The Syria end game

The Syrian uprising could be entering its final bloody phase. Prompted by the recent successes of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), discussions have turned to the question of how long Assad can cling to power.

Many observers, including myself writing in the article Syria – Observations as the uprising unfolds, expected a weakened Assad to regain control within weeks or months. It’s a remarkable testament to the tenacity of those who have taken the fight to Assad’s regime.

The uprising started as spontaneous mass demonstrations but were isolated to each city, town and village and coupled with very little co-ordination or central organisation, the protests unfortunately failed to dislodge Assad.

The regime has been able to regroup and hit back. Now nineteen months on, the price stands at almost twenty thousand dead, many fleeing their homes and the beginnings of inter communal violence.

The reaction of the Assad regime has been predictable, brutal and extremely violent. Assad’s stooges have been unable to learn that their use of violence has turned into its opposite. Far from cowing the population as it did in the past, it now enrages them, gathering more recruits to fight with the FSA.

The slow bleed of defections

The regime is being weakened by the slow bleed of defections of those sickened by the indiscriminate violence meted out to unarmed civilians. Support from its social base is also showing signs of draining away, increasingly disillusioned by the price they’re paying for the regime’s struggle to cling to power.

The euphoria of the FSA’s recent successes should be tempered with the caveat that this is not the rotted regime of Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak where the basis of support had withered to a handful of regime cronies. Assad still enjoys significant social support from Alawites, Christians and the other minorities and will not be easy to topple.

From mass action to armed groups

We are witnessing the completion of the transition of mass popular action to civil war with a growing risk of sectarian violence. I pointed to this tendency of some uprisings to transform into military conflict in the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising, and examined some of the reasons:

“The institutions that people would usually turn to during mass protest have been ruthlessly suppressed in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. These same institutions, whether they be political parties or trades unions would also provide a pool of activists experienced in organising action. There was none of this available, nothing that could articulate the pro-democracy’s demands into the tactics and strategy necessary to carry the movement beyond its natural limits.”

One of the consequences of the civil war is the triggering of huge internal displacement. Anything up to one and a half million Syrians are internally displaced. An exodus from all the main cities has been reported since the attacks on Damascus and Aleppo. Watching a live video feed on the 23rd July from Aleppo, I was struck by the apparent absence of civilians. Other news reports tell of empty towns only populated by FSA fighters, another indication that the mass character of the uprising has passed to be replaced by armed groups loosely federated around the FSA and other groupings.

The armed opposition

The Free Syrian Army has become a catch all description for the armed opposition but not all groups are formally affiliated. For example, the groups following the Salafist jihadism doctrine operate more or less independently or under the guidance of foreign fighters and have their own resources. The FSA, are more dependant on Saudi Arabia and Qatar for funding and supplies and the weapons that defecting soldiers bring with them.

The fractured nature of the opposition means that in the event they achieve victory there is unlikely to be a significant period of coherent central control. With the prospect of the resulting instability combined with the nature of the FSA’s funders, it’s hardly surprising the Alawite and Christian communities have very little confidence in the FSA and their political allies the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Syria – The proxy battleground

Syria is of huge strategic importance in the region. In the words of a New York Times article, Syria is:

“…sitting at the center of ethnic, religious and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond.”

Map of Syria

The West and in particular the US sees the uprising as a chance to dislodge its Russian rival from the region and usher in a more pliant regime while at the same time further isolating Iran. This calculation is complicated by Turkey, which is now a regional power in its own right and is becoming more assertive in its regional ambitions and competing with both the US and Russia for influence.

UK epitomises cynicism of the west

The cynicism of the west is epitomised by the UK, on the one hand taking the moral high ground with its Foreign Ministry loudly proclaiming “Our positions is still the same. Al-Assad should go and be held responsible for his regime’s crimes,” but goes onto hedge its bets, “If the Syrian people reached a consensus on granting a pardon to the regime officials including President Assad, we are not going to object”. This statement also reveals the preference for a new government made up of the known quantity that are the current regime officials.

Recycling the old regime

The US foreign-policy think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addresses the difficulties of recycling the Assad regime :

“What will happen to senior state officials, government ministers, top-ranking civil servants, and Baath Party members? Is there any reason to expect that they will facilitate the transfer of power without prior political arrangements and assurances?”

The fact is that there is little possibility of a regime based on its old officials, there are too many with blood on their hands. Unlike in Libya those officials that have abandoned the regime haven’t defected, they’ve have simply melted away over the border. Ethnic tensions would also play a part, the highest positions in the state are reserved for the Alawites and Christians with the majority Sunni confined to the lower echelons. It’s doubtful whether the Sunni would continue to tolerate this imbalance.

Western concern over chemical weapons illustrates the dawning realisation of the potential fall out from the collapse of the Assad regime. Though concerns over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons may be justified, a degree of skepticism should be exercised as these can also serve as a useful foil for intervention as the west did in Iraq.

Russia and China

Russia has had to play a much more delicate game but is no less cynical in defending its interests than the west. It’s Foreign minister Lavrov plays the game of honest broker but Russia’s interests says otherwise. Their naval base at Tartus is their only base outside Russia and Russia enjoys a near monopoly of arms trade with the Syria regime which was worth at least $4 billion in 2011. With the exception of Iran, Russia has no major influence in the region and so will not abandon its friend Assad without a fight.

China has spreading influence on the economic front. Politically they don’t want to be seen turning on potential allies, dictator or not. A friend to dictators everywhere it claims its aim is to play a “positive and constructive part on the Syrian crisis. Their record in Africa where operating on the principle of not drawing “…lines according to ideological differences” shows that China’s influence is baleful rather than positive. China’s main goal in this instance will be to prevent further extension of the US sphere of influence.

The western military intervention in Libya that led to regime change has given Russia and China a cover of legitimacy in vetoing the Chapter seven UN resolution put forward by UK, US and France. No credence should be given to any of the arguments from the security council powers on these resolutions, it is merely the diplomatic side of their jockeying for influence.

What next for Syria?

Buoyed by the audacious attacks of the FSA, though tempered by subsequent setbacks, and the FSA’s apparent transformation into a co-ordinated viable fighting force, attention is focusing on what comes next. Discussions have turned to the aftermath of the Assad downfall, the problems of sectarian violence, regional instability, the influx al-Qaeda fighters and the prospect of chemical weapons falling into their hands.

An interesting point of note is that one of the consequences of the NATO intervention in Libya was the growth in the influence of al-Qaeda affiliated groups. This has led to these groups making gains which have resulted in the de-stabilising of north African countries such as Mali. It’s widely acknowledged that al-Qaeda will benefit from regime change in Syria as it did with Libya and Iraq. One can only conclude that the west considers this ‘collateral damage’ to be a price worth paying…

The spectre of sectarianism

France sowed the seeds of present day sectarianism, although this sectarianism is ultimately rooted in centuries of extreme repression, when Syria was a French Mandate between 1920 and 1946. Following a policy of divide and rule they encouraged the impoverished Alawites to positions of privilege, the French also engineered the autonomous state of Latakia for the Alawites that lasted for over a decade. A steady influx of Alawites into the armed forces, one of the few avenues that offered a decent income, eventually resulted in their over representation. This was to prove a vital springboard in the future.

The Alawite ascent was further cemented with the coup d’état that brought President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, to power in 1970. This has enabled the key levers of state to be consolidated into the hands of an Alawite elite.

Though the ingredients of sectarian violence were present, it was not necessarily inevitable. In the article Libya – Lessons of the Uprising I explained that:

“In extraordinary times mass struggle can overcome and cut across the barriers of sectarianism. In all the Arab uprisings, the people have been at pains to emphasis their unity across race and religious lines.”

In first weeks of the uprising, the natural support base of Assad were noticeable by their absence from the streets, showing perhaps that the relationship is more a marriage of necessity.

There are many examples of the instinctive reflex on the part of activists to forge unity across the communities, many Alawites have joined demonstrations and agitated against the regime.

Unfortunately, the failure of the uprising to pull all communities behind it has opened the door for sectarians on both sides to exploit the deep roots of prejudice.

Syrian National Council – paying lip service to ethnic unity?

The Syrian National Council, recognised as the main external opposition group, has played a lukewarm role in the fight against sectarianism. Their failure to condemn the speeches of opposition figures such as Maamun Homsi who threatened to wipe Alawites “out from the land of Syria” shows a willingness to turn a blind eye to bigoted rhetoric. Presumably the reference to ‘others’ in the National Covenant for a New Syria also means the Alawites, they are not mentioned by name anywhere in this fine sounding document despite being around 12% of the population. This absence of an explicit mention can surely only confirm the suspicions of a fearful Alawite community who after all are regarded as heretics by sections of Sunni.

The SNC risks leaving itself open to the accusation that it pays lip service to ethnic unity to appease its western supporters. The opposition generally, riven by religious and ethnic splits, have shown themselves incapable of persuading the Alawites and Christians that they are a credible alternative to the Assad regime.

Not all of the minority Alawite and Christian communities enjoy the same economic privileges, many in their day to day lives have more in common within their Sunni brethren than with the privileged business and political classes. Poverty is as widespread among the Alawites, (for whom social mobility is usually only possible via the military or the Ba’ath party), as it is the Sunni. It was the failure to win over this section, the rural poor and the working classes of the cities, that has set the course to sectarian strife.

Balkanisation of Syria

There is discussion of Syria fracturing into sectarian enclaves. However, any attempt to establish enclaves is complicated by the inter mingling of communities. Even in the Alawite heartland of Latakia province the Sunnis make up 50% of the population.

At present there is very little support for the ‘Balkanisation’ of Syria but blood letting by the Salafists, who regard the Alawites as heretics, or the Alawite Shabbiha militia would of course raise the spectre of ethnic cleansing. We’ve witnessed the first signs of this with the Houla Massacre and attacks against the Christian minority.

It may seem most likely at this stage that Assad will fall, however, it can not be ruled out that Assad survives even if his area of control is reduced to an ethnically cleansed Alawite enclave.

Reaping the rewards…

US president Barak Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union Address, said “How this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain. But we have a huge stake in the outcome.” The main reward the US seems likely to reap is a strategically important country racked by inter communal violence. This violence will inevitably spill over Syria’s borders, into Lebanon, Jordan, the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. Israel will not escape the fall out either, already there have been incursions of Syrian troops into the Golan heights.

The civil war in Syria has entered a new and decisive phase but is still too chaotic to predict in spite of the confident predictions of Assad’s downfall from some quarters. There is very little the major powers can do to influence to outcome, other than supplying arms to their chosen protagonist.

The aim of the major powers from this point on can be simply summed up as a fight for the ‘spoils of war’.

Gary Hollands – July 30th 2012.

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