Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Syrian unity?

It is not my place nor within my abilities to evaluate the new Syrian national council (call it the NC).    However a number of Syrian activists have expressed doubts about its role and prospects.   I hope it is acceptable for me to offer some general comments, not on the council, but on the leadership of other resistance movements, and to note the differences between those movements and what seems to be the case in Syria.

There have been incessant calls for a unified Syrian opposition.   Some of these calls come from activists who cite the obvious tactical and strategic advantages of a united military force.   Others come from great powers who seem to seize on this theme as an excuse for doing nothing:  "oh, we don't know who we're dealing with."   The issues involved here might be clearer if there's attention paid to the different sorts of unity that, in the past, have been found effective for different sorts of resistance movements.    There is the political unity of a government in exile, the unity of a military command, and the often loose organization of an underground movement.

For a clandestine movement, unity can be a distinct disadvantage.   Underground movements are vulnerable to régime repression:  otherwise they would not be underground!   That's why underground movements - for example in Algeria - frequently adopt a highly decentralized structure.   In fact the hardest underground movements to suppress often have no unity at all.   Al Qaeda is a prominent example.   There are many 'Al Qaedas' whose links seem to be tenuous, perhaps not much more than a  sharing of general outlook and goals.    Terrorism 'experts'  speak of a 'hydra' in testimony to the resilience of this model.

In Syria, resistance is not confined to an underground, but has a military component.   There are fighters more or less out in the open, in battle against the régime's armed forces.    There have been specific complaints about weaknesses due to logistical and coordination failures.   It is said, and it seems hard to deny, that unity would help overcome these problems.

Finally there is political opposition.   Within the country, it takes the form of demonstrations, which seem spontaneous or locally organized.   No one seems to complain about the decentralization of these efforts.    Then there are the exile groups who have come together to form a council in the recent Doha negotiations.   They at least resemble a provisional government in exile.   They unite various political opposition groups in a single decision-making body.   Some activists have asserted that the council is well-suited to count as the representative of the Syrian people.

Representation is a political function and the NC is a political body.  Perhaps, like a government, it can fulfil administrative functions, not simply act as a discussion forum in which its component organizations can agree on broad policy matters.  But even if this is the case, its connection with military unity would be atypical in historical terms.

Military unity, of course, implies a clear and more or less unquestioned chain  of command.    Successful armed resistance movements often achieve this - witness China (Mao's Red Army), Vietnam, Algeria (the FLN), Nicaragua (the FSLN) and Cuba.   These organizations take direction from either an individual or a small group:  there is no broad-based deliberation and no pretence at a representative process.   The NC doesn't resemble the leadership of a militarily united organization.

What then do recent developments hold for the prospect of military unity?    In the cases where this unity prevailed - as far as I know, and in all the cases cited above - it was there more or less from the start.   In the cases where there were a number of armed organizations - e.g. Rhodesia, Ireland, Mozambique - these movements stayed separate.    In any event it is difficult to see how a political body in exile can engage in the detailed administration and exercise of authority needed to unify the various military units.    The task would be much easier if all units had adequate weaponry and secure supplies of ammunition; that would reduce real conflicts of interest.    But the West apparently wants unity to be a precondition of adequate supplies, not a consequence!

In the final analysis I'd suppose that events on the ground, not abroad, will be decisive in determining Syria's future.   If so, history seems to caution against expecting too much of the new national council.    If it fails to effect military unity, that may be only because it isn't suited to the task, and shouldn't be charged with that responsibility.   And if military unity is made a condition of substantial military aid, the council's activities are unlikely to satisfy that requirement.

History also suggests that the unity demand, if it's more than a mere excuse for withholding military aid, bears re-evaluation.   Military disunity needn't spell post-war disaster.  Military unity - witness Cambodia - is no guarantee against it.   The post-war outcome seems to depend on post-war support for an enlightened provisional  government such as the national council seems likely to provide.   Libya disunited, for all its problems, is a lot better than Cambodia was, united.

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