Posted by Joshua on Monday, December 4th, 2006
Oxford Analytica's recent report on the Syrian Regime (copied below) seems accurate and should help bring the tribe of western analysts back around to the notion that the Syrian regime is here to stay for the short and medium term. For the last several years, most analysts have been swayed Washington rhetoric about regime change in the region and suppositions that Bashar al-Asad "just doesn't get" the new realities of the Middle East and War on Terror. Events have proven that Bush is the leader who "just didn't get it." The Bush posse is now being mugged by the hard realities of the Middle East and losing members rapidly. (Bolton announced his resignation today.)
The Syrian regime's calculation that most Middle Eastern states do not govern "fully cooked" nations, but rather, preside over a concatenation of tribes and sects which must be managed with a strong hand – or played off, one against the other – has paid off for Asad. Washington gambled on its presupposition that the Middle East was ready for a democratic revolution and that its peoples, defined by national borders, are sufficiently cohesive, pro-Western, and secular to embrace that radical transformation. Now Washington presides over Lebanon and Iraq, two countries with little national cohesion and little ability to fend off outside manipulation, which stand at the threshold of civil war. Damascus, by contrast, has jealously protected its dictatorship. The price is economic and social stagnation, but the prize is that Syrians do not face the uncertainties of political collapse. The coming challenge for the Syrian regime, as Ehsani reminds us, will be to blow some economic change into a state consumed by fear and corruption, a tall order.
SYRIA: Regime interests dictate regional policies
Friday, December 1 2006
An Oxford Analytica In-depth Analysis
EVENT: Jordan's King Abdallah II warned on November 26 that civil wars could break out in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
SIGNIFICANCE: The killing of Lebanese politician Pierre Gemayel has again focused attention on the interests and motives of the Syrian regime in the region. Syria is a potentially important player in the region's major problems, but there is a contradiction between the interests of Syria as a state and those of its regime. Amid talk of engaging with Syria over Iraq and other regional issues, an understanding of its motives and capabilities is critical.
ANALYSIS: The base of the Syrian regime has gradually narrowed under President Bashar al-Assad. When his father Hafez died in 2000, his lieutenants quickly united to select Bashar as the successor in order to maintain the status quo and avoid the risks of a competition for power between the men who controlled the various security and military organisations that sustain the regime in power.
· The base of the regime has narrowed as Bashar has placed members of his family and clan in the key military and security posts, but it is strong enough to survive even if it is too weak to push through vital reforms.
· Syria wants Washington to recognise that Damascus must play a pivotal role in dealing with Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and other regional issues.
· There are contradictions between the interests of the regime and the state — but it is the former that will prevail.
· It is vital for the regime that the Hariri investigation is stopped, diverted or bargained away. As such, its overriding priority is to press for a change of government in Lebanon — and this will influence its approach to other regional issues.
Bashar constrained. Bashar acts and speaks as someone wielding ultimate authority, but it is uncertain quite how much power he possesses. It appears that he can only act within certain limits imposed by the nature of the regime and the interests of its main military and security functionaries. He has weeded out some of the older figures from his father's era, and others, such as former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam, have gone into opposition and exile (see SYRIA: Regime defiant in face of outside pressures – January 25, 2006). The military and security organisations have been placed in the hands of his relatives or close associates of his extended family:
· His brother Maher has an oversight role in the security field and controls the armed units that protect the presidency and the regime.
· His sister Bushra, by some accounts the most intelligent and forceful member of the family, is married to Assef Shawkat, who commands military intelligence. This has caused resentment within the wider Alawi community, which under his father enjoyed greater access to power and resources. They will not move against Bashar as this would bring the whole regime down, but they are discontented.The limits of Bashar's power are shown by the way that he tolerates the activities of relations and friends and their allies in business. They blatantly use their connections to enrich themselves, often in alliance with members of the Sunni business community. This also causes discontent.
Reform limits. Despite much talk of reform, Bashar has made very little progress, and Syria remains a sort of fossil regime from the 1960s when it was created
:· The large ministries run by technocrats are deeply conservative and the employees fear the consequences of change.
· State industries are grossly overmanned.
· There are many vested interests that the regime does not want to offend, particularly as its base narrows (see SYRIA: Unreformed economy suits regime stability – November 24, 2006).
· Bashar leads the Ba'ath Party but it is controlled by apparatchiks who benefit from the status quo.
· There have been some superficial reforms within the party, but it has long been shorn of ideology and has become a vehicle for rewarding loyalty with patronage (see SYRIA: Ba'ath congress proposes cosmetic reforms – June 16, 2005). Compared with Saudi Arabia, and even Libya, Syria has moved very little. This was shown very clearly in a recent conference in Damascus organised by Bashar's father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras, to show Bashar and the regime the potential benefits of reform. The many Syrian businessmen in the audience were deeply sceptical about whether the regime is capable of responding — other than on the basis of too little, too late.
Stasis. There is no effective organised opposition and none will be allowed to emerge. The Muslim Brotherhood remains influential but it ceased to function as grouping within Syria when it was ruthlessly suppressed in the early 1980s after it challenged the regime. Syrian society has become more overtly religious in recent years and, given a chance, the brotherhood might quickly re-establish itself (see SYRIA: Islamists to benefit from regime collapse – October 19, 2005):
· There is considerable discontent within the majority Sunni community at the power wielded by the Alawis and some of their Sunni friends but it rarely finds public expression.
· There are other exile figures such as Khaddam, but he had an unsavoury reputation when vice-president, and it is difficult see many flocking to his cause — even though he has set up a common front with the Brotherhood in exile. The regime is strong enough to survive but too weak and timid to use its power for the long-term benefit of its people. Economic problems are likely to get much worse and the eventual solution may be very painful. Syria will become a net importer of oil around 2010. On most measures of economic and human development the country is already behind most of the Arab regimes. The gap will increase.This regime may eventually fall apart, but not in the short or medium term without the intervention of some major cataclysm — such as a war with Israel — that the regime will seek to avoid. There may one day be a change of leader, but for the time being Bashar is well entrenched and there are no obvious challengers. If a change were to take place, his successor could be another member of his family or clan.
Regional aims. Syria's objectives in the region are clear, encompassing:
· the return of the Golan;
· an Arab-Israeli peace deal based on 1967 borders, which Syria plays a major role in bringing about;
· a Lebanon under Syrian influence; and
· an Iraq that does not pose a threat. Beyond that there is a vision of a strong Syria that returns to its rightful place at the heart of the Arab world and is recognised by the international community as an important player.
Regime interests. The methods used by the regime in meeting these objectives cause problems, and there often seems to be a contradiction between the interests of the Syrian state and those of the regime. This is best shown in Syria's attitude to the UN investigation into the Hariri assassination. The contradictions are exacerbated by Bashar's personality. One day he will make a well-argued and coherent speech expressed in moderate language and the next a tirade in which he seeks to articulate what he believes are popular feelings. They may be addressed to different audiences, but are these days heard by all. Some close to him suggest that he can get too caught up with the emotion of the moment and speaks when it would be wiser to wait or stay silent.
US engagement. It used to be said that there can be no war against Israel without Egypt and no peace without Syria. The return of the Golan has been a central aim since it was taken in the 1967 war. There is a genuine sense of betrayal about the US-sponsored negotiations in 2000 when Damascus thought it had obtained and made significant concessions. The Syrian army realises that it cannot defeat Israel militarily, and that the cost of launching a limited war on the lines of 1973 would be too high. Damascus knows that the route to the Golan lies through Washington, but it lacks the cards needed to extract assistance from what it sees as a pro-Israeli US administration.
Causing difficulties. In recent years it has tried the different tactic of using its ability to cause difficulties for Washington in other regional problems to force the administration to open a dialogue with Damascus. Washington has so far resisted, and has avoided repeating the mistake of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's misconceived visit to Damascus in 2001. Washington learned in the Hafez era that those carrying concessions to Damascus are treated to a lengthy exposition of the Syrian case and leave without being offered anything in return. There was no doubt that Hafez was in charge and could deliver. He was respected. Bashar has yet to earn that respect. So far his achievements include a gradual increase in US sanctions, humiliation in Lebanon and the loss to Syria of its friends in Riyadh, Cairo and Amman.
Lebanon interests. Syria's tactics are best displayed in Lebanon. Following the Hariri assassination it was forced into a humiliating withdrawal, and key members of the regime appear to be threatened by the UN investigation. Since then it has struggled to delay and divert the UN inquiry and to look for opportunities to restore its influence in Lebanon by working with the Hizbollah and its traditional allies around the presidency. Events for once have played into Syria's hands:
· It received credit for the 'victory' of Hizbollah in the summer fighting with Israel — and the wave of emotion that spread through the Arab world.
· Bashar positioned himself as a champion of the new concept of 'resistance' to Israel, Washington and pro-US regimes in the region (see SYRIA:Temporary triumphalism masks increased isolation – September 1, 2006).
· Whether or not Syria had a hand in the recent political assassinations may never be known. However, its past tactics make it an instant suspect, and the killings have served its interests in both stymieing the UN inquiry and giving its allies the chance to force the government to admit Syria's allies and give them a virtual veto (see LEBANON:Gemayel assassination weakens Syria and allies – November 23, 2006).
Shia axis. The relationship with Iran dates from the 1980s when the two sides saw the Saddam regime as a common threat. It has been sustained by high-level visits and given substance through joint support of Hizbollah, economic cooperation and by their anti-US and anti-Israeli posture. It was given fresh impetus by Hizbollah's performance this summer:
· Syria positioned itself as a part of a new axis of power in the region that might embrace an Iraqi Shia government, a Hizbollah-dominated government in Lebanon and Shia communities elsewhere.
· Damascus hoped that Sunni groups, disenchanted with what they see as the supine attitude of Arab regimes to Washington and Israel, might join in. It was in this context that Bashar made a speech in August that managed to insult moderate Arab leaders, who were offended and anxious to retaliate. Syria may now be having second thoughts, as it sees the wave of emotion peter out. It has been making overtures to the moderate Arabs, but they want the impossible in return — some reduction in the relationship with Iran. Many in Syria, but not in the regime, point out that the majority community in Syria is Sunni, and that its interests do not lie in supporting a new Shia axis.
Iraq interests. Syria's tactics in Iraq were recently described as a senior US official as a mixture of incompetence and malevolence. There are 700,000 Iraqis in Syria, including people organising some of the insurgents. Insurgents linked to al-Qaida appear to enter Iraq through Syrian territory. Syria is a police state where the security authorities have great powers of surveillance and control, even allowing for the size of the Iraqi presence and the length and terrain of the border. However, the regime has an interest in sustaining the insurgency:
· It will ensure that Syria has a stake in any discussions in the future of Iraq and some control over which insurgent groups can best serve its interests.
· There is also a genuine desire to help the Iraqis throw out the US 'occupiers'.
· Syria will ensure that its actions do not bring US retaliation, but remain a serious irritant.
Hamas support. Syria provides sanctuary for Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, and through him and its support for Hamas seeks to influence the scale of resistance in Palestine. Damascus believes that there can be no effective government in Palestine unless Syria agrees. It may have encouraged Hamas to maintain the rocket attacks from Gaza. It supports other rejectionist groups. The Jordanians have uncovered evidence of Syria trying to smuggle arms to Hamas, although Hamas appears to get plenty of weapons across the Egyptian border. Again, Syria is demonstrating to Washington, Europe and other Arab capitals that it is indispensable to any peace process — or to managing a prolonged period of non-peace.
Regime priority. Syria's handling of the Hariri investigation goes to the heart of the problems and contradictions of the regime. Its reactions clearly show that it is frightened of what the investigators may find. Leaks at earlier stages indicated that there could be evidence implicating Shawkat. It is hardly possible to get closer to Bashar, who cannot sacrifice his brother-in-law. Shawkat may be disliked by some of the family, but Bushra and her mother still have a powerful influence and will fight to protect him. Khaddam claims that Shawkat was acting under orders from Bashar, though there is no other evidence for this. It is of paramount importance to the regime that the inquiry is stopped, deflected or bargained away. The interests of Syria, state or people, will come a poor second to this objective, and Syria's approach to the other regional issues will be affected by it — but mostly in Lebanon.
CONCLUSION: This regime is here to stay at least for the medium term. It has the power to deal with the potential domestic threats and will stop short of provoking its external enemies from attacking it. Dealing with this regime will be uncomfortable, given the divergence between its interests and those of Syria as a state.