Around 70 years ago, Syria gained its independence from colonial France. One of the legendary warriors of the anti-French insurgency, Sultan Al Atrash, was invited to take part in the Independence Day festivities. He was presented with a retirement pension, a small villa in Damascus, a front row seat at the military parade, and was decorated with the Syrian Medal of Honour, Excellence Class. His role ended right there and then; he was never consulted on state affairs, or given a say in cabinet formation or foreign policy. War medals don’t necessarily entitle their bearers to politics. Leading a guerrilla battle is one thing, running a state is completely different.
As the Syria war inches close to a political breakthrough, thanks to serious, albeit late, Russian and American statesmanship, everybody who carried a gun on both sides of the battle thinks that he is entitled to a major role in Syria’s future. Poetically, they are, but the reality is going to be harshly different.
Stakeholders in the Syria war insist that only the armed groups that were involved in the political process last January will be eligible to be part of the country’s future. That basically excludes everybody except the Turkish-backed Ahrar Al Sham of northern Syria and the Saudi-backed Jaish Al Islam of the Damascus countryside. Both agreed to join the talks if they led to the departure of President Bashar Al Assad.
Members of the Syrian opposition speak of a day when representatives of these military groups will sit in the Damascus-based Chamber of Deputies, commanding an influential coalition of MPs. This is what happened in neighbouring Lebanon, after all, once the civil war ended. All militia leaders were re-branded as politicians and ushered into the Lebanese Chamber. Some joined national unity governments, others led parliamentary blocs and chaired political parties.
The comparison with Lebanon is flawed, however, because these were militia leaders not militiamen — they commanded men with arms and did not personally take part in the fighting. It was therefore easy for them to walk away from the battlefield when the time was right, and rebrand themselves as statesmen rather than warlords. The armed men on checkpoints, rooftops and street corners disappeared into oblivion.
Both Moscow and Damascus insist that these militias are nothing but “terrorist groups” that will never outlive the current conflict. The Russian Air Force is coming after their top commanders, one at a time, making sure that in what remains of 2016, only three players are left on the Syrian battlefield: The Syrian Army, Jabhat Al Nusra, and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
Russia’s strategy is to recapture rebel-held cities by force, through military siege and aerial bombardment. Fighters can choose either to resist and die or to accept a safe exodus for themselves and their families, under the watchful eye of the United Nations. This falls broadly under the umbrella of “truce” and “reconciliation”.
Those who accept are usually allowed a relatively dignified existence and then collectively deported either to Raqqa on the northern bank of the Euphrates River or Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria. The first is the provincial capital of Daesh, while the second has been under control of Jabhat Al Nusra, the official Al Qaida branch in Syria, since 2015.
Ultimately, if the Russians get their way, three sections of Syria will temporarily emerge from the current conflict, separated by geography, tanks and psychological barriers rather than physical borders. On paper, all of them will officially remain part of the Syrian Arab Republic. The first, what the world coins as “Useful (or functioning) Syria” will be Russia’s share of the Syrian cake. It includes the entire Syrian coast and major cities including Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus. The strategic and historic city of Aleppo needs to be part of this fiefdom — the Russians will never cede it to the Turks, and so do the port cities of Tartous and Latakia, where Russia’s military presence is concentrated. This Syria also needs to include the entire Syrian-Lebanese border, manned by Syrian troops and Hezbollah. The second Syria, co-shared by the Americans, Russians and Damascus officialdom, will cover east and west of the Euphrates River, mainly encompassing Kurdish territory that is allied with the central government against Turkish ambitions in Syria. The third Syria, or “terrorist Syria”, will be centred in Idlib and Raqqa, where all of the world’s unwanted extremists will be looped, with one city becoming a “capital” of Al Qaida and the other, a capital of Daesh.
Far from getting to serve as MPs in the Syrian parliament, these militia leaders will be quarantined and allowed to reign in Raqqa and Idlib, giving the worse example of so-called “Islamic” government the world can possibly imagine. One day, when the tide turns in the United States, the world will give Russian President Vladimir Putin a green light to march on both and eradicate them in his “war on terror!”
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015).