Kamal Alam is a Fellow for Middle East Regional Defence and Security Issues at the The Institute for Statecraft and is an adviser to the British Army on Syrian Affairs.
General George S Patton famously remarked: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country”. Today, as the war in Syria grinds on, everyone seems to be confused as to how we got here and where we are going from here. Thousands of foreign Arab and non-Arab fighters fill the ranks of the terrorists now fighting the Syrian Army. Interestingly, many of the returning Saudis, who joined up to do so, apparently now say that they were misled about the real objectives of those they signed up to join – since the aims of different rebel groups vary from opportunism to sheer capitalist gain from foreign government aid projects.
As the battle for Kobane rages, the Syrian conflict has come full circle. Before ISIS caught the attention of the western media, the Syrian Air Force was the first to hit them hard – at least four months before Western airstrikes. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Prime Minister, put his gratitude for these on the record last summer – and no wonder, since Syria had thus come to the aid of encircled Iraqis in the north and west of the country. These took place while were the Americans balking at the idea of delivering F-16s that Iraq had already paid for: the Air War had been raging in Iraq well before it caught the attention of the USAF and RAF. And whether the location was Kobane, Sinjar or Abu Kamal, it was the Syrian military which threw its weight behind helping the Armenians.
It must be now be clear to Western defence chiefs that there is only one credible fighting force on the ground capable of fighting ISIS, and that is the Syrian military – whatever one’s view of Assad and his government, which is certainly not a democratic one and is implicated in many human rights violations. The Syrian Army hold all the aces up their sleeve; their relationship with or experience of the Kurds, the Lebanese, the Iraqi tribes.
For good or ill, their strategy has worked. The Syrian military perfected the art of fighting militias in Lebanon; indeed, they invented insurgents within insurgents to drive the Israelis out of Lebanon. Whilst the Syrians were shooting at one Lebanese Maronite they were smoking cigars with another. Today, thanks to the Syrian military, Hezbollah is allied with two of the strongest Christian warlords in Lebanon. Whilst the American military were run ragged in Iraq over Sunni and Shia insurgencies, the Syrian Army and intelligence kept on top of both. Whilst the West ignored the Iraqi Christians, Syria gave refuge to over half a million of them with subsidies, board and lodging. Whilst the region forgot about the Armenians, the Syrian Army built a memorial in Der Azour for those killed.
Today, when experts ask “How did we get here?”, it is worth remembering that written and oral history began in Syria. The Syrian Army remains the only capable, inclusive, multi-ethnic and religious force in the whole Arab world. It was and remains an inclusive pluralistic State. The world’s then greatest Syria expert, the Oxford academic Patrick Seale, always advised-decision makers not to confuse Syria for Libya, Egypt or Iraq.
Today we see the unravelling of the whole region because of the euphoria to bring democracy to a State and society that has coexisted for more than four thousands years – having the world’s first settlements, first synagogue and first church. The West should refrain from arming any sort of opposition, since there are no moderates. The Christian community of Syria are not a minority; they are as much Syrians as another religion, and the Syrian Army is the guardian of all Syrians.