Third and finally is the challenge of foreign influence. In Libya, foreign countries pay and train their own extragovernmental tribal militias. In Syria today, militia groups are for sale. This has created armed factions that respond to foreign government agendas rather than a local or national one. The transitional government in a post-Assad Syria will have to contend with militant groups that respond to foreign government agendas. Syrian political parties post-Assad will be armed.

These problems are of course interrelated: a transitional government will need legitimacy if it is to carry out unpopular demobilization reforms of militant groups that fought in the revolution. They will also need to make compromises with foreign powers to bring them and their militias to the table. But there are other complicating factors: Syrians have a strong suspicion of western countries, particularly should they attempt to assert their authority in security sector reform and demobilization efforts. The problem is that there is a lot of expertise in these developed countries, but a strong disinterest within Syria to incorporate their potentially useful lessons learned and best practices. Also, unlike Iraq and Libya, Syria has very little natural resource wealth. They have a destroyed economy that will not recover quickly. They cannot afford to fix the problem with money: when there are problems in the security sector in Iraq or Libya, they raise salaries and pension benefits. Syria literally cannot afford this option.

Top down or bottom up?

RT: After the fall of Saddam, the CPA focused on a number of national level projects: privatising industry, putting a transitional assembly together and de- Baathification to name a few. Eventually the CPA became bogged down in minutiae like a new traffic law and re-decorating Baghdad airport as the situation deteriorated and Bremer was rapidly swamped by crisis. At the same time, local security was looked after by contractors and coalition partners who were rapidly recruiting police and trying to train a new army, with an emphasis on numbers.

Only years later, it had become apparent that rapidly recruited (and therefore not properly vetted) security forces were carrying out mass violence on a sectarian basis or failing to secure neighbourhoods because of poor training. This has been characterized as a "top down" approach, one focused heavily on the national level- a national army, police force and ultimately what Toby Dodge has characterised as "an elite bargain." Much later it became clear that a lot of the best solutions in Iraq were at the local level, provided by local tribal leaders who were able to provide security, root out terrorists from their communities and oversee reconstruction projects by taking on the role of contractor.

The Day After Project focuses very much on the local: Rule of law monitors and committees, economic regeneration in the hands of local actors, and interim security in the hands of transitional local forces prior to their being reintegrated into a new security force or civilian society. On the one hand I can see how this local approach makes sense: in the absence of a state (and in the presence of conflict) power melts away from the centre and into the hands of tribal leaders or resistance leaders, and this was the case in Iraq where opportunists made money from smuggling like Sheik Sattar Abu Risha or the famous “Prince of the Marshes,” Abu Hatem.

But the coalition soon learned that local actors also had immense capacity for corruption, while others wavered in their commitment to the government, or worse became sidelined by the leaders in Baghdad. This has sometimes been as damaging as the severe corruption at the government level. In my opinion, despite the corruption of some of these local actors, a local focus would still have been preferable because at the national level a lot of the politicians (and coalition civilians) gradually became detached from the growing, dangerous problems on the Iraqi street.  With the Syrian National Council saying they need $60 billion for reconstruction, do you think the localised focus is the best opportunity for Syria, or should the immediate focus be at the government level- getting a national dialogue going on and rebuilding ministries etc. The hardest and best approach would perhaps be a combination...

NR- Libya is a great example of the challenges to this “bottom up” approach to security. The Libyan National Transitional Council – the first post-Gaddafi interim government – was so unwilling to force a nation-wide agenda without an elected mandate that they effectively subcontracted out security to local militias. Even the Tripoli airport was guarded by a tribal militia! After forming a government several months following the summer 2012 elections, the General National Congress (GNC) has consequently been at a distinct disadvantage. So powerless are they in exerting authority that since February 2013 injured revolutionary fighters have occupied the parliament in Tripoli demanding better pensions. Now they’ve had to suspend parliamentary activity because armed groups concerned with the influence of former Gaddafi officials in the current government kicked them out of their temporary offices (a Tripoli hotel). These groups even fired at President Mohamed Magarief’s convoy as it fled the protests.

There is great appeal to the localized approach: it is flexible and responsive. Caerus Associates’ recent study of governance in Syria even suggests that at present there is not enough capacity to manage a national portfolio. In our study we found that 50,000 is a magic number: any area more populated than that and governance structures really struggle to meet resident needs. In that light, not only is hyper-local governance the preferable solution, but the only manageable one at present.

But, as we’ve seen in Libya, authority is hard to bestow and even harder to take back. Local actors do not have national-level institutional development goals and are much more susceptible to control by interest groups. Benghazi, for example, is essentially run by armed gangs. Criminality is rife. In the past several months alone these armed gangs have killed dozens of national police officers and security officers. Some security challenges are too great for these “bottom-up” local actors to solve on their own.

Information is the key to building durable local-national relationships in such a complicated environment. The Day After Project’s intent to develop hyper-local monitors and committees that can sense what specific communities need is important, what remains to be seen is how willing a central authority will be to a) protect these community monitors, b) read their reports, and c) be interested in/able to implement their recommendations. This said, The Day After (TDA) project advisors have told me they are working hard on this, which they call “phase two” – or the implementation of their concepts. In the past few weeks, they have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Syrian Opposition Coalition that will allow them to begin working on technical assistance for reconstruction issues like Rule of Law, Security Sector Reform, and Transitional Justice. There will be a lot more action from TDA in the coming months.

RT: Some opposition leaders have pledged to protect religious sites. Any attacks on religious sites are of course inflammatory, but for many people an attack on the Sayyidah Zainab shrine is the nightmare scenario, evoking the horror in Iraq after the al-Askari shrine attack in Iraq. Do you see any way this site could be protected in the coming months, perhaps a greater commitment from Syrian opposition that these sites will be secured?

NR- Of all the things that really resonated with Iraqis that I met while living there was the bitter memory of the looting and the attacks directed at religious sites. There are certain things that cannot be replaced, and there will be spoilers in Syria who seek to destroy these cultural artefacts to inflame local frustrations or sow intercommunal tensions. The question is who should be held responsible to protect them during and after the conflict.

Telling armed combatants to mind UNESCO heritage sites is like advising race car drivers not to get into accidents: almost everyone wants to avoid them, but some destruction will happen in an increasingly violent conflict. Even if groups recognize their importance there’s no guarantee they’ll avoid them. These are the key issues that the international community can really get behind and support vigorously. The destruction of Aleppo’s souqs is a worldwide tragedy. No one wants Syria’s rich heritage to be a victim of the conflict. I would also add here that educational initiatives are another neglected but highly important issue that the international community should vigorously support. Protect Syria’s physical heritage and nurture its future, these could be ways the international community could support the reconstruction and win points with Syrians.

 RT: The Day After Project mentions stopping regime elements wanted for crimes against humanity from leaving Syria, but there is not an emphasis on securing Syria's borders which have been penetrated by fanatical fighters not only of the Salafi jihadi variety, but also by numerous Shia groups from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Considering where the various rebel groups are located and their allegiance, how hard do you think it will be for a transitional force to secure Syria's border region? Perhaps close cooperation with neighbouring countries such as Iraq would be a priority, to stop the transit of AQ and other groups...

NR-The border issue is going to be extremely challenging for two basic reasons (though there are many):

1) There are highly evolved smuggling routes across all of Syria’s borders that will be impossible to shut down for the foreseeable future. Right now, the Jordanian and Iraqi borders are probably the most permeable because they are the largest and least governable. But this can be addressed with better border monitoring technology that can effectively police borders that are, effectively large unpopulated swaths of flat desert.

The Lebanese and Turkish borders are much more challenging in the long term because they are rugged. There are old and intricate smuggling routes across those borders and will be nearly impossible to monitor even with high tech equipment and training.

2) In some cases, Syria’s neighbors do not necessarily share a common regional interest in policing these borders. Iraqis know that the Syrians long allowed safe passage for the jihadist groups that still plague their country. The Lebanese, Turkish, and Jordanian governments likewise will be driven by prevailing national interests. The Lebanese, for example, through Hezbollah’s smuggling networks in the Beka’a Valley, will be key for Iran to be able to support its constituencies in Syria.

The short answer is that, both because of the very evolved nature of the smuggling networks and the divergent interests among Syria’s neighbors, if you want to get something or someone into Syria, chances are it or they will get in.

 RT: How wide is the appeal of groups like the Muhajireen Group and Jabhat al Nusra among Syria's Sunnis? My sense is that if they start imposing strict Islamic law, most people will ultimately reject it, as we saw eventually in Iraq at the beginning of the Sahwa movement against AQI.

NR-These Islamist Jihadist groups are well respected by Syrians for their fighting prowess and their discipline. They confront the Syrian army on the front lines of some of the most visible and important conflicts. Moreover, where other armed groups might steal community resources for funding, Islamist groups like Nusra (they are of course very diverse, Nusra is shorthand) generally doesn’t because they are disciplined and well-funded. The longer the conflict goes on, the more popular groups like Nusra will become.

Will the Syrians reject their extremist ideology? That is one of the biggest questions in the conflict. It can still go either way at this point – but there is clear evidence that groups like Nusra are trying to learn their lessons from their failure in Iraq, the question of how well they can implement them will be key in determining whether they will become spoilers or political power brokers in the post-Assad Syria.


About the Author(s)

Nathaniel Rosenblatt leads Caerus’s research and analysis initiatives focusing on the Middle East and Northern Africa. Prior to joining Caerus, Nate spent three years developing research capacity at The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). He received his MA in International Relations with a Middle East concentration from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he wrote his dissertation on opposition politics in Syria. In addition to working at the university, Nate participated as an international elections observer in Iraq’s national elections in March 2010 and co-edited a journal on the impact of the Arab Spring in November 2011. A Middle Eastern food junkie, Nate is on a constant, world-wide search for authentic kibbeh.

Robert Tollast is an occasional contributor to The Small Wars Journal. He writes Mesopotamia Monthly, a monthly Iraq update for the Global Politics journal, as well as having written for the Defence Management Journal. He lives and works in London.