When asked how long the war would take, the soon-to-be assassinated independence leader of the Chechen people, Dzhokhar Dudayev famously responded, “it will be a war of 50 years”.
This week’s focus on Chechnya reminds me how Assad’s strategy to suppress the revolution is influenced and informed by his Russian allies. Some would go as far as suggesting that the similarities point to the Russians actually managing the operation – from SCUD launches to international “diplomacy”.
One can find many similarities with how Russia crushed the independence aspirations of Chechnya over past twenty years and Assad’s action today. Of course, it is not an identical situation by any means, but is insightful to dissect to further understand how Assad’s main advisors are guiding him to survive.
In 1994, in response to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria secession a few years earlier, Russia, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin launched a brutal war to recapture the breakaway republic. However, the Russian Federation was unprepared, relying on conscripts and machines to fight a popular Chechen resistance. The result was a bloody two-year war, marked by massive war crimes committed by the poorly organized & undisciplined Russian forces against the population of Chechnya (both Chechen and Russian civilians alike). Indiscriminate shelling, targeted assassinations, mass executions, massacres and rape.
Literally, the population was decimated.
A ceasefire was signed in 1996 followed by a treaty a year later. The unpopular war was a “loss” for the Russian Federation and resulted in the deaths of 100,000 dead civilians in Chechnya, over 300,000 displaced – out of prewar population of ~1.2 million. The Chechen capital, Grozny was practically razed to the ground, invoking memories of the World War 2 allied bombing campaign of Dresden…the cruelty was maddening.
Is this Grozny 1995 or Aleppo 2013? (Chechnya’s Presidential Palace, a symbol of independence destroyed by the Russians)
But the Chechens won something close to independence, albeit temporarily.
Russian designs for the republic were temporarily halted and left behind a devastated Chechnya along with a shocked and impotent international community – actually, an interesting question to ponder is whether the “West”, with a loud bark and consistent lack of tangible action, is treating Syria as an internal Russian affair, just as they did with Chechnya.
The subsequent dialogue and treaty, allowed for Russia to regroup while the Chechen Republic fragmented under the burden of its devastation. A ravaged economy, displaced and homeless populace, international isolation and the pain and trauma of the war resulted in radicalization, fragmentation and the weakening of Chechnya’s government.
Russia reentered Chechnya again in 1999 with the goal of destroying the de facto independence and establishing a pro-Moscow government. This second war was as devastating as the first. The Russians revised their tactics, led with a “victory by bombardment” strategy, followed by overwhelming ground support. Within a year, they succeeded in establishing direct rule over Chechnya and drove all resistance to the mountains to launch a low-level guerilla campaign that has outlived Yeltsin, who bequeathed power (appointed) to the KGB man, Vladimir Putin, in 2000.
Is she from Chechnya 1994, or Homs 2012? Both victims of Russian strategy.
Two Russian wars on Chechnya cannot be adequately detailed in a few paragraphs. However, an approach to suppress uprising starts to emerge and illustrate how Russian lessons in Chechnya inform Assad response to revolution over the past 15 months and his anticipated action in the near future.
Specifically, similar to his Russian sponsors, Assad has responded through the use of overwhelming and sustained violence – led by aerial bombardment and shelling, resulting in the destruction of society and civilian infrastructure. This has had a four-fold effect of 1) destroying the “enemy”, 2) spreading collective fear across all liberated areas, and 3) annihilating key leaders of the revolution 4) limiting the ability of rebels to effectively rule (i.e. provide security, safety, health & economic opportunity). The Russian experience in Chechnya has also taught Assad how to best utilize time and dialogue to attempt to reassert control over the situation.
Over the past year, as we’ve seen Assad’s control over territory shrink the Russian advisor influence has become very apparent. Syria’s infrastructure has been effectively destroyed and the revolution continues to be starved, both politically and militarily. Collective punishment via the air and shelling has been the regime’s strategy, followed by “boots on the ground” of the regime’s army and sectarian militias (“shabeeha”/ National Defense Forces) to control and retake territory.
Assad also hides behind the “dialogue” card, part of the bigger game played by powerful allies and the so-called friends of the revolution. Even this past weekend, we heard of a “Geneva approach” consensus by “Friends of Syria” which calls for transition. It, however, excludes any mention of removing Assad. Immediately following this call for dialogue, Assad’s forces massacred over 550 Syrians, most of them slaughtered in Jdaidet Artouz, a Damascus suburb, as a stark message to all involved, both within and outside Syria.
With all this said, we can see how Assad’s survival strategy is influenced, maybe even directed by his Russian allies – the blueprint for his survival may just have been written with the blood of Chechens. All those supporting Syria’s revolution must take note, and strap in for the long haul.
By Robin Yassin-Kassab
In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.
Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.
Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.
In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.
Iran’s backing for al-Assad is ironic because at a certain point the Syrian revolution was the one that most resembled 1979 in Iran – the violent repression of demonstrations leading to angry funerals leading to still more in a constantly expanding circle of anger and defiance; the people chanting allahu akbar from their balconies at night; women in hijabs joining women with bouffant hair to protest against regime brutality.
It was also a massive miscalculation, a lesser cousin to the miscalculations made by Bashaar al-Assad, and one which stripped the Islamic Republic of the last shreds of its revolutionary legitimacy. Like the Syrian president, Iran was popular among Syrians until twenty two months ago, even among many sectarian-minded Sunnis. (So too was Hizbullah, now widely reviled. In 2006, the Syrian people – not the regime – welcomed into their homes a million south Lebanese refugees from Israeli bombing.) It now seems very unlikely that any post-Assad dispensation in Syria will want to preserve Iranian influence. The Free Syrian Army, the anti-Assad Islamist militias, and the Syrian National Coalition all see Iran as an enemy of Syria, not as an honest broker that could help negotiate a transition.
Iranian popularity has also collapsed in the wider Arab world, where its pro-Assad policy has undercut its position more effectively than American or Israeli messaging could ever have done. (James Zogby’s poll was conducted in June 2011, too early for revulsion over Syria to have fully developed, but it nevertheless shows a dramatic decrease in favourable attitudes to Iran.)
Back in August, President Morsi (whose foreign policy has been much more intelligent than his domestic governance) chastised his hosts on the Syrian issue. “We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria,” he said, “and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer to a democratic system.” The Iranian leadership was embarrassed enough to censor this part of Morsi’s speech from its state TV broadcasts.
Morsi also offered the Iranians the following deal: Egypt would develop a warm economic and political relationship with Iran to the extent of championing Iran’s nuclear energy program and opposing sanctions in the international fora. In return, Iran would pull back from its support of the Assad regime.
By its continued support for Assad, Iran in effect rejected the deal. Nevertheless, Morsi set up a four nation contact group – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – which has foundered not only on Iranian intransigence but also on Saudi absences from meetings. (Saudi Arabia has offered rhetorical support and some light weapons to the Syrian resistance; it also sent troops to Bahrain to help put down the democratic uprising there.) Egyptian-Iranian consultations on Syria continue.
Morsi was actually offering something substantial to the Iranians. It’s difficult to see how negotiations involving the Americans could produce better results so long as the US, bound up as it is with Israel’s self-perceived interests in the region, insists on sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program.
This is a great shame. Alongside Russia, Iran is the only power to exert any real influence on Bashaar al-Assad. It is to be hoped that, as the fall of the Assad regime becomes more apparent, wisdom will eventually prevail in Tehran. A volte face even at this late stage would strengthen Iran in its battles with the West and would temper rising anti-Shia sentiment in Syria and the wider Arab World.
– Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel, co-editor of the Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal which looks like a book, and of www.pulsemedia.org. He blogs at www.qunfuz.com.