Growing chaos in the liberated areas of northern Syria is convincing some members of the Syrian opposition that the country will become a “failed state” unless an orderly political transition begins soon to replace President Bashar al-Assad.
This stark analysis is contained in an intelligence report provided to the State Department last week by Syrian sources working with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Describing the situation in the area from Aleppo to the Turkish border, where Assad’s army has largely disappeared, the report draws a picture of disorganized fighters, greedy arms peddlers and profiteering warlords.
This security vacuum in the Aleppo region appears to have helped Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allied with al-Qaeda. The group is benefiting not just from its prowess on the battlefield but from its refusal to engage in looting and other predatory behavior. In its emphasis on crude but egalitarian justice and social services, Jabhat al-Nusra emulates other successful Muslim extremist organizations, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The security situation isn’t as bad in rural areas, such as Idlib province, southwest of Aleppo, according to the Syrian sources. Unlike the multiethnic sprawl of the cities, the rural towns and villages are tighter and more cohesive, with tribal and other traditional sources of authority filling the vacuum left by Assad’s crumbling army.
The disorder in Syria illustrates a too-little discussed problem that has emerged in the past decade of war and revolution in the Arab world: When repressive police states are toppled through foreign invasion or civil war, the basic framework of law and order can disappear, too. This has been the case in Iraq, Libya and now Syria.
Looking ahead, the United States and its allies need to encourage more stable transitions of power — where possible, maintaining national institutions, such as state services and the army, but transferring control of them to a new, more democratic leadership. That’s what happened in the mostly bloodless revolutions of Egypt and Yemen, where the United States pushed the army generals to abandon the dictators.
The United States made a halfhearted attempt to grapple with this problem of transition in Syria, by encouraging “military councils” in Aleppo, Idlib and other areas. The idea was that these groups would foster disciplined command and control among the rebels — helping them overcome Assad and also providing some structure for orderly transition and governance. But Syrian sources say that the military councils have largely dissolved, partly because the United States and its allies never used them effectively to funnel aid to the rebels.
“There are hundreds of small groups (10-20 fighters) spread all over the area of Aleppo,” notes the bleak assessment given to the State Department. “The FSA has [been] transformed into disorganized rebel groups, infiltrated by large numbers of criminals. All our efforts with MCs [military councils] were abolished. . . . Warlords are a reality on the ground now. . . . A [failed] state is the most likely outcome of the current condition, unless adjustment [is] done.”
The battles in the north these days are mostly for the spoils of war, argues the Syrian assessment. “Rebel violations are becoming a normal daily phenomenon, especially against civilians, including looting public and private factories, storage places, houses and cars.” The report cites, for example, the looting of a Syrian oil company storage facility and sales of smuggled grain to Turkish middlemen.
Syrian civilians are suffering greatly. In the Aleppo area, notes the assessment, “people are struggling to obtain basic life needs.” The price of propane has increased eight times; heating fuel and gasoline are up tenfold; bread prices have risen eightfold. Desperate for firewood, “poor people are cutting trees from public parks or using school desks.”
In this anarchic situation, the disciplined Jabhat al-Nusra is “gaining popularity,” notes the assessment, because of its steps to serve the public, including: “No looting or violating civilian properties; shares gains among all participant battalions; does not care about claiming credit; if they gain essential materials (like propane gas tanks) they distribute them to the public for free.” If this trend continues, “the extremist groups will turn into the ‘savior’ for Syrian people from the warlords.”
While the latest reports from Syria illustrate the dangers of U.S. passivity there, they also suggest that foreign military intervention might well have created similar problems, like those seen in Libya and Iraq after their dictators were toppled. The answer in Syria is to support moderate military forces among the rebels and assist a stable transition — keeping intact important institutions of the Syrian state but under new political management.