Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012
A bleak future for Syria
Bob Bowker – ABC news, Australia
Professor Bob Bowker, from ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, says the Assad regime is capable of preserving itself, but the institutions of the state are being reduced to rubble, both figuratively and literally.
An excellent analysis by Nir Rosen in the London Review of Books on the place of the Alawite minority in Syria, their dominance within the regime and their strong sense of vulnerability as a community should the regime fall provides an insightful appreciation of the outlook for Syria.
Rosen underlines the unwavering support for Bashar al-Assad among ordinary Alawites, no matter what violence is deployed by the Syrian regime against its opposition. He emphasises that for the Alawite rank and file, this is a primordial, existential conflict.
Rosen also makes the point that the regime continues to enjoy backing from privileged Sunnis as well. That remains an important, and generally under-reported factor: the regime would have fallen long ago if its base was exclusively Alawite.
Whereas the larger part, at least, of the Sunni population is now looking forward to an end to the regime which has brutalised their lives, it can continue to expect the urban Sunni middle class in Damascus and Aleppo to calculate the odds where their own interests are concerned.
They continue to back Bashar as a distasteful but superior alternative to the chaos that would follow a fall of the ruling elite, and the even greater consequences of an Islamist ascendancy for their interests, lifestyles and values. The likelihood, if not the inevitability, of such ascendancy is very high.
The material impact at present of jihadist fighters is easily over stated. Some analysts are reluctant to highlight it because it accords with the regime’s efforts at depicting the conflict as one against ‘terrorists’.
However the longer the conflict continues, the more likely it is that the jihadists will come to the forefront of the Islamist opposition, because they are clearly, by virtue of their experience, external support and commitment, a superior fighting force.
Meanwhile the Islamists more generally can be expected to develop the organisational skills and political capacity to draw upon the frustrations and anger of the lowest end of the Sunni socio-economic spectrum better than any secular-minded opposition groups.
Rosen finds the Alawites are not thinking (at this stage, at least) of withdrawing to an Alawite bastion based around their community in the mountains along the Mediterranean seaboard. They continue to see the state as their instrument for achieving their goals (which they appear still to define, in their own minds, in national, rather than sectarian terms).
Given the intermingling of Sunnis and Alawites in urban areas since the 1970s, and the proximity of differently-aligned villages to each other, especially on the plains to the east of the Alawite mountains, and the deployment by the regime of heavy weapons against civilian areas occupied by rebel forces or sympathisers, the scope for killing is vast. In practice, that may mean an even wider degree of bloodletting if the regime collapses.
Bashar al-Assad is a complex part of this picture. That he and those around him deserve to be on trial for crimes against humanity is beyond dispute. The application of overwhelming violence against civilian populations, no matter whether they harboured elements seeking to overthrow the regime, is despicable. But there is something deeply enigmatic, even tragic, about his role.
Bashar al-Assad never wanted to be the president of Syria. He was by inclination a reformer who failed miserably to show the qualities of leadership that the situation demanded, and that his own popular audience expected him to deliver, in the early phase of the uprising. The task was beyond him, as it would have been for most ordinary mortals. The choices he made (or perhaps was obliged to take by those around him) deepened the crisis. But few others from the elite would have performed at a level that might have averted the catastrophe that is now upon Syria.
If Assad sought to restrain those Alawites who are most disposed to use violence, he would probably be replaced by someone who was seen by the Alawites as more resolute. Those outsiders who call for Assad to go should be cognisant of that likelihood. Though no-one would wish it to happen, their approach is tantamount to opening the way to an even higher level of violence, because there is no political program that would prevent a last-ditch effort by the Alawites to put down their opponents, or the ethnic cleansing of the Alawites and their supporters by a victorious opposition.
Barring the effects of an assassination and a sudden collapse of Alawite morale, Syria has embarked on a conflict that is going to continue until the various parties are exhausted by the killing. There is no desire for a political solution, nor is there such a solution available. The external players all have interests in keeping their proxies in the field. The costs for them are minimal (except perhaps for Turkey, now facing growing pressure in regard to the refugee presence).
The Lebanese civil war continued for 15 years until the exhaustion factor took effect. Iraq has been subjected to political violence for nine years. We should not be surprised if the Syrian conflict matches those time scales.
The capacity of Arab countries to rectify the physical damage of conflict, especially when Arab funds begin to flow, should not be discounted. Jordan recovered from the material losses of the conflict with the Palestinians in 1970-71 as Gulf investors and then oil money fled Beirut. Lebanon, with Saudi funding, has recovered in most ways from the destruction and trauma of the civil war. Iraq, using its oil revenues, is moving gradually and painfully forward.
But it is not possible to predict how long it may take to rebuild the credibility and authority of the institutions of government, and a sense of political community, in countries where the social and political scars of conflict remain vivid, decades after the event.
In the case of Syria, the regime is capable of preserving itself, but the institutions of the state are being reduced to rubble, both figuratively and literally. Socially and perhaps territorially, the country is fragmenting.
What political and ideological orientation Syria may take on over coming years will depend on whether the Assad regime does indeed survive the state. It will also depend, to some extent, on what happens in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia over the next decade. But no country in the region will be immune from the consequences of what is now unfolding.
Bob Bowker is Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He served in Damascus from 1979 to 1981, and was accredited as Australian ambassador to Syria from 2005 to 2008. View his full profile here. He was also ambassador to Egypt and Jordan.
Class Is Not in Session: The tragedy of Syria’s schoolchildren – FP
The Syrian Alawites and Negotiated Departure for al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reiterated in an interview published Sept. 21 in Egyptian weekly magazine al-Ahram al-Arabi that the rebels seeking the collapse of his regime will not succeed. He added, however, that the door to dialogue remains open. The leaders of the Syrian military — who belong to Syria’s minority Alawite community, the pillar of the al-Assad regime — have thus far rejected the U.S.-led international offers to make a deal with the opposition. This is because al-Assad has managed to slow rebel advances, and because the Alawites are fearful of their status in a post-Assad Syria. But their opposition to a deal with the rebels does not mean they will continue to insist that al-Assad remain head of state.
The Alawites do not necessarily oppose a negotiated removal of the al-Assad clan from power, but they do oppose any deal that would lead to a weakening of their sect’s hold on power. This meshes with Washington’s desire to see regime-change in Syria but continuity of the state machinery. Ideally for the United States, Syria’s military-led security establishment would abandon al-Assad and negotiate an agreement with the opposition backed by the West, the Arab states and Turkey.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a prominent Bush administration envoy to the Middle East and South Asia, called Sept. 20 for the Obama administration to encourage Syria’s generals to carry out a coup against al-Assad. Washington has in fact sought just this. It has hoped that growing pressure from the rebellion would induce al-Assad’s generals to cut a deal to preserve the regime without al-Assad.
A Battle of Attrition
So far, the Alawites have not shown any interest in the international offer. All signs suggest that despite its setbacks, the military has decided to remain allied with al-Assad. To a great degree, this has been due to the situation on the battlefield, which is at a stalemate. While the fighting continues, neither side has been able to secure all of Aleppo or any other major urban center. The fighting in Syria instead has been a battle of attrition, with each side seeking to outlast the other. The regime weathered serious jolts over the summer, such as the bombing of the national security council building that claimed the lives of three top members of the Syrian security elite and the defection of prominent Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, who had been associated with al-Assad.
The bombing and the Tlass defection demoralized the core of the military and led to further defections. Significantly, Tlass is a Sunni. Contrary to expectations, no further defections by prominent Sunnis have taken place, and the Alawite core remains intact.
Visit our Syria page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.
Alawite reticence goes beyond battlefield assessments to fears of a loss of influence in any post-Assad power-sharing agreement. At this point, they have decided to stand their ground and fight. In his first interview since his defection, Tlass made the telling remark Aug. 30 that his main work is to convince the Alawites that they do not have to “commit suicide along with the regime.”
Convincing them to abandon al-Assad is one thing, since the Alawites have long realized that the beleaguered president is not salvageable. But convincing them to share power will be quite another. Any power-sharing deal will see them lose some of the privileges they have enjoyed since modern Syria’s creation in 1946. At best, they will be relegated to the status of junior partners in a Sunni-dominated regime. They will face the specter of retribution killings by Sunnis who long endured brutal suppression at the hands of the Alawite regime. Thus the Alawites have not leaped at the offer from the United States to mount a coup against al-Assad. At this point, they hope to avoid any major shifts so they can maintain a position of relative strength from which to better negotiate a deal with the opposition, hence their focus on the battlefield.
The Syrian Alawites and Negotiated Departure for al-Assad
A number of recent developments have worked in the Alawites’ favor. For many months, international stakeholders have grown wary of the possibility that ousting al-Assad and eliminating Iranian-led Shiite Islamist regional influence may be paving the way for Sunni Islamism, and perhaps even transnational jihadism. Last week’s violence and militia action in reaction to a U.S.-produced film deemed offensive to the Prophet Mohammad has reinforced this perception.
The Syrian regime hopes that the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and other attacks on U.S. and Western facilities and personnel across the region will force the rebels’ international backers at least to pause and reassess the situation. One of the regime’s key demands has been that weapons and fighters flowing into the Levantine country need to be stopped. It is not clear to what extent this will actually happen, though any efforts in this regard would help the regime.
The Challenge of a Negotiated Settlement
Ultimately, all parties and international supporters involved want a negotiated settlement. Whether they can achieve it is another matter. Such a settlement depends on reaching a mutually acceptable balance of power between the Alawites and the Sunnis — on creating a formula where the Sunnis can achieve a significant amount of power without the Alawites losing too much of it. Something along the lines of the 1989 Taif Accords that ended 15 years of civil war in Lebanon would be required. Similar to the Taif agreement, a settlement in Syria will require a great deal of bargaining between Western and regional powers. The accord that ended the conflict in Lebanon required the region’s two main sectarian rivals, Saudi Arabia and the Iranians, reach an understanding, and Syria played a critical role in ensuring the implementation of the agreement.
Now that Syria itself is the subject of civil war, the situation is much more difficult. Sectarian polarization in the region has increased exponentially since 1989 due to the rise of Iran and its Arab Shiite allies. International stakeholders’ competing interests will also complicate the situation.
Talk also has centered on attaining a Yemen-like solution for Syria, in which President al-Assad exits the scene and the various elements of the regime reconfigure themselves into a new government without regime change. But such a settlement would entail a new power-sharing agreement that brings in the Sunni opposition. It is also not at all certain whether al-Assad would agree to step down quietly. Convincing him to could only take place if his generals, the Iranians and the Russians pressed him and he was given financial, legal and political guarantees.
Assuming he did agree to depart, there is still the question — much on Iranian and Russian minds — of whether the Alawites could remain a strong force without the al-Assads at the helm. A new, capable Alawite leadership would thus have to emerge before the Alawites would be comfortable having al-Assad exit.
Al-Assad’s departure is not imminent, however, in large part because Iran — the most influential player that could facilitate or hinder such an outcome — has been kept out of the process. But in the past few days, initial signs have emerged that the United States might be willing to allow Iran a role in planning Syria’s future.
When were the minorities oppressed?
By Michel Kilo, Monday, 24 September 2012 – al-Arabiya
Just as the militarized Ba’athist regime incited the people against their Kurdish brethren, it also incited all Syrians against one another, carefully implanting doubts amongst them, instilling and fortifying various prejudgments and poisoning their consciousness. It became increasingly easy for the regime to charge citizens with any amount of hostility, playing an important role in shaping their opinions and attitudes towards one another. The regime was unable to win over its citizens after the role it played in the Arab and Syrian defeat during the June Aggression (Six Day War), and therefore did not fulfil any of its promises but in fact achieved their opposite, drawing out a comprehensive strategic game of ‘divide and conquer’ instilled to tear the community apart, hell bent on pitting citizens against one another, exploiting any differences found amongst them or those that the regime was successful in implanting. Such policies had no purpose other than to transform the Syrian society into discordant conflicting factions, unable to agree on any one uniting ideology or common principle other than those ridiculous ones related to the health of the regime’s policies and the ingenuity of its omniscient leader, as well as the inevitability of continued devotion and loyalty to him under any condition or circumstance, on the basis that he was the foundation, the immortal father whom the mortal obsolescent populace owed everything to, including their very existence.
This strategy was the essence of the regime’s internal policy for almost half a century,….
The oppression of minorities will end with the end of a regime that had been hell bent on awakening sectarian strife and implicating Syrians in conflicts they were successfully moving past. Had that not been the case, it would not have been possible for Hafez Al Assad and scores of Alawite youth to move up the army ranks; they would not have been able to participate in the heart of power, eventually usurping it.
Tuesday, 25 Sep 2012 | Reuters, by Solomon
HOMS, Syria (Reuters) – “Shabbiha” militias in Syria’s most shell-shocked city used to offer fellow minority Alawites protection out of solidarity. Now, security comes at a price: About $300 a month.
Alawite residents in Homs say they are being coerced into helping fund the war effort of the “shabbiha”, brutal sectarian militias supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on an 18-month-old rebellion.
“The shabbiha exploit our fear. Every time, there is some excuse – they need food or ammunition. But it’s basically a silent understanding now that each month the wealthier families pay,” says Fareed, a greying surgeon who lives with his family in Zahra, an Alawite district of Homs.
The cost of war is rising at the site of the longest- running battle between Assad’s forces and the rebels. Fareed fears his children could be kidnapped for ransom if he doesn’t pay the shabbiha what they call “protection money”.
Shabbiha are formed mostly from members of Assad’s own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. They have been the fiercest enforcers of a bloody crackdown on the uprising led by Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims, even accused of massacres.
The disgust some Alawites have at the idea of paying for them symbolizes a greater inner conflict many in their sect are struggling with: Do they risk rejecting the crackdown by their Alawite-led government and its brutal militias? Or do they buy in, literally, to the shabbiha argument that this is a fight for existence against Sunnis determined to take revenge?
“I’m not comfortable with it, it seems wrong. But I have no choice,” says Saeed, 40, a balding engineer in a slick black suit. “If I didn’t pay, I could be at risk. These guys are dangerous.”
After months of fighting, only the shabbiha-guarded Alawite enclaves like Zahra are relatively unscathed. Zahra has swelled to nearly 200,000 Alawites in recent months.
The neighborhoods belonging to Hom’s large Sunni population have become graveyards of bombed buildings and shattered streets. Very few families remain.
“THE SAFEST PLACE IN SYRIA”
With jobs and money drying up due to the unrest, the $300 fee is no small sum.
But Alawites in Zahra say that while they know the money they pay is extortion, and that shabbiha violence towards Sunnis puts them more at risk, they are regularly reminded of how precarious their fate is.
As the sound of crashing mortars in the distance shakes the silverware on his dining room table, Fareed stops his rant against shabbiha and sighs.
“Some days, I think we really do need them to protect us,” the elderly doctor says, surveying his four children silently eating their meal.
The fight for Homs has fallen off the front pages as battles erupt in Syria’s bigger cities, Damascus and Aleppo, but it has not eased. Gunfire perpetually rings in the background. Buildings are collapsing in the daily hail of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Shabbiha gangs used to rake in money by looting rebellious Sunni districts in Homs after the army raided them. But now that source of cash has run dry. Asking for “protection money” may be a way to make up for that.
The groups have become well organized in Homs. They have divided Zahra into six regions, each with a local “boss”.
In each area, the boss sends young men with shaved heads and camouflage pants to monitor, strutting about with their rifles in hand. The army stays out, only manning road blocks on the outskirts of the district.
“There is no state presence in Zahra any more, even though it is surrounded by Sunni areas. Yet it is the safest place in Syria,” says Saeed, reluctantly giving the shabbiha their due.
One improvement residents say their donations funded is the building of two 20-metre high blast walls towering over Zahra’s main square. The street had once been within easy range of rebel gunmen atop buildings in neighboring districts.
“This used to be the deadliest spot in Zahra,” says Manhal, the surgeon Fareed’s son, as he walks behind the two massive white-washed walls.
Instead of seeing residents scurrying below, all gunmen nearby can see now is a giant poster that shabbiha plastered over the wall: A portrait of former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, who ruled for nearly 30 years until his death.
Frustrated rebels have taken to shooting at the picture instead. The eyes, nose and mouth are riddled with bullet holes.
NOWHERE TO GO
Not far from Fareed’s family home, Wael “the accountant” combs a thick glob of hair cream into his dark hair and gets on his motorbike to make the monthly rounds for his boss.
“In my area we have 15 families. I get the money for the boss whenever there is a need: weapons, gas, car repairs, food for our boys,” says the 25-year-old tough.
Wael doesn’t think what he does is exploitative. He sees it as a service that residents need to pay to maintain. Unhappy residents can leave Homs if they want, he argues. “We even arrange convoys to help them get out – that costs 10,000 lira ($120).”
There is no end in sight to Syria’s civil war. International powers are too deadlocked to negotiate. Fighters show no interest in laying down their arms. Meanwhile, groups like the Alawites feel more vulnerable, and the shabbiha have taken advantage.
Umm Hani, a mother of two in Zahra, noticed the trend after a stunning bomb attack in July that killed four top security officials in Damascus.
“After that, the regime was shaken. And the shabbiha started to take more power, they started to demand more money. Without saying a word, they made their message clear: We are the ones responsible for you. Pay up.”
There are deep wrinkles around Umm Hani’s blue eyes after months of anxiety. Alawites like her feel trapped. She doesn’t have enough savings to leave Syria. She feels she would be unsafe in the mostly Sunni refugee camps on the borders. Paying is the only choice.
“Where can we go? Who would accept us? So we stay, and we deal with our new little pharaohs.”