What Algeria's 'Black War' Can Teach Us About the Syrian Crisis
For the first time - on 14 December - Algerian state television used new language on Syria. Previously, the language was 'neutral'. No obvious position was taken on the Syrian conflict. Neither was the language pro-Syrian government nor was it pro-opposition. But on 14 December, as Aleppo fell to the Syrian government, the state television said that the government had overrun the 'terrorists'. This is language familiar to Algerians who had suffered a decade-long war between - as the story goes - the government and the terrorists. That war, which ran from 1991 to 2002, claimed up to 200,000 lives. It is known as the Black War. Algerian state authorities have now essentially declared themselves behind the Syrian government.
News from Aleppo is shrouded in various cloaks of propaganda. Reports of brutal violence by the Syrian forces and their allies are now commonplace. Less widespread are reports of mortar fire from rebel areas in eastern Aleppo into civilian parts of government-held western Aleppo. Both kinds of reports are probably true. Long histories of revenge coupled with a particularly fratricidal war point to the viability of the reports of government violence. A pattern of rebel mortar fire suggests that what contacts in western Aleppo say are also true. Blood has flowed in Aleppo and will likely flow for the foreseeable future. Jubilation cannot be the mood. Civil wars should always end in introspection, not celebration. Dancing on the graves of so many of one's fellow nationals is obscene.
Algeria's long war is on the surface. It's current president - Abdelaziz Bouteflika - who was highly involved in the war, and many senior members of the government were deeply marked by that war. The emergence of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the 1990s out of the detritus of Algerian extremists to Afghanistan, the unemployed hittiestes and the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired leadership worried the army and the Algerian ruling sections. It was when FIS leadership, such as Ali Benhadj, called for the overthrow of the entire Algerian political compact and for the installation of their version of Islamic law, including to 'kill the non-believers', that the State cracked down. It was a virulent attack met with spectacular violence by the FIS against soft civilian targets. The government saw these attacks as the way to delegitimize the FIS as terrorists and put itself forward as the savior of the Algerian nation. Public opinion came on the side of the government.
When I asked people in Algeria why there had been no Arab Spring in 2011, most said that they had experienced its worst manifestation in that dark decade. Then too a conflict over democracy led to the rise of - essentially - an extremist (religiously inspired) group that went to war against a formidable military power. Exhaustion at that decade and the inability to see an alternative on the immediate horizon silenced protests. 'It is easy to protest against something,' said a young man, 'but hard to risk your life if you are not protesting for something you believe in.' This is a common sentiment. The absence of an independent left alternative and the neutered liberals are not capable of leading an insurrection. In fact, there is little appetite for anything that radical. 'We don't know how the system works', says a woman who has great familiarity with the government. If you do not know how it works, she suggests, how do you propose to overturn it? There is support for the ideals of freedom but also fear of foreign meddling and religious suffocation. Even religious Algerians are not keen on instability. The compact is fragile.
Decompression from the dark war was relatively easier in Algeria than it will be in Syria. Regional powers and great powers played a marginal role in Algeria. They, on the other hand, drive the Syrian civil war. ISIS and Israel did not factor into Algeria's calculus. Ground down by the violence and isolated from their allies, the Algerian extremists accepted Bouteflika's call for an amnesty. Retribution did come but mainly in the breach. Fighters went home to ordinary lives. Hardened fighters - such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar - went to Mali to found al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. These latter are hardened men who scoff at surrender. Theirs is a fight to the end. 'I don't want to go to paradise,' a friend jokes. 'I want to keep away from the extremists!' That they fled into the Sahara and then reappeared when the IMF wrecked Mali and NATO destroyed Libya suggests that these men are not easy to defeat. But they are a minority. They oscillate between messianic violence and mundane trafficking.
Behind the scenes, I am told, Bouteflika and his associates engaged the Syrian and Turkish governments to dial down the conflict and engaged the Syrian government to engage the rebels. It seems that this back door channel did not beat too many fruits. Turkey de-escalated after the war spilled over into its side of the border. Assad's negotiation and rehabilitation teams have not operated in good faith. A crushing defeat and consequent revenge killings in Aleppo will merely prolong the conflict. No fighter will surrender if their fate in captivity is worse than death. This is a recipe for an endless war.
Signs of the open support by Algeria for the Syrian government's narrative was on full display during the April visit to Damascus of Algeria's Minister for Maghreb Affairs, the African Union and the Arab League Abdelkader Messahel. When Messahel returned to Algeria he faced criticism for this trip. His answer hearkened to the language of the black wars, 'The visit aimed to show our support to the Syrian people in the face of terrorism which Algeria has long suffered from and to convey a message to our Syrian brothers that there is no substitute for national reconciliation, political solution and unity'. It is this latter sentiment of national reconciliation that is important to reaffirm. Algeria has credibility with Damascus. It voted in the Arab League against the expulsion of Syria - a founder member of the League - and it refused to accept the proposals to the League to sanction Syria. Will Assad heed the Algerian advice?
Terrible violence runs from Mosul (Iraq) to Sanaa (Yemen) through Syria. The Syrian forces and their allies will now move towards Raqqa and to take back large tracts of the Syrian countryside. The Western media covers the Syrian government's violence almost with a smug sense of glee. Assad fits the bill as an Oriental Despot. No such enthusiasm seems present to cover the Saudi-led massacre of Yemen or the carnage that has destroyed Libya. Geopolitical considerations rather than a plumb line of humanitarianism directs the narrative. CNN's Wolf Blitzer is rightly outraged by the alleged use of white phosphorous by the Syrian army in Aleppo, but he was indifferent when the Israelis used it in Gaza and the US used in in Iraq. There were dry eyes when Fallujah was twice raised by a US army outraged by the killing of Blackwater contractors. This is not to say that the Syrian government has not been brutal after the fall of Aleppo, but only to say the motives of outrage seem anything but humanitarian.
Algeria is quiet in this turmoil. During Mawlid, the Prophet's birthday, there were only firecrackers. No guns. Under the surface vulnerabilities remain, as they do everywhere. It behooves Assad to pay attention to the Algerians, not merely because their advice might be correct but also because they will be a useful bridge out of isolation from the other states in West Asia and North Africa.