At this rate, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could still hold power in Damascus a year from now

In his World View column, our correspondent find links between the conflict in Syria today and the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. And below: the ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Share
Related Topics

The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will have no place in any transitional government that follows the civil war in Syria, the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said this week. But if there are no negotiations, then the Syrian leader stands a good chance of still being in power in Damascus this time next year. On the ground, rebels are making gains, though not enough to end the political and military stalemate. Neither they nor the government forces hold a winning hand.

The Syrian government’s position looks more fragile when viewed from Beirut, London or Washington than it does in Damascus. Last month, I drove the 100 miles from the capital to Homs, the city that was once the heart of the uprising, and heard only a few shots fired on the road. In the city itself, the third largest in Syria, I heard no gunfire, though the Old City is held by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and most other districts by the government.

The military tactics of both sides ignore the well-being of civilians in the cities. Armed rebel units move into the suburbs, whether they are welcome or not. In some places, like the large township of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong and the FSA is popular. In others, particularly in Aleppo, the arrival of the FSA is regarded with dread.

Local people know what will happen next. Government artillery opens fire and bombs are dropped from the air. The population flees and the contested district becomes a ghost town. The rebels loot government offices, schools, factories and shops. The strongest support for the revolution is in the impoverished Sunni countryside and the city slums. The looting reminded me of Baghdad in 2003 when the poor and deprived Shia of Sadr City took advantage of the fall of Saddam Hussein to wreak social revenge, ransacking everything from the palaces of Baathist leaders to the showcases in the Natural History Museum.

The scale of the looting, and the inability of the rebels to restore regular life in the urban districts they control, strengthens the government. As an alternative to the Baathist police state, the rebels look decreasingly attractive, particularly to those who have anything to lose. For the 30 per cent of Syrians who are Alawite, Christian, Druze or any other minority, the FSA seems like a Sunni militia from which they can expect little mercy. The rebels respond that it is government death squads and propaganda that have forced a popular revolution into sectarian channels.

Could anything happen to change the present balance of power? Over the past year, the rebels have hoped that there would be foreign intervention along the lines of Nato’s air support for the insurgents in Libya. This is clearly not happening because of US and British fears of entanglement in another Middle East war.

Patrick Seale, the author and journalist who is an expert on Syria, says the conflict might become like the Algerian civil war in the 1990s when 200,000 Algerians died but the government stayed in power. But a great difference between Syria and Algeria is that the Syrian rebels have far more outside support, notably from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The government’s military weakness is shown by its failure to launch a sustained counteroffensive in Aleppo to recapture parts of the city it has lost.

All this makes the Russian proposal for negotiations sound increasingly sensible. The rebel insistence that Assad’s departure be a precondition for talks is unrealistic since he controls most of the Syrian population. So far, there is little sign, unlike in Libya, of divisions within the inner core of the regime that might hasten its end, however dim its long-term prospects.

Forecasts by foreign leaders that the Assad regime is going to collapse of its own accord are in effect predictions of a rebel military victory. This is not going to come any time soon, bar massive foreign intervention. If the war is to end at all, it will be by negotiation. “There is no military solution,” as Mr Brahimi said. “The solution should not wait until 2014. It should be in 2013.”

The ghosts of Abu Ghraib - in court

The subsidiary of a US defence company has just paid $5.8m to 71 Iraqis who allege they were tortured in Abu Ghraib and other US-controlled prisons. But how do ordinary Iraqis view Abu Ghraib?

An insight into this was given a few years ago in a fascinating court case in Baghdad. A man who had bought a house near Abu Ghraib sued those that sold it to him on the grounds that they had not told him he would be close to the prison. He claimed that as a result of this, his house was beset by the ghosts of those tortured and murdered there. He and his family could not get to sleep, nor could he sell his house because potential purchasers were put off by the ghost problem. The court expressed no doubts about the presence of ghosts, but felt he felt he ought to have expected them so close to Abu Ghraib.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape