As it gets set to enter its sixth year in March, the war in Syria has set itself apart from other struggles of the Arab Spring since its onset in 2011. Though no conflicts can ever be regarded as entirely equal in cause and effect, one example in recent memory often seen as matching the severity of the Syrian war is Algeria’s 10-year civil war which started in 1992.
Certain elements of Algeria’s “Black Decade”, as it came to be known, have since characterised the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, with its violence used as a template to measure other civil wars and its end a means of a solution for others. If patterns are anything to go by, Algeria’s events were nothing short of a prediction of things to come.
Algeria’s civil war & its consequences
After the riots of October 1988, constitutional reforms introduced a multi-party system for the first time into Algeria’s political framework, enabling the autocratic rule of the National Liberation Front (FLN) to be contested. Challenging the secular and socialist FLN was the Islamist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), led by Abassi Madani. It found resonance amongst the frustrated youth and appealed to populist aspirations for democracy. When the second round of elections in 1991 looked set to see the FIS victorious — it won the first round too — the army stepped in, cancelled the result and banned the winning party.
The reaction of the FIS was to view the army’s actions as a de facto declaration of war; the subsequent conflict lasted 10 years and claimed the lives of over 200,000 Algerians, while 1 million fled the country. Legitimate protest was soon replaced by violence.
Groups like the AIS (Islamic Salvation Army) or GIA (Armed Islamic Group), whose members were hardened fighters returning from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, injected a new sense of brutality into the conflict. This reduced any legitimacy that the opposition had first held.
Attacks on police stations and army posts were soon replaced by village massacres, sweeping terror across the country. Rape, summary executions and forced disappearances shook the foundations of Algeria and blurred the lines of responsibility between the GIA and state forces.
Fighting ceased on the opposition side largely due to battle fatigue and, by the late 1990s, the jihadists had run their campaign into the ground. A general amnesty was offered by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2002, the civil war was declared over and the Algerian government emerged triumphant over its reconciliation efforts.
Former members of the counterinsurgency and Algerian state intelligence service (DRS) later accused the leadership of the service for creating armed Islamist groups and infiltrating them. State arms, false flag operations and deliberate misinformation were tried and tested Soviet methods of penetration and provocation to discredit any form of opposition both politically and militarily. Moulding the opposition into an entity that the masses would oppose out of fear of a regression into violence was the driving motive of the military commanders.
What was defined as terrorism — which Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad has manipulated for his own regime’s benefit — was central to the FLN’s triumph. The Algerian authorities relied on the manipulation of public fear and carefully construed the politics of violence in maintaining their legitimacy and repressing the ardour of those who viewed revolutions as a necessary first step to democracy. This, in retrospect, spelt out what other Arab regimes would later actualise.
Algeria’s example for Syria’s reality
Using the same language as that used in the 90s, Algerian state television has recently made it explicitly clear which side in Syria it supports. Referring to the opposition as “terrorists” and seemingly merging all opposition groups into one, dangerous entity, is likely to provoke a painful collective memory of the decade-long war.
For Algerians, the regime is best placed in dealing with terrorism; a discourse which is backed by Washington and France. A track record of Western interference in the Middle East has reinforced Algeria’s distrust of western interests and revolts.
It is, perhaps, with this in mind that Algerians’ sympathies are driven in support of Assad’s fight against “terrorism”; a fight they equate with their own experience. If this is to be accepted, then hypothetically the Algerian model becomes applicable in moulding a solution to the conflict in Syria. However, it is not that simple.
The Algerian position has always maintained the absence of a “democratic alternative” to Assad’s dictatorship or Islamist extremism, which in turn limits the power of governance to a dichotomy rarely usurped. The only realistic solution, therefore, comes in the form of national reconciliation which serves unilateral needs, as was necessary in Algeria.
Refusing to engage in sectarian or tribal rhetoric and unequivocally supporting Arab solidarity over foreign inclusion, Algeria’s credibility with Damascus is strong. Opposing the Arab League’s attempt to expel Syria and rejecting proposals to sanction the regime in Damascus are strong indicators why Algeria is justified in thinking it can backchannel a solution in Syria.
However, the two wars are fundamentally very different: Algeria’s war was never defined by the same sectarian or geo-politics which have divided Syria. The war in Algeria instead isolated itself from the rest of the world where even allied states imposed strict visa restrictions and bans across business and travel sectors. Algeria’s allies did not join the conflict militarily to exact political, strategic and economic interests in the region and maintain its status quo, as Syria’s allies have done.
France’s interests in Algeria stretched to maintaining a Francophone Arab Maghreb with its economic imperialism, whilst Washington’s support saw it back the corrupt junta over the non-subservience of the FIS. As long as hegemonic aspirations were maintained it was more prudent to appease the FLN’s actions politically rather than interfere overtly.
Algeria’s isolation, though crippling at the time, eventually worked in its favour; it allowed the regime to solve the crisis in-house without the preoccupation with regional superpowers funding its power seat or fighting a multi-faceted foreign presence. Syria cannot benefit from such a privilege and any brokered deal will be reliant on foreign powers, led by Russia, that have contributed to the escalation of the war since the very beginning.
Inter-factional competition between the GIA, AIS and MIA (Armed Islamic Movement) that plunged the war in Algeria to the depths of unseen depravity, were the same fears that deepened the Syrian crisis with the emergence of non-state actors which opposed the largely secular Free Syrian Army. Once the precedent of violence was set by Assad, belligerents found few incentives to exercise restraint unilaterally.
Opposing Assad was the main objective, but the widespread violence and complex dynamics of competition amongst insurgent groups reaped severe consequences for the opposition’s legitimacy. Violence in both cases jeopardised the political weight that the opposition first held, departing from the initial necessary objectives and manifested into new playing fields which the regimes maximised for their own gains.
Algerian mediation of a solution would be on the sole basis that the opposition lay down their arms and accept Assad’s legitimacy and necessity against “terrorism”. Indeed, Assad’s position in Kazakhstan later this month is for the opposition to surrender its arms and any questions regarding his future directed to the Constitution, which renders him safe. Opposing his legitimacy in attending peace talks is now synonymous with a desire to continue the war rather than exacting justice against a brutal dictatorship.
Following Algeria’s example would also mean the acceptance that no perpetrators of war crimes will be implicated. Due to the intensity of fighting and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and journalists, the precarious environment renders the presence of independent human rights observers recording such abuses nigh on impossible. Those behind the most notorious massacres in Algeria were never brought to justice. Indeed, subsequent reports found that intelligence agents regularly bribed European police, journalists and MPs via its oil and gas billions to keep quiet.
Lack of implication — and thus accountability — means that Assad is unlikely to pay for his war crimes or indeed lose his hold on power as he is now presented as the “lesser evil” compared to Daesh and its ilk. This is a poor excuse in negating the opposition’s legitimate demands and reinforces the assumption that alternatives to dictatorships are not worth considering because bloodbaths will result.
Permanently shining the lens on the violence that ensued instead of the reason why it was ever the “necessary” response in the first place drives any legitimacy of civic-necessities into irrelevance in the wider discourse. What remains are archaic, despotic regimes desperately clinging to power whatever the cost, whilst their people are inept and paralysed by social memory (Algeria), or currently learning how severe the price can be for asking for basic freedoms (Syria).
Algeria’s example can certainly help in preventing the continuation of the Syrian conflict, but it is the type of end that Algeria would want enacted that we must question. End the killing and maintain the power status quo or continue in the fight until the current hierarchy is destroyed; the people of Syria must be the ones to decide.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.