Column: Aleppo and the myth of Syria’s sovereignty

Column: Aleppo and the myth of Syria's sovereignty
Aftermath of Assad-Russian airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Aleppo, October 17

The Assad regime’s campaign has reached a grim crescendo in Aleppo, further bewildering an international community struggling to respond to blatant attacks on hospitals, homes, and humanitarian convoys.

The government has long defended its actions, in Aleppo and elsewhere, by appealing to Syria’s sovereignty. In July, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hoped that history would see him as the man who protected his country and “saved its sovereignty”. Last week, Assad explained to a Danish interviewer: “We are a sovereign country; we are independent. We have the right to tackle our problems.”

Yet the arrogation of sovereignty by the Assad regime is based on three myths.

Three myths 

The first myth is that Syria’s is largely an internal war. Syria appears locked in stalemated conflict between two loose “sides” – the Syrian government and its opposition.

To the extent that international involvement is recognized, it is usually through references to a “proxy war” between regional and global powers, with the Syrian government backed by Russia and Iran, and the rebels supported, to different extents, by the US, Turkey, and some Gulf states.

Furthermore, when we talk about foreign fighters in Syria, it is invariably in the context of the radical component of the opposition, namely groups such as ISIL, Ahrar al-Sham, and Fateh al-Sham. This is with good cause: it is estimated that between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign nationals from 86 countries have traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria.

However, the Syrian regime not only draws from but is fundamentally dependent upon its own pool of foreign combatants.

Right now in Aleppo, upwards of 5,000 Shia militiamen are massing for a final assault on rebel-held areas in the east of the city.

More powerful than Syrian government forces, and likely greater in number, this shadow army is a mix of conscripts, mercenaries and ideological volunteers from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Elsewhere in Syria, tens of thousands more foreign nationals fight to keep Assad in power.

More importantly, the pro-Assad militia is increasingly directed from outside Syria by a foreign power.

It is widely believed that Iran’s Quds Force recruits, salaries and commands the bulk of this foreign legion.

Survival of Assad regime

Together with Russian air power, these sectarian paramilitary pilgrims are vital to the survival of the Assad regime.

Paradoxically, then, it is not only foreign bombers but also foreign flesh and bone that enable the Syrian government to continue claiming the right to sovereignty.

The second myth is that Assad is mainly defending Syria’s sovereignty against terrorists, whether foreign or homegrown.

In an interview with a Russian newspaper, Assad claimed that “the majority of those we are fighting are takfiris who adopt the al-Qaeda doctrine”. In this week’s presidential debate, Donald Trump asserted that “I don’t like Assad at all, but Syria is killing ISIL. Russia is killing ISIL. And Iran is killing ISIL”.

The problem is not only that the regime and its partners have relentlessly pounded moderate opposition factions such as the Southern Front at Deraa, or that hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed.

A major difficulty arises from the fact that the behavior of the Assad regime will drive the problem of radicalisation for years to come.

ISIL and its like are symptoms of Syria’s problems and not their cause. They are the modern product of a major governance crisis across the region.

After decades of state repression, these groups ape and exaggerate the excesses of the states they oppose. ISIL was borne of what South Korean writer Han Kang has termed “the radioactive spread of brutality”.

By depicting their struggle as part of the global war on terror, the Syrian government and its allies attempt to capture the western policy zeitgeist. In reality, their actions aim at keeping a local cohort in power at any cost.

Unconditional sovereignty

The third is the myth of unconditional sovereignty. The Syrian government arrogates to itself the rights and privileges of sovereignty, as though there were no accompanying obligations.

In the 17th century, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius argued that the rights of the sovereign should be limited by the principles of humanity. Since then, the international community has slowly arrived at the idea that with sovereignty comes an element of basic responsibility. Aleppo

Yet by opting to fight its opposition through siege, starvation, chlorine gas and “double-tap” barrel bombs in civilian areas – routinely burying women and children under collapsed buildings – the Syrian government appears unburdened by the responsibilities of power.

Assad benefits considerably from the complexities of the war: the intimate links to intensifying “cold wars” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Russia and the US; the cannibalisation of parts of the Syrian opposition by jihadi groups; the uncertain fate of many communities should the regime collapse; the approximation of the underlying dynamics to the Iraq debacle in 2003.

On account of these complications, the international community has tied itself up in knots.

On this final score, then, the Assad regime may be right. The coming weeks will determine whether a government that has turned the machinery of the state against its people in the name of sovereignty can be stopped, somehow, in the name of humanity. Aleppo

Alia BrahimiAl JaAzeera

Alia Brahimi is the Director of Contest Global, a strategic consultancy firm. She is a specialist in terrorism and political trends in the Middle East and North Africa.