Reply to George Abu Ahmad

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Musa al-Gharbi

Outreach scholar, University of Arizona’s Center for Mideast Studies, research fellow, Southwest Initiative for the Study of Mideast Conflict (SISMEC), former FLAS Fellow and graduate teaching assistant in the Philosophy Department at the University of Arizona.

Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game,” which was published in Middle East Policy, demonstrated that — contrary to the popular narratives — most Syrians seem to support President Bashar al-Assad over the armed rebels. Moreover, it was argued that most of the casualties from the fighting were combatants, that the regime probably controlled more territory than the narrative suggested, that the dynamics of the conflict seem to favor the regime in the medium-to-long term (a bold claim at the time), and that the influence of foreign jihadists was far greater than their numbers may suggest — an influence that would only grow over time.

These claims all have been vindicated: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has actually changed its methodologies, now distinguishing more clearly between combatant and non-combatant civilians; they also now acknowledge that most of the casualties have been combatants. The Arab League has recently stated that about 40 percent of Syria is outside of the government’s control, meaning the regime controls the majority of the country (contrary to previous claims that the regime controlled less than a third of Syria). And, as I argued in “The Numbers Game,” the parts of the country not being administered by the government are generally not being controlled by the rebels, either. Moreover, as projected, the regime has been making enormous strides in retaking these ungoverned territories since December 2012 — to include a number of rebel strongholds. Finally, rebel forces are increasingly reliant upon the weapons, training and leadership of Jahbat al-Nusra and other transnational jihadist organizations — and are increasingly adopting their ideologies.  The New York Times has gone so far as to report that there was no evidence of any “secular” fighting force anywhere in rebel-held Syria. Unspeakable crimes are committed daily by the rebels, to include instances of cannibalism.

Deploying the methodologies from “The Numbers Game,” I subsequently demonstrated that, despite the media emphasis on regime airstrikes and calls for a no-fly zone in Syria, deaths from aerial bombardments amounted to less than 9 percent of total casualties, most of which were likely combatants.  These numbers have since been echoed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Despite the apparent success of these analyses, in the most recent issue of Middle East Policy, my friend and colleague George Abu Ahmad leveled a number of serious charges against me, attempting to undermine my conclusions and proposing an alternate method for understanding the conflict in Syria. I will briefly respond to these criticisms here.

The Composition of the Opposition

There is no set of maxims more important for an historian than this: the actual causes of a thing’s origin and its eventual uses, the manner of its incorporation into a system of purposes, are worlds apart; that everything that exists, no matter what its origin, is periodically reinterpreted by those in power in terms of fresh intentions…in the course of which the earlier meaning and purpose are necessarily either obscured or lost.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, XII

Abu Ahmad argued that I had overstated the role of extremists in Syria. In an attempt to justify this charge, he posited first that I had tarred all the rebels with the same brush, and that my particular characterization was reliant on a selective reading of history. Specifically, it was argued that I ignored the peaceful and diverse origins of the protests, as well as the regime’s initiation of violence in the conflict. However, none of these charges proves sound.

In “The Numbers Game” and a host of other articles and lectures, I have consistently emphasized the regime as the instigator of violence. However, it is also a fact that a contingent from among the protesters exploited the regime’s authoritarian impulses, intentionally goading security forces into overreaction in an attempt to swell their numbers. This is a common tactic in protest movements, and acknowledging these opposition methods does not in any way justify the regime’s crackdown. It does, however, help explain it. Another significant contributing factor was the al-Assad regime’s paranoia about Western meddling, and its conviction that the United States played a significant role in building the protest movements in Syria and throughout the Middle East. This fear was more or less justified, although this neither entails nor implies that the regime’s particular response was. Acknowledging these complexities is not tantamount toblaming the victims,” as Abu Ahmad suggested.

The charge of a selective reading of history turns out to be somewhat ironic. While the protest movement may have initially been (more or less) peaceful and diversely comprised, Abu Ahmad ignored that the protest movement was also extremely small. It never really reached the population centers of Damascus or Aleppo, and the counterprotests in support of the regime were often larger than those against it. Moreover, the protesters were initially calling for an acceleration of Bashar al-Assad’s reform agenda, not for his resignation. So if we understood the opposition primarily in terms of its initial aims, methods and composition, it is hard to see how one could arrive at the conclusion that the international community should intervene militarily in pursuit of regime change. Ultimately, however, it is unclear what value dwelling on the origin of the protests has for understanding its current methods and composition.

As it relates to the supposed diversity within the opposition, there is a huge disparity between the types of people who protested against the government and the extreme minority (of an extreme minority) that would ultimately take up arms against it. While the former was somewhat diverse, the latter is a much more homogenous group. Although the armed opposition does contain token Christians, Sufis and Kurds, it is disproportionately comprised of Sunni Arabs — primarily agrarians who were disenfranchised as a result of President al-Assad’s economic liberalization scheme.   This group, which constitutes the core of the armed opposition, is apparently much more concerned with taking revenge upon Syria’s economic and political elite through violence and looting than in ideals of freedom and human rights. In fact, according to a recent UN report, the overwhelming majority of the armed opposition is indifferent, or even averse, to democracy and pluralism. 

Regardless of how the protestmovement may have started, the armed insurrection is increasingly sectarian and increasingly extreme; these are the facts, which Abu Ahmad himself acknowledges.  However, what my interlocutor fails to acknowledge is that, regardless of sect or ethnicity, the overwhelming majority of Syrians do not support the rebellion. Even by the most generous estimates, it is hard to establish that more than 2 percent of the total population has taken part in the protests or armed struggle. And the movement’s limited popularity is actually on the decline as a result of the rebels’ ineffectiveness, infighting, increasing extremism, inability to provide services or security in “liberated” areas, and the increased incidence of crimes against the civilian population. This trend was also predicted in “The Numbers Game.”

Framing of the Conflict

Abu Ahmad argues that we should understand the conflict as a war between the jaysh al-nizami (the mukhabarat and the military) and the jaysh al-hur (the armed opposition forces). The supposed advantage of this framing is that it corresponds with popular usage, as coined by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya. However, as Abu Ahmad also acknowledges, while these are the predominant media outlets in the Middle East, they are also unabashedly pro-rebellion, reflective of their ownership (the state of Qatar and the Saudi royal family, respectively). Ironically, it is my interlocutor who ends up painting not only the opposition, but also the regime, with broad strokes rather than nuance.

Referring to the armed opposition as a monolithic obscures their diverse and often conflicting methods and ideologies, as well as their lack of coherent structure and leadership. The so-called Free Syrian Army is widely recognized to be a brand-name as opposed to a coherent fighting force. The jaysh al-hur should be similarly understood. The opposition comprises hundreds of militias, most of them untrained civilians rather than army defectors; most of them distinctly sectarian. There is a good deal of infighting (both political and violent) among these militias, which will become increasingly prominent in the absence of a common enemy (in the increasingly unlikely event that the regime were deposed). These factions often have radically incompatible visions of how post-Assad Syria should look, insofar as they are concerned with this at all. However, many of the armed groups have been occupying themselves primarily with seizing resources and looting or striking out at ethnic and religious minorities (widely perceived as being regime sympathizers).  Among “rebel” militias comprising minorities like the Kurds, many of them are separatists concerned with seizing territory for themselves and protecting their own, rather than overthrowing the regime.

Most significant, the armed opposition is not representative of the broader opposition movement. While Western media focuses primarily on the Syrian National Council, due primarily to their perceived friendliness to Western intentions, this group has never enjoyed legitimacy on the ground in Syria. They were and remain largely an expatriate movement stationed outside of Syria, despite the contentious process of expanding into the Syrian National Coalition. In contrast, there are a number of indigenous opposition movements that have, from the beginning, rejected the armed struggle and continue to call for negotiations with the regime without preconditions. The most significant of thesegroups is the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC).

But even within the oft-discussed SNC, the issue of pressing for a military solution, as opposed to negotiations, is a matter of contention. Shiekh Moaz al-Khatib has (in)famously stated that there is no military solution to this conflict, calling upon the SNC to negotiate with the regime immediately, abandoning any preconditions that Bashar al-Assad resign; the fate of Syria, he argued, was far more important than the fate of one man. He has further claimed that establishing an alternative government over the “liberated” areas would likely lead to a partitioning of Syria. Ultimately, he resigned in disgust from his post as president of the SNC, claiming that neither the opposition nor their international supporters seem primarily concerned with saving Syria (as opposed to geopolitical and economic gains). All of these nuances are papered over in the framing that Abu Ahmad suggests.

Similarly, it is critical to draw a distinction within the regime between the mukhabarat and the Syrian army (rather than simply referring to them by the monolithic “jaysh al-nizami”), as the two have been in tension. The mukhabarat was responsible for most of the surveillance, torture, abductions and other crimes against civilians; formerly, they acted with a great deal of autonomy and little accountability. In the early stages of the conflict, they were actually calling the shots for the entire security apparatus. However, the regime has been reforming its security sector over the course of this conflict, and the Army now runs the show. They are much more trusted and respected by the Syrian people. In order to maintain this confidence, the army has subverted and marginalized the mukhabarat, even to the point of prosecuting agents if they step out of line or commit crimes against civilians. This is an extremely significant development, as it relates to a negotiated settlement and post-conflict reconciliation. It is also one of the primary factors contributing to the regime’s gains in recent months. Glossing over the regime in a homogenous fashion, as Abu Ahmad suggests, would obscure these dynamics.

Leftist Incoherence

Abu Ahmad is right to point out the contradictions among leftists and anti-imperialists in frequently supporting anyone who opposes the dominant power structures, regardless of how repressive they might be. However, this criticism is not relevant to this particular author or his arguments (whether in “The Numbers Game” or in general). In my analyses of the Egyptian revolution, I ruthlessly critique the leftist and liberal protesters as undemocratic (a precursor to Abu Ahmad’s arguments);  I draw from Nozick’s (right-oriented) Anarchy, State and Utopiain formulating an account of legal pluralism commensurate with Islamic jurisprudence; in another analysis, I argue against the supposed universality of the Enlightenment-era ideals so admired by leftists. In short, I am neither a leftist nor an “anti-colonialist/ anti-imperialist.” In fact, I do not find either conceptual framework to be useful;  they are not relied upon in any of my published work.  Accordingly, Abu Ahmad’s critiques of these contradictions, while valid in general, serve as little more than red-herrings in this context.

Undermining the other side of the purported contradiction,  I have nowhere argued that Bashar al-Assad should be given “the benefit of the doubt.” Instead, I have insisted that he be understood as a complex figure rather than a B-list movie villain — if for no other reason than to assist with the formation of effective policies to deal with him and his regime. More significant, I have argued that the international community must respect the will of the Syrian people. As the domestic population overwhelmingly fails to support the armed opposition, and as somewhere between a plurality and a majority actually support the government (as either a necessary evilor one whose excesses they can tolerate, in light of the alternatives), it does not seem to be the right of external actors to force a revolution upon them.

As I argued in “The Numbers Game,” expatriates and refugees tend to be dramatically unrepresentative of the broader populations of their countries of origin. Accordingly, it is unclear why the opinions of expatriate activists and their Western sympathizers should carry greater weight than those of people who actually live in Syria. If there were compelling evidence that most of the population wanted the president deposed by any means necessary, to include international military intervention, I would be at the forefront calling for these policies. However, as I demonstrated in “The Numbers Game,” the evidence points in the opposite direction; Abu Ahmad provided no countervailing evidence to undermine these findings.

Abu Ahmad’s own account is full of contradictions.  For instance, after spending a good deal of time describing and defending a “false-flag” account of Sheikh Ramadan al-Bouti’s death (based on an internet video of dubious authenticity and on comments of various bloggers), Abu Ahmad argues that “by Occam’s Razor” we should avoid false-flag speculations relating to chemical-weapons use in Syria. He simply accepts that it was likely the regime that deployed them and that such an infraction demands an armed international response. But it is never made clear specifically what Occam’s Razor is being applied to. For instance, if we apply it to motivations or incentives, we should conclude that the rebels were responsible both for Shiekh al-Bouti’s death and for the use of chemical weapons.

The late al-Bouti, as Abu Ahmad points out, was one of the most prominent Sunni religious leaders in Syria anda staunch ally of the regime. As the opposition is drawn almost entirely from among the Sunnis (70 percent of the total population), the well-respected shiekh was of immense value in undermining the rebels’ sectarian narratives among this critical population. Bashar does not have many prominent Sunni religious leaders standing up in his defense, so al-Bouti was clearly worth much more to the regime alive than dead. Bashar’s supposed incentive for terminating this critical asset, as well as the purported method of carrying out the assassination are implausible, much like the video “evidence” from which the theory is derived. However, I am prepared to acknowledge that the false-flag theory of al-Bouti’s death is, strictly speaking, possible, albeit totally implausible.

Vis à vis chemical weapons, the regime has radical disincentivesto deploy them and absolutely no need to use them. The rebels, on the other hand, are desperate for foreign arms or intervention and for some way of shaking the international community out of its gridlock. The Obama administration’s talk of chemical weapons as a “red line” provided an apparent means to accomplish this.  In fact, the UN investigation into the matter concluded that there was no evidence of the regime’s having used chemical weapons; the evidence actually seemed to suggest that the weapons were deployed by the rebels. These findings were recently complemented by the Turkish government’s arrest of a group suspected of having ties to the al-Nusra Front who were found with Sarin gas in their possession. That is, not only was Abu Ahmad’s application of Occam’s Razor both vague and inconsistent; it also promoted conclusions that have since been falsified.

The “Real” Debate

Claiming that military intervention is ill-advised in the Syrian theater is in no way equivalent to recommending that the international community do nothing at all. Comparing me to right-wing non-interventionists (after also characterizing me as an anti-imperial leftist),1 Abu Ahmad summarized my conclusions in “The Numbers Game” as follows: because we do not have a clear picture of the facts “on the ground” in Syria, the international community (the United States in particular) should refrain from getting involved in the conflict. Such a caricature misses the point of my analysis.

First, it is not a matter of getting “perfect information” before taking action. Nowhere did I argue that policymakers should wait around for more or better data (which may never materialize).  In fact, I largely took for granted that the published numbers were more or less accurate and sufficient to inform a strategy. What I was challenging was the way these data were being misused and misunderstood in the popular discourse (by policymakers, analysts, scholars and media institutions alike). I was arguing that we should be making better use of the information we already have. Secondarily, I argued that these groups should recognize and acknowledge gaps in their information, to avoid making bold public claims that are not substantiated by any reliable evidence (or especially if the intelligence seems to contradict their narratives). Finally, I suggested that policy makers should proceed with care when operating in domains of exceptional uncertainty, a claim underscored throughout in Taleb’s Antifragile, which Abu Ahmad drew from in his critique.2  

My entire research curriculum is oriented towards exploring the adverse effects of misinformation, disinformation and ignorance in the geopolitical and tactical spheres. The purpose of this criticism is not to undermine “U.S. hegemony,” but to help policy makers design and implement more effective, efficient and beneficent strategies in the Middle East. Secondarily, the purpose is to help the public more profoundly understand and engage with these critical issues. These goals transcend the U.S. administration and citizenry. As a token of this analytic method, the purpose of “The Numbers Game” was to derive clearer data that could inform effective actionin Syria, not inaction.  In fact, I proposed a positive strategy: the international community should immediately push for a negotiated settlement without preconditions, and for a de-escalation of the conflict. The United States is uniquely positioned to push for this outcome, should it so desire. This would be a strategic engagement in the Syrian conflict, not disengagement.

In fact, on the critical normative aspects of the crisis in Syria, Abu Ahmad and I are in general agreement, despite the wide disparities with regard to descriptive dimensions. In “The Numbers Game” and subsequent analyses, I have also argued that the longer the crisis goes on, the more sectarianism, extremism and lawlessness will become entrenched. On this point, I found particularly insightful Abu Ahmad’s description of fitna as an “antifragile” system. In recognition of this reality, like Abu Ahmad, I have long argued that decisive action was necessary in Syria, and that U.S. half-measures are unquestionably escalating and propagating the conflict, both within and around Syria, rather than resolving it. Abu Ahmad and I are even in agreement as to the necessity of international intervention. The primary difference between us relates to its aims and methods:should it be oriented towards peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction in support of a negotiated settlement (my position)? Or should the intervention be military in nature, oriented towards particular geopolitical and security objectives — chief among them being the immediate removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, but also the securing of chemical weapons, etc.? An authentic challenge to my position would argue that the latter course of action is more likely to realize the will and interests of the Syrian people than the former, but my interlocutor offered no evidence in support of such a challenge.

However, in closing, I would like to acknowledge that Abu Ahmad is a mentor of mine from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal. Underlying his pointed criticisms and my own frank rejoinder is a mutual respect and a common desire to promote policies that will best realize the aspirations and interests of our brothers and sisters within and around Syria. It is my hope that this exchange can help elevate the discussion and, most important, move it forward.


1 A charitable interpretation of Abu Ahmad’s ascribing these inaccurate and contradictory labels to me: perhaps he knows that I am neither a leftist anti-imperialist out to subvert U.S. hegemony nor a right-wing non-interventionist; he was used as a stand-in to argue against these groups, who may have found my work useful in support of their ideologies, regardless of my intent.

2 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Random House (2012). It may be of particular salience to draw the attention of the reader, and also Abu Ahmad, to Chapter 7 (pp.110- 133), aptly titled “Naïve Intervention.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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