Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Longform /07 Mar 2012
03.07.12

Grasping the Syrian Quagmire

One of the most significant and enduring consequences of the Arab Spring has been the bloody uprising in Syria. For almost a year cities across the Levant have been defying the iron grip of the Assad regime and challenging the police state of the Ba’ath party. Of all the countries engulfed by the revolutionary fever encompassing the Arab World, Syria, a country of 23 million, epitomizes the toughest case. It comprises many religious sects including Sunni (79%), Alawite (off-shoot of Shiite Islam, 9%), Christians (9%), and Druze (3%). Ethnically, nine percent of its population are Kurds who sympathize with their brethren in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and dream of one day establishing a Kurdish state.

The Assad family, which belongs to the Alawite minority sect, has been ruling Syria for over 41 years, relying on its brutal 13 security apparatuses, Para-military groups and thugs (called Shabbiha) and a large army of over a quarter-million. Most senior positions in these terrifying institutions have been controlled by the minority Alawite sect to ensure regime loyalty. Similar to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, every aspect of Syrian politics and public institutions has been dominated by the totalitarian-style of the Ba’ath party since 1963. But unlike Tunisia or Egypt, where the public enjoyed a relatively vibrant civil society, Syria suffers from the total absence of any democratic institutions, civic organizations, or independent media.

The Ba’athists have always countered political challenges to their rule with brutal and bloody tactics. In the 1960s and 70s there were numerous summary executions and purges of prominent political figures within the political structure, including rival Ba’ath party leaders. During the reign of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez — who died in 2000 after a 30-year rule — his regime was challenged briefly in February 1982 by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Within weeks, as much as 20,000 people were killed in the city of Hama, a mid-size town and the center of the rebellion, as it was eventually leveled to the ground. Ever since, membership in the movement has been punishable by execution, life imprisonment, or exile.

Since succeeding his father in 2000, President Assad has promised political reforms and economic openness but with little success. Corruption in Syrian society has become endemic.

A small but powerful elite composed of the Assad family and other powerful Alawite families, as well as small number of loyal families from the prominent merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo, have been controlling all major industries, financial institutions, and trade in the country. According to Transparency International, Syria ranks 129 in the world on the corruption index (by comparison, Egypt’s Mubarak ranked 112 and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, 73).

When the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions toppled their dictators in a relatively short period of time (28 and 18 days respectively), Syrians took to the streets demanding political reforms in mid-March of last year. The uprising started in Dar’aa in the south but quickly spread throughout the country from Latakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Idlib, and Deir ez-Zor, to the major cities of Hama and Homs. Many segments in the two biggest cities of Damascus and Aleppo, dominated by the business class and elite families, have belatedly joined the uprising as well.

Led by a few hundred youths who watched as other dictators were being toppled through the clever use of social media, the initial demonstrations were meek and the demands of the protesters were modest. They consisted of calling for political reforms, civil freedoms, and loosening the grip of the security state.

Instead of addressing their legitimate demands and embracing the spirit of change spreading across the Arab world, the regime responded to these protests with a vicious crackdown. When the families of the 12 youths and school children who were tortured and killed in Dar’aa in the early days of the uprising demanded accountability, they were ridiculed and arrested. Quickly, massive protests spread through southern Syria, as the Arab tribes of these young victims felt insulted and humiliated by the indifference of the Ba’ath party officials and the brutality of its security apparatus.

(Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

President Assad’s first public speech after the Dar’aa protests at the end of March was highly anticipated. People across Syria had hopes that their president would be conciliatory, magnanimous, and apologetic for the Dar’aa massacre. His advisers built the speech as a milestone along the path of instituting sweeping political reforms and imminent civil liberties. Instead, his speech to the parliament was highly disappointing. Assad placed the blame of the protests on foreign conspiracies and domestic terrorists. He claimed that the demonstrations were ill-advised and provocative as Syria was already on the path of reforms since at least 2005. The speech was a staged public spectacle and a relic of a bygone era. He was repeatedly interrupted every few minutes by members of parliament singing his praises and showering him with massive applause.

Ironically, as the entire world was watching, he demonstrated how Syria was indeed a dictatorship as he was detailing to the parliament the framework of his constitutional and political reforms within his own timetable, never once calling for reconciliation or dialogue with — or a role for — the opposition or even an input from his own parliament. While paying lip service to the right of peaceful protests, he delivered thinly veiled threats that any further destabilization in the country (read protests) would be met with an iron fist.

As the peaceful demonstrations grew in intensity and popularity throughout the summer and fall, Assad indeed followed up on his threat of cracking down hard on the protesters. According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Human Rights Council, more than 8,500 civilians, including at least 600 children, have been killed during the Syrian uprising. Moreover, more than 25,000 have been injured, as many as 18,000 detained and at least 80,000 have been displaced in Turkey, Lebanon, or within Syria.

In early February, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told the UN General Assembly to act immediately to protect the Syrian people since “The longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities committed against them.”

In mid-February a United Nations panel concluded that “gross human rights violations” had been ordered by the Syrian authorities as a matter of state policy, amounting to crimes against humanity.” The panel of three investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian professor, said the orders had come from “the highest levels of the armed forces and the government.”

But despite the massive evidence of atrocities, why has the Assad regime’s assault on its people gone unabated? What are the factors that distinguish Syria from the other uprisings of the Arab Spring? And finally, what are the likely scenarios of the Syrian revolt? To answer these questions one needs first to understand the regional and international context and the players that have a direct stake in the outcome of the Syrian conflict.

As a state at war with Israel since 1948, Syria has historically distinguished itself as the heart of the Arab nationalist movement and defender of its rights against foreign domination and Israeli hegemonic power. Yet, despite its successive failures when directly confronting Israel militarily, Syria has been very successful in facilitating much of the support to the fierce resistance against Israeli aggression, especially in southern Lebanon, as well as against the American military presence in Iraq as demonstrated in its assistance to the insurgent groups against the military occupation in the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion.

In its alliance with Iran, Syria has also played a crucial role in opposing the Bush administration’s political designs for the region, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Furthermore, Syria has forged a strategic alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon and has served as a host to most Palestinian resistance groups for decades.

Whether it has chosen this path as a matter of principle or as a bargaining chip for future negotiations — as its critics charge — does not matter. It successfully fought off the Bush administration’s policy in its attempt to isolate the anti-American and anti-Israeli groups in the area. It also played a critical role in the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon against Hezbollah that ended in a stalemate. With Syria’s help, Hezbollah has not only been able to rebuild its arsenal with tens of thousands of rockets capable of reaching any major population center inside Israel, but it has also been able to control the Lebanese political theater after it toppled the government of America’s allies in Beirut, and formed another that is friendly to Syria and Iran.

Further, ever since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria has been the closest strategic ally of Iran in the Arab world. This strategic alliance has allowed Iran to wield great influence throughout the Arab world, especially with regard to Lebanon and the Palestinian cause, the central issue in the Arab world.

In return, Syria has benefited greatly from this relationship strategically, politically, and economically. In addition, since the rise of Iran’s Shi’ite allies in Iraq, coupled with the defeat of the American enterprise in the region, an arc dominated by Shi’aa and Alawite-led regimes, that extends from Iran and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, has been created. To the traditional pro-Western monarchies in the region, with a substantial Shi’aa minority, this arc is considered a grave menace threatening the status quo and the future of these regimes.

So while Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) autocratic states were tacitly but actively opposing or derailing the Arab Spring (except Qatar for self-preservation reasons), the GCC countries are currently at the forefront of the efforts to topple the Syrian regime in order to primarily break the Iranian-Syrian alliance. In this context, one could understand the efforts by the Arab League in the last few months as it attempts to be uncharacteristically pro-active in the Syrian quagmire.

(Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The efforts of the Arab League in the Syrian predicament, led by the tiny state of Qatar, but vigorously supported by Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, has sponsored several initiatives to resolve the crisis. When its mission to place observers in December failed to stop the carnage of the Syrian military against the civilian protesters, it advocated the removal of Bashar Assad with a transitional period led by his Sunni vice president, who would presumably ask the opposition to be part of a unity government, and to be subsequently followed by free and democratic elections. When the Syrian government flatly rejected this initiative, the Arab League turned in late January to the UN Security Council for support. Ultimately, Russia and China refused to adopt the initiative or even condemn the regime, casting their second double veto in as many months, therefore halting the Arab initiative in its tracks.

Russia has been the major supplier of arms to Syria as well as its strategic ally in the region. Russian leaders are also furious since their interests in Georgia and their concern with regard to the missile defense shield in Europe have been ignored by the US. Russia mistakenly thought that the US was going to accommodate it on both counts after the Security Council vote on Libya last spring, which allowed military intervention. On the other hand, China wanted to send a clear message that it’s leery of any attempt to allow foreign interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state as it fears its own unrest inside the country as well as in Mongolia. Behind the scenes, Iran has been pleading with both veto-wielding powers to bail out its strategic ally as it prepares for its own possible showdown with Israel or Western powers regarding its nuclear program. Iranian leaders believe the survival of the Assad regime lessens the possibility of a military strike against their country.

Fittingly, Western countries led by the US called the Russian and Chinese vetoes “disgusting,” “shameful,” “deplorable” and a “travesty” in defiance of the 13 other nations on the Security Council that supported the Arab initiative. But the US has no credibility in expressing its “shock” and “outrage,” given its stark hypocrisy. For decades, the US shielded Israel from dozens of resolutions condemning its actions and demanding that it abide by international law. Frequently, the resulting vote was 14-1, with the US casting the sole negative vote, thus invalidating it. Or when the UN General Assembly condemns Israeli aggression or occupation with a typical 190-2 vote, with the US siding with Israel against the whole world. Just last September the US led the efforts to frustrate the Palestinian attempt to gain statehood recognition in the UN. When subsequently, Palestine was admitted as a member of UNESCO with an overwhelming majority, the US “disgustingly” and “shamefully” withdrew from the educational, social, and cultural organization.

But hypocrisy is not the domain of the West alone. Iran and Hezbollah, which have been very popular with the Arab masses for decades, have also chosen strategic calculations over moral principles. Their unwavering support for the Assad regime, despite its massacres against peaceful protesters, has cost them dearly in the Arab street.

In the case of Iran, the support was not only political but included providing military hardware and expertise, tear-gas canisters causing severe burns and partial paralysis for the demonstrators, as well as providing technical assistance in communications and in monitoring the Internet. According to a well-placed source in Damascus, several senior members of Iran’s revolutionary guards have been providing technical expertise in command-and-control to the Syrian military onslaught against major cities such as Homs and Hama.

More recently Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, angrily admonished the leaders of the Palestinian resistance groups during their recent visit to Tehran because, unlike Hezbollah, they were not actively and publicly supporting the Assad regime. Shortly after, many Palestinian leaders — including most Hamas senior cadres — left the Syrian capital for good as their relations with Tehran and Damascus has reached an historic low.

For decades the two antagonistic camps in the region, broadly speaking, were the US, Israel and pro-Western corrupt dictatorships and monarchies on the one hand, and on the other pro-resistance groups (including Islamist, nationalist, and leftist movements) supported by the Arab masses in alliance with Iran and Syria. When the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, the first camp was nervous while the second camp was cheering. When it reached Libya, the first camp was applauding while the second camp was split, but only due to the erratic nature of Qaddafi. However, when the revolutionary spirit finally reached Syria, the first camp saw a rare but real opportunity to break Syria’s alliance with Iran and weaken, if not destroy, the resistance axis extending from Lebanon to Iran. This is primarily why the Syrian situation is distinguished from the others.

(Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

As in all political transformations, when popular revolts break out, countries and political movements formulate their strategic and tactical calculations as they pursue policies that advance their interests. But the Arab masses in the streets have no such designs, as they usually side with the protesters yearning for freedom and dignity. However, the Syrian opposition groups, which started to organize themselves against the Assad regime in order to offer a viable alternative, have also made their own short-term calculations as to which camp they would join.

Despite the fact that no political group could claim the Syrian uprising, Syrian opposition groups and prominent individuals including intellectuals, academics, dissidents, and former politicians formed an exile opposition group, based in Turkey, called the Syrian National Council (SNC), similar to Libya’s Transitional National Council. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, with its strong organizational skills and presence abroad, has been instrumental in bringing this together and is able to exercise a great influence within the SNC, if not actually dominate it.

A secular academic based in Paris, Burhan Ghalioun, was chosen to head the SNC along with other secular, liberal, and Islamist individuals, selected mainly from abroad. From its inception last October, it was clear that the SNC chose the path of absolute regime change through the internationalization of the conflict regardless of the consequences. Its spokespersons have called for a Libyan-style intervention from the UN, NATO, or other powers. In their attempt to woo the US and the West, they downplayed the conflict with Israel, and promised to distance themselves from Iran and Hezbollah. While vocally attacking Iran and its allies and praising the pro-Western Arab monarchies, they have invariably used sectarian and hostile language.

Throughout the summer and fall, the SNC solidified its position within the Arab world, especially with the GCC countries, as well as with the West. Those who are wary of undue Western influence and its unwavering support for Israeli aggression and expansionism became nervous with regard to the increasingly alarming statements coming from SNC leadership and spokespersons.

In many instances SNC leadership offered assurances as to their support of the break-up of the resistance axis, while embracing the language of the pro-Western Arab regimes of hollow compromises. Although several countries, led by Libya and Tunisia, have officially recognized the SNC as the official representative of the Syrian people, over a dozen others led by the US, the European Union, and Turkey have either promised to officially recognize the group in the near future or opened a dialogue with it.

Recently, several prominent members led by secular judge and human rights activist, Haitham Al-Maleh, 81, a veteran of Assad’s prisons, split from the SNC and formed a new faction called the Syrian Patriotic Group. They claim that the SNC has been ineffective, weak, and irresolute. Another vocal opposition leader is also Paris-based human rights activist Haitham Manna’a, of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change. His organization also advocates the overthrow of the Assad regime, but within the Arab context and short of foreign intervention.

Meanwhile, inside the country the organized opposition coalesced around the Local Coordination Committees (LCC). For months, the LCC unequivocally rejected foreign intervention and was willing to engage in a dialogue with the regime. However, it was clear that the regime believed only in imposing its will on the people through subjugation and fear tactics, using its bloody military onslaught, security crackdowns and thugs. Over time, the LCC weakened and its supporters became desperate, calling for safe passages and protection measures.

Based in Turkey, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is led by former Air Force Col. Riad Al-As’aad. The FSA is comprised of several hundred army defectors who refused to join the onslaught against their own citizens and have taken arms against the regime. They claim to have caused more than 1,200 casualties on the Syrian army in the past three months and is overtly asking for the armed overthrow of the Assad regime. Every week several dozen defectors join the group, but mainly from the lower ranks.

Despite its historically friendly relations with the Assad regime, Turkey has been vocal in backing the demands of the uprising and has become the main sponsor of the groups challenging the legitimacy of the government. In short, a regional realignment has taken place with Iran and Turkey strongly opposing each other across the Syrian theater.

As the bloody crisis dominated the news cycles in the Arab world, the Arab street became confused. While it wholeheartedly embraced the Syrian uprising and despised the cruelty of the Assad regime, it was distrustful of those who claim to speak on its behalf. The division within the Syrian opposition as to how to deal with the crisis has played into the hands of the regime as it became more confident and belligerent in its handling of the crisis.

Since February 4, the day the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution to stop the bloodshed, the regime stepped up its brutality and has continued its siege and daily shelling of the city of Homs, killing hundreds of civilians, including dozens of women and children. As part of its political reforms, the regime passed a new constitution in late February, amidst the siege and shelling of many cities and neighborhoods. With the total breakdown of trust between the regime and its opponents, the new constitution, which offered inconsequential and cosmetic changes, was immediately rejected by the opposition. In essence, it secured the presidency for Assad until 2028 while excluding all major opposition candidates by demanding that any candidate must have resided in Syria for the last 10 years, ignoring the fact that all major opposition leaders have been in exile for years if not decades.

As in the old constitution, the presidential powers are sweeping like any monarch, but in name. Not only is the president the head of the executive branch, the commander-in-chief, security agencies, and the police, but also the head of the judiciary and justice systems. He appoints all judges, senior government officials including the prime minister, ministers, their deputies, ambassadors, and other senior officials without parliament confirmation. He can dissolve the parliament at any time and legislate when the parliament is not in session, which could be as much as six months a year. Further, the constitution reserves for the president the authority to declare a state of emergency and thus rule by decree. Clearly all such powers invested by this constitution in the position of president are contrary to the concept of democratic governance based on checks and balances and separation of powers.

So what are the possible scenarios for the Syrian quagmire?

The Tunisia/Egyptian Scenario

In this scenario, the army would force the president to either resign or go into exile. But in the Syrian context this is extremely unlikely since the composition of the Syrian army is completely different from those in Egypt or Tunisia. The army’s most senior officers are led by either close relatives of Assad, such as his brother or brother-in-law, or from officers belonging to the Alawite sect. In other words, they know that if the president goes, they must go as well.

The Yemeni Scenario

In January, the Arab League adopted this model, which was based on the GCC initiative to end the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and contain the popular revolution. In that plan, President Saleh and his family were given immunity in exchange for the transfer of power to his vice president who would share power with a prime minister from the opposition. Within two years, a new constitution is supposed to be written and new elections held. But unlike the Syrian regime, Saleh was not backed by international or regional powers to stay in power. His patron for many years, the US, was in fact encouraging him behind the scenes to leave so as to maintain its influence in the government before revolutionary elements take over. The US also wanted to continue its military presence and freedom of movement against Al-Qaeda in the region. In January, the Arab League adopted the same plan for Syria but it was not only flatly rejected by the Syrian regime, but also by the opposition groups, which loathe the Ba’ath party political machinery. Nevertheless, the initiative was presented to the UN Security Council and faced the double veto of the Russia and China.

The Libyan Scenario

In this scenario, foreign troops, presumably NATO, would strike military targets against the regime until its military capabilities are degraded. Although the SNC, the FSA and other vocal opposition figures have called for this scenario, NATO and other western countries have rejected this option despite the fact that some of the GCC countries have vowed to undertake the cost of the operation. But the military risks are far greater for NATO, especially in an election year in the US. Additionally, there are other Syrian opposition groups that have totally rejected direct foreign intervention.

The Iraqi/Somali Scenario

Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have been advocating the arming of the FSA and other opposition militant groups. In this scenario a full-fledged civil war would ensue that could in all likelihood resemble the breakdown of central authority and disintegration of the country like Somalia, or create a situation that is similar to the sectarian Iraqi strife of 2005 and 2006.

The carnage and loss of civilian life in such a scenario could be horrific, and on a grand scale, that would far surpass the current level of the loss of life. The army and its shabbiha would then be totally unconstrained as the conflict spreads. In addition, in this chaos, many armed militias including Al-Qaeda would join, and the whole region would be inflamed, as the bloody conflict might spill over to Iraq and possibly across the whole Gulf region. Such conflict could easily turn into a full-scale Shia’-Sunni violent confrontation with colossal consequences.

The Assassination Plot Scenario

The advocates of this scenario call for a clean assassination plot against president Assad. The idea is that the regime would become very weak and not able to recover. Putting aside the iniquity of this approach, it is not apparent who would succeed Assad since his vice president, a Sunni, is not considered loyal enough to the Alawite-dominated military leaders. Although this scenario could speed up the collapse of the regime with minimal loss of life, it is not clear how such a plot could be carried out.

The Grand Political Bargain Scenario

Convinced of the regime’s inability to prevent the crisis from reaching a military stalemate, this scenario envisions a grand political settlement between Assad’s patrons such as Russia or Iran on the one hand, with other international or regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League, on the other. In this scenario the Obama administration, in need of stable oil prices, especially in an election year, would reach out to Saudi Arabia, which is probably the only player that can guarantee this stability, particularly if Iranian oil is removed from the international market this summer. In return, the US agrees to accommodate Russia’s concerns in Georgia and the defense shield plan in Eastern Europe. Another possibility would involve a deal between Turkey and Iran if the latter reaches the conclusion that the Assad regime had become a liability such that its interests would be harmed irreparably if it continues to back him.

Russia or Iran could then convince Assad to step down and go into exile. A serious political dialogue would subsequently take place between the opposition and remnants of the weakened regime. A national unity government would soon after be formed to include all the warring factions in a transitional period to be followed by democratic elections.

The Long-Term Regime Attrition Scenario

In essence, the conflict in Syria is a test of wills between the regime and the Syrian people. For almost a year the Syrian people have demonstrated courage, determination, and resolve to reclaim their freedom against a brutal and bloody regime. After a year full of enormous sacrifices, it is unlikely that the will of the Syrian people could be crushed. The fear of the regime by the people has been broken, as more people from all walks of life across Syria have taken to the streets. Despite its enormous military power, the readiness of the army and security apparatus has been deteriorating daily and cannot be sustained for a long period of time. The economy is collapsing and soon major commercial strikes and civil disobedience might spread, paralyzing the country. In all likelihood, the International Criminal Court will also indict Assad and his senior leaders, tightening the noose around their necks. In this scenario the combined effects of all these measures would result in the collapse of the regime and the disintegration of the exhausted army.

The US committed a grave miscalculation when it invaded Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration had the illusion that Iraq would somehow become an American colony, its military base, a client state, or America’s gas station. At the end, it handed over Iraq to Iran on a silver platter as Iran’s allies have taken over the country. Almost a decade later, Iran is committing the same miscalculation with its unconditional backing of the Assad regime. Whichever scenario plays out, it is unlikely that Assad would survive, unless Israel attacks Iran, resulting in a whole new calculus. Barring this possibility, the question then becomes how would the region look as Assad disappears from the scene: is it the ultimate triumph of people power or a sectarian fire spreading across the entire region?

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