The war has reached the stage at which many on both sides no longer regard the others as human, let alone as citizens of a country in which all must coexist. The introduction of chemical weapons, which have been alleged to have been used not only by the government but by the rebels as well, was only the most dramatic escalation by combatants who seek nothing short of the annihilation of the other side. As Islamist rebels pursue the ethnic-sectarian cleansing of Alawite villages in the northeast, the government batters the rebel-held, mostly Sunni Muslim suburbs of Damascus and the old city of Homs. The population that survives the violence is contending with famine, disease, and exposure to the extremes of Syria’s summers and winters.
The deployment of poison gas in the eastern Ghouta on the edge of Damascus on August 21 unexpectedly led to hope for a way out. The Russians compelled President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons to the United Nations, creating a diplomatic opening to revive the Geneva conference that the US and Russia promised last May. Russia had delivered President Assad, who agreed to attend without preconditions. The US, however, was slow to persuade the militias it funds or those armed by its Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish allies to attend. When the use of chemical weapons underscored the urgency of stopping the carnage, the US persuaded a few opposition leaders to agree to negotiate at Geneva, albeit conditionally.
I spoke with the veteran Moroccan diplomat Mokhtar Lamani, who has been the UN–Arab League representative on the ground in Syria since September last year. “If there is no political solution,” he said, “I would not be surprised to see a genocide.” Lest I misunderstand him, I asked him to repeat his view. In slightly different form, he stated, “The ingredients are there for a genocide in a few months.” He did not say whether he meant a genocide by government or rebel forces or mass killing on both sides.
Lamani’s mission has taken him to rebel and government areas in all parts of the country. He is on first-name terms with Assad, Assad’s senior advisers, cabinet ministers, and defense chiefs. He has had face-to-face encounters with rebel commanders in the field. His expeditions required crossing dangerous checkpoints through uncharted and fluid terrains of government and rebel forces. He somehow achieved guarantees from all parties not to fire on his convoys or to kidnap him. After he came to know the rebels, he continued his communications with them less intimately but more safely via Skype.
Lamani shares the view, asserted by Information Handling Services Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center and other analysts, that the opposition comprises more than 1,000 groups with at least 100,000 fighters. For Geneva negotiations to succeed, representatives of at least half the rebels and the non-violent opposition—consisting of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and the Local Coordination Committees—must attend and be prepared to sign an agreement that few of them will find palatable. Lebanon’s warring militia leaders were forced into such negotiations at Taif, in Saudi Arabia, in 1989, ending fifteen years of “no victor, no vanquished” warfare. The regional powers, backed by the US, forced the Lebanese warlords to amend the constitution and, except for Hezbollah, to surrender their weapons. No one was satisfied, but the war stopped. When I asked a Western diplomat who works with the Syrian opposition for his assessment of the preparations for Geneva, he answered in one word, “chaos.” Lamani seems almost as fearful of the state of diplomacy over Syria as of the military stalemate: “It’s much better not to have a Geneva than to have a failed Geneva.”
Comparing Syria to Iraq, where he served as Arab League representative from 2000 to 2007, Lamani says, “It’s even worse here.” Syria has become the venue of what he calls “a proxy war” or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalists over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre–World War I dominance. The original demands for reform and justice of the peaceful protesters at the start of the uprising in 2011 are as forgotten as, two years and millions of deaths into the Great War, was Austria-Hungary’s July 23, 1914, ultimatum to Serbia.
While Syrians do most of the fighting and dying, both sides have welcomed foreigners into their ranks. Iranians and Lebanese Shiites reinforce the government army, while Sunni jihadists from more than forty countries have become the revolt’s shock troops. They are less concerned with majoritarian democracy than with deposing a president whose primary offenses they consider to be his membership in an Islamic sect, the Alawites, that they condemn as apostate, and his alliance with Shiite Iran. A Red Cross worker who, like Lamani, has worked on both sides of the barricades, said, “If there are secularist rebels, I haven’t met them.”
Nearly everyone wants intervention, but they disagree on its form. One view is that massive military force of the kind that the United States can provide will end the war by deposing the dictatorship. The other is that the United States must force mutually antagonistic rebel factions to meet at Geneva to discuss a transition to a freely elected government. Disbanding the army and abolishing government services, as the US occupation did in Iraq, would be anathema to most Syrians. Bashar al-Assad remains the sticking point for both sides. The opposition insists that he resign immediately, while he and his supporters claim that he is crucial to a successful transition. Yet if he runs for president when his term expires next year, he could win. The opposition would divide its votes among scores of rival candidates. Many fear that a victorious Assad would emulate his father’s revanchism following his bloody repression of the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising at Hama in 1982. Hafez al-Assad’s biographer, Patrick Seale, described the elder Assad’s sudden appearance in the streets of Damascus on March 7, 1982:
That day it was a new Asad, brutal and vengeful, who roared: “Brothers and sons, death to the criminal Muslim Brothers! Death to the hired Muslim Brothers who tried to play havoc with the homeland!”
A few samples from my discussions with Damascenes over the past month in Damascus give the flavor of the debate about negotiations. A former political prisoner said, “Geneva will not happen. Nothing will be fixed until an external force comes to Syria. No one has control here, not the regime, not the Free Syrian Army, not America. He [Assad] will fight to the last Syrian.” A normally conservative Sunni businessman echoes this view: “Geneva II is bullshit. There is no will to stop on either side.”
By contrast, the acclaimed novelist and peaceful oppositionist Khaled Khalifa, who has chosen to remain in Syria rather than live a safer life in Europe, said, “All of the intelligentsia has left Syria. We need Geneva.” The Greek Catholic Patriarch of Syria, Gregorios III Lahham, said, “Let’s go all together to Geneva.” For him, it is the only way to staunch the permanent flow of his congregation of 350,000 from the country. Minister of Information Omran Zoabi said, “The external opposition doesn’t want to go to Geneva, because Geneva will produce a political solution. And they choose to fight.” Yet fighting achieves only the country’s unremitting destruction.
There are limits to what a Geneva meeting can achieve. Louay Hussein, one of the internal opposition leaders who is working with the government, said, “My ambition is that shortly after Geneva there will be a possibility for a real political life inside Syria and the emergence of leaders within Syria. This is a hope, not a certainty.” For most Syrians, suffering the daily grind of this war of attrition, it is not even a hope.
As elsewhere in Syria, the war in the Tadamon quarter has reached stasis. The western front must have been like this for long periods of World War I. Instead of trenches, shelter takes the form of two- and three-story apartment buildings. All that is missing is a Christmas truce with a football match in no man’s land. World War I was confined for the most part to uniformed troops, but Tadamon’s battlefield mixes soldiers and half-trained militiamen with an estimated 80,000 civilian men, women, and children. Before the war, they lived here peacefully, and those who survive will probably do the same when the armed groups leave. No one, however, dares to predict how many more will die before that comes to pass.
—November 7, 2013