Syria must borrow from Algeria to end its brutal internal war. Throughout the 1990’s (1992-2002), Algeria also experienced an internal war. It was not as brutal in numbers of people killed or cities destroyed, but it was also self-contained.
Unlike Syria, moreover, Algeria’s war was truly ‘civil’ in the sense that the warring factions and stakes were properly ‘Algerian’. It is not so in Syria, which has served as a proxy battleground for foreign powers, leveraging on sectarian divisions. Whereas, in the 1990’s countries bordering Algeria isolated it from the rest of the world during its war, in Syria foreign elements have fuelled the conflict. At no time was the extent of foreign interference more exposed than the Ghouta chemical attacks of September 2013.
The Syrian government was winning back large swathes of territory, when evidence of a sarin attack against civilians emerged. Washington, Paris, Berlin and London, as well as the Arab League, held their case, blaming the Syrian government. The Russians and Syria denied the accusations. President Obama sent the USS Truman aircraft carrier and four ships to the region to prepare for an anti-government strike. The Russians agreed with the Americans, days later at the Moscow G-20 Summit to have Syria extinguish its entire arsenal of chemical weapons.
The incident, even as many criticized and exposed it as a machination to achieve nothing short of regime change in Damascus, was unable to stop the flow of weapons to so-called moderate rebels. It wa also unable to stop the scourge that would hit Syria from the East, a direct consequence of the 2003 Iraq War: Islamic State.
In Algeria, meanwhile, the civil war involved elements radicalized from a legitimated Islamist political party like the Muslim Brotherhood: the Islamic Salvation Front – FIS.
FIS spawned violent militias also. There were episodes of sheer brutality in the Algerian war, but foreign powers did not interfere directly; they did not support the rebels against the Algerian government. This was the same government, whose army overturned the results of a democratic election in 1992 to prevent Islamists from taking power. In Syria, there have been too many examples of foreign interference gone ‘wild’. From ISIS to direct American support to the so-called moderate opposition, now struggling to keep their last stronghold in Aleppo,
The fuel that has kept the war in Syria burning has gunrunning from foreign powers. That and the false notion that the rebels would somehow institute a democratic regime have prolonged the brutality. At no point did the rebels in Syria – that is challenging the Assad government in the ground – express desire for more democracy. One of the slogans that demonstrators brandished at the start of the war in Syria in 2011 read: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin”. This was no call to freedom and hardly the salvo for anything resembling an ‘spring’ Arab or otherwise. The media, was eager to portray the events that rocked the Arab world in 2011, from Tunisia to Egypt and Syria as interconnected and as part of a genuine democratic and modern movement. Nowhere did the media – and many Western governments – misinterpret this more than in Syria. In fact, the numbers of Syrians who rose to demand legitimate rights from Assad, quickly became outgunned other types of protesters, who demanded confessional cleansing. Rather than a call for democracy, the Syrian war was one between radicalized Sunnis against Shiites (such as Assad’s own Alawites). It was also a war against Christians.
Some have compared the Syrian war to the Spanish civil war of the 1930’s. Certainly, the level of foreign intervention and proxy interests between regional powers exists. But, the Syrian war is perhaps closer to the Rwandan war of 1994. In Rwanda, the Hutu majority targeted the Tutsi minority. No two wars or historical events are exactly alike of course, but images of Alawites hanged in public squares by roused up Sunnis, however valid the latter’s grievances against the Assad regime, hinted that Syria’s war had more to do with revenge than justice or anything that might be described as progress.
The United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have backed the rebels. According to WikiLeaks, the U.S. Government – and Hillary Clinton played no small part in this – Washington has financed the rebels and was aware that ISIS received funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad’s government has survived thanks to Hezbollah, Iran, Russia and Iraq and indirectly from China, Venezuela, Belarus, Algeria and Egypt. Therefore, ending the war has been so difficult. Regional and superpower machinations are fuelling it. Israel, meanwhile, benefits from its point of view. Its preferred outcome to the war in Syria is ‘no outcome’. In other words, a continuing conflict keeps its enemies busy fighting each other. The ‘hope’ is for Syria to become another Libya, a totally collapsed State. Syria doesn’t have to follow Libya. But, it can learn from Libya’s neighbor Algeria.
Algeria was the original Arab Spring, except nobody called it as such in 1992. In the late 80’s, Algeria attempted an economic reform process, reducing state intervention and welfare amid low oil prices and tight budgets. The economic restructuring also promoted political changes, resulting in the formation of political parties that would challenge the secular and socialist FLN, which had governed Algeria since independence from France. The largest of the new parties was the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In 1991, the FIS beat the FLN in elections. A radical leader within the FIS, Ali Belhaj, declared that once in power the FIS would cancel all future elections. Belhaj also threatened to smash all state institutions. The Algerian army decided to cancel the next round of elections, thwarting’s FIS plans.
FIS retaliated like the Syrian rebels would years later. They challenged the government with weapons. They called those who still supported the secular FIS ‘unbelievers’. The led the country down a fratricidal path. The FIS and various more radical offshoots, attracted Arab mujahedin combatants, who returned from having fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan – the so-called Arab Afghans. (In Syria, many Chechens, who fought the Russian army in Chechnya, have played a large role in ISIS). These groups, including the GIA (Islamic Fighting Group) would later give rise to Al-Qaida in the Maghreb. The war left thousands of dead in Algeria. The estimates vary from 50,000 to as many as 200,000. Many Algerians sought refuge in neighbouring countries. But, unlike Syria today, Algeria’s war was sealed. Libya, Tunisia and Morocco sealed borders. They tried to strangle the rebels’ supply lines. Libya and Tunisia tried as much as possible to contain the Islamist phenomenon, recognizing as such. Nobody in the West called the Algerian war a struggle for democracy. Thus, nobody in the West – especially France, which has been one of the main anti-Assad instigators – was naïve enough to describe Algeria as a ‘spring’ or the rebels as ‘freedom fighters’. In other words, Algeria was isolated and blocked off. Eventually, groups like the GIA had exhausted the supply of recruits and the incentives to attract them.
The rebels had no major international backers. Crucially, they had limited access to weapons and supplies to keep the war going. This is what allowed much of the fighting – which saw horrible massacres, not unlike those in Syria – to end by 1998. A political process began in 1997 after a series of military backed governments through successive elections that would eventually lead to the formation of a stable, if only partially, democratic system. It continues to this day and it explains why Algeria had no ‘spring’ in 2011. But, it was the overall absence of foreign interests in Algeria’s war dynamic that allowed the situation to evolve and the State to survive.
In Syria, outside power games have prolonged the war. The two major exceptions are Russia and Iran. The governments of both those countries have deployed troops and equipment in Syria as well. The difference with the Western backed forces, is that they are there at the Syrian government’s request.
The final ingredient that has allowed Algeria to establish and maintain a relative peace was reconciliation. There was a referendum in 2005, asking whether Algerians should pardon fighters (who had avoided some of the more brutal practices like rape and targeting of civilians). The amnesty passed. If terrorism has waned in Algeria (many recent episodes have an international component related to the collapse of Libya in 2011) it is largely because of the national reconciliation policy.
Meanwhile, in Syria there can be no reconciliation process until foreign powers stop fuelling the civil war by proxy. Moreover, there can be no reconciliation or democratic process of any kind emerging from a vacuum. A central authority must exist to carry it out and to legitimize it.
The first issue is to recognize that while Syrians have many legitimate reasons to challenge their government, the current war has little or nothing to do with those concerns. In Algeria, the FIS was banned, but Islamist parties still exist; they are legal and have representation in Parliament. They have also become less relevant, judging by President Bouteflika’s strong electoral wins. Russia and even Iran can then hold the Assad government accountable. They have prevented it from falling, but they can demand Assad hold a referendum either on his continued rule or on reconciliation. But, this can only happen when stability returns, and the people’s legitimate grievances given a legal avenue for expression.
Algeria’s experience points to the ultimate need for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Algeria might even act as a mediator. The alternative solution, the one pursued by the West and favoured by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, involves any political process starting only after President Assad’s demise. The Western solution also involves a breakup of Syria not unlike that of former Yugoslavia. The Algerian solution, meanwhile, focuses around Assad. It might not be palatable to some, but it’s the only solution.