More than a year after the onset of anti-regime protests, the Syrian uprising increasingly resembles a bloody marathon with no finish line on the horizon. With more than 7,000 people killed and ongoing deadly clashes between security forces and the armed opposition, the international community —splintered along geo-strategic lines — is still struggling to craft and establish a clear “road map” for Syria. The mission creep associated with the Libyan intervention, in addition to Syria’s superior defensive capabilities, has dampened the international community’s resolve for any decisive military intervention.
Although the Syrian regime continues to enjoy strategic and operational support from external allies — especially Russia, China, and Iran — the Syrian opposition has yet to establish a coherent, unified, and effective front. Moreover, lingering fears about the prospect of a sectarian conflagration — and the emergence of a failed state at the heart of the Middle East — are keeping a significant proportion of the general population, especially in Aleppo and Damascus, away from the fervor of revolution.
Many Syrians are rethinking the wisdom of armed rebellion and external military assistance. As the revolution has dragged on for more than 12 harrowing months, the Assad regime has proven that it is somehow capable of hanging on for however long it takes, irrespective of the associated humanitarian, political, and material costs. Thus, there is a growing feeling that the only way forward is a political settlement under the auspices of the United Nations. This is precisely why we should welcome – with cautious optimism –Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan to end the crisis. So far, it seems that both the regime and the opposition are focused on creating facts on the ground in anticipation of an eventual settlement.
A Not-So-Inevitable Uprising
As the crisis in Syria deepens, the uniqueness of the situation comes into sharper relief. When the Arab Spring began its march across the region, , there was a general feeling that Syria could head off any impending crisis.
Paradoxically, President Bashar al-Assad was praised for both his political toughness and affable demeanor. His charismatic royal touch and reformist predilections earned him much love among the Syrian masses, which affectionately characterized him as the Mahboob, or beloved. His strong stance against the West and Israel won him much admiration on the Arab street, which despised pliable and corrupt leaders like Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh. Externally, he enjoyed strong support from the region’s major players, Tehran and Ankara, while coming off as a reasonable leader – despite intermittent exchanges of rhetorical jabs — to Western powers and Israel.
Syria is a relatively egalitarian society, where the state has maintained a delicate balance between social welfare and market economics. Thus, despite its low per-capita income, Syria has never experienced the kind of rampant poverty and stark class divisions that characterized more market-oriented Arab economies like Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. Syria’s secular political system was renowned for its tolerance and social cohesion, despite the country’s diverse ethnic and religious demographics.
Moreover, its fairly sophisticated army and loyal internal security apparatus — drawn along sectarian lines — also gave the regime a semblance of invincibility. However, the regime’s assets ultimately served as a source of complacency, explaining its profound lack of foresight leading up to the unrest. The regime simply couldn’t accept the existence of widespread discontent within its borders. So when pockets of protests struck the streets of Syria, the rattled regime proved to be inept at responding to and managing the legitimate demands of the protesters. As a result, it was never willing or able to present a convincing political platform for reform within the framework of a national dialogue.
A Not-So-Unified Opposition
A key stumbling block for the revolution is the fact that the opposition has no firm identity, internal structure, or vision. So neither the regime nor the international community is sure with whom they are dealing.
Counter-intuitively, there is a correlation between the increasing intensity of the violence and the disorganization of the opposition. Instead of unifying in the face of the regime’s crackdown, the opposition is increasingly divided over competing strategies to put an end to the impasse. For some sections of the opposition, especially the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the regime’s violent crackdown has eroded any confidence in making a deal with President Assad. Accordingly, they have made Assad’s resignation a precondition for any political settlement.
In response, the regime has refused to abandon its “security approach” unless the opposition abandons armed rebellion and agrees to negotiate along preferable parameters. Crucially, the regime has tried to divide the internal opposition by trying to reach out to the more moderate factions, such as the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), that fear an outbreak of full-scale civil war. The Syrian economy is in shambles, and the merchant and the middle classes are worried about the impact of an escalation in violence on the country’s resource-poor, service-oriented economy. Religious and ethnic minorities, from Christians to Alawites to Kurds, are concerned about the prospect of a radical Sunni regime replacing the more moderate and secular status quo. Of course, they also fear reprisals over their support for the regime.
The regime has characterized the armed sections of the opposition as a collection of terrorists and extremist groups with support from hostile nations, especially the oil-rich kingdoms in the Persian Gulf. The wave of deadly insurgent bombings in Damascus and Aleppo has reinforced the argument that the regime is facing an all-out extremist insurgency, necessitating intensified security operations against opposition strongholds. This is precisely the line of argument used by the regime to justify its almost month-long siege of Homs. The SNC, primarily based outside of Syria, is divided on two key issues: first, the nature of its logistical and political support for the FSA’s armed rebellion; and second, whether to welcome external military intervention, either in the form of Turkish-imposed humanitarian buffer-zones or the imposition of a “no-fly” zone by the Arab League and NATO.
As the SNC wavered in the face of the regime’s assault on Homs, a wave of defections from the group gave birth to the Syrian Patriotic Group (SPG), which seems to be calling for more vigorous logistical assistance to the FSA. What fuels the cycle of violence is the fact that both the armed opposition and the regime are interested in creating facts on the ground in order to strengthen their case ahead of any prospective negotiations. While the FSA is interested in securing certain neighborhoods to justify and facilitate the imposition of a humanitarian buffer zone, the regime is intent on denying the opposition any permanent territory, as reflected in its recent operations in Homs and Idlib.
A Not-So-Isolated Regime
While the SNC – as the biggest umbrella opposition organization – has failed to properly reflect the mosaic of Syrian opposition movements, the regime has so far avoided major and widespread defections from within its ranks. Moreover, the regime continues to enjoy support from regional powers such as Iran and great powers like China and Russia.
Although the Iranians are among the most important sources of logistical and financial support, Russia is a key supplier of armaments and diplomatic support. Eager to maintain good ties with both Russia and Iran, Beijing has also shown its vehement opposition to what it perceives as a Western push for another military intervention in the developing world. The Iranians have used their influence to convince both the Iraqi and Lebanese governments to ameliorate Syrian isolation by keeping trade routes and diplomatic channels open.
As a key Moscow ally in the region, Syria hosts Russia’s sole naval base in the Mediterranean, allowing the latter to project its power into the waters along Europe’s southern borders. Intent on reversing Western expansion into its perceived spheres of influence, Russia has – since its last intervention in South Ossetia against Georgian forces – stepped up its efforts to extend its strategic depth in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Russia is intent on avoiding another Libyan scenario in the Arab world. Its diplomatic acquiescence amid growing American pressure got its hands burned; a “no-fly” zone quickly morphed into an aerial and naval bombardment by NATO forces keen on regime change. Syria is simply a critical linchpin for Russia’s influence in the region.
Russia and China are also concerned that another intervention in the Middle East could set a stronger precedent for a future intervention in their own backyards. After all, both Russia and China are facing serious internal separatist and/or insurgency movements— and not just in the Russian Caucasus or Xinjiang, respectively. Rising popular discontent with the rigidities of the Russian and Chinese political systems, compounded by economic uncertainties, is leading to whispers about prospects for a large-scale democratic upheaval in coming years. For China, energy security is another concern. Any military intervention in Syria could potentially drag its most important regional ally, Iran, into the picture, precipitating a regional war and causing immense disruptions in the oil supply.
Given the voting record of Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), they will likely veto any resolution that fails to meet the following conditions: no explicit call for Assad to step-down; no ceasefire unless the opposition lays down its arms and there is a cessation in cross-border military aid to the opposition; and no reference to any kind of military intervention. However, as the uprising drags on and international pressure mounts amid growing violence, it is not clear how far the two powers are willing to go to protect their Syrian partner.
The End Game
The depth and duration of the Syrian crisis have shattered months of wishful thinking about the regime’s impending collapse. The regime has shown considerable capacity to withstand shocks, divide the opposition, retain its key international support, expand its security operations, and keep control over the two major cities of Aleppo and Damascus. However, there is also a parallel feeling that Assad’s era is drawing to a close. There has simply been too much violence and destruction — atop growing calls for democratic reform — to justify his stay in power for an extended period of time. Beyond all the rhetorical bluster in regional and Western capitals, there is little appetite for military intervention. Powerful allies protect Syria, and it possesses significant resources to retaliate against and frustrate outside interference.
Turkey, a central player in any prospective intervention, is also having its own qualms. Not only is Ankara under constant Iranian pressure to avoid any confrontation with Syria, but it is also concerned about the prospect of Syria using Kurdish proxies to retaliate. Invading a fellow Islamic country might also run afoul of the Turkish electorate and undermine the ruling Justice and Development Party’s Islamic pedigree. The West, meanwhile, has its doubts about the organizational efficiency of the Syrian political opposition and the composition of the armed opposition on the ground. The last thing the West wants is for American hardware to end up in the hands of the radical groups that are targeting NATO forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Moreover, compared to Libya, Syria’s resource-poor and densely populated society is a less tempting target for any major military campaign, which could carry high costs in both economic and humanitarian terms. The key question is how to establish a workable framework for a political settlement whereby the regime lets go of Assad and agrees to fundamental political reforms in exchange for some guarantee against prosecution, reprisals, and military intervention. This may be the path that Kofi Annan and his UN entourage are – and should be — working on.
Meanwhile, the West must rethink arming the opposition or launching military attacks against Syrian forces, because this will just escalate and fuel the violence. The focus should be on a political settlement that balances the demands of the opposition against the need for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.