Where did Assad go to school?

The Sri Lanka model – where a long, low-intensity civil war reached a violent, bloody climax; yet its architects remain in power and have escaped formal sanction by the international community – may have demonstrated to Assad that a brutal, uncompromising approach to internal dissent does not have to end with him in the dock in the Hague.

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Conflict Background


By the Sri Lanka Campaign

President Bashar al-Assad is many things – some of them not printable – but undeniably he is a survivor. Few people will have observed the 13 months of the Syrian uprising and not spent at least one day thinking that Assad has gone too far, that there is no way the Syrian people – or the international community – could stand for his excesses; and that, having gone so far down this road, the forces of “political ju-jitsu” will now surely prove his undoing.

But with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) retreating from Homs – and Russia and China blocking international interference – it appears that there is at least the possibility that Assad will pull off the most remarkable of escapes, and continue as president for years to come. Even if he does not, his belief in his own staying power will have made Syria by far the bloodiest of the Arab Spring revolts. Did this belief stem from arrogance? Stubbornness? Or an astute reading of the recent history of another internal conflict; more brutal but less studied?

The Sri Lanka model

The conflict in Sri Lanka, like the conflict in Syria, was not an isolated event but stemmed from decades of tension and irredentism. For nearly thirty years, a low-intensity civil war rumbled on in the north. Then, in 2009, things came to a violent, bloody climax. The best guess of a report of a Panel of Experts commissioned by the UN secretary general was that 40,000 people – four times the highest estimate for the number killed in Syria so far – were killed in a matter of days leading up to May 19th. And yet, like Assad, the architect of this bloodbath is still in power, has escaped formal sanction by the international community, and seems set to rule for a good while yet.

Perhaps the best explanation of how the Rajapaksa regime pulled off this miraculous feat comes from an article in the Indian Defence Review by V.K. Shashikumar. It’s a cold piece, almost approving in tone, but it brilliantly and forensically exposes what has become more generally known as the “Sri Lanka model”.

The eight-fold path to brutal suppression

Shashikumar outlines eight defining characteristics of the model:

  • Unwavering political will;
  • Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal;
  • No negotiations with the “forces of terror”;
  • Unidirectional flow of conflict information;
  • Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the opposition;
  • Complete operational freedom for the security forces – Let the best men do the task;
  • Accent on young commanders;
  • Keep your neighbours in the loop.

Let us quickly consider those eight headings and how they applied to Syria and Sri Lanka.

1. Unwavering political will

To quote Shashikumar, [president] “Rajapaksa clearly conveyed to [chief of staff] General Sarath Fonseka: “eliminate the LTTE.” To the outside world he conveyed the same message differently: “Either the LTTE surrenders or face their end.” Rajapaksa instructed the Sri Lankan Army that their job was to fight and win the war. At whatever cost, however bloody it might be. He would take care of political pressures, domestic and international.

In Syria we have seen how Assad has not faltered in his determination, no matter how loud the international outrage grows, even despite the accusations of crimes against humanity – accusations that were also levelled at Rajapaska.

2. “Go to Hell” – disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal

Shashikumar again, “As Rajapaksa said during the post-interview chatter “we will finish off the LTTE, we will finish terrorism and not allow it to regroup in this country ever; every ceasefire has been used by the LTTE to consolidate, regroup and re-launch attacks, so no negotiations.” Eliminate and Annihilate – two key operational words that went with the “go to hell” principle of the ‘Rajapaksa Model’. When the United Nations, US and European countries raised concerns of high civilian casualties, Rajapaksa said that the international community was “getting in the way” of Sri Lanka’s victory against terrorism.”

The United States imposed sanctions on Syria in May. At the same time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Syrian authorities to stop the “assault on its own people”. The Arab League, the European Union, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Turkey, among others, have condemned the use of violence against the protesters. And yet still Assad continues unabated.

3. No negotiations with the forces of terror

Note the similarity in language between this, which is Shashikumar,

“But this meant withstanding international pressure to halt the war, the humanitarian crisis spawned by the war and the rising civilian casualties. Rajapaksa did all of this by simply ensuring ‘silence’ and information blackout under which the war was conducted. Rajapaksa’s biggest gamble was to give the military a free hand, shut the world out of the war zone. “We knew that the moment the military is close to operational successes, there will be loud screams for the resumption of the political process of peace negotiations. But there will be no negotiations.”

And this from Galle le Roux,

“For Fabrice Balanche, this “final push” from the army is unavoidable. “I expected to see it happen already last year,” he says.

Exactly 30 years ago, the Assad regime, then led by Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, staged a month-long offensive on Hama, destroying an entire third of the city and killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people. “There is a comparison to be drawn between Homs and Hama,”

“The authorities want to be in a strong enough position so that they have the upper hand when it comes to negotiating with the rebels. But the civil war will go on no matter what happens.”

4. Regulate media – unidirectional flow of conflict information

Both Syria and Sri Lanka were intended as a war without witness. In Sri Lanka journalists were intimidated into silence, murdered or locked up. In Syria, websites were blocked, bloggers put under surveillance, and journalists deliberately targeted. The heroic journalist Mary Colvin even managed to become a victim of both regimes, losing her eye to Rajapaksa and her life to Assad.

Neither attempt was entirely successful. Avaaz got footage out of Syria and, eventually Channel 4 got footage out of Sri Lanka. But without enough immediate footage to feed 24 hour news media, the government could effectively dampen public outcry and shed seeds of doubt upon what should have been undeniable facts. Thus there is no certainty over death tolls, over which brigade was responsible, or even over specific times and places.

5. No cease-fire: Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the opposition

As Shashikumar says, “Human rights violations during war operations and the humanitarian crisis that engulfs civilians caught in the cross fire have always been the trigger points to order a military pull-back. The LTTE would always play this card in the past. They would use the ceasefire to regroup and resume the war.” President Rajapaksa was clear that he did not want to go down that route.”

Thus there would be no ceasefire in Sri Lanka, just as there will be no ceasefire in Syria.

6. Complete operational freedom for the security forces – let the best men do the task

Again a direct comparison is instructional. This is Shashikumar ,

“The decision to bring Fonseka out of retirement paid off because he was a hardcore advocate of military operations to crush the LTTE. With rock solid political backing Fonseka was able to motivate his troops and officers to go all out without fearing any adverse consequences. It’s not surprising why Eelam IV turned out to be a bloody and a brutal war. “That there will be civilian casualties was a given and Rajapaksa was ready to take the blame. This gave the Army tremendous confidence. It was the best morale booster the forces could have got.””

And this is Al Arabiya,

“The commission received credible and consistent evidence identifying high- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces who ordered their subordinates to shoot at unarmed protestors, kill soldiers who refused to obey such orders, arrest persons without cause, mistreat detained persons and attack civilian neighborhoods with indiscriminate tanks and machine-gun fire,” a panel of U.N. human rights experts, headed by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, said in a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

7. Accent on young commanders

As Fonseka said,

“I did not select these officers because they are young. But they were appointed as I thought they were the best to command the battle. I went to the lines and picked up the capable people. I had to drop those who had less capacity to lead the battle.”

He could have also mentioned that most of them were tightly interwoven with the ruling family – ensuring total loyalty. Similarly in Syria we see the 44 year old Maher al-Assad – the President’s brother – commanding the Republican guard and the fourth armoured division. The Syrian insurgency also took place at a time when the still-young Assad was replacing the elder generation of loyalists to his father with a younger generation of bolder, brasher commanders.

8. Keep your neighbours in the loop

India played a significant part in the defeat of the LTTE. India’s position towards the conflict has varied over the years, from tacit support of the LTTE to tacit support of the Government, to a full on and disastrous military intervention which led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the uniting of the LTTE and the Government against them.

However a key factor in the final undoing of the LTTE was that India was persuaded to buy into the plan to the point where they agreed to prevent supplies reaching northern Sri Lanka. Quoting Admiral Karannagoda,

“It was one of the major turning points in the last 30 years of the conflict. That was the main reason why the LTTE are losing the battle, we did not allow a single supply of replenishment ship to come into (Sri Lankan) waters over the last two and a half years since 2006.”

According to Iran expert Geneive Abdo, the Iranian government is providing the Syrian government with solid support in a similar fashion: “as close as teeth and lips” as her interviewer puts it. Others have even gone further, suggesting that the Syrian uprising is a Sunni/Shia proxy war between various neighbouring powers. At any rate it is clear that, despite the protestations of may within the Arab world, there is enough support for Syria in the region (parts of which are, of course, within the Russian sphere of influence) to, at very least, prevent united action to end the conflict.

Correlation and causality

Of course the match is not perfect. The Government of Sri Lanka’s opponents, the LTTE, were amongst the most brutal terrorist groups the world has ever seen – no similar claims have been made about the Syrian opposition. The LTTE ran a de-facto state in northern Sri Lanka for nearly 30 years, whereas the Syrian insurgency is a far more modest, and newer, movement – indeed it has been suggested that its size and credentials have been greatly exaggerated by those looking to whip up support for western intervention in the region.

Most tellingly, Syria dominates global political agenda and news media, whereas the numerically more serious Sri Lankan crisis received but a fraction of that level of attention, even at its height. This says something about changing priorities following the Arab spring, and also about how technology has, even in the last three years, made both diplomacy and the media more broadly accessible. However in truth what it mostly says is that pragmatic geopolitical interest plays a far greater role in deciding what is or isn’t a priority: the Syrian insurgency might be a smaller scale affair than the Sri Lankan Civil War – but Syria has a geopolitical and strategic value that Sri Lanka lacks. If Syria is the latest victim of the “oil curse” maybe Sri Lanka suffered from the “cinnamon curse” – lonely are those without strategic value.

For all that there is a pretty close fit between the approaches of Syria and Sri Lanka – but of course correlation does not prove causality. However it is very likely that Assad will have come across the “Sri Lanka model” simply because Sri Lanka has done so much to tout it. Sri Lanka held a series of “defeating terrorism” seminars, and a “Galle Dialogue Naval Seminar” in which they lectured up to 250 delegates from around the world upon the fact that there need be no political aspect to defeating insurgency. Burma’s military dictator at the time Than Shwe and the Bangladeshi Military leadership’s recently visited Colombo, and former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vijjajiva’s talked with the Rajapaksas on dealing with internal strife. Turkey, Indonesia, and the Philippines are also thought to have compared notes with Sri Lanka on their own internal problems.

So what?

Sri Lanka may have demonstrated to Assad that a brutal, non-compromising approach to internal dissent with no political aspect does not have to end with him in the dock in the Hague. But the purpose of this piece is not to promote a counsel of despair. For both Sri Lanka and Syria may have failed to appreciate how the world has changed since 2009. Then the countries in the global south rallied round to protect Sri Lanka. But the champions of Human Rights are changing: Benin was a champion of the UN’s radical “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, it was African members of the UN that brought peace to the Ivory Coast, and the Arab Spring has ushered in new voices and new attitudes across a vast stretch of the world. Russia and China may have blocked action in Syria, but that obscured the fact that it was an Arab-led initiative – which had the backing of the rest of the security council (including Azerbaijan, India, South Africa, Colombia, Morocco, Togo, Pakistan, and Guatemala).

In 2009 the cowardice of the international community in Sri Lanka led to the creation of the Sri Lanka model and in all probability contributed to the catastrophe in Syria. But it is no longer 2009, and it is not too late, for Syria or for Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka Campaign is a global non-partisan movement calling for a) effective humanitarian relief, b) an end to human rights abuses, c) repeal of anti-terror regulations and d) a credible war crimes enquiry.

To contribute to the debate about conflict in Sri Lanka, please write to TransConflict by clicking here!

Learn more about the principles of conflict transformation!

This article was originally published on the Sri Lanka Campaign’s website, available by clicking here.



1 Response

  1. Vijay Wishwamoorthy

    The writer shows his complete ignorance about the conflict in Sri Lanka by this statement, “For nearly thirty years, a low-intensity civil war rumbled on in the north. Then, in 2009, things came to a violent, bloody climax.” There were many battles in the 1990’s which killed more than 3000-5000 combatants on both sides in mere days! Low intensity war!
    As far back as 1986 a bomb explosion in Colombo killed more than 200 civillians. In any other country this would be termed a “Crime against Humanity”, but when it comes to Sri Lanka all International players ignored such crimes. Please give us another example in the world where a one terrorist group has assassinated a sitting President, a Foreign Minister, an ex- PM of a neighbouring country and two Presidential Candidates! Or where 300,000 people were held hostage.
    Sri Lanka managed to defeat what the writer calls a ruthless terrorist group because for the first time appointments to the military were de-politicised and capable commanders were appointed in place of henchman. There were no ‘yes’ men during the war. A fact highlighted by the subsequent falling out of President and Army Chief!
    It’s unfathomable to blame Sri Lanka for what’s happening in Syria. Sri Lanka’s situation was vastly different.
    Unfortunately many inaccuracies in this analysis!

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