Posted by Joshua on Friday, November 25th, 2011
Peter Harling has produced another superb analysis of where we stand in Syria. Not only does he understand Syria, but he can write. He captures Syria’s subtleties as he cuts through the spin on both sides. It is a long piece. Here are only a few excerpts. Read the entire document.
Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics
Middle East Briefing N°31 24 Nov 2011
Damascus/Brussels, 24 November 2011
International Crisis Group
The Syrian crisis may or may not have entered its final phase, but it undoubtedly has entered its most dangerous one to date. The current stage is defined by an explosive mix of heightened strategic stakes tying into a regional and wider international competition on the one hand and emotionally charged attitudes, communal polarisation and political wishful thinking on the other. As dynamics in both Syria and the broader international arena turn squarely against the regime, reactions are ranging from hysterical defiance on the part of its supporters, optimism among protesters that a bloody stalemate finally might end and fears of sectarian retribution or even civil war shared by many, through to triumphalism among those who view the crisis as an historic opportunity to decisively tilt the regional balance of power.
Yet, almost entirely missing is a sober assessment of the challenges provoked by these shifts and the very real risk that they could derail or even foreclose the possibility of a successful transition. In particular, five issues likely to shape events have been absent from the public debate:
- the fate of the Alawite community;
- the connection between Syria and Lebanon;
- the nature and implications of heightened international involvement;
- the long-term impact of the protest movement’s growing militarisation; and
- the legacy of creeping social, economic and institutional decay.
Assad has registered only two achievements, albeit highly ambivalent ones. First, the regime in effect took the Alawite minority hostage, linking its fate to its own. It did so deliberately and cynically, not least in order to ensure the loyalty of the security services which, far from being a privileged, praetorian elite corps, are predominantly composed of underpaid and overworked Alawites hailing from villages the regime has left in a state of abject underdevelopment. As unrest began, the regime staged sectarian incidents in confessionally-mixed areas as a means of bringing to the surface deeply-ingrained feelings of insecurity among Alawites who, in centuries past, had been socially marginalised, economically exploited and targets of religious discrimination.
As repression escalated in recent months, many Syrians have shifted from blaming elements of the regime, to blaming the regime as a whole and, finally, to blaming the Alawite community itself. As a result, many Alawites are now in a state of panic, leading them to embrace a regime for which most, at the start of the crisis, evinced little sympathy. Sharing analogous fears born of their minority status, large swathes of the Christian community appear to be following a similar path. The regime’s second ambiguous success was in compartmentalising its territory. Denied both mobility and control of any symbolically decisive space (notably in the capital, Damascus, and the biggest city, Aleppo), the protest movement failed to reach the critical mass necessary to establish, once and for all, that Assad has lost his legitimacy. Instead, demonstrators doggedly resisted escalating violence on the part of the security services and their civilian proxies in an ever-growing number of hotspots segregated from one another by numerous checkpoints. Within each of these separate locations, security forces turned their firepower against uncomfortably large gatherings, stalked local leadership figures, seized tools used to communicate with the outside world and resorted to collective punishment ‒ in some instances carrying out such gruesome scare tactics as returning victims’ desecrated bodies to their families.
However, the regime has been able to ensure such territorial control largely because the protest movement remained essentially peaceful. This allowed it to rely on numerous but lightly armed security forces and proxies, drawing on military combat troops solely for secondary missions (such as manning checkpoints) or in response to the relatively rare instances when it met organised armed resistance. This was for a reason. Over the years, the regime built up the instruments of a police state while distrusting the army ‒ large but poorly trained, ill-equipped and lacking esprit de corps. To minimise the risk of a military coup, Assad made sure the army stayed both weak and divided. The net result is that ‒ save for a few praetorian units ‒ it cannot be depended upon as an instrument of repression.
There are signs the regime’s formula no longer is working. Its failure to shore up its legitimacy coupled with the gap between its narrative (in which the state fights to restore law and order in the face of terrorist attacks) and everyday reality (in which security forces make no distinction between peaceful protesters and armed groups) has produced a growing number of military defectors. Civilians, hungry for protection and eager for revenge, are ever more willing to welcome, support and shelter them, making it virtually impossible for security services to root them out. In short, their brutality has provoked an incipient armed …
In several respects, Syria’s society is far better prepared for change than at the outset of the uprising. The regime’sdivide-and-rule tactics have kept most Alawites, many Christians, as well as some Druze and Sunnis on its side, but simultaneously given rise to an unprecedented sense of awareness, solidarity and responsibility among large segments of the population. After decades of suppression, civil society has emerged as a surprisingly enterprising and energised actor, providing support to those targeted by the regime and often bridging communal and geographic divides. Over time, social divisions also gradually have receded. Members of the business community have extended material assistance to protesters, and some within the middle classes belatedly have thrown in their lot with what initially had been a disproportionately working-class, proletarian uprising.
A long-apathetic youth has become politicised and is now actively engaged in the struggle, seeking to push back against some of the more thuggish and sectarian trends among protesters. The latter, through their coordination efforts, have produced incipient, discreet yet increasingly effective local leadership. Through the string of defections, the army itself may be generating the skeleton of a future, more cohesive apparatus…..
By now, there no longer is a permanent loyalist military presence in parts of Idlib, Hama and Homs governorates, a situation that enables the armed opposition to further regroup and organise. The governorates of Dayr Zor and Deraa appear on the verge of following a similar path. As defections mount and the army is under ever greater stress, there is reason to doubt that the regime can muster sufficient military resources to reverse the trend. Talk about creating safe-havens on the Turkish and Jordanian borders could soon be moot; in many ways, Syrians appear on their way to doing that on their own….
But what is emerging in those areas free of regime control?….
Inhabitant of Damascus
Ambassador Van Dam’s analysis of the options before Syria is very close to the mark. However I believe there are no only two realistic options for Syria’s medium-term future.
There is no likelihood whatsoever that Bashar al-Assad will step down or be deposed in some sort of internal coup. Those calling for him to step down (the US, UK, France, Turkey, among others) demonstrate a poor understanding of Syria. The regime needs Assad. He is their best bet in managing the international elements of the crisis, and has been instrumental in keeping Russia, China, South Africa, and India among others, actively supporting the regime despite its rampant and very nasty human rights abuses. Assad is also still very popular, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo, including having strong Christian and Druze support. So why would the regime remove him.
Assad will not step down, regardless of the economic sanctions (which will achieve nothing but the suffering and deaths of the civilian population as van Dam says). And what if he did get on a plane and go into exile (in Tehran?)? Nothing would change. For things to change and the violence to stop, a million or so Alawis (plus other regime insiders) would need to go into exile with him. It is not the removal of Assad which will usher in reform, but the removal of the entire Assad/Alawi elite.
Syria’s first option is to enable a meaningful Arab League delegaton, of some hundreds of monitors, to enter the country to help stem the violence and begin a confidence-building process with consultations aimed at a democratic transition. Assad told the ‘Sunday Times’ this week that he will hold parliamentary elections in Feb/March. This will be followed by a constitutional review, and if the post of president is part of the new constitution, presidential elections will be held and ‘the people can decide’. The best thing for Syria would be that all factions cease violence and test Assad’s promise. If he fails to deliver then he will lose what little credibility he has left. There is nothing to lose by giving him 6 months to deliver. The Arab League initiative is therefore a last chance for the regime and the country to avoid destruction.
The second option is the atatus quo – continue the present slide into civil war. This will be the inevitable outcome if the AL plan fails. Syria would become the proxy battleground for a Sunni vs Shia and a US, Israel, Saudi vs Iran, Iraq confrontation. Sanctions and violence would take a terrible toll on the civilian population. After months or years, direct outside military intervention would be inevitable. This would have hugely negative impact on the region.
The choice is stark. But why would Assad refuse the AL initiative? It would stem the violence. It would enable him to deliver on his promise of parliamentary and presidential elections. If he refuses to accept the AL initative he would do so only for two reasons. One, he has no intention whatsoever of introducing democratic reforms. Two, he does not want outsiders into the country to confirm to the world the atrocities being committed by his regime on the Syrian population. If Assad refuses this initiative, he and his regime will confirm that this is a brutal dictatorship prepared to hold on to power at enormous cost to the Syrian people. The key is that the Arab League does not allow Syria to turn the initiative into a constrained and toothless exercise, tightly controlled by Syria’s massive internal security apparatus. The intiative must be credible if the violence is to be reduced and progress is to be made.
Mohammad Said Bkheitan, Assistant Regional Secretary of al-Baath Arab Socialist Party – the highest ranking member of the Baath Party, has been replaced. He served as the point-man for Assad on dealing with the present crisis. I asked a few friends who he was and why this was such a big deal. Here is the answer I got.
The world according to Bashar al-Assad
by Ziya Meral*
24 November 2011, Thursday
Over the last few weeks, I was able to listen to a number of people who recently visited Syria and met and talked with Bashar al-Assad himself.
With such fresh personal insights into what’s inside his mind and what we have seen from his public statements of late, we are able to put together a picture of how he sees what’s happening around him.
It is clear that Assad is still confident of his stand and does not see an end to his regime. Firstly, he thinks that the White House is fooling American citizens by making public declarations of freezing his and his family’s assets in the US, but not actually pressuring Syria. Assad points out that he has no assets whatsoever in the US and President Barack Obama knows that too. He sees a US unwilling to unsettle his rule and dependent on other countries, such as Turkey. Secondly, he thinks that Israel wants him in office and that they will never back any strong campaign against him, let alone one that could lead to a crumbling Syria ruled by Islamists.
Thirdly, Assad thinks that Turkey’s pressure on him is limited and that the strong reactions shown by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government are only for the public. He does not think there is anything else Turkey can do from now on. He believes that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) still hold the main power in the country and will never allow “Islamists” to take Turkey to war. Given that Syrian and Turkish rapprochement began with military relations, Assad still holds positive feelings towards the TSK. He believes that he has enough to work on with Kurds to create indirect pressure on Turkey.
Fourthly, Assad continues to hold deep mistrust towards powerful Arab countries in the region. He sees Egypt as not being a true Middle Eastern country, but a North African one. Egypt, for him, only makes noise but has no actual power or influence in the region. He sees the Gulf countries as villains. He believes that all of the booming countries, such as the UAE, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia, are doomed to collapse and fail when the petrol money runs out as they are not “real” nations. He sees Saudi Arabia as a major threat with its never ending funding of radical groups. He believes Qatar to be too ambitious but lacking any substance. Jordan, accordingly, is a small puppet kingdom for the US…..
Beyond what we see in the international media and our emotive anticipations over another Arab Spring revolution, Assad still has important levels of domestic support. The fears of radical Sunni groups not only dominating the country, but enforcing Islam on the masses, is common even among conservative Sunni Muslims, not least among the Alewites and liberals. The substantial Christian community in the country is sleepless with fear of a possible post-Assad Syria. He now publicly acknowledges that mistakes were made towards Kurds. He seems set to ensure that Kurds who were previously denied citizenship are now granted it and that they come to see themselves as Syrians.
His underlying political discourse still speaks of some sort of Pan-Arab idealism, not Syrian nationalism. He speaks of Arab unity and power, and yet what he means by that remains elusive. Just like his father, he tries to evoke Arab nationalism across the Arab world and fails to achieve it. He is acutely aware that his Arab unity discourse is pretty much limited to Lebanon and Syria and he is actually talking about Syrian influence and power, led by his family. However, his primary concern and warnings that Syria will be overtaken by Islamists echo a significant portion of his countrymen and fellow Arabs in other countries as well as worried eyes in Europe and North America. He still has a winning argument built on these fears to legitimize his brutal crackdown on “rebels.”
Assad is not wrong in some of his readings of his neighborhood. He is masterfully aware of the fears of the majority of Syrians, most of who want the turbulent days to end so that they can go back to their normal lives and feel safe again. The “uprising” in Syria does not seem to have reached the critical mass needed to topple the Assad regime, and the armed forces and intelligence services remain faithful and in tact. Regional dynamics still maintain support for Syria, as well as the animosities that Syria has learned to live with and navigate through for the last 20 years. The chaotic Syrian opposition is not in a place to challenge and replace him in the near future. In fact, some of their protests and signs of militant attacks are not welcomed widely. In other words, there is no immediate major change on the horizon, at least not yet.
Civil war in Syria must be averted
The country urgently needs the intervention of a high-powered, neutral, contact group to stop the killing on both sides
By Patrick Seale, Special to Gulf News
Q&A: Syria’s daring actress
Fadwa Soliman, an Alawite who became an icon in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, speaks to Al Jazeera from hiding.
Basma Atassi Last Modified: 24 Nov 2011
….Q: What made you go to Homs and lead an anti-government demonstration?
A: Homs is a city in siege, the number of the martyrs is large, and tanks have separated its districts. Moreover, Syrian regime has been trying to create sectarian tensions between people. All these reasons prompted me to Homs under the sounds of bullets and presence of tanks, risking everything in my life.
I just wanted to go just to say we Syrians are one people. I wanted to contradict the narrative of the regime and show people that there is no sectarianism in Syria. I wanted it to stop its lie that those who protest are armed groups, foreign agents or radical Islamists….
علمت سيريانيوز أن القيادة العامة للجيش والقوات المسلحة أصدرت أمراً إدارياً لتأمين خطة القيادة من سوق المثقفين، وذلك بوقف منح مهلة السفر للمثقفين، وعدم تسليم موافقات السفر المنجزة لصاحبها واعتباره جاهزاً للسوق.
وأكد مصدر في مديرية التجنيد العامة لسيريانيوز أن “بناء على أمر إداري صادر عن القيادة العامة للجيش والقوات المسلحة تم إيقاف منح مهلة السفر للمثقفين (مهلة 9 أشهر) وعدم تسليم موافقات السفر المنجزة لصاحبها واعتباره جاهزاً للسوق، وسوقه حسب أمر السوق المعمم حتى تاريخ 5\ 1\ 2012”.
وأضاف المصدر إنه “نص الأمر الإداري على تمديد مهلة تدقيق إعدادات السوق حتى 30\ 11\ 2011، وإيقاف طلبات التأجيل الإداري خلال فترة تدقيق إعدادات السوق والترحيل مهما كنت الأسباب، إضافة إلى الاتصال مع قادة الشرطة في المحافظات ومدراء المناطق والنواحي من قبل مدراء مناطق التجنيد والتعبئة ورؤساء شعب التجنيد، من أجل تفعيل السوق وتوضيح ما يترتب على المتخلف من نتائج”.