international analysis and commentary

The Syrian crisis viewed from Algeria


More than a year and a half after the beginning of the crisis in Syria, much has been said and written about Algeria’s position, its alleged silence and why it refuses to share the position of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the issue. Algeria’s stance is related to the fact that what was supposed to be a rebellion of the people against the dictatorship of the Alawite regime to establish a democratic system has been transformed into an armed uprising led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Today it is not clear if the citizens’ rebellion has been corrupted to serve as a pretext to Islamists and their sponsors to conduct destabilizing actions. Everything simply looks bad as the struggle for democracy and peace seems to be sacrificed in a process that now resembles a civil war that might lead to an endless conflict as the main protagonists (government forces and the FSA) on the ground seem to neutralize the crisis while humanitarian issues are left to settle over time. Algeria has rejected the interference of other countries in its internal affairs and did the same with Syria – as it did before with Tunisia and Libya. There are good reasons for this attitude.

First of all, most people in Algeria were uninterested in the Syrian conflict – at least in the beginning. Even though the Syrian crisis could be followed on satellite TV, interest was much more focused on the events in Tunisia, Morocco and Libya. This was mostly due to Algeria’s shared borders with those countries. In addition, because the rise of fundamentalist movements was a real cause for concern for the Algerian authorities who feared contagion especially as the international community considered Islamist parties the only alternative to the regimes in the countries of North Africa and the Arab world.

The May 10th parliamentary elections in Algeria significantly reduced this concern as the government remained untouched by fundamentalist waves. At this point, the Syrian conflict had reached a stage of no return and, curiously, at the same time pressures appeared through propaganda skillfully fomented by satellite TV that sent the message “after Syria, it will be Algeria’s turn”. The authorities were very worried about the 5,000 Algerian nationals residing in Syria, and a crisis unit at the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has continuously monitored the situation of the Algerian community: The Algerian Embassy has sponsored some 300 Algerian families that were forced to leave due to the  security situation. A thousand more Algerian families had already left Syria on their own by July and Air Algerie has been offering discount rates on its flights for others needing to fly from Damascus to Algiers.

However, a complication arose as many Syrian nationals – not eligible for refugee status in Algeria as Syria does not share a common border with Syria – moved to Algeria on those low cost flights with only a tourist visa.

Already by the end of July, a new phenomenon appeared in some of the suburbs of Algiers: Syrians were beginning to beg outside mosques. As Algerians launched a wave of solidarity to help Syrians in Algeria, these charitable initiatives were focused around the mosques. However, the behavior of the Syrians had some inconsistencies. Given that the reduced airfare from Damascus to Algiers was sold at nearly 700 euros, we can assume that only wealthy families could have afforded the trip. This means that the people who were behind the operations of solidarity were Salafists – who are well known by the security service and are closely monitored. It should not be forgotten that Salafist activists have explicitly stated on various occasions that Algeria’s “turn”  is coming soon.

The influx of Syrians has been significant (approximately 1,000 people per week, which meant some 4-5,000 per month) and the number is now estimated at over12,000. Algerians, have been willing to help through supplies, food and clothing, but many Syrians have been asking for cash. When the security services investigated the cases, they soon discovered that some of this cash was converted into Syrian currency in the informal market of Algiers and shipped to Syria to help the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In addition, many Syrians did not want to go into the centers equipped to accommodate refugees according to UNHCR standards in Sidi Fredj (25 km from Algiers) and preferred to stay in the city where they could beg for money. It is thus reasonable to believe that some of this money could fall into the Salafist networks in Algeria.

On the diplomatic front, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has excellent relations with the Emir of Qatar who is leading the initiative on the Syrian issue along with the Saudi King. But he also has an important relationship with Iran which serves Algiers as a chat channel in the nuclear dispute with the West and Syria – a country with which it is bound by a deep friendship. This difficult equation is very well understood at the international level, as well as Algeria’s choice to avoid any negative repercussion on its standing. Perhaps the appointment of a new international mediator for Syria – Lakhdar Brahimi, former Algerian Foreign Minister – will help change the image of Algeria in the eyes of the West, which is seen as supporting the Syrian regime, but which in reality fears that the partition of Syria could plunge the Near East into a new level instability. After more than 18 months of conflict in Syria has left thousands dead, missing and displaced, the grave responsibilities of the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad against the Syrian people are an undeniable fact. But at the same time, we have to try to understand how the Syrian crisis could end. We know that Iran is helping the regime of Bashar al Assad, and that China and Russia are opposed to the idea of a NATO military intervention against the country, but we still do not know what will be the outcome of this conflict.

Several accounts by correspondents and local sources reveal an important aspect of the ongoing conflict: if the army gains ground, it does not necessarily control the situation, and if the FSA conquers areas, it does not gain a position of dominance. The result is that the people are found scattered and without prospects for peace. On this backdrop, the new international mediator, Brahimi, recognizes the difficulty of his mission and is walking a very fine line. In fact, the statements he made on the first day of his appointment created polemics with both parties. The opposition did not understand why Brahimi avoided talking about the departure of President Assad as a prerequisite for a settlement of the crisis. On the other side, Damascus disputed the fact that he referred to a “civil war” rather  a “war against terrorism and Salafism” – as the official line goes.

These opposite reactions revealed the complexity of the crisis: both sides are fighting for their own interests and not for the interests of the Syrian people.

At the same time, the situation on the ground has deteriorated to the point that it is now difficult to restore peace and safeguard the sovereignty of Syria. Is partition  unavoidable? Even beyond the future of Syria, the question is whether the new map of the Middle East will look like a puzzle consisting of multiple communities and religions or a mix of micro-states. If we look at historical precedents, in the 1990’s the international community waited until the Yugoslav war had almost settled the boundaries among the Serbs, Muslims, Croatians and Slovenians to intervene and impose peace according to the new balance of forces on the ground. Is the Syrian crisis condemned to follow a similar path? It is indeed a plausible scenario, which indirectly confirms many of the concerns behind Algeria’s attitude toward the ongoing crisis. There clearly is no easy solution to the Syrian tragedy, but exercising restraint is still the most sensible strategy.