Syrian Conflict Not Just Battle Against Assad

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Reuters/Benoit Tessier

The New Yorker has just published a gripping, must read piece for those following the horrible convulsions inside Syria titled "The War Within" by Jon Lee Anderson on the diverse array of bosses, ideologues, thugs and strategists animating the Syrian opposition today.

I highly recommend it -- and think that his characterization of the conflict as now indisputably a civil war is sobering, particularly for those advocating deep intervention by the US and Europe:

For months, policymakers and pundits have debated whether Syria was in a state of civil war. Today, it undeniably is, but not in the schoolbook sense of the phrase, with its connotation of two tidily opposed sides--Yanks and Rebs squaring off at Antietam. Instead, the war comprises a bewildering assortment of factions. Most of the rebels, like seventy-five per cent of Syria's citizens, are Sunni Arabs, while the Assad regime is dominated by Alawites, members of a Shiite offshoot that makes up about eleven per cent of the population. But the country also has Christians of several sects, Kurds, non-Alawite Shiites, and Turkomans, along with Palestinians, Armenians, Druze, Bedouin nomads, and even some Gypsies. Each group has its own political and economic interests and traditional alliances, some of which overlap and some of which conflict. There are Kurds who are close to the regime and others who are opposed. Around the cities of Hama and Homs, the regime's paramilitary thugs are Alawite; in Aleppo, hired Sunnis often do the dirty work.

Another clip that I wanted to share mentions a Syrian opposition chief, an Islamist "who calls himself Abu Anas", relying on Google Earth and lap top video clips of his fighters. Anderson profiles a number of key opposition personalities, all driven by radically different impulses but for now united in opposing Bashar al-Assad. Abu Anas heads the Islamist group that bombed the inner sanctum of Syrian military intelligence killing al-Assad's closest military chiefs and brother-in-law and resulting in al-Assad's brother losing his leg:

A young aide brought some photo-copied Google Earth maps of Azaz, and Abu Anas, pointing out what had been the enemy's key positions, explained how the rebels had taken the town. "First, we cut off their water and electricity," he said. "Then we gradually surrounded them and shot at them and tried to get them to fire back at us until they ran out of ammunition." The final battle had stretched for twenty-four hours, he said, and ended only when some of Assad's soldiers began defecting. On a laptop, he showed a film clip, in which his men fired furiously at regime soldiers inside the mosque and then surged inside themselves. "We killed and captured some and some escaped," he said. "They tried to get out of town, but we ambushed and killed most of them." Abu Anas had taken some wounded men prisoners, but found that he didn't have enough medicine even for his own fighters. "We couldn't look after them, so we let them die," he said.

The stories emerging of house to house killings by Syrian regime-supporting thugs as well as the summary executions of Syrian soldiers and captured officials by Syrian opposition forces while horrible don't quite convey the degree to which the internal tensions are not only a zero sum game between opposition and regime. Jon Lee Anderson conveys this well in his essay.

The internal complexity of a future Syria -- made worse by meddling neighbors and superpowers -- will most likely make this an ongoing horror story with few answers, and a platform of convenience for proxy fights between interests tied to Russia, Iran and China and those supported by the US, Europe, Turkey and Sunni-led governments in the region.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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